Ceiling and frieze in the Westgate
The medieval Westgate at the top of Winchester’s High Street is one of two old gateways into the city which have survived into the twenty-first century. It is owned by Winchester City Council and is now a museum with restricted opening hours. One of its most distinctive features is a decorated sixteenth century wooden ceiling with two sections of a frieze below it.
The ceiling and frieze came from Winchester College, where much of the woodwork could have been put in place in the Warden’s apartments early in the sixteenth century, although the painted decoration is thought to have been commissioned by John White who was the Warden between 1541 and 1554.
The oak boards were used for room partitioning in the eighteenth century and discovered beneath a layer of paper and canvas when the partitioning was removed in 1885. Their importance was recognised, if not fully understood, and they were exhibited at the Society of Antiquaries the following year, but were then put into storage at the College. In 1915 they were loaned to the Victoria and Albert Museum, returning to Winchester in 1946 where they once again went into storage. In the 1970s discussions with Winchester City Museums led to an agreement that the boards should be reassembled in the Westgate, which was of a suitable size to take the ceiling panels.
The boards, primarily of imported Baltic oak, were cleaned and conserved by the Courtauld Institute and new moulding was constructed, into which the ceiling boards were fitted. The result was a ceiling formed of fifteen square panels each 90 cm (35 inches) square and six rectangular panels 90 cm (35 inches) by 60 cm (22 inches). It is estimated that the frieze would have covered a complete running length of about 13.7 metres (45 feet), the painted area being about 1.27 metres (50 inches) high. The best preserved frieze boards forming a continuous design were mounted in two sections on the north and south walls of the Westgate, the remainder being stored.
The painted decoration is in grisaille – brown and black pigments are painted over a white ground. Its style is known as antique or grotesque, which was introduced from Italy and France in the early sixteenth century by foreign craftsmen working at the court of Henry VIII. Pattern books containing designs for copying were also available to English craftsmen. In some instances sgraffito - the technique of scratching away the top layer of paint to reveal the layer below – has been employed.
The ceiling comprises squares or rectangles containing either the initials ‘I W’, which are taken to represent John White (the use of the letter ‘j’ only beginning in the seventeenth century), or a medallion portrait with surrounding decoration of foliage, balusters and the Tudor rose. The portraits are of men and women in sixteenth century dress or of men in parade armour with elaborate helmets and, in one case, a Roman emperor.
The frieze forms a wide band of a repeat pattern decoration with a line of gothic cresting above it and texts and small medallions below, the decoration possibly honouring the wedding of Mary I and Philip of Spain which took place in Winchester in the summer of 1554. In addition to putti, half human beings with wings and tails and medallion portraits it includes the phrase ‘Vyve le Roy’ and a crown as well as quotations apparently based on the Old Testament Book of Ecclesiastes which are relevant to marriage. John White was a staunch Catholic and he assisted at the royal marriage service in the Cathedral in his capacity as the recently appointed Bishop of LIncoln. Philip and Mary made a state visit to Winchester College at this time, although they may not have entered the Warden’s rooms and seen the frieze itself.
A comprehensive set of black and white photographs of the scheme was made in 1995 when scaffolding inside the Westgate provided the opportunity for close range photography, and colour digital images of the frieze and part of the ceiling were commissioned in 2011. We thus have a valuable photographic record of this rare and unusually complete survival of decorative renaissance woodwork.
A detailed article on the Winchester College ceiling in the Westgate by Elizabeth Lewis – ‘A Sixteenth Century Painted Ceiling from Winchester College’ – can be found in the Proceedings of the Hampshire Field Club Volume 51.