Art Historical Analysis.

Dr.Roger Ling.

The First Decoration.

The restored first-phase plaster shows an area 190 cm high and almost 300 cm broad. This carries a decoration of outstanding quality and interest. Basically it consists of delicate columnar structures hung with garlands and containing a figure of a Cupid holding a plate. The painting is carried out in a rich colour-scheme which, in addition to the dominant yellow and cinnabar-red, contains strong accents of light and dark green and of blue. The actual architectural elements are rendered in shades of white, beige and dark brown, with a pinkish tinge for the friezes.

The scheme is clearly symmetrical about the central axis.. In the foreground is a five-part structure consisting of a projecting central pavilion and wing-blocks, with linking porticoes set back in the intervening spaces. The central pavilion, supported by a pair of columns at each side and surmounted by a low pediment, is open, and through it we see a colonnade, on a smaller scale and evidently more distant. The linking porticoes, each two intercolumniations long, arc closed save for a window in the upper part of the broader intercolumniation next to the central pavilion. The wing-blocks are only partially preserved, but they, too, seem to have been closed.

The articulation of the component parts of this complex is not entirely clear, but a pair of garlands suspended from the ceiling of the central pavilion passes behind its rear columns and reappears in front of the recessed porticoes, where it is fastened to the parapets of the screen-walls below the windows; the front of the porticoes would therefore seem to be on the same plane as the back of the pavilion. The small-scale colonnade is set further back, but how far is uncertain.

Further uncertainties are created by the inconsistent treatment and colouring of the surfaces between the columns. The foreshortened spaces between front and rear columns of the projecting elements are filled in by a pale green screen-wall at the bottom, but seem to be open above, because the underside of the architrave is fully visible; yet the 'opening' is painted dark green and allows no view of the structures behind. In the recessed porticoes, while the first intercolumniation has a red screen-wall and the opening above is painted blue to suggest the sky, with a glimpse of a column which implies the existence of a rear portico corresponding to the one at the front, the second intercolumniation is coloured entirely yellow; moreover, this yellow surface is conceived, not as a screen within the portico, but as a wall beyond it, because it appears to pass behind the portico's ceiling. Too little survives of the outer wing-blocks to determine the full details of their treatment, but at least part of their front plane was red.

The more distant colonnade visible through the central pavilion consists simply of a line of six columns with an additional column set in front of the second one from each end. The entablature above the colonnade juts forward over the two advanced columns, where it is surmounted by acroteria in the form of paterae. The background of this columnar screen is yellow, repeating the tone within the outer intercolumniation of the porticoes; but the yellow changes abruptly above, in a stepped arrangement, to the blue of the 'sky'. The yellow background is clearly conceived as a wall, because it is pierced by a couple of doorways, each painted red and containing a halt-open door; but there is no crowning moulding or other architectural feature to define its summit.

Above the foreground structures one might have expected the sky to reappear. But the whole of the space at the top is coloured red (above the central pediment) and yellow (at the sides). The transition from one colour to the other, which takes place directly above the front corners of the central pavilion, is again abrupt and masked by no architectural or other element.

The Cupid which forms the sole figural element in the scheme stands in the central intercolumniation of the distant colonnade. Posed more or less frontally, with his weight on his left leg, he holds a plate balanced on his left hand. His right arm, now obscured by surface patination, was evidently lifted a little to the side, and his head is turned and inclined towards it.

The paintings described come from a lunette; the remains of a curving band of maroon at the top of the scheme, echoing the curvature of the vault, clearly belong to its frame. The perspective of the architectural structures, implying a viewpoint from below, is consonant with a high placing on the wall. In addition, there are remains of the upper parts of further structures at the lower edge of the surviving plaster: the projecting arm of a large-scale entablature beneath the front corner of the central pavilion, and traces of a coffered ceiling at the middle of the wall. The projecting entablature is crowned by a patera like the similar projections of the colonnade in the lunette. We may deduce that the decoration of the main part of the wall was based on some kind of tripartite scheme articulated by columns arranged in pairs, one in front of the other. Whether there were only two pairs of columns, or whether further pairs were set beneath the corners of the wing blocks, translating the upper zone's full rhythm of advance and retreat into the main zone, cannot be determined.

The shading of the architecture, as normal in painted schemes of the Imperial age, is predicated upon a central source of illumination. The columns to the left of centre are thus shaded on the left and carry highlights on the right, and those to the right vice versa. The Cupid, executed in shades of brown and reddish pink with white highlights, is lit from the left.

The architectural ornament is remarkably detailed considering the smallness of the scale. The columns are Corinthian in type, and those of the foreground structures at least seem to have palm-leaf capitals similar to examples known from Athens and Asia Minor.1 The friezes of both foreground and background structures are decorated with an alternating sequence of heart-shaped motifs and lotus-buds painted yellow-white in imitation of relief. The pediment contains vegetal scrolls growing outwards from the centre. The cornices are decorated with modillions. The cornice of the piece of projecting entablature at the bottom of the lunette shows flat rectangular modillions cut in two steps.

The first decoration: discussion

The Southwark lunette has no real parallel among the paintings so far discovered in Roman Britain. Perspectival architecture occurs in the so-called Painted House at Dover, but there the architectural forms are sturdier, the colour-scheme simpler, and the degree of recession strictly limited.2 At Leicester the paintings from a courtyard house in Blue Boar Lane contained columnar pavilions, fantastic in their slenderness and finely painted as at Southwark; but their role was to provide regular vertical accents between large flat fields, following a scheme popular in the Fourth Style at Pompeii and familiar also in Antonine decorations in Rome and Ostia; the colour-scheme again was different, with the architectural elements on a black ground and the intervening fields red.3 Other specimens of perspectival architecture, from Wigginton and Winchester,4 are on fragments too small toallow conclusions on the overall design, though the Winchester fragment at least shows a similar quality of painting to Southwark and incorporates motifs found at Southwark: a jutting piece of entablature and a patera (here floating free rather than used as an acroterium).

Across the Channel, in Gaul, there are fragments of architectural paintings from a villa at Famars, near Valenciennes, but these are both larger in scale and looser in style, with softer forms and more subtle colouring.5 They lack the bright tones and sharp, almost linear clarity of the Southwark lunette.

To find closer parallels for the elaborate planes of architecture and for the centralised perspective we have to travel to the Mediterranean. The archaeological context, as already mentioned, indicates a date later than A.D. 120 but still within the second century; it is likely therefore that the best parallels are to be found in paintings of the late-Hadrianic and Antonine periods.

This indeed seems to be the case. From the late-Hadrianic period we can compare the paintings of a house in the Villa Negroni in Rome, known from eighteenth-century watercolours and colour engravings,6 These paintings seem to have been less crowded than the Southwark lunette and to have placed more emphasis on framed fields and ornamental motifs, but they show the same tripartite scheme with columns or pillars supporting projecting entablatures which overlap into the upper zone, while the columns have the same elongated proportions and the same plasticity, and the structures as a whole the same generally convincing perspective.

During the Antonine period we can trace a development in architectural wall-paintings towards increasing flatness and illogicality; the architectural elements themselves begin to lose their plasticity and perspectival character, and the emphasis on exchanges of colour and on ornamental figures and motifs set within fields often makes it difficult to discern the structure of the schemes.

The paintings from a house in Via Merulana in Rome, and those of a portico in a house under the Baths of Caracalla, now known only from a nineteenth-century photograph,illustrate the first stage in the process. The Via Merulana paintings contain relatively solid and realistic architectural forms, but the emphasis is upon the harmonic combination of coloured surfaces (red, maroon and yellow), while some of the figure motifs within the schemes (a dove and the Egyptian sacred bull Apis) are set illogically at the bottoms of panels, appearing neither as decorative emblems in the field nor as living fauna standing on the architectural surfaces. The result is a lack of any real effect of depth.7 The decoration in the Caracalla house again has solid columns illusionistically projecting, but the painted vignettes in the dado and the white fields in the main and upper zones, each with figures or ornaments standing on the lower frame, reduce the architectural component to little more than a framework.8

Elsewhere the architectural forms become rather flatter and more pattern-like. At Ostia, where the richer decorations were now based almost exclusively on schemes of red and yellow, the decoration after which the House of the Muses is named may probably be ascribed to an Antonine restoration.9 Its structure is still relatively clear and logical: each wall is divided into three parts by a pair of tall columns, and the intervening spaces are occupied by large fields, alternately red and yellow, carrying standing figures of Apollo and the Muses; between the fields and the columns are conventional Durchblicke with suggestions of columnar constructions receding behind the wall. But these Durchblicke, with their alternate red and yellow backgrounds, merge into the general colour-scheme, while inconsistencies in their formal treatment further neutralize the visual effect of openings. In the upper zone, too, the emphasis is on broad areas of red and yellow, and effects of space and volume are blunted. Similarly, the Antonine paintings of the Houses of the Painted Vaults and of the Yellow Walls neutralize the perspective of their architectural structures by the use of broad areas of black and yellow.10

By the late Antonine period some of the more ambitious decorations have exchanged coherent structures for compositions so complicated as to be perplexing or positively jarring. The late-Antonine tablinum of the House of Jupiter and Ganymede at Ostia is a case in point, bewildering in its combination of perspectival elements which imply recession and flat, framed areas of colour which negate it; only with some effort can the viewer reduce the play of forms and colours to any sense of order. The restlessness is accentuated by the scale of the decorative figures, formerly small but now large and dominant; they fit so uncomfortably within their fields that some of them overlap the border-lines. The decoration of the upper zone, despite its use of the same basic red and yellow colour scheme, has no organic relationship with the painted structures below. In other rooms of the same house, such as the so-called Yellow Room, the schemes are simpler, but the architectural forms are largely meaningless, being reduced to little more than abstract patterns.11

In the Severan age (193-235) some decorations retain the polychromy. but dispense with an architectural framework altogether. Such are Rooms VI and IX in the Inn of the Peacock at Ostia, which present simple collages of coloured fields {Felder-wdnde), devoid of all hints of plasticity and recession. The arrangement and size of the fields seem to be virtually random, and the colours are constantly varied; one field is red with a white frame, another yellow with a green frame, and so on. Each contains a large figure or decorative motif.12 Elsewhere, however, as in the main room ('tablinum') of the Inn of the Peacock,13 and in a lunette in the exedra of the so-called Stadium in the imperial palace on the Palatine in Rome, architectural supports are set between coloured fields to produce schemes more logical and rhythmic than at any time since the Fourth Style.14 The major difference is that the intervening fields remain pre-eminently framed panels, even when they contain glimpses of further planes of architecture; they form a continuous plane, with just the columns in front of them and the simplest of architectural elements visible in the openings.

It is difficult to compare a provincial decoration with those of Italy, but the Southwark lunette would seem to fit at the beginning of the development described. Its architectural structures are relatively logical and coherent, but some of the spatial relationships are ambiguous, and the use of colour has begun to acquire a value of its own. The rhythmic alternation of blocks of red and yellow already has affinities with the Via Merulana paintings. At the same time the linear clarity and delicacy of the architectural forms are fully in the tradition of Hadrianic painting. We may therefore, with due allowance for the backwardness of Britain in following metropolitan fashions, suggest a date in the second quarter or middle years of the second century. A later date is excluded by the comparative plausibility and spatiality of the architecture. In the third quarter of the century even very similarly constructed lunette-decorations, such as those of the so-called Tomb of the Pancratii, or 'Coloured Tomb', on the Via Latina south of Rome, use columnar pavilions (here carried out in stucco relief) merely as a framework for panels containing ornamental motifs and figures.15 At Southwark, apart from the central Cupid, there are no non-architectural motifs. The architecture itself is the subject of the painting.

The Cupid is too common a type to require much comment. In its central position and to some extent in its pose it resembles the figure of Eros which stands in front of a doorway between Paris and Helen in well-known pictures from the House of Jason and the House of the Gilded Cupids at Pompeii;16 but its role at Southwark is purely decorative: it stands in isolation and holds a plate rather than acting as an intermediary between a pair of lovers. The figure is a good example of a stereotype adaptable to different functions in different contexts.

The Second Decoration

The second decoration clearly post dates the first by a considerable period. As already noted, the surface of the first decoration was pecked with a pointed implement to provide a key for the new plaster, but by the time this happened it had become extensively affected by black stains (presumably due to damp and fungal growth); one of the reasons for the redecoration was no doubt the deterioration of the earlier paintings which the stains imply. The new plaster was much more simply decorated than its predecessor. All that could be retrieved was the central part of the scheme, with an unidentifiable object, perhaps a large bowl, suspended from strings within a crude framework of red stripes. The latter is perhaps a simplified version of an architectural structure with perspectival ceiling-coffers. The (?)bowl, painted a nondescript yellowish brown with loops hanging at either side, is characteristic of a familar class of objects in Roman wall-painting: shields, masks, tambourines, vases, drinking-horns and the like appear time and again suspended from the soffits of pavilions or from the upper edges of panels.

In so far as it is possible to draw any art-historical conclusions from so simple a painting, we can suggest that this decoration is analogous to the striped decorations which enjoyed a heyday in Rome in the third century.17 Generally painted in red and green on a white ground (and thus often referred to as a 'red and green linear system'), they reduce the traditional syntax of dado, main zone and upper zone to purely abstract patterns of stripes and lines in which the spaces are occupied by isolated figures and animals. It is a cheaper style responding to the more straitened circumstances of many clients during a period of economic difficulty. Since our lunette seems consciously to have translated an architectural scheme into linear terms, it is attractive to see it as belonging to the same general period.


The Winchester Palace paintings represent a discovery of some importance for the study of Romano-British wall decoration, both in terms of their state of preservation and in terms of their quality.

Apart from the paintings at Dover, which survive in situ. and those from a suburban villa at Leicester (Norfolk Street), which, like ours, were found lying underneath a collapsed clay wall and could thus be extensively reconstructed,18 the Southwark frescoes form the most complete excerpt of a painted decoration to have been recovered since the Verulamium excavations of the 1950s. Moreover, they are one of the few excerpts which can be definitely ascribed to the upper part of a wall, and the only one which can be assigned to a lunette. Indeed, given the symmetrical nature of the composition, more or less the whole lunette can be reconstructed by extrapolation from the surviving parts.

In contrast to the decorations from Dover and from the Norfolk Street villa, the Southwark paintings - at least those of the first phase - are of exceptional delicacy and sumptuousness. The Dover and Norfolk Street decorations both use architectural schemes, but the first is relatively less careful in its handling, and both concentrate on broad effects with little recession and little miniaturist detail. The Southwark plaster, however, has created a fully perspectival illusion of advancing and receding structures, carried out in a fine style full of miniaturist touches. The British paintings which come closest in terms of skill and delicacy to those at Southwark are the murals from Blue Boar Lane at Leicester, which are unfortunately very fragmentary and cannot be easily assessed in their present restored form.

Another way in which the Southwark paintings stand apart from other decorations is in their rich use of colour. The rhythmic alternation of red and yellow, with strong accents of blue and green, produces a fuller polychromy than any of the architectural schemes which have been mentioned. There is also evidence for the use of especially costly materials. The red is cinnabar (mercuric sulphide), one of the so-called 'florid' pigments which painters did not normally hold in stock, but which clients were expected to provide for themselves or order specially; it cost nearly nine times as much as the best-quality red ochre and its maintenance involved elaborate and time-consuming treatments with hot wax to prevent it turning black when exposed to bright light.19 Recent research by Graham Morgan of the University of Leicester has increased the number of positive identifications of cinnabar in Romano-British wall-paintings to eighteen;20 but this number still represents only a minute fraction of the number of paintings which employed red ochre. Even more expensive than cinnabar must have been gold leaf, a substance which was found on one of the loose fragments of plaster from the same room. Gold leaf was occasionally applied to enhance selected details in painted and stuccoed decorations, particularly on ceilings; but it was exceptional, and its use in Nero's Golden House in Rome was one of the marks of luxury specifically named in diatribes against that palace.21 Apart from Southwark, only two other British sites have produced fragments of gilded plaster (one of which is not certainly Roman in date), while even in the Empire as a whole the sum total of specimens is only seventeen.22

The Southwark material is, therefore, a highly important discovery in the context of Romano-British wall-plaster, and one which merits prompt publication. With the recent monograph on the paintings from Dover, and the imminent publication of those from Norfolk Street, Leicester (already presented in preliminary notes and articles), as well as the publication (completed or prospective) of more fragmentary complexes of plaster from Fenchurch Street, London, and from the Bancroft villa (Bucks.),23 we are now acquiring a series of significant additions to the corpus of material which was available for study at the end of the 1970s.

University of Manchester (R.J.L.)

1 See e.g. J.B. Ward-Perkins, JRS xxxviii (1948), 66-70.

2 B.J. Philp, The Roman Painted House at Dover (Dover, n.d.); Davey and Ling, 111-14. no. 14; B.J. Philp, The Roman House with Bacchic Murals at Dover Kent Monograph Ser. Research Report 5 (1989).

3 Davey and Ling, 123-31, no. 22.

4 ibid., 194. no. 46 (B); 196, no. 48.

5 E. Belot, 'Architectures fictives de Famars', Revue de Nord Ixvii (1985), 21-62; idem, Peintures murales romaines de Famars (Nord) Amphora Ivii (1989).

6 H. Krieger, 'Dekorative Wandegemalde aus dem II. Jahrhundert nach Christus', Mitteilungen des Deutschen Archaologischen Instituts. Romische Abteilung xxxiv (1919), 24-52; H. Joyce, 'The ancient frescoes from the Villa Negroni and their influence in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries'. Art Bulletin Iv (1983), 423-40.

7 M. de Vos, 'Due monumenti di pittura post-pompeiana', Bullettino delta Commissione Archeologica Comunale di Roma Ixxxi (1968-9), 149-72; H. Mielsch in Affreschi romani dalle raccolte dell'Antiquarium Comunale (1976), 38-41, pis xi-xv.

8 Mielsch 1975, 120-2, pi. 18.

9 B.M. Felletti-Maj and P. Moreno, Le pitture della Casa delle Muse (Mon. Pitt. Ant. iii, Ostia iii) (1967), 20 t'f., pis ll-vn; for the dating Mielsch 1981, 214.

10 B.M. Felletti-Maj, Le pitture delle Case delle Volte Dipinte e delle Pareti Gialle (Man. Pitt. Ant. iii, Ostia i/ii) (1961).

11 House of Jupiter and Ganymede: G. Calza, 'Gli scavi recenti nell-abitato di Ostia', Monument. Antichi xxv (1920), 321-430; for the dating V.M. Strocka, Die Wandmalerei der Hanghduser in Ephesos Forschungen in Ephesos viii, i (1977), 50.

12 C. Gasparri, Le pitture delta Caupona del Pavone (Mon. Pitt. Ant. iii, Ostia iv), 15-18, 22-5, pis l-m, vi (2),


13 ibid., 18-22, pis iv-vi.

14 Wirth, 129-31, pi. 32; Mielsch 1975, 122-4, pis 19-20.

15 E.L. Wadsworth, Memoirs of the American Academy in Rome iv (1924), 76-8, pis XXlll-XXXV; Wirth, 84 f., fig. 42; B. Andreae in T. Kraus (ed.), Das romische Wehreich Propylaen-Kunstgeschichte ii (1967), 217 f., pi. 170.

16 P. Herrmann and F. Bruckmann, Denkmaler der Malerei des Altertums (1904-50), pis 71, 77 (2); cf. F. Zevi, La Casa Reg. 'X ~, .8-21 a Pompei e Ie sue pitture Studi miscellanei v (1964), 40, 41-3, pi. xx, 2.

17 Wirth, 134-42, 166-83; L. De Bruyne, 'L'importanza degli scavi lateranensi per la cronologia delle prime pitture catacombali', Rivista di archeologia cristiana xliv (1968), 81-113; on the dating Mielsch 1975, 127-9; Mielsch 1981, 227, 229-31.

18 A. Selkirk and J.E. Mellor, 'Leicester', Current Archaeology vii (1980-2), 314-17; J.E. Mellor, 'New discoveries from the Norfolk Street villa, Leicester', in J. Liversidge (ed.), Roman Provincial Wall Painting of the Western Empire BAR Int. Ser. 140 (1982), 127-40; J.T. Sturge, The lifting of the Roman wall-plaster from the Norfolk Street Roman villa, Leicester, England', ibid., 141-4: idem. 'The reassembly and display of fallen Roman wall-plaster from Leicester', The Conservator x (1986). 37-43.

19 Supplying of 'florid' pigments: Vitruvius, De architectural vn. 5. 8; Pliny, Nat. Hist. xxxv. 30. Costs of cinnabar and red ochre: Pliny, Nat. Hist. xxxin. 118; xxxv. 31-2. Treatment of cinnabar: Vitruvius, De archiiectura vn. 9. 2-3; Pliny, Nat. Hist. xxxin. 122. A pot containing cinnabar was actually found in another excavation nearby (28 Park Street, 1984 excavations).

20 Pers. comm.: ct. D. Keys, 'Plaster casting new light on the Romans in Britain', The Independent. May 2nd 1988.

21 Suetonius, Nero 31.

22 Barbet and Lahanier, op. cit. (note 4); A. Barbet in Pigments et colorants de I'Antiquile et du Moyen Age. Teinture, peinture, enluminure: etudes historiques et physico-chimiques (1990), 261-3.

23 Dover and Norfolk Street: see notes 6 and 22. Fenchurch Street: M. Rhodes, 'Wall-paintings from Fenchurch Street, City of London', Britannia xviii (1987), 169-72. Bancroft: R. Tyrrell, pers. comm.