Perspective in a Tudor house in Barking

NOT FAR FROM the busy A13 road that links London with Tilbury and places further east, and surrounded by a sea of unremarkable dwelling houses in the London Borough of Barking & Dagenham, stands an unexpected historical Tudor architectural treasure: Eastbury Manor.

Part of a wall painting in Eastbury Manor

This beautiful Tudor mansion, built between 1560 and 1573 for Clement Sisley (or Sysley) and his family, stands on land that had been owned by Barking Abbey until its dissolution in 1539.  He was a wealthy businessman connected with high-status families. Married thrice, each of his wives’ dowries added to his prosperity. The manor house remained connected with his extended family until it was sold in 1628. After that, the house and its associated extensive land had a series of owners and tenants until sometime in the 19th century when the building began to deteriorate. The various inhabitants made use of the place’s formerly large grounds for agricultural purposes: principally, grazing. The National Trust (‘NT’) bought the house in 1918, and this purchase is responsible for its survival. Owned by the NT, it was Barking’s local museum between 1935 and 1941. Now, still the property of the NT, it is maintained by the London Borough of Barking and Dagenham.

According to an article written by Hazel Stainer (https://hazelstainer.wordpress.com/2019/05/17/eastbury-manor-house/), Eastbury Manor was noted by the author Daniel Defoe during his travels in 1724:

“A little beyond the town, on the road to Dagenham, stood a great house, ancient, and now almost fallen down, where tradition says the Gunpowder Treason Plot was first contriv’d …”

I checked my copy of Defoe’s book and discovered that the editor of my edition (Pat Rogers) had doubts about this connection with Guy Fawkes et al. Rogers noted that the conspiracy was largely planned in Northamptonshire.

The house, which stands on land rich in clay, is built of bricks made locally, on-site. It is built to an H-shaped plan: two parallel wings are linked by a central portion perpendicular to near their northern ends. The central part and the two wings enclose a charmingly intimate courtyard, whose fourth (southern) side is bounded by a wall connecting the two wings. Although a modern staircase and lift have been added, the house’s original timber spiral staircases were housed in octagonal towers that encroach onto the northwest and northeast corners of the courtyard: they are classed as ‘external staircases’.

The house and its garden have many fascinating features typical of Tudor architecture. For example, in the Great Hall on the ground floor, there is a huge fireplace. It is large enough for several adults to stand within it. Our informative guide directed us to look up into the large chimney. There, we could see platforms that were built to allow workmen to climb into the chimney to clean it in the era long before there were chimneysweeps with special equipment. The Tudor brick wall surrounding one of the gardens has 17 small niches. These were designed as bee boles, in which skeps, baskets where bees lived, were placed.  Interesting as these and many other things are, the most amazing feature is to be seen in the so-called Painted Chamber on the first floor, which we reached using the original timber staircase.

Discovered beneath layers of paint after a fire during the 19th century, are the sizeable fragments of two exceptional wall paintings. It is believed that these were commissioned by the London Alderman Sir John Moore who died in 1603. His coat of arms is depicted on one of the pictures. Moore, who took an interest in international trade and the then proposed East India Company, used the house as his country home.

The paintings depict trompe-l’oeil walls with columns, classical figures, and archways. The latter frame depictions of countryside and nautical scenes. Apart from their great age and skilful execution, these frescos are remarkable for their use of perspective.  The lady who was showing us around the Manor mentioned that these wall paintings are some of the earliest surviving examples of  pictures in England displaying the kind of perspective that is now commonly used in Western European art. So-called ‘true geometric perspective’ was developed by Italian painters during the 14th and 15th centuries. Its use spread to other parts of Europe and would have been known in England by the time of Moore’s occupancy of Eastbury Manor. The surviving wall paintings were executed before his death in 1603, but by whom we might never know. It is quite possible that the artist had either been abroad or had come from overseas. Whoever painted these lovely images had a good grasp of what was then regarded as the latest way of portraying the illusion of depth and distance. Whether there are earlier examples of surviving paintings created in England (using tru perspective) than those at Eastbury Manor, I do not know. So, until I am wiser on the subject, I will accept what we were told. I have seen older surviving wall paintings in English churches, but none of them display even the slightest hint of true geometric perspective.

All in all, it is well worth venturing into the rather dull suburbs of Dagenham and Barking to visit Eastbury Manor. It might not be as glorious as other surviving Tudor edifices, such as Hatfield House, but it is no less a wonderful reminder of an era long-since passed.

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