Piccotts End Wall Paintings in Hemel Hempstead
The Grade I Listed 15th Century cottages at Piccotts End, just outside Hemel Hempstead, house unique and historic wall paintings whose fascinating story lay hidden for over five hundred years. Why they are here or who painted them is a mystery we are trying to unravel.
In a row of 15th century timber-framed cottages, set back from the road at Piccotts End, seven colourful panels with religious themes still exist, more than 500 years since they were first painted. The artists are unknown, as are the reasons for their existence.
The Medieval Panels
For years, the Pre-Reformation Catholic paintings lay hidden behind a sheet of coarse hand-woven linen until they were discovered in 1953 by Arthur Lindley, who owned the cottages and ran a petrol station which operated on adjacent land. The medieval panels include impressive scenes of the Baptism of Jesus, Christ in Majesty, St Catherine of Alexandria, a Pieta, St Clement , St Peter and St Margaret.
They are arranged like an ‘iconostasis’, or screen with icons, set in tiers and with the artwork carried out indiscriminately over plaster and timber studs.
It is thought that the murals originated as early as 1470-1500, but they could only have been on view for about 50 years due to the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century. This could also account for some of the faces being obliterated.
The nearby Monastery or College of the Bonhommes at Ashridge may be a clue to their existence, since the cottages may have been used as a pilgrims’ hospice. Ashridge was on the ‘pilgrim trail’ because it housed a supposed holy relic - a phial of the blood of Jesus - and such hospices were part of the medieval scene. The Abbey of St Albans, the shrine of the first English Christian martyr, attracted many pilgrims and it is possible that they combined a visit there with one to Ashridge, staying overnight at Piccotts End.
The five panels of the paintings in the upper part of the wall and two panels in the lower part can be clearly seen. According to E. Clive Rouse, an expert from the British Museum, “The whole background is completely covered with free, running leaf scrollwork and shaded in orange-red, grey or blue and white and with yellow fruit or flowers, the whole in a black or grey outline.” There is also a curious blank oblong space in the lower wall which suggests that there must have been some kind of permanent fitting here, such as an altar.
There are many unusual and mysterious signs and symbols in the paintings, relics of a time when religion was a powerful influence in people’s lives and when few could read or write. The faces have been obliterated on some of the figures, probably as a result of the Reformation. It has been suggested that there was a connection with the Cathar movement, of Southern France and adjacent areas of Catalonia and northern Italy (viewed as heresy by the Catholic Church of the time), but it has yet to be proved if this was true.