Half Human Beasts

Wall Painting FullThere is a fabulous sixteenth century wall painting on the first floor of the museum, which was rediscovered behind a false wall during renovations that were carried put as part of the redevelopment of the site in 2008. Although only the left panel remains relatively complete, the remaining decoration on the right panel shows a continuation of the motifs. This suggests that the painted scheme would have been reflected and probably continued around the whole room.

The wall painting is incredibly bold, intricate and unique especially in its depiction of half human beasts, also known as ‘grotesques’. The predominant figure on the existing panel is a satyr like creature with unruly red hair, protruding lips and a wide open eye looking sideways at the spectator. He is balancing a basket of fruit on his head, and his right arm appears to be raised as if to defend himself against the raised clenched fist belonging to a now lost figure on the left. His cloven feet are in chains, indicating that he is the prisoner of the figure he is trying to fend off.

Beneath the imprisoned satyr is a squatting female creature with a head that bears a resemblance to a wild boar, who holds in her right hand fruit, which she is about to lick with her protruding tongue. The inclusion of these sorts of creatures could be construed as symbolic. Satyrs can usually be seen to represent lust, while wild boars are said to stand for everything wild and rude. It has been argued by experts in the field that our satyr is not typical, as he is carrying a bowl of fruit, which symbolises fertility. As so little of painted scheme remains it is impossible to interpret it with accuracy, if it ever could be.

At first glance the wall painting appears to be rugged and unpolished, but the intricacy, intensity and aggression it displays, suggests that it was well planned and undertaken by a skilled artist. Moreover the mythical subject matter – possibly influenced by the discovery of Roman ‘grottos’ – suggests that the person who commissioned the work was educated, and aware of trends in interior decoration. Towards the end of the 16th century, wall paintings were becoming very popular. However other wall paintings dating from around the same time discovered elsewhere in the borough, such as the one that was found at Bennetts Castle Farm, are fairly pedestrian compared to the painted scheme at Valence House.

The wall painting may have been commissioned by Timothy Lucy. Timothy Lucy of Charlecote in Warwickshire married Susanna Fanshawe in the parish church of Chigwell, Essex on 1 September 1583. Susanna inherited the Valence estate from her father, Henry Fanshawe on his death in 1568. The couple who had three sons and four daughters are thought to have lived in the house from around the early 1590s, which is when the work is thought to have been painted. We know they were resident here in 1594. The lease was then acquired by Sir Nicholas Coote in 1596.

Muriel Carrick, an expert in the field who came to look at the painting in 2009, argued that the style of the painted scheme pointed towards it being commissioned by a person with a colourful character, like Thomas Bonham. Thomas Bonham was a notorious eccentric, who leased the estate from his sister Ann Henshawe in 1635. He had only lived here for a year and was charged for trying to shot his neighbour with a pistol. He later got into disputes for refusing to pay the burial fee for one of his children, and also for not attended church or paying tithes.

Thomas Bonham was buried in Dagenham Parish Church. It is clear from his epitaph (written by himself in Latin) that modesty was not his prime virtue:

‘Stay wayfarer! Lest you be ignorant who is buried here, it is worth your while to know that it is Thomas Bonham Esquire, Lord of Valentia in Essex. He was an agreeable poet and yet sublime, a shining ray of genius, an ornament of polite literature and a happy model of elegance. He is ever to be praised and can never, alas, be sufficiently lamented. This marble cannot contain his other virtues, nor indeed scarcely would the quarry itself from which it is hewn’.

Despite the leaseholder records that survive, we still cannot say with any certainty who exactly was living in the house at the time the painting is thought to be completed, and therefore who commissioned the painting. Whoever they were they certainly wanted to impress!