Talland Red – A reimagining of the Talland Frescoes
While writing an article on ‘Polperro Blue’ (published by Polperro Family History Society April 2017) I stumbled upon a reference to the Talland Frescoes. Further reading showed that they were unfortunately, but unavoidably, destroyed in 1849 as part of some rebuilding work to the Church. Only one account of these ‘fine series of frescoes’, by Dr W.H. Box1 who was there at the time, exists today. So what follows is my take on what they may have been and what stories told. This is their story.
As I walked into the Church and made my way up the North Aisle towards the Altar I had a feeling I was being watched. As I turned away towards the window on the North Wall, perhaps by a trick of the light, I’m sure I saw a wall, beyond the window, with a painting – ‘an incongruous tableau as cannot easily be imagined’ – a cross; the ghostly shape of a full rigged ship, red flag and the red eyes of the Devil – I blinked. No there was only some graffiti2 in the corner. I went all goosebumps and shivered as if someone had walked over my grave.
I looked more closely at the wall beneath the window; was that some red staining showing through the limewash ….. .
As I walked back down the Aisle I turned back briefly – there – can you see it; a ghostly ship in the dust swirls of my passing showing in the weaker light now from the window.
I must have been daydreaming; an hour had passed.
Mind you, they say the church has always been haunted since being built: there’s a story as told by the droll tellers of yesteryear and still retold today3 ……
Long, long ago – eight hundred years ago or so, forty men from Talland, Lanreath and Polperro set to to build a church. They found the best place, dug good foundations and the stones went up quick enough.
That night as the men were packing away and the dark clouds rolled in from the sea; they heard a voice drifting through the dusk,
“If you will my wish fulfil, Build a church on Talland hill”.
They laughed, a little uneasily, and wearily made their way home. Only to find the next morning, all their hard work and sweat undone.
Now this happened day upon day upon day – the voice the same each night as clear as could be,
“If you will my wish fulfil, Build a church on Talland hill”.
until weary and frustrated they,
“Did indeed the wish fulfil, they built the church on Talland hill”
I went outside and stood near the cliff’s edge, drinking in the purest sea born air and light, my head full of colours: of soft browns, yellows and purples; blue and red – an intense and brilliant red.
My Sister Viv lived close by in Polperro so I popped round, dreckly, and started to tell her of my vision. But wait, she said, and fetched a book by Jonathan Couch (The History of Polperro – 1871), from the bottom of a large cardboard box in the spare bedroom, still unpacked from her recent move to the village. Sure enough carefully turning the pages I soon found a description of Talland Church and its Frescoes, including the account by his friend Dr Box …….
‘In the early part of October 1849 it was found necessary to take down the wall of the North Aisle, on which were discovered a number of fine frescoes; they consisted of two series, laid one on the other, the first (that nearest the wall) was executed in colours, while the other was traced in black and being on a white ground its figures were displayed in bold relief. Both were much defaced by exposure to heavy rains’.
The original building of the Church (13th Century) was undertaken by Augustinian Canons from Launceston Priory. They would have used local tradesman in the building works but either painted the frescoes4 themselves or employed itinerant artists; who may also perhaps have painted frescoes in other Cornish Churches (Breage, Poughill, St Kevern on the Lizard, St Just in Penwith, and Sennen).
Among the subjects of the original or coloured series was an imposing representation of the Crucifixion, some female mourners, a Roman soldier looking on interestedly, a brick built well or fountain (read cistern), with a man in an overcoat drawing water, and a man in rude costume departing from the well with a skin or leather utensil slung from a spear that rested on his left shoulder.
The style of painting suggests it was the artists intention to show the suffering yet resignation of Christ – perhaps influenced by, Italian painters from the early Renaissance such as Piero della Francesca, whose painting is characterised by its serene humanism, and use of geometric forms and perspective; and in his use of tempera to intensify the blue of his skies, the pink of his dresses, the red of his blood.
This may give a little more insight and satisfying explanation to a feature of the painting that drew the attention of Box; insomuch as he wrote ….
‘ ….. what was most notable was the unaccountable vividness of colour5 displayed by the large drops of blood, from a wound in the left side of Our Saviour, which issued in rapid succession forming a continuous line to the ground. Such was the striking effect produced by the peculiar intensity and brilliancy of the colour that it was doubted whether the richest oil painting of any age ever equalled it’.
So let us go back in time – to 1510; and join the congregation of farmers, miners and fisher folk and their families as they shuffle along the pews: maybe it’s Whitsun and the visiting priest stands ready to take Mass ….
…… he half turns towards the picture of the Crucifixion in the sacred act of the ‘elevation of the host’; the usually rowdy congregation hush and sing the short Eucharistic hymn : ‘Ave Verum Corpus’6
Hail, true Body, truly born of the Virgin Mary mild. Truly offered, wracked and torn, on the Cross for all defiled, from Whose love-pierced, sacred side flowed Thy true Blood’s saving tide: be a foretaste sweet to me in my death’s great agony. O my loving, Gentle One, Sweetest Jesus, Mary’s Son.
A short reading from the Gospel of St John follows:
According to the New Testament, Jesus was crucified at a spot outside Jerusalem called Golgotha. The Gospel of John says there was a garden at Golgotha, and a tomb which had never been used. Since the tomb was nearby, John says, that’s where Jesus’s body was placed. The Gospel writers say the tomb was owned by a prominent rich man, Joseph of Arimatheia. They describe it as cut out of rock, with a large stone that could be rolled in front of the entrance. There is a Cistern (well) there.
Followed by a Homily:
The story of Longinus, the Roman soldier who watched Christ die and was then martyred himself lives on as a treasured narrative in the long history of the Holy Land saints.
He stood transfixed at the foot of the Cross, watching and wondering, full of awe and amazement. And then all at once, something was born in him – a spark of faith, a brand-new beginning. And his life was changed forever.
Hagiographical writings hold that immediately upon piercing Christ’s side, Longinus fell to his knees before the cross; as he looked up some of the blood and “water” from the body dripped on his eyes, miraculously restoring his sight.
If your attention should wander a bit let your eyes rest for a moment on the man in the rude costume walking away from the well: could this have been Thaddeus. It is said that the spear which had wounded Jesus at the Crucifixion, was allegedly brought to Armenia – to the “Monastery of the Spear” – by Apostle Jude, called here Thaddeus.
However there have been three or four major relics that are also claimed to be the Holy Lance or parts of it: in Rome, Vienna, Antioch and Poland.
A legend has arisen about Longinus’ spear: “whosoever possesses this Holy Lance and understands the Powers it serves, holds in his hand the Destiny of the world for good or evil.”
There is another story that can be told, of days of yore and knights so bold ….. that of ‘Perceval, the story of the Grail’ …… As a naïve and unworldly youth, a pure and guileless soul, Perceval sets forth to achieve knighthood at King Arthur’s court. He is taunted by Sir Kay, but amazes everyone by killing a knight, the Red Knight, who had been troubling King Arthur, and taking his vermilion armour.
He then sets out for adventure ….. And so begins the legendary quests of King Arthur’s Knights of the Round Table in their search for the Holy Grail (and the Spear of Destiny)7. But that’s another story.
The next and most perfect of these coloured pictures ….
‘was that of a large full rigged ship under sail, which from her slanting position on the water appeared to be mounting over a long swell. She had four masts – on the foremost large square sails were set, while the others were rigged lateen fashion. Her sides were decorated with gaily painted bands and strakes with separately charged saltires and crosses of opposite colours such as a red band with a black cross. Atop each mast head was a square green flag with a saltire in red‘
What a description! And what a magnificent ship she must have been – majestically riding the waves, in all her glory ….. Differing in style from that of the Crucifixion, possibly even painted at a later date, it’s unusual if not unique in English Church wall paintings of ships because of its fine detail. It suggests an artist not only skilled in his craft but also familiar with the sailing ships of the period8.
It’s usually very difficult – and often questionable – to make a link between a ship depicted in a medieval art and a documented vessel. The earliest-known English ship-portrait was the great ship of Snargate – a representation of Henry VII’s Regent – and described in great detail by Dr Ian Friel9.
So a painting of a celebratory, or commemorative nature – perhaps of a famous ship with Religious or Royal significance; the evidence strongly suggests and supports this idea ……
Was it the St Anthony a Portuguese Carrack wrecked off Gunwalloe in 1525 – Flagship of King John of Portugal and reputedly carrying the dowry of Princess Katherine Sister of the Holy Emperor of Rome, Charles V.
Or the ship – a Spanish Carrack or early Galleon – that brought Katherine of Aragon (the future wife of Henry VIII and Queen of England) to Plymouth in 1501.
More likely though is a painting of the Henry Grace à Dieu, launched in 1514 (Great Harry), Flagship of King Henry VIII – a Carrack built Warship with painted sides bands and strakes. Tho Great Harry saw relatively little action-she was luxuriously fitted out as a showpiece – used in Civil and Ambassadorial duties. Katherine would have sailed in her on some of these occasions, perhaps even on the expedition to the Field of the Cloth of Gold in 1520. Katherine was also the Aunt of Charles V Holy Emperor of Rome who visited England in 1520.
Then come the dark clouds rolling in off the sea – of the Reformation. Launceston priory a house of Augustinian canons, and under whose guidance Talland Church was built and its Frescoes painted, was dissolved in 1539, and the site levelled.
Many images were lost, destroyed or covered over during this period culminating with the Putting away of Books and Images Act 1549.
The second series was overlaid on these pictures covering them completely and depicted most prominently a picture of the Devil (painted either during or not long after the Reformation), traced in black. He had the most horrible countenance imaginable with a dark mantle thrown over his shoulders and clasped at the neck. He had two short thick horns bent slightly backward, on his head, and the balls of his enormous round eyes were painted a brilliant red to which an additional horror was imparted by their being surrounded with a slight circle of white.
Now legend has it that …..
There was a time when Polperro counted the Devil amongst its inhabitants. He chose the slate behind the village of Polperro as a place to hide by day. As darkness fell this was an ideal area to ride out in the wilds unnoticed by the families exhausted by their day’s farming or fishing far out at sea.
One night, as he rose from his lair on a small black cart, his red eyes flaming and his smelly cloak flapping, the Devil appeared so frightening that the rock gave way before him with a mighty split and quiver. As the rock split it left a tear that would never heal, evidence of his ghastly residence …… The Devils Doorway10.
So it comes as no surprise that on some dark nights, past the gates of the Church, runs a cart with a fleeing smuggler11 on his way to Polperro harbour with a good load of rum. He is pursued by the customs – and a distant voice can be heard from the churchyard ‘flee, flee Jack flee and drive as if the very Devil were after ye’…
So next time you visit the Church at Talland and walk up the Aisle towards the Altar, pause a moment by the window in the North wall, close your eyes; and maybe, just maybe you will see the Cross; or hear the sound, of the wind in the rigging as the ship heeled to the wind; and ever, ever so faintly a distant congregation.
This then is the story of the Talland Frescoes….
My quest has taken me on a fantastic journey from Cornwall to Rome; to the City of Jerusalem and the Holy Land; to the birth of Christianity; and to King Arthur and his Knights. A celebration of art in medieval wall paintings in Tudor England and the legends of old Kernow.
Along the way I had help from many people: Angela Broome: Librarian Archivist Courtney Library and Cornish History Research Centre, Royal Institution of Cornwall, Ed Fox: Marine Historian, Patrick Baty: Historical Paint Consultant of Painters and Paints Ltd London, Tim Thompson: Marine Artist Saltash, and Viv Tregellas of Talland Church Community, who provided the description, layout and old pictures of the Church; and a whole host of unknown people who had made similar journeys before and were good enough to share their findings with the world (via the Web). Special thanks to my Sister, Vivienne, newly resident in Polperro, who provided inspiration support and encouragement throughout. Any errors, omissions, or inaccuracies however are entirely my own; as are any embellishments.
The pictures accompanying the text are from the following sources:
The drawing of Talland Church is by Frederick T.W.Cook, RWA and is from the front cover of the Talland Church Guidebook.
The picture of the sailing ship is an old 1878 Wood Engraving of the Great Harry, a ship of the Royal Navy, of Henry VIII. Artist unknown.
And the last picture of Talland Church is of a lithograph by John Piper RA from The book‘English Scottish and Welsh Landscape , a selection of poetry chosen by John Betjeman and Geoffrey Taylor and published in 1944, just after the Second World War, by Frederick Muller. Image may be subject to copyright.
But why the title Talland Red – the clues, as in a classic whodunnit, are all there; the red of His blood, the red Saltire, the Red Knight, his eyes were a brilliant red. Originally I was going to call it: The Talland Frescoes, but while musing on the story during the wakeful hours of the night I heard a voice (in my head):
As you lie awake at night, in bed, call your story Talland Red.
This happened time and time again on successive nights ……
Until I did indeed call my story Talland Red …… .
His account in full entitled ‘Description of some frescoes recently discovered on the wall of Talland Church’ may be found in the Thirty First Report of the Royal Institution of Cornwall 1849. And is also reproduced in ‘The History of Polperro ‘ by Dr Jonathan Couch published in 1871.
2 There is some graffiti in the north aisle of a sailing ship or lugger / fishing boat (Viv Tregellas). Matthew Champion has written extensively about graffiti in his book Medieval Graffiti: The Lost Voices of England’s Churches
3 An abridged version, originally retold by Anna Chorlton (Mazed Tales), and used here under terms of the Creative Commons licence.
4 Medieval wall painting in English churches was at its height between 1490 and 1530. Many were subsequently destroyed or covered over a few years later during the Reformation. They were not, as a rule, true (buon) frescoes, painted directly onto wet plaster, but were executed in tempera on the dry plaster (a secco), which was better suited to the English climate.
5 Vermilion (a brilliant red which takes well on lime) would have been the colour of choice, for the ‘large drops of blood’ perhaps intensified with a madder glaze and protected with a gloss of beeswax.
6 It is not possible to find a better way to bring to light the link between the Eucharist and the cross. Written in the 13th century as an accompaniment to the elevation of the Host at Mass, it serves us today equally well as our salutation of Christ raised up on the cross. In no more than five short couplets it brings us such a great load of meaning
7 Perceval, the Story of the Grail (Perceval, le Conte du Graal) is the unfinished medieval romance of Chrétien de Troyes. Probably written between 1135 and 1190, it is the earliest recorded account of what was to become the Quest for the Holy Grail ( and the Spear of Destiny).
8 The fourth mast (the ‘bonaventure mizzen’) didn’t really make an appearance until around 1480 or so, about the same time that triangular lateen sails were first seen on English vessels. By the mid-17th century use of the bonaventure mizzen had all but died out, so the frescoes probably have an extreme range of about 1480-1650. However, bonaventure mizzen masts were still comparatively rare until the early 16th century. Description provided by Ed Fox.
9 Ian Friel has described a fine early painting of a sailing ship in St Dunstan’s church on the Romney Marshes – the ‘Great Ship of Snargate’ which dates to 1480 or so. It is of a four-masted Carrack believed to be of the ‘Regent’ one of Henry VII’s ships built locally at Reding. Painted by a naïve hand and in a single colour – red.
10 An abridged version, originally retold by Anna Chorlton (Mazed Tales), and used here under terms of the Creative Commons licence
11 Smuggling has a long and controversial history, probably dating back to the first time at which duties were imposed in any form, or any attempt was made to prohibit a form of traffic. Smuggling is often associated with efforts by authorities to prevent the importation of certain contraband items or non-taxed goods; however, there has also been smuggling based on illegally exporting goods. In England smuggling first became a recognised problem in the 13th century, following the creation of a national customs collection system by Edward I in 1275.