Where to find historic graffiti in Surrey
PUBLISHED: 10:11 03 June 2014 | UPDATED: 09:29 10 January 2015
Graffiti can be found in the most surprising places. And when it sheds light onto times past, it is something to savour, says Claire Saul
Originally published in Surrey Life magazine April 2014
Graffiti; reprehensible, lurid tags, random scribblings and etchings defacing property. The mindless deeds of thoughtless vandals? Not always!
Add a significant factor – time – and suddenly those marks become invested with a sense of meaning and worth. When noticed in places you would least expect them, they can deliver a wholly different perspective on a place, even one you thought you knew well. And surprisingly, once you start looking, you’ll find these historic gems everywhere.
Making their mark
While visitors admire the serene beauty of that Surrey treasure Hampton Court Palace, their eyes invariably overlook the centuries of graffiti there, distracted as they are by all the riches on view. Yet it is everywhere; tucked into the trims of grand fireplaces, blatantly etched on door panels, teeming on the treads of the sweeping staircases, nestling on the sills of the leaded windows and pitting the walls. It is the mark – literally – of the generations of characters who have lived, worked and breathed in the building and those who, like you, have walked through its famous doors.
“It is a constant thing, this human need for people to scrawl names on things and to leave their mark, even in a palace,” says Dan Jackson, buildings curator at Hampton Court Palace, whose team has unearthed a fresh crop of historic etching during recent conservation work.
“There is often graffiti in places where people would have been standing around for hours and hours, such as at the bases of stairs or in the kitchens. The other common site is around building work. In the Cumberland Suite, we have graffiti from the 1730’s, 1880’s and 1980’s, which links to different phases of building work over the years. People have made their mark on the palace, just leaving a little bit of themselves.”
The 1730’s graffito features the skirts and shoes of a lady. Footwear appears to be something of a recurring theme amongst the palace’s graffiti, leading to speculation about someone with a shoe fetish and a penchant for carving. A rather vulgar graffito tucked away through a doorway is notable for (amongst other reasons) its finely depicted shoes, while a clear single shoe graffito also adorns the walls at the foot of the majestic King’s Staircase.
The immediate area is a graffiti haven. Close inspection of the stair ends reveals dozens of names etched into the masonry, many from the 18th century. Nearby doors display skilfully engraved names and dates, even regimental details. While not considered as vandalism back then, it is still astonishing to see such blatant handiwork in a royal property. Graffiti is found throughout the palace, including the Tudor kitchens and on the windowsills of the Processional (or ‘Haunted Gallery’) Route, where the windowsills sport handprints, geometric patterns, initials and more.
Ritual marks are certain to be in evidence in the roof spaces and other key areas of the palace. Indicative of the superstitions of the day, these symbols were thought to offer protection from malevolent forces.
Similarly, six miles downstream at Ham House, visitors to the Buttery can see typical ‘daisy wheel’ marks adorning the doors and window areas, along with letters and marks on the 17th century panelling. It is not uncommon to find such marks in places connected with food preparation, nor around doorways, windows and hearths where it was thought that evil presences might gain access to a room.
Visitors on Ham’s Ghost Tours will hear the story of John MacFarlane, said to have been one of the many men sent to the property to learn gentlemanly ways. But he fell in love with a maid, a match that could never be, and in his distress threw himself out of a second floor window to his death. Before he leapt, he scratched his name into the glass where it remains today, dated 1780.
“This etching is the type of thing that does happen if a house has been around for as long as Ham has,” says Victoria Bradley, house and collections manager. “Hundreds of people have called Ham House home over the years; at certain points there have been at least 40 people living here. These are the little traces that are left of them whereas quite often there are absolutely no traces of people who have spent, in some cases, their whole lives here.”
At Ham, much like Hampton Court, these tokens of former lives are often evident where they would least expect to be found. A different example is the face incorporated into the faux bois panelling in the Queen’s Antechamber, the unofficial signature of one of the original craftsmen.
“We have tried to investigate some of these characters, especially the servants, and have repopulated the basement with some images of them on the walls,” says Victoria. “There is a fascination about other people’s lives and it doesn’t have to be the grand family of the house; in some respects, the other end of the scale is equally fascinating. Traces of people have been left all over the house and probably some still haven’t even been noticed or uncovered yet.”
No stone unturned
Actively seeking out marks in the masonry of some of the county’s churches are members of the Surrey Medieval Graffiti Survey. Old churches are often graffiti havens; it has been discovered in two-thirds of the buildings assessed by the team so far, with the greatest concentration found in those where the use of relatively soft stone has evidently offered too great a temptation for certain busy fingers.
“The chalkstone at churches such as St James in Shere is perfect for creating graffiti,” explains Richard Neville, project leader of the survey. “You’d probably just need a knife, awl or any sort of pointed tool to quite easily make the sort of marks that can be seen here. Where there is relatively unrestored medieval stonework, especially if it is in particular areas such as around doorways, pillars and arches, then I am confident that we will find something.”
The medieval graffiti discovered to date is a mixture of styles, some devotional in nature, some heraldic, others ritual protection symbols such as daisy wheels and crosses. At a time when whole communities were intimately involved in church activities, this phenomenon is to be expected, says Richard.
“Churches were a lot more colourful and ever-changing then, with a constant procession of saints days and elaborate ceremonies. I think in a very image-based environment, it would have been very much regarded as part of accepted church life to leave your mark in stone for a variety of reasons.”
The medieval graffiti usually escapes the attention of visitors and even the clergy and the regular worshippers. Richard reports an element of shocked surprise when it is pointed out, due to our modern association of graffiti with vandalism, but generally there is ultimately a great interest in it. “One of the most rewarding aspects of the Surrey Medieval Graffiti Survey has been to be able to show residents the wealth of graffiti in the churches that they have been sitting by or walking past for years,” he says.
What is clear is that historic graffiti has a value and an emotional resonance that distinguishes it from its contemporary counterpart. Centuries-old names, dates, symbols and depictions serve to deliver yet another layer of historical interest to a building, adding the very human touch of the lesser-known characters that walked within its walls.
For intriguing little footnotes on the social history of our county, take a closer look at the timbers, bricks and stones of Surrey’s historic properties. You’ll see that walls can talk, after all.
If you spot historic graffiti on your travels around Surrey, share your pics @ www.surreylife.co.uk/photos
For more historic Surrey graffiti hotspots try…
Royal Botanic Gardens Kew, Richmond TW9 3AB
Book onto Curious Kew on Thursday May 15, one of the occasional evening tours incorporating a viewing of the witches marks in the palace attic, an area that is usually closed to visitors.
Tel: 0844 482 7777 / hrp.org.uk/KewPalace
St Bartholomew’s, Horley
Church Road, Horley RH6 8AB
This ancient church contains a large collection of medieval graffiti, including text inscriptions, faces and crowns.
Tel: 01293 782218 / stbartshorley.org
14 S Hill, Guildford GU1 3SY
In the remains of this well-known castle in our county town, historic graffiti can be seen high on the walls of the chapel.
Tel: 01483 444751 / guildford.gov.uk/castle