Completing the picture

PUBLISHED: 15:34 24 September 2007 | UPDATED: 14:52 20 February 2013

Melissa White

Melissa White

Meet the artist who brings the Elizabethan era back to life from her studio in Hastings. Nancy Cremore finds out how Melissa and her paintbrush cross the centuries...

Sussex Life

MOST of the designs we're familiar with from the Elizabethan era come from palaces and stately homes, as these were the ones considered important enough to be preserved," says Melissa White, a 34 year old with a passion for this period of decoration.

"But I prefer to concentrate on the more everyday designs, such as would have been found in merchants' houses."

After graduating from Birmingham University with a degree in art history, Melissa had a chance meeting with leading expert in Elizabethan interiors, David Cutmore, which led to her joining him as an informal apprentice on what was to become a five-year project, first to paint cloths for a Shakespearean theme park in Japan and then to re-create Shakespeare's birthplace as it would have been when he was a young man.

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"When I started this project I was very green," says Melissa. "But after five years I had gained quite a lot of experience." In the slow periods of the project, and while they were waiting for extra funding, Melissa and the rest of the crew would be busy renovating pubs and "rag rolling everything, as was the fashion at the time!"

As David lives down the road in Rye, they still work together on various projects. "We have done a few ceiling paintings," says Melissa, "where you'll be craning your neck with a tiny paintbrush in your hand and just a massive empty space in front of you. But it's fantastic to look at the finished product - with all the period furniture back in the room, it all makes sense."

Melissa explains how 'painter stainers' of the era would go from church to church with their craft. "The Elizabethans wanted to cover everything up - beams, ceilings, walls, stonework. They would think it very strange that we leave breezeblocks and beams exposed." But with the dissolution of the churches by Henry VIII, there was no longer a need to decorate the churches, so the painter stainers turned to house painting instead.

A lot of designs are buried in museum archives and journals, although sometimes people will approach Melissa with tiny fragments they've found in their own homes. "Often when people are renovating old buildings, wall paintings will be found behind old wood panelling," she says.

To recreate the original feel as much as possible, Melissa mixes up "messy and smelly" animal glues and pigments; a painstaking process which involves adding water to rabbit skin glue granules to make 'size' (glue), leaving overnight then adding water again and making sure it's kept warm so that it doesn't turn to jelly, and adding powder pigment to get paint. Melissa keeps a candle under a double boiler to keep the paint warm and liquid while in use.

With research vital to Melissa's work, this year she has been granted a £5,000 award from the Queen Elizabeth Scholarship Trust, which helps craftsmen and women of all ages further their careers.

Melissa started her own company last year called Fairlyte, which produces Elizabethan design for wall-mountable and fabric-based art works. She has just brought out the Anticke Collection, a range of five black and white hand-painted cloths popular in Elizabethan times.

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