Ancient Egyptian wall paintings – with coloured figures of exquisite contours amid hieroglyphs – are far closer to our own lifetimes than many examples of mural art. Recently, the oldest representational marks in ochre were said to have been found in a cave at Abri Castanet, on the river Vézère, in Sergeac in France. These wall paintings were created 37,000 years ago, by the first modern humans, the Aurignacians, revealing that murals are intrinsic to our nature. Now, I call them murals, but that term was first coined in 1921. So how closely are troglodyte cave markings related to modern interior murals?
The themes of domestic murals have changed through time, of course. Well before the mid-20th century favoured the bucolic fecundity of Tuscan groves set between fictive columns, the simple use of ochres on plaster and stone was the basis of wall paintings for millennia. But in that time, murals in different societies around the world composed an encyclopedia of source material.
Some encompass the entire universe. In May, it was reported in the journal Science that at Xultún in Guatemala’s Petén region, a set of early 9th-century wall paintings were discovered within an earthen mound, depicting the earliest Mayan calendar, with Venus and the Moon conspiring to set out the future far beyond us.
Medieval murals often dealt with myth and morality. At Longthorpe Tower, near Peterborough, the first-floor bedchamber features early 14th-century morality themes with fabulous beasts. The most fearsome is the Bonnacon, a mythical bull from Asia that was abdominally equipped to fire faeces over hapless pursuers up to 600m away. And it makes the point that through history, there’s been a fine line between wall painting and graffiti, paintings of myth and experience, at home and in the street. Today, that’s as true as it’s ever been. But the tempering effect of polite mural painting – the moral mural, perhaps – was just round the corner.
By the time Longthorpe was painted, the ancient art of true fresco had re-emerged in Italy. In the Upper Basilica of St Francesco of Assisi came the use of an intonaco – a finishing coat of wet plaster that absorbed pigments and bound them firm as it dried. This set the scene for the murals of the Renaissance era.
But true fresco was laborious. For his “Last Supper” in St Maria delle Grazie in Milan, Leonardo famously painted on dry plaster and layers of gesso, plaster and mastic in tempera (egg yolk-bound pigment) which led to its flaking. To get around this, many artists worked on canvas, which they pasted directly on to walls.
Richard Bagguley, who has painted 450 murals around the world, tells me little has changed. “When possible most muralists like to paint then install the canvas on site,” he says. “They use acrylic which dries quickly, does not yellow and is healthier.”
More direct ways of painting on to a dry wall led to a widespread use of effects: trompe l’oeil figurative painting of great realism, woodgraining, and marbling. Today, some artists can transform an interior with brushes of badger and squirrel hair, feathers for marbling and specially made combs and rockers for graining. Paul Czainski, a trompe l’oeil artist and a fine muralist, is very good at faking it: he can mimic scagliola – that is, paint to replicate a replication of marble. He’ll even do a trompe l’oeil on the seat of your WC so your eye believes in marble while your buttocks warm to wood.
The self-taught Brazilian Eduardo Kobra is typical of the new breed of interior muralists. He began painting in his native São Paulo in 1987, inspired by street artists drawing on the New York hip-hop scene. After a few years, he found that the people who once railed against street art as vandalism began to see it as an option for decorating their residences. Kobra recently spent five years painting a mural of the Brooklyn Bridge in the foyer of a São Paulo house for an 85-year-old client who met his wife near the bridge. The rub, he says, is that clients often want the cachet but not the hard edge of the most strident, modern murals.
Neil Mackay, a fine art muralist based in London, who has worked extensively in the Middle East and the US, has a similar perception of the tension between the trendy and traditional in domestic spaces.
“It’s fine for people in their twenties through to – say – forties to try and be hip: they’ll now want a sub-Banksy on their wall.” But the conservative tastes foisted on clients’ children’s bedrooms is another matter, he explains. “The presumption is still for princesses and Disney figures – there’s a perceived safety in nostalgia.”
I ask what appeals to his clients in the Middle East? Is there a tradition drawn from places like the 8th-century Qusayr ‘Amra, Jordan, which encompasses the zodiac, musical animals, wine, hunting and naked female figures, or has Islam filtered the acceptability of certain themes?
“Actually, no. Most Middle-Eastern commissions look to established western themes, just as we’re moving away from them to a ‘sanitised edginess’.”
“Sanitised edginess!” I’m in thrall to that phrase. For murals, I guess it means we’re moving toward painting subjects like bonnacons. But in our bathrooms. Only time will tell.
Jonathan Foyle is chief executive of World Monuments Fund Britain