University of Sheffield study solves puzzle of mysterious paintings at Bolsover Castle

  • Study finds wall paintings at English Heritage’s Bolsover Castle inspired a series of private aristocratic plays by Ben Jonson and his patrons the Cavendish family of Welbeck Abbey in the 17th century
  • Amateur shows featuring music, dancing and role-playing incorporated the characters on the walls in the on-stage drama.
  • Study suggests figures in the paintings represented members of the Cavendish family, making this an early form of virtual reality for hosts and guests

Research from the University of Sheffield has solved a centuries-old puzzle behind the meaning of mysterious paintings at Bolsover Castle.

The study, led by Dr Crosby Stevens, Honorary Research Fellow at the University, and Professor Angie Hobbs, Professor of the Public Understanding of Philosophy, suggests that paintings decorating the castle’s keep or Little Castle were used as part of a series of private plays and entertainments organised for friends and relatives of the Cavendish family of Welbeck Abbey in the 17th century. The theme of the paintings were magical transformation, love and virtue.

The castle was designed for banquets and cultural pursuits, and the artworks were intended to be interactive and multisensory. The aim was to envelop visitors in a luxurious fantasy world that would amuse them while revealing higher moral and philosophical truths, according to the study.

King Charles I and Queen Henrietta Maria were treated to the full immersive experience of Bolsover in its original Jacobean form when they visited for a day of feasting and banqueting in the summer of 1634 – moving through the building and encountering multisensory surprises.

The study suggests the largest room in the castle, the Star Chamber, was used as an auditorium for aristocratic plays and country house masques. Ben Jonson, friend and rival to Shakespeare, wrote a show for the visit of Charles I in which Eros appeared to have descended from the paintings to greet the King.

William Cavendish and his daughters copied the idea and continued writing and performing plays with characters that could have stepped down from the picture space to become part of the show.

Ben Jonson was a friend and mentor to William Cavendish, and the research has shown that his face may be among portraits of Cavendish and his family on the walls of the castle. Jonson visited in 1618, just before the castle was decorated, meeting with Cavendish and the architect John Smythson. He may have helped to invent the castle’s schemes and he wrote that Cavendish was his best patron, besides the King.

Some of the plays were quite slapstick and rude with an avalanche of puns being part of the game. The researchers believe one of the things Jonson and Cavendish had in common was a bawdy sense of humour.

Dr Crosby Stevens from the University of Sheffield’s Department of History said: “Our research suggests that the Little Castle building at Bolsover and its artworks were set up as an interactive and immersive experience for people in the 17th century. Visitors could imagine that they moved in and out of curious painted worlds during banquets and bespoke amateur shows that featured music, dancing and dressing up – it was an early form of virtual reality.

“The paintings set up a game for people to move in and out of the picture space. The site was used by the Cavendish family and their high-ranking friends for personal engagement with imitation and role play in the pursuit of both pleasure and virtue, encouraged by the paintings.”

The ceiling of the Elysium Room in Bolsover Castle

Professor Angie Hobbs from the University of Sheffield’s Department of Philosophy said: “There is a strong theme of magic and love in the paintings throughout Bolsover which illustrate a quest for transformation and spiritual enlightenment. These themes are playful reflections of Neoplatonic ideas of Renaissance philosophy.

“All the paintings in the Little Castle tell visitors that a celebration of physical, worldly love is a spiritually cleansing and magically transformative experience.”

Dr Stevens added: “Bolsover was a pleasure house, a retreat where Cavendish and his wealthy guests went to enjoy themselves in supreme luxury. In an age when Puritanism was on the rise they might have felt anxious about Christian morality. The paintings and decorations inside the castle suggested to them that they didn’t have to choose between pleasure and virtue – they could enjoy earthly delights as depicted in the paintings and still find their way to heaven.”

Bolsover Castle and its paintings can now be viewed on the English Heritage and Google Arts & Culture platform which includes three virtual tours guided by Dr Stevens. To experience for yourself, visit and Google Arts & Culture.

The tours are enhanced by Google Street View as part of the recent project by Google Arts & Culture enabling global audiences to engage interactively with historic sites belonging to English Heritage.

The tours will also be used as part of Professor Hobbs’ teaching on Renaissance Neoplatonism for philosophy students at the University of Sheffield.

Matt Thompson, Head of Collections at English Heritage, said: “In our new role as a charity, English Heritage is looking for innovative ways to open our sites to the public and share their fascinating stories with them. Now thanks to Google Arts & Culture’s technology, we’ve been able to bring people closer to our historic masterpieces than ever before, open up our storehouses to a global audience, and showcase hitherto unseen artefacts.”

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