England,  Photographing Public Art,  Street art,  Travel galleries

Gallery: on the trail of Knaresborough’s Town Windows

Art is the window to man’s soul. Without it, he would never be able to see beyond his immediate world; nor could the world see the man within.

Lady Bird Johnson

How many windows is too many? That was the question facing many seventeenth century property owners. In 1696 a window tax was introduced in England and Wales. The more windows a building had, the more its owner had to pay.

In theory this should have been a fair way to collect taxes. The rich were assumed to have larger houses with more windows, and so be liable to pay more taxes. Poor people, on the other hand, would be living in smaller houses and so would pay less. To make the system even more weighted towards the upper classes, those houses with fewer than ten windows were exempted from the window tax altogether. The problem was that many poor people lived in large tenement buildings. These were treated as a single dwelling and subject to heavy tax. Landlords couldn’t pass that tax burden on to their poor tenants, so avoided it altogether by bricking up some windows. This led to a lack of light and ventilation, which was naturally detrimental to people’s health and wellbeing.

One campaigner against the tax was author Charles Dickens:

The adage ‘free as air’ has become obsolete by Act of Parliament. Neither air nor light have been free since the imposition of the window tax. We are obliged to pay for what nature lavishly supplies to all, at so much per window per year, and the poor who cannot afford the expense are stinted in two of the most urgent necessities of life.

Knaresborough’s Town Windows

All of this is by way of introduction to this contribution to Marsha’s Photographing Public Art challenge. In the town of Knaresborough in Yorkshire these bricked-up windows have been used as a blank canvas for an art project. Using trompe l’oeil the artists have created the illusion of real windows and populated them with characters and events from the town’s history as well as a few more modern characters such as the ubiquitous Harry Potter.

On a recent walk around the town I tried to find as many as possible, although some eluded me. I also spotted a few ‘doors’. Where I could I have researched and identified the people in the windows but I wasn’t sure about some of them. Which is your favourite?

This is Mother Shipton, real name Ursula Southeil, a medieval prophetess. According to legend she was born in a cave by the River Nidd in Knaresborough. Today the cave and nearby ‘petrifying well’ are at the heart of what claims to be the oldest tourist attraction to charge a fee in England, in operation since 1630. The well calcifies any object left hanging in its waters, hence the selection of items dangling at the top of the window.

This window depicts King John, who used the castle here as a base for his favourite sport of hunting, as well as a major military fortress. He spent £1,290 on improving the fortifications, which must have been a huge sum in those days. I assume that explains the money bags but I don’t know who the young boy would be. He appears to be trying to snatch one of the bags, so may be a local urchin?

This is Philippa of Hainault, the wife of Edward III, who was gifted Knaresborough Castle by her husband. In this one I can identify the boy as one of her sons, Edward the Black Prince. The black rat represents the Black Death which first came to Knaresborough in 1349. And the tapestry on the wall behind includes Philippa’s crest.

Here’s a famous Knaresborough character, John Metcalf, usually dubbed ‘Blind Jack’. He lost his sight after contracting smallpox as a child but became an accomplished violin player

These people are in the window below Blind Jack’s (and above the shop named after him). They are looking up and watching him play.

Here we see an artist at work, painting one of the windows.. A resident looks on from the window above.

This window celebrates the town’s art festival, FEVA, which was in progress when we visited. I love the detailing in this. The ‘reflection’ of the houses supposedly opposite is an excellent example of trompe l’oeil, while the pink leaflet on the ‘windowsill’ is a close representation of the actual festival leaflet.

This door and window combination are also celebrating FEVA. Look carefully, there is someone peering out of the letterbox and someone else behind the leaflet in the window. The ‘door’ is in the process of being painted!

This isn’t a window but it is trompe l’oeil. This tranquil scene is painted on a wall in arty Green Dragon Yard. We could be in Italy!

And I’ll finish with this mural near the riverside, simply because I liked it!

I visited Knaresborough in August 2022


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