2011: Pigmented Perceptions: Historic Colours in Practice

Strawberry Hill, Richmond

Following the papers the delegates took tea and were thensplit into three groups for the demonstrations and tour. Our group’s demos and tour, went something like this. I cannot speak for the other groups. We began with the traditional lighting and paint. It had always been realised, by your committee, that this would, of necessity, be an extremely limited experiment but we thought it worth a try. We were given a delightful underground room which we could darken – not completely as the little illuminated running man indicating Exit out-shone all but a forest of lighted candles! – which was used for school visits and contained all manner of costumes, china and looking glasses.

Hare and Humphreys had prepared a selection of panels with traditional whites ranging from a simple distemper through to an enamel and some
painted with various whites mixed with ultramarine. Also there were some modern whites. We also had a selection of traditionally dyed fabrics as these dyes had featured heavily in the given papers. The fabrics ranged from woven patterned silk, silk and wool, and plain taffeta to embroider silk.

When the room was first darkened it was difficult to make anything out much (except for the light-up man) but quite soon our eyes began to clear and the whole room became easily visible with just two tallow candles. Our colours registered reasonably well, no great differences were perceivable. The most noticeable thing was the greasy smell of the tallow and the coils of black smoke given off. A room lighted by tallow would soon become dingy and unsavoury. Not a great difference using the bees-wax candles except less smoke and virtually no smell – thankfully! It was understood that the only way of increasing the amount of light was to burn more candles but even the few we were using soon heated up the room. At no point was there an effective difference in our colour perception of the paint samples but the fabrics, because of their texture and lustre, absorbed and reflected very differently than when seen in daylight. In particular a very pale yellow and grey shot silk reacted well to both candle and lamp light. An essential difference, well understood in the past, between painted and dyed materials. Not so clear today with our increased light levels.

The oil lamps gave out a much more intense light which could be increased or dimmed by the twist of the wick ratchet. There was again a scent, this time of paraffin and a soft blueish smoke haze. At this stage it was, surprisingly, bright enough to read fairly easily. Either because the oil-lamp-light was so much more powerful or because our eyes had become accustomed to the lower light levels of candle and oil-lamp flames.

We then went on to early electric light and a truly dazzling display given by Ray Tye. With the modern energy saving bulbs there was an immediate reaction from the group to the paint samples! The modern whites literally glowed.

As usual there was no time to play and we were hastened on to our next demonstration. This was given by Philip Seymour and Rebecca Wallace-Jones who were placed in another grotto looked over by a rather severe white marble female carved in bas relief. Here were tables heaped with a tempting display of dry pigments, paint samples, tubes of artists’ colour and gorgeous pattern books. The range of colours, although naturally limited to the earths available, was mouth-watering. From rich red and yellow ochres to pale creams and delicate pinks; cloudy blues, lavenders and greys. The pinks and lavenders had no cloying qualities but were remarkably fresh and clear. The demonstration of transforming a lump of dry yellow clay into a usable paint as we watched was fascinating. One of our party was put in charge of turning the handle of what looked suspiciously like a meat mincer to begin the process of reducing the formless clay lump into a powder which Philip and Rebecca then sifted and ground with oil. This of necessity was a small demonstration but their photographs showed the process at industrial levels with people working in previously abandoned workshops. By resurrecting the manufacture of both household and artists’ paint Philip and Rebeccas’ plan is to bring neglected and abandoned communities back into work and a restored pride. None of us dared to touch the beautiful pattern books displaying the finished paints which were works of art. Once again we had no time to spare and were hastily herded onto the next stage of our tour. We were all loath to leave but have been promised the opportunity to visit Yorkshire and see the whole of this inspiring enterprise.

Next we were assembled on the lawns of Strawberry Hill to begin our tour of the house proper. For me there has always been an almost insurmountable barrier regarding the exterior of Strawberry Hill: St Mary’s University College. Horace Walpole’s villa is light-hearted, gay (in every sense), witty and welcoming, not so the cuckoo-in-the-nest college cemented to its west end. Walpole’s Gothic is totally decorative, a theatrical construction, the college, although equally decorative, is serious Victorian stuff. Solid, brooding stone, it prevents the eighteenth century building from breathing and denies it prominence.
Our group, Group C, was fortunate to have Stephen Gee of the architects Inskip and Jenkins with it. He began by displaying the samples of paints matched to those found during research in the house. There were well over a hundred samples! Mostly variants of white, grey and stone-colour with the occasional blue. The exterior of the house is very white! This is a surprise at first but is due partly to next-door’s heavy stone-work and to an expectation that Gothic castles will be grey. Johann Muntz’s painting shows a very white fairy-tale castle without the customary ivy, sited serenely on a verdant green lawn gently shadowed by feathery trees. Mouldings are simply planted on and the whole building coated with rough-cast which has then all been painted over to hide the joins. Stephen pointed out the intricate replaced pinnacles decorating the roof which were also of painted wood. We then walked round to the entrance front green and horse-shoe drive. Across the busy A309, once a dusty track, is the cottage where Walpole is believed to have sought refuge from the visitors coming to marvel at his eccentric villa. The imagination has to work hard but it is possible to imagine approaching visitors glimpsing the castle gleaming white through trees and being totally amazed while the owner, unknown to them, looked on. The white lime-wash has dried unevenly on the various substrates which, at first, is rather noticeable but in time, and with weathering, this will mellow. We are so used to the flatness of modern coatings.
The true tour of this extraordinary house began when we stepped out of the sunlight, through the Gothic porch and into the first of Walpole’s shadowy fantasies – a miniature cloister complete with miniature oratory! Engravings show feathery Gothic-type ivy and creepers here, the main body of the house appears always to have been clean, it is probably not possible but to be hoped that they – and the cloister’s Chinese bowl of gold-fish – will be replaced. Already our eyes were becoming accustomed to gloom (Walpole coined a new word ‘gloomth’ to describe this quality of light) but the whole party grew silent once we’d passed into the actual darkness of the hall. Walpole cuts as extraordinary a figure in his portraits as his house, he wears shadowy grey-brown and it is easy, standing in the hall, to picture his “long” figure emerging from the dusk to greet his friends “…knees bent and feet on tip toe as if afraid of a wet floor” as they stumbled into the darkness. Before proceeding our guide instructed us not to lick the paint-work – and in an aside to one of our more illustrious members – or to touch. There is only space for the barest sketch of the house’s interior. I’ve simply skipped most of the best rooms. This house is rich in many things and although, sadly, almost unfurnished requires time and many visits.

The staircase rises dramatically out of the gloom into amber-coloured light shed by a sky-light of yellow glass. Walpole, like Sir John Soane who holds much in common with him, evidently loved this mysterious golden light – for us sadly redolent of the motor-way. At this time the walls of the stairwell are still partly painted with a sixties pink scheme but there is enough of the original, intricate pale stone-grey Gothic trompe l’oeil tracery still in place to act as a guide for its complete reinstatement. As well as the amber-coloured light glimpses of other coloured windows, or windows bordered with coloured glass, are caught as one moves through the building. As there is, thankfully!, little additional artificial lighting it is possible to feel the full power of these vivid colours glimmering out of the dark passages and empty rooms. Always impressive are the ingenious ways Walpole devised to exploit and control the light not only with coloured glass but by employing sliding screens or shutters. Some of these shutters slide almost imperceptibly into the thickness of a wall, or can be raised or lowered. Our group was lucky to have Stephen Gee with us who not only understood how the shutters worked but was able and allowed to operate them. The coloured and painted glass has been restored wherever possible, valuable painted antique glass is held away from the new window glass almost invisibly to allow air to pass behind it and to protect it from the elements. Either side of the heavy entrance door modern glass replaces the missing painted glass to preserve the rich gloom. The hunt is on for missing pieces.

After the Great Parlour we were whisked up the staircase with its Armoury niches to The Library. Originally these niches were furnished with swords and lances and a whole suit of armour, which Walpole believed to have belonged to Francis 1, and must have looked extremely spooky in the half-light. Mysteriously hinged tracery doors open in the library (which smells deliciously of linseed oil) to give access to the book shelves while in the Blue Room several layers of shutters slide into the specially constructed walls of the bay window. The Blue Room was the first coloured room we saw and came as a surprise after a series of cool stone-greys. A very dark passage-way, known by Walpole as ‘the dusky corridor” also painted grey with a simple but effective raised design lighted by more yellow glass leads to the state or reception rooms, private rooms and The Gallery. These are the rooms, now sadly unfurnished, where Walpole displayed his fabulous collections. Some of these rooms were public, some for his personal use and for a few privileged friends only. There is more colour in these rooms but still the predominant stone greys. One room is a misty oriental blue -almost green – there are further inventive shutters and coloured glass. Many of these rooms are of curious proportions and shapes. The Tribune is a square with four semicircular recesses which rise as a dome finishing in a star of amber glass which sends a really strange golden light across the gilded Gothic mouldings of the dome. Newly restored shutters can be lifted out of the window sills. The Round Drawing Room is hung with vivid crimson Norwich (woollen) damask and has a chimney-piece designed by Adam inspired by the tomb of Edward the Confessor in Westminster Abbey but “much improved” by him.
The Great North Bedchamber is also hung with crimson Norwich damask. A modern panel reveals a section of the former exterior, since built over, with a trompe l’oeil Gothic window. This hints that the paint effects of the outside were at one time as theatrical as those inside. The sun was just setting while we were admiring this room and Stephen drew our attention to the light gleaming through the original painted and coloured glass and playing on the deep crimson of the walls in wonderful bands of ripply light. This is the most meagre description of these remarkable rooms and a visit by anyone interested in traditional paint is an essential.

Our tour ended in The Gallery where we’d spent most of our day. Work is still in progress here as it is in much of the house. Small fluttering piles of gold leaf in the corners of the niches. Muttering darkly of ‘health and safety’ and mercurial silvering Stephen told us that the mirror glass of these recesses was all re-used looking glass intricately cut in the eighteenth century to fit the gilt Gothic mouldings. Again there are window shutters which can be raised from the sills and proved to be very efficient when the gallery was darkened for presentations. The windows had been altered for Lady Waldegrave in the nineteenth century but are now restored as they were in Walpole’s time. Many of the Victorian alterations made no sense to us but obviously had used enormous labour to accomplish,(why reverse the contrast of gilt to stone to stone to gilt?). A sad chalked note recording the names the Victorian workmen who had rehung the damask says ‘Weather very cold, no fires allowed’. The over- elaborate parquet floor also dates from this time, totally unlike the toy theatre papier mâché vaults which dance overhead. In this house it is possible to see the transition and contrast from the playful, witty Gothic of the eighteenth century to that of the serious, ecclesiastical nineteenth century and – now – back again.

For those of us who could recall the rooms (smelling faintly of boiled cabbage and fish) when they were still part of the catholic college divided into pokey offices and hung about with dismal fluorescent tubes, it is comforting to see the sensitivity and seriousness with which Horace Walpole’s unique vision is being reborn. He had not expected the villa to survive him more than ten years, his fabulous collections were indeed dispersed, but his flimsy, little more than paste-board castle miraculously still survives.

Through the windows of The Gallery and the Blue Bedroom inviting vistas of newly planted trees and shell seats had beckoned and now our group (wilting just a little) could hear the clink of glasses and the eager chatter of Paint People released into the gardens. We hurried to join them! The rest of our time at Strawberry Hill was spent convivially together on the terrace before the Cloister – alas! the AGM was put back yet again!

Written by Ralph Adron