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11 Nov 2020

Holmwood revealed

Written by Emma Inglis, Curator (South and West)
A view of the inside of a painted dome, with blue and gold decoration at the very top. Statues separate small window panels all the way around.
The magnificently redecorated Holmwood cupola
Holmwood is widely acknowledged as the best surviving example of Alexander ‘Greek’ Thomson’s domestic architecture. A project to explore and reinstate the original interior design is revealing his approach to decoration to be equally outstanding.

Over the past couple of years a major project has been underway at Holmwood in Glasgow. A team of experts have been carefully uncovering, investigating, conserving and reinstating the villa’s amazing stencilled interior decoration, taking it back to circa 1860 to show Alexander ‘Greek’ Thomson’s original schemes.

Click on our video links below to hear from our team of experts, understand the processes involved, and get a close-up view of progress so far.

Under the skin

National Trust for Scotland Curator Emma Inglis and Wall Paintings Conservator Karen Dundas describe the challenge of investigating the historic interiors at Holmwood.

Under the skin

Transcript

[music plays]

[Emma Inglis, NTS Curator]

We’ve brought in a number of different specialists, helping us to understand what Alexander Thomson’s decorative schemes were. The thing that is so special in Thomson’s interior is the way that he works with design and, for example, in the lower entrance hall, how he carries on his decorative scheme from that space and manages to morph it into a completely new scheme for the stair. Then that kind of feeds on into another scheme for the upper landing.

The way that he played with the pattern that manages to keep a sense of balance and symmetry, and uses quite a limited palette of colours but with lots of different tonal changes in it to create interest.

These original schemes have been painted over with layers and layers of decoration. They’ve helped us to peel back those layers and get back down to Alexander Thomson’s original decoration. And revealing that so that we can see the schemes and understand the schemes, and then use master decorators to help us to recreate those. The decorators that we use are incredibly skilled at what they do.

[Shannon Miller, Paintings Conservator | Karen Dundas, Paintings Conservator]

Karen: Actually, it takes time to gather the information. I think one of the hardest things is being patient and not jumping to conclusions. It’s so easy to expect a certain type of decoration or expect something to be there, and you have to be so objective. You have to be very clinical about the process of uncovering, just tell it like it is when you find it.

I love trying to make sense of what I’m finding. I get really excited. It kind of is a parallel to archaeology, that excitement of trying to puzzle through what you’re finding and trying to make sense of the history and things that have happened through the different eras and different sort of values that the various eras have had. We’ve seen that the historic decoration, not everybody has appreciated things at different times.

Peeling away the past

National Trust for Scotland Conservator Suzie Reid and Wall Paintings Conservators Karen Dundas and Shannon Millar explain how layers of old paint are uncovered to reveal Alexander Thomson’s schemes.

Peeling away the past

Transcript

[Suzie Reid]

Some of the layers are made from an oil-based paint, and the top layer of the decoration of the design that you see on the walls today is also an oil-based paint, so there were problems trying to take them off without doing damage.

Wall paintings conservators come in to take away those layers. We’ve used two different techniques: the wall paintings conservators have taken away layers of paint at a time, revealing the layer underneath, so that we have a small section where there are multiple layers on show. And the expertise of the wall paintings conservators can interpret that data to allow us to know approximately when those layers were applied, in what order that they were put on, and the techniques and the composition of the paint.

We’ve also used another technique, which is a sort of small sample, which is then taken away, which goes down to the plaster layer, and that is analysed under a microscope, and that shows us the layers of paint in a different way. And that is also interpreted by the specialists that do that as well, and helps us to understand the types of paint as well as the colours.

[Shannon Miller]

Well, we’ve revealed a few new areas of the original paintwork that’s underneath the current decoration, which is paint on top of lining paper. And these parts, especially this part here, will remain on view once the rest of this is redecorated.

[Karen Dundas]

And this also informs a specialist decorator in how he then can understand what he needs to do with other parts of the decoration that we have.

This window is quite a unique window, this one here, because this section of the wall, it ties together the decoration very cleverly that’s in the hallway with the decoration on the staircase that goes up to the landing.

This was a piece of information that nobody knew what happens at this part of the wall that’s very different from the rest of the decoration on the staircase and landing.

Shannon and I realised that we couldn’t just get away with opening a little section here, we needed to open up the whole area because it actually is like a wrap-around of the hallway decoration. It wraps around and joins and meets the decoration on the staircase. It’s quite clever but it’s unique.

So it’s always surprising, you never really know what to expect when you start picking away decorative schemes.

Copying a master

The team of curators, conservators and decorators explain the process of reinstating the interiors of Holmwood, using information gained through paint scrapes and paint analysis.

Copying a master

Transcript

The decorators that we use are incredibly skilled at what they do.
Not only do they understand the history of decorating and different types of paint that are suitable for different properties and different situations, but being able to decorate freehand in some cases and they understand historic techniques, such as stencilling that was used at Holmwood, and gilding and things like that.

So, it’s not just a case of coming and putting some emulsion on the wall, and this is where the skill of our decorators has come into play – where they can look at the paint reveals that the conservators have worked on and mix colours appropriately so that we can re-create hopefully, as close as we can, what Thompson’s original paint colours were.

The decoration has been covered over with either layers of paper applied with additive-free wallpaper paste or, in the case of the ceilings, we’ve applied multiple layers of what’s called a size, which is a rabbit-skin glue which can be reversed in water – just warm water – to act as a barrier layer between the old paint layers and the new paint layers.

And then we apply the decoration over the top of that, so that using the information that we’ve gathered – the paint colours, the styles, the techniques – to as faithfully as possible re-create what Thompson would have put on the walls originally.

The conservators have got colour scrapes, which are revealed all around about the house and we basically interpret that with mixing the colours up. So if it’s a certain colour, we’re able to specifically use bright reds, yellows, blues, browns, blacks and then we alter the colour depending just going by eye – matching it up to the surgical scrapes that conservators have left behind and then we’re as close to the original.

We have been lucky with this space, particularly to be able to open this window here and have it in such good condition – there was quite a lot of scraped-away damage along the bottom which we’ve had to in-paint.

We applied a gold leaf – it’s an interpretation from experience and from the report. We put the adhesive on – we use a 24-hour adhesive so that we can size large areas and then we can size one area one day, and then the next day you’re gilding all day. So it’s 23¾ carat red gold that’s rubbed onto the adhesive.

So gold leaf which has been applied to the cornicing around the top of this wall is an incredibly thin, thin layer in that a pound of gold can be hammered out to the size of a tennis court. That’s how thin the gold leaf is.

Work in progress

National Trust for Scotland Conservator Suzie Reid explains how we ensure layers of original paintwork are conserved underneath the new decoration.

Work in progress

Transcript

Work in Progress

Holmwood House

[Suzie Reid] Maybe in 20, 50, 100 years’ time, the technology might exist to be able to reveal the originals. Although we don’t want to do any damage we have put a barrier layer, which in this room on the walls is a simple paper layer in between the original so that can in the future, if it’s needed to be, can be taken away without doing any damage. It provides a distinct point for the conservators and curators of the future to know where we started our work and all the layers on top of that will be post-2018, 2017.

[Emma Inglis] The biggest challenge that faces me in curating the collection at Holmwood is that we don’t really have a collection here. All of the furniture that is currently on display has been brought in specifically to dress the property. And it’s the sort of furniture and decorative arts that the family here might have had, but really that is just a best guess based on interior decorating history. We don’t have any original furniture relating to the property so it is really presented in quite a light touch way to give a suggestion of how it might have been.

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