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27 Apr 2023

Pioneering paint and relationships at Leith Hall

Written by Vikki Duncan, Curator North
As the interpretation of the rooms at Leith Hall continues, choosing plastic-free paint can be both a better match for the past and a better choice for the future.

Spring is the time for renewal and regeneration, and Leith Hall has been undergoing something of a regeneration over the course of the last eighteen months. Following my in-depth research using photographs, and archival sources, I have embraced a collaborative approach to inject life and colour into Leith Hall.

This has seen the transformation of the inner entrance hall from an uninspiring space, not quite fulfilling its function as ticket office and shop, into a warm and welcoming sitting room. Last year, it emerged from beneath fibreglass faux Georgian columns, nylon carpets and beige walls, to incorporate elements of the room as it was decorated and furnished around 1900, and has been greeted with approval from staff and visitors.

The outer entrance hall has seen several different arrangements of paintings, furniture, and objects over the years but, following the restoration of the double entrance doors, it was felt that they were deserving of a more fitting setting. Photographic evidence has shown that the entire outer entrance hall was once fitted with dark wood panelling which was removed in the early 1990s. I found a large quantity of the removed panelling stored in the stables as well as at Drum Castle; the team at Leith Hall would like to see it reinstated one day.

A view of the exterior of Leith Hall, from across some manicured lawns. It is a large stately home, with grey walls and a slate roof, with little towers and turrets at each corner.
Leith Hall in the Aberdeenshire countryside

My research has revealed how the outer entrance hall once looked when the dark walls contrasted with the pale flagstone floor and featured some of the furniture that has remained. What has been a revelation is that the space was dark and welcoming, filled with jewel-like ceramics, exotic ferns and palm plants, and softer hangings.

My starting point was the colour on the walls. I wanted a rich dark brown for the walls that would convey the impressive entrance space that C E N Leith-Hay had envisioned when he added the outer entrance hall around 1902 to Leith Hall’s eastern side. This replaced an earlier Georgian-era porch on the west elevation, and was partly prompted by the arrival of a railway halt at Kennethmont that served Leith Hall by way of two bridges and a forest walk between them.

There is an old maxim that reads: ‘Never wear brown in town.’ In this case, it happily does not apply since Leith Hall sits in the beautiful Aberdeenshire countryside and fits in well with brogues, tweed, shooting sticks and all that entails. All that is missing in the space is a couple of chocolate Labrador dogs.

Historically, the colour brown represents endurance, solidity, grounding, and strength. It is strongly associated with the element of earth, and was perceived as a masculine and ‘serious’ colour choice, often used in studies and libraries in the late Victorian period as well as in entrance halls and spaces that required an impression to be made.

To suggest the dark wood panelling that was once in situ in this space, I began to look at our historic paint suppliers. Annie Robertson, our regional surveyor, was keen that we begin to look at alternative paint suppliers due to the requirement to find paints compatible with traditionally constructed buildings, and asked me to look at Edward Bulmer Natural Paint. James Henderson, Operations Manager at Leith Hall, was also keen to use paint with cleaner credentials.

I was interested in the colour London Brown which is described as: our dark chocolate if you like. Just red oxide and black as all the old recipes would have it. Discover the pure natural pigments in London Brown, with an extraordinary depth and response to light which synthetic paints cannot recreate.

As I was in London for a few days in February, I popped into the showroom of Edward Bulmer Natural Paints and, whilst there, had a long conversation with Sales and Events Assistant Emily Ball about what I was looking for. The result was a decision to use Edward Bulmer Natural Paint at Leith Hall.

At the Trust, curators and surveyors are familiar with sourcing ‘heritage’ paint colours and period-correct wall and woodwork finishes. However, most mainstream paint is made from acrylic which is plastic made from oil and gas; as we know, these fossil fuels are the major cause of climate change. Plastic is often used to make paint because it is cheap – but the cost is to the planet and those that inhabit that space.

The National Trust for Scotland is committed to pursuing its objective of becoming carbon negative by 2031 and using paints such as those made by Edward Bulmer Natural Paint goes some way to achieving this. The wall paints are made using natural raw ingredients which are compostable, free of plastic, carbon neutral and non-toxic. The colours are uniquely created using only mineral and earth pigments. The lack of plastic also means that the paints are permeable and so a better technical match with our historic buildings which allow the passage of moisture through walls.

Watch this video on the Edward Bulmer Natural Paint website to hear more about their eco-friendly methods and credentials. Pause the video at 2.40 and you can also see the rich depth of colour of London Brown which I have used in the outer entrance hall at Leith Hall.

As Edward Bulmer says: ‘We all have a chance to make a real difference with the choices that we make’ and this value is embedded both at Leith Hall and within the National Trust for Scotland, down to details such as the paint at our places.

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