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5 Jun 2020

Restoring Holmwood

A beautifully decorated ceiling, with the main space painted light blue with embossed stars. It is surrounded by several borders that are decorated in different styles, some with gilded shapes. A gold-framed mirror can just be seen on one of the walls.
A restored ceiling at Holmwood
Holmwood is a family home like no other. Located in the Southside of Glasgow, Alexander ‘Greek’ Thomson designed the house for paper magnate James Couper and his wife in 1857–8.

In 1994 the Trust took ownership of Holmwood. It is widely regarded as Thomson’s finest domestic creation. His stunning design legacy impresses at every turn. Thomson’s penchant for Grecian styling and symmetry is found throughout Holmwood, where the bold opulent decoration echoes the colours seen in ancient Greek temples.

The Trust enlisted traditional painters and decorators Robert Howie & Son to undertake the painstaking task of restoring the rich and opulent designs of Thomson’s original decoration. These designs were revealed after being hidden for years under layers of paint applied by former owners of the house. The restoration was generously supported by the National Trust for Scotland Foundation USA as well as a public appeal.

We caught up with Ian Howie, who now heads the team at Robert Howie & Son, to ask him about the restoration, techniques and skills used at this special place.

A wall with layers of stripped paint decoration, revealing stencilled classical designs beneath.
The dining room, with the wall decorations gradually being revealed.

‘When we were asked to be involved in the restoration of Holmwood, I was genuinely excited. It was the last large-scale project that my father and I talked about before he died.

‘Having known about the project for such a long time before commencing it, I was able to dedicate my imagination and creativity to it in advance. It was exciting and heartwarming to take my team into this project and see how they embraced the challenges. I am proud of how it has changed them as well as how it has changed the atmosphere of the house back into a family home.

‘The techniques and products used on this project are unusual, or even unique! We aimed to lovingly restore this property and put our minds to piecing together Thomson’s ideas and designs. We used traditional decorating methods that would have been used in the 19th century, learned from our research and experience of working on other historic properties.’

“Back then, decorators were more technically challenged in their work, almost as if they were chemists.”
Ian Howie
Robert Howie & Son

‘In the 19th century lime was mixed in metal containers, pigments came in powder, and the composition of paint was quite different. Prime colours were used to match up colours to a bespoke hue. Designs were created by marking out, drawing and cutting stencils of varnished card before applying the patterns. These designs were then painted with glazes that altered the translucency. The plaster decoration was finally gilded with gold leaf, using oil gold size (a type of adhesive) to adhere the leaf to surfaces. The gold that was applied in the cupola was oil gilded, 23.6 carat gold.

‘It was a challenge to adapt modern decorating methods to the requirements of this project. In order to meet conservation requirements, all the paints had to be oil-based, so they are reversible.

‘Artist oil colours were used to control the hue and depth of translucency in pigmented washes. Generally, we chose these products after trials were carried out to assess drying times and finish.’

A wall inside a house in the stages of being redecorated. Classical Greek-style designs are stencilled along the bottom. A square in the middle of the wall has been left and not repainted.
A ‘conservation window’ at Holmwood

‘There are exposed areas that have been left in the house for visitors to view elements of the original colours and designs – these are called conservation windows. Specialist conservators have carefully cleaned them for research, and to show how everything ties in.

‘Restoring a building of this nature is never going to be straightforward. Most of the challenges came from expanding the designs from the sample areas left by conservators, as some of these were only inches wide!

‘The whole project has been the most complex in detail and scale in my 35 years of association with the Trust. I honestly can’t remember a more complicated project in my father’s lifetime either; his association with the Trust goes back to 1969 at Culzean.’

The National Trust for Scotland exists to protect everything that makes this country so special – our history, culture, landscapes, wildlife and our people.

Now, more than ever, it’s important that we all care for the things that really matter. With your support, we’ll continue to do all we can to preserve Scotland’s irreplaceable heritage, so that it can inspire those around us today and in future generations.

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