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7 Oct 2020

The Hill House: the sleeping princess

A gesso panel showing a 'sleeping princess'.
The sleeping princess gesso panel at the Hill House
The sleeping princess is one of Margaret Macdonald Mackintosh’s finest gesso panels and the Blackie family were in awe of the finished product.

Mrs Blackie commissioned Margaret Macdonald to create this incredible gesso panel in 1908, 4 years after the family had settled into the Hill House. Margaret’s inspiration came from the charming fairy tale Sleeping Beauty, which fitted perfectly with the Blackies, as the family publishing business printed many children’s books.

The art of gesso is so ornate that Margaret’s work sometimes took 3–4 years to complete. She used a traditional gesso recipe, which included whiting, plaster of Paris and rabbit skin glue. Margaret never divulged her secret recipe, but artists who have studied her work think that the most likely combination is similar to that of materials used in Egyptian and medieval times. The plaster of Paris had to be ‘slaked’ to make it inert, which could take up to a month – and that was only the start of the process! It was then mixed with the whiting, rabbit skin glue and some warm water until it became a thick, creamy consistency. Now ready to use, Margaret would have put the mixture into a piping bag, similar to one you’d use for icing a cake, and then carefully began to pipe the lines onto her prepared gesso board, usually wood.

After the layers of gesso piping had dried, colour would be applied using oil paint thinned with turpentine, although egg tempera was also known to have been used in some gesso panels. Once the paint had dried, the panel would be sealed with beeswax and finally heated to set it. This would be repeated several times. The panel was then burnished with an agate tool (used for polishing jewellery) and finally it was magnificently decorated with cabochons, beads and pearls.

A sitting room with an armchair in the corner, next to a plain fireplace with a gesso panel above it. The walls are predominantly white, with a stylised rose pattern.
The gesso panel above the fireplace in the drawing room

Agnes, the youngest of the Blackie children, recalled Margaret working on the panel: ‘I remember I sat and watched her do it. She used a piping bag, like you would if you were icing a cake, and then stuck things onto the plaster. It was very beautiful.’

When you visit the Hill House and gaze at the sleeping princess, it’s wonderful to think that Margaret Macdonald Mackintosh was in that very place before you.

Black and white photo of a woman in a long dress sitting on a chair in front of a fireplace.
Margaret Macdonald Mackintosh

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