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2 Jun 2021

Transforming Holmwood with Alexander Thomson’s designs

Written by Emma Inglis, Curator (South & West)
A close-up view of a very decorative ceiling and cornice. There are floral and classical plaster motifs, as well as stylised gilded flower motifs.
Painted and gilded – the recently completed parlour ceiling at Holmwood
Holmwood’s redecoration project has taken a giant step forward with the completion of the drawing room and the parlour. Find out how we are bringing Alexander ‘Greek’ Thomson’s interiors to life.

The redecoration project at Holmwood has been running for nearly three years now, working towards the re-creation of Alexander Thomson’s highly decorated interiors. Throughout the project we placed a strong emphasis on historical accuracy, underpinning all actions with thorough research and taking a holistic approach to the interiors, to deliver complete and authentic decorative schemes.

Staying true to this approach has helped us at difficult points along the way, probably most so in the parlour, the most recent room to have been completed. The parlour was difficult for a number of reasons, not least of which was a lack of original evidence in some areas. As with all other rooms at Holmwood, we started out with the paint investigation reports commissioned from wall paint experts. These clarify the sequence of earlier paint schemes and the extent to which they were employed throughout the room. In the parlour, all of this was made much more difficult because of a thick textured plaster that had been applied to wall surfaces; it was hard to chip away to reach the earlier paint schemes underneath.

In a way, the key to the parlour lay in realising that the main walls had originally been papered and not stencilled all over, as in other rooms in the house. All of a sudden, we were not looking for a missing stencil design on the wall but for an authentic reproduction wallpaper that would coordinate well with the rest of the room.

Where to begin for a house as distinctive as Holmwood? By the late 1850s, when Holmwood was first decorated, wallpaper was already being mass-produced. Pattern books from some producers are available to view in historical archives, and some papers are reproduced for the modern market. With the interiors at Holmwood having such a distinct style, however, run-of-the-mill wallpaper designs have never seemed quite right. Even wallpapers designed by Alexander Thomson’s contemporaries such as Owen Jones, whose Grammar of Ornament was such a rich inspiration for Thomson, are often too floral or have a Gothic feel.

A reproduced page from an old book filled with architectural designs. It is labelled in the top left corner: Holmwood Sections and Details. It shows detailed illustrations of a number of the patterns and motifs seen in the drawing room and parlour.
An extract from Alexander Thomson’s designs in Villa & Cottage Architecture, showing the scheme for the parlour walls in the lower left-hand corner.

A key source of historical information for Holmwood is Villa & Cottage Architecture, in which Thomson’s original architectural and interior designs were published. Although the drawings lack some detail, the design for the parlour walls does appear to show a small, close repeat pattern, and it was this aesthetic that we wanted to reproduce. After talking to various specialist wallpaper producers, and many wallpaper samples later, we decided that a paper from the American company Bradbury & Bradbury was just what we were looking for. We can never know for certain what was on the walls originally, but have come as near to the effect published in Villa & Cottage Architecture as we can hope to do, and have stayed true to the spirit of the decoration found elsewhere in the house.

A grand parlour is set up in a large villa-style house. It has a large bay window area, with a dome above. A sofa stands beside the white marble fireplace. It has a deep red carpet, and red patterned designs on the walls.
The newly completed scheme in the parlour, looking stunning.

While the parlour has been challenging through lack of original evidence, the drawing room, which has also just been completed, has been the biggest challenge of our decorators’ skill. With good areas of the original design and colours to work from, creating new stencils and colour mixing to replicate the original design around the room was not too difficult. What was challenging was the extent of free-hand painting on the cornice elements to build up the delicate layers of design, and the search for an accurate technique to apply the narrow, stencilled wall borders.

A close-up of a stencilled border on a blue painted wall. The border is drawn in browns and oranges, and features repeated classical motifs.
The intricate and heavily gilded wall border in the drawing room

Re-creating the highly decorative, gilded wall borders involved a degree of trial and error, working out the most efficient sequence in which the colours and gilding should be applied. The close fit of the red and blue ‘teeth’ border against the woodwork proved very awkward to work with and led our decorator, Ian Howie, to speculate about whether the wooden columns that divide up the walls between the gilded borders were fitted after the walls were first decorated rather than before. It is one of many new ideas we have considered about the house as a result of knowledge gained in the decoration process. There’s even a little bit of magic left behind in the drawing room from the 1850s – some decorator’s gold leaf papers that were found tucked behind the wooden frieze.

Our approach to the woodwork in the hall and stair is an example of how research has underpinned our decision-making at Holmwood. The woodwork was one aspect of the interiors that was particularly hard to come to grips with, with a range of different treatments having been taken over the years by successive owners, resulting in a patchwork of finishes throughout the house. It has always been thought that the woodwork at Holmwood was left unpainted by Thomson to allow the character of the wood to show through. However, since the approach of the project has always been to base actions on sound and methodical research, we decided to test this theory, carrying out technical examination of the woodwork to confirm what we thought we knew.

It turned out to be one of the biggest surprises and made us view the hall in particular in a whole new light. With the combination of new scrapes and analysis and the technical know-how of our decorator Ian Howie, we have come to understand that, while many skirtings were once treated with a mid brown varnish, the doors and elements of the stair bannister were originally given a wash of green oil paint, which is still faintly discernible. Mahogany elements on the bannister were picked out with a red stain. It shows you can go back to the same sources again and again, but one new grain of knowledge can cause you to re-evaluate what you think you know. Throughout this project, we have kept an open mind, been guided by what the physical evidence tells us and have not been afraid to re-assess or challenge previously held assumptions. The time spent on research and discussion has been such an essential part of the project.

With so much of the redecoration work now complete, take a tour through the house for yourself and see how far we have come in re-creating Alexander Thomson’s unique designs and uplifting the Holmwood visitor experience.

Alexander ‘Greek’ Thomson’s original vision’ at Holmwood


EI – Hello, I’m Emma Inglis. I’m the curator for Glasgow and West and I’m responsible
for researching and presenting the collections and interiors.
SR – I’m Suzanne Reid. I am the conservator for the south-west of Scotland and Holmwood House here
is one of the properties that I conserve and care for.
EI – Holmwood was built in 1858. It was designed by Alexander Thomson, who was a Glaswegian architect
well known for designing properties in the style of ancient Greece.
So, you’ll see all over the house, both on the exterior and in the interior, use of the same sort of motifs,
the Greek key pattern, anthemions and designs like that. The great significance
of Holmwood is it's the only place you can see Thomson’s interior design and architecture
in perfect harmony.
EI – This is the entrance hall to the house and, as you can see, it instantly sets up the
tone for a visit to the house with the stencilled walls and the type of colour scheme that Thomson
used in the building. Everything that we’ve done in the house, including in this space,
is based on original evidence that we have found in the house.
SR – For a long time, the decision with Holmwood was to do as little as possible and do it
very slowly, and we absolutely did that. The research building up to this three-year project
that we are doing now is probably near on twenty years’ worth of evidence that's been gathered.
But we felt that the wall decoration in Holmwood is everything, and without that it’s a really
difficult property to understand. So after a lot of discussion, we decided what we needed
to do was to display these walls in the way that they would have looked.
EI – This room really shows either Thomson’s or his decorators’ skill in design and management
of colour absolutely to its upmost. I think it's just an astounding piece of work here and the
beauty of having worked on this project at Holmwood is being able to really appreciate
him as an interior designer as well and seeing this whole house approach that he took to
his designs. This room really is the epitome of that. It’s absolutely glorious.
SR – This is the parlour and this is our most recently finished room. This room was
probably the least understood room when we started this project, the least amount
of research had been done on it. The whole room felt very disjointed.
EI – And the way that the room has come up now it has been redecorated is an absolute
revelation. It was so hard to envisage how it was going to turn out because all of the
areas that we've investigated in here have been quite small-scale samples in contrast to other
areas of the house. So it was quite difficult in our own minds to piece together how it
was going to look, and really it has turned out nothing like I imagined. It's just so
much better than I thought it was going to be! It is absolutely stunning, I’m so pleased
with the way it has turned out.
EI – All of the work that we do is with our visitors in mind and we hope that you
will be able to come and visit Holmwood in person sometime soon. We look forward to greeting
you here and to showing you the amazing interiors that we’ve just recreated.
SR – We’d like to say an enormous thank you to all our generous donors, without which
this project would not have been possible.

Holmwood will reopen for pre-booked tours at weekends from 26 June.

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It will cost the Trust £120,000 to conserve, protect and research these interiors and we couldn’t do it without the generous support we have already received. But we still need your help continue this vital project and complete our work. Please donate today.

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