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23 Nov 2020

Wallpaper, paint and carpets: bringing National Trust for Scotland interiors to life

Written by Emma Inglis, Curator (South & West)
Paper with small patches of paint colours painted in blues, browns and creams. There are scraps of wallpaper with a regular design of gold stars on a pale background.
Paint palette and wallpaper options for Holmwood’s parlour
Sometimes being a National Trust for Scotland curator feels like stepping into the life of an interior designer! If we’re not discussing wallpaper patterns, we’re thinking about carpets and paint colours, and all the other elements of a room in-between.

Holmwood

This month sees the long-awaited restart of our Holmwood redecoration project. The gilding in the drawing room is almost finished and we’ve embarked on the complicated task of decorating the parlour. I have always disliked the parlour, with its modern red carpet, textured plaster walls and patched-up ceiling. It’s the room most in need of attention but has been the most complex in terms of deciding what to do. Various paint experts have carried out investigations of the historical scheme, laboriously scraping back paint layers to show two options for the original stencilled borders in the room, one design directly overlying the other. By cross-referencing this evidence with Alexander Thomson’s designs for Holmwood in Villa & Cottage Architecture – our bible when it comes to written references for Holmwood – we have come to understand which design came first and have deduced which one to recreate.

A more difficult task is deciding what the infill between the borders should be. We think that the main wall would have been papered, probably with a small, regular design to harmonise with the stencilled decoration elsewhere in the house, but we’re definitely entering the territory of informed guesswork here. Trawling for likely wallpaper samples c1860 has been an education and confirms just how different the interiors at Holmwood are from the majority of interiors of the time. There are so many floral papers or small print papers to choose from, not one of which is a fit for Holmwood, which limits our options considerably. At the moment, a more bespoke option is looking more likely.

The other knotty problem in the parlour is the woodwork, which plays a prominent part in the overall scheme. Around 1920, 60 years or so after Alexander Thomson first completed the room, the woodwork was given a makeover, covering the original brown varnish with a walnut paint effect. We have debated long and hard about whether to leave this alone, since the overall impression is still of dark wood, or to try to recreate the brown varnish on top. Our whole ethos at Holmwood has been to preserve the work of previous generations, with a suitable reversible barrier layer in-between, rather than stripping away evidence of the past and starting again. Since the 1920s makeover has a value of its own in the history of interior paint effects, we have decided to leave it for now and see how it sits once the wall decoration is complete. In this case it’s better not to rush into things.

Putting together room schemes can be a laborious process but it’s also hugely enjoyable. At Holmwood we’re fortunate to have a lot of original evidence for decorative schemes on the walls, but not in every room. The bedroom is a complete blank canvas, which throws up any number of questions about what wallpaper, carpet and soft furnishings would be appropriate. Books on Victorian interior decoration are a good starting point, as are our own photographic collections, though for the 1860s the material is understandably scare and is limited to black and white. Design archives are another useful resource. None of these hold a definitive answer since the style and colouring of Holmwood is unique, but they do help provide context. It’s clear what would be wrong, even if it’s not quite clear what would be right. I’m putting together together a sort of historical mood board to help establish the desired feel of the room and from there we’ll dig down to the detail and cost – always an important factor.

The Hill House

Moving on from Holmwood, I’ve been thinking about carpets for the Hill House. Carpets have an annoying habit of wearing out and replacing them is a big undertaking. To create the right aesthetic we inevitably require something historical or a custom-made replica. The Hill House carpets were put in decades ago, but after years of good service are starting to fray around the edges. Old photographs of the hall and drawing room, along with a chance email from an acquaintance at the Glasgow School of Art, has thrown up the possibility that the current carpets, though the styles fit, may not have been made to Mackintosh’s original designs. So the hunt begins, to draw together all available sources and pin down what a new replica carpet should look like.

Working with black and white images when the finished carpet needs to be in colour is a definite drawback, which is where scraps of the original carpet come into play. Thank goodness previous owners thought to keep them! The sources seem to show that the carpet in the hall and on the stair should be fitted to show more floorboard around the edges, and that the colour may be darker than the one we are used to. This brings up interesting thoughts about the effect a darker colour may have on the style and ambience of the hall. I’m also pondering, based on the black and white photographs, whether the patterned areas of the drawing room carpet might not originally have been separated in the middle by a plainer and lighter strip. Although subtly different to the current carpet, this would alter the sense of how the room is proportioned and zoned according to use – the seating area focused around the fireside, and the piano at the opposite end. Perhaps we’ve not been experiencing the house as it was lived in by the Blackie family, as we had supposed.

It feels important to capture the true sense of our places, to present them to our visitors as accurately as possible, and uncertainties about the right way forward can rattle about for some time before a happy solution is found. November has definitely been a time for research and reflection rather than dramatic action, but I try to remember that all good things come to those who wait.

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