Painting Over a Masterpiece

It all started with a phone call. The caller was Ian Crick-Smith of Lincoln University, an expert on the decoration of historic houses who’s worked with English Heritage for many years. In preparation for much needed repairs and improvements at Kenwood House, we had commissioned research into the decorative finishes of the outside and some of the ground-floor interior rooms. What Ian had to tell me was something too serious to ignore: one of the most famous rooms in England was painted the wrong colour.

Kenwood House
Kenwood House

Kenwood House is among the most important and complicated buildings anyone could wish to work on. It’s well-known to generations of Londoners for its beautiful grounds and its magnificent collection, including paintings by Gainsborough, Rembrandt and Vermeer. But Kenwood is also an acknowledged masterpiece of 18th-century architecture, and one of its set pieces stands out: the Great Room, or Library, built and decorated in the 1760s by Robert Adam. The Adam Library appears in hundreds of books: it’s famous enough to be on the back cover of the North London volume of ‘Pevsner’, the bible of English architecture.

Ian and his colleagues had taken 199 samples of historic paint from the library’s walls (this later swelled to over 400), showing that the room had been decorated nine times in its history, most recently in the 1960s. Sampling confirmed what we already knew, that the restorers in the 1960s had been trying to re-create the room’s appearance when newly built. Analysis has become more sophisticated since then, so it wasn’t surprising that some of the shades of blues and pinks had been slightly off the mark (usually bolder than Adam’s original tones).

But there was one horrible problem – much of the present richness of the room comes from gilded ornamentation: on the frieze of the cornice, the capitals and bases of the columns, and on the panelling of the ceiling. Some of Adam’s surviving drawings of the library showed gilding in these areas, and people had naturally assumed that the gilding was Adam’s. Ian’s discovery was one of those things that ought to make a curator’s life rich and interesting, but actually it would be simpler not to know. The gilding was indeed historic, but it wasn’t original. Specifically, it was added as ‘phase 2’, over features that were consistently painted white by Adam in the first phase.

The interior as restored in 1970s
The historic but not original gilded interior

Unfortunately, paint analysis by itself can’t tell you the date when something happened – it can only tell you that phase 2 came after phase 1. And here was the thorniest problem: there wasn’t a phase 3, or 4, but the gilding had survived all the way down to the present day. The best guess was that it was added in the 1790s, making its survival rather precious. But inconveniently I had already begun to plan for the restoration of Adam’s original scheme, so this late 18th-century gilding was definitely in the way.

Several things could have happened next, and each of them had their supporters in the arguments that followed:

  1. Do nothing: this would be quick and cheap, but hardly anyone liked this, knowing it was wrong (and in the event, we found that the room needed repairs quite badly)
  2. Re-decorate the whole room according to phase 2, the scheme in which the gilding first appeared. This was an attractive principle, until we saw that apart from the gilding, this phase was very plain, with a number of shades of ‘stone colours’ (grey-ish brown)
  3. Re-decorate the room using Adam’s colours, but leave the gilding alone, and tell people that we retained this for conservation reasons. Several of the team thought that this was the most ethical thing to do.
  4. Re-create Adam’s scheme in full, painting over the historic gilding.

In the end, we’ve chosen 4, but only after long arguments, and equally important, finding a method of making sure that if future curators think we’ve chosen badly, they can uncover the gilding without damage. We finally decided that we wanted to reveal a masterpiece of design in its true colours, and the finished product has lived up to expectations: it has a much more subtle palette of blues, greens and greys, in a framework of delicate white plasterwork that seems to unite the elements rather than divide them. Of the few people who’ve seen it, several have noticed a similarity to Wedgwood ceramics, which is appealing. As an expert in Robert Adam said, encouragingly, ‘we’re all going to have to see Adam in a new light, and that’s a good thing.’ I hope lots more people will agree.

The newly restored, original colour scheme by Robert Adam

Jeremy Ashbee has worked at English Heritage since 2003 and for the last six years has been Head Properties Curator. He has had a particularly close involvement with English Heritage’s properties in London, and has taken a leading role in the very complex project to conserve and re-present Kenwood House in north London.

5 comments on “Painting Over a Masterpiece

  1. I’m glad I didn’t have to make that decision! The result is utterly superb (as best I can tell from the photos), and so wonderfully Adam. I can’t wait to see the restored rooms in person.

  2. James Lockwood

    As lovely as it looks, I think it’s a massive, massive shame to paint over the not so original, but 220 year old gilt work, I think that’s a travesty in the name of preservation and conservation, I hope that your restoration is as you say, reversible for generations to come, without leaving lasting 21st century damage. I commend your work however, a sterling job.

  3. This sounds like it was a very difficult decision on your part. I can certainly see the arguments/discussions for all areas. I think in the end, your choice was the best. If you want to represent a certain time, and you are going to redo everything anyway, then it would be better to have it accurate then to try to tell everyone that it is accurate except….. And, it is quite beautiful, more so in fact, the original way, in my humble opinion.

  4. Love, love, love the restoration. Gives whole new insight into the period as a whole: Wedgwood, etc. I like truth and accuracy. It’s good the gold has been left there as a clue for future generations but it was misleading. Great decision, outstanding job!

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