Time regained


©NTPL/John Hammond

Our head conservator, Katie Lithgow, has just sent me this image of the Queen’s Antechamber at Ham House. It is almost identical to the photograph I previously posted, except for the fact that this one shows what the original 1680 colour scheme of the wall hangings would have looked like.

This image, almost Proustian in its recapturing of a lost moment in time, was produced by conservator Vicki Marsland and photographer John Hammond, who digitally changed the colour of the centre panels from the faded pink of the 1890s restoration back to the original blue.

Imagine this by candle- and firelight: scagliola fireplace and gilded panelling in the Queen's Closet at Ham. ©NTPL/Bill Batten

The faded pink hangings will remain on the walls, as valid evidence of a particular phase in the building’s history, but being able to see the effect of the original blue does add to our understanding of seventeenth-century decoration. The tones of blue in the hangings would have echoed the blues in the porcelain and in the Coromandel lacquer on display.

At night the silk would have shimmered in the candlelight, in unison with the ceramics, the lacquer and the gilding. In the late seventeenth century artificial light was limited mainly to candles and fireplaces, so reflective surfaces were deliberately used to amplify and dramatize it.

Chinese ceramic teapot reputedly used by the Duchess of Lauderdale. ©NTPL/Bill Batten

The effects of pre-electric lighting are vividly demonstrated at the independently-run Dennis Severs’ House in Spitalfields, London, which is shown in semi-darkness. The interiors are theatrical pastiches of various historical periods, complete with sounds and smells, and the experience is intense and memorable.

The dining room at Attingham Park. ©NTPL/David Levenson

The National Trust has recently recreated the night-time ambiance of the Regency-period dining room at Attingham Park, Shropshire, as shown above. The latest in lightbulb technology was used to simulate candlelight, and the table has been laid with the original silver plates and gilded candelabra and centrepieces, which look splendidly festive in the semi-gloom.

12 Responses to “Time regained”

  1. littleaugury Says:

    the atmospherics of a dining room- or any room lit only by candles is magical. It is also a source of wonder how choice of surfaces were made just to elevate this. Nothing was left unconsidered. I think it wish to leave the panels in the pink- as evidence of how time changes everything as has digital. sometimes I miss the old(er) days.
    best, pgt

  2. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Yes the point about reflecting light was brought home to me by seeing a silver teapot in a gloomy room at Dennis Severs’ House, which was the gleaming focal point of the room.

    There is now a trend towards having more fires in fireplaces at National Trust houses – when conditions allow – to heighten the atmosphere of the rooms.

  3. Janet Says:

    How wonderful to imagine (I mean, SEE) how the blue silk panels would have looked! Several houses here in the US do Christmas candlelight tours, illuminating the interiors (and exteriors) only with candles and fire (of course, FAKE candles now). It is truly wonderful to see just how precious light would have been…how each glittering surface was deliberately chosen.

  4. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    The blue is quite gutsy, isn’t it? But then after all it is a baroque-period house.

    Fake candles are getting better and better – some even have bulbs that wobble, or that flicker slightly, to simulate the effect of a flame. And the shafts look much more like real candles, unlike those ghastly yellow things with over-obvious drips that used to be the norm.

  5. columnist Says:

    Ah, now maybe you can answer this question about candles, and candleshades. I frequently seem to have a problem using candleshades – the heat becomes so intense in the “collar” upon which the shade rests, that it causes the candle to buckle, and thence the shade to fall off. Is there some special trick about using candleshades, or it it merely a question of the quality of the candles? It can’t be impossible to get it right, as they are used at State Dinners at Buckingham Palace and Windsor Castle.

  6. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    That’s an interesting question. We tend to have a lot of restrictions on the use of real candles, because of the fire risk to our museum-grade collections – hence the use of increasingly sophisticated electric candles. I will find out if any of the colleagues have ever used candleshades and will let you know.

  7. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Further to the Columnist’s candle query: One of our curators, Jeffrey Haworth, recommends ‘Palmatine Self-Fitting Candles’, which he says are the Rolls-Royce of candles. Jeffrey suggests trying Mowbray’s, the ecclesiastical suppliers in London (trading from the premises of Hatchard’s, see http://www.hatchards.co.uk/ ).

    However, our curators remain extremely cautious about the use of real candles in our historic houses. We generally prefer faking it with safe-but-realistic electric candles!

  8. columnist Says:

    Thanks Emile. I will investigate with Mowbray’s. I can quite understand not using real candles in NT properties, (or indeed anywhere which is not overseen by someone the entire time of their usage, whether in public or private spaces). My immediate quest is for those on my dining table, which I watch with alarm, as they gently keel over. Well, not always gently, as I posted here: http://corcol.blogspot.com/2010/03/putting-on-ritz.html

    Very much appreciate your/your colleague’s advices. And I’m very much enjoying your blog, which I’ve added to “my favourites” list.

  9. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    You have a very glamorous dining room. The Chinese wallpaper panels are interesting: they are the same type as the wallpaper in the Chinese Bedroom at Belton House, with the figures amongst the foliage. I am hoping to do some posts on chinoiserie-related acquisitions.

  10. columnist Says:

    Thank you. I like Chinoiserie, and I will look forward to reading your post on the subject. I will check out the bedroom at Belton.

  11. Vicki Marsland, NT conservator Says:

    Re- the role of reflective surfaces when people relied on candlelight and fireplaces for artificial light: it’s worth noting that the walls in Ham House’s Queen’s Antechamber are decorated with olivewood graining painted directly over gilding on the oak panelling. We believe this scheme is original to the Duchess of Lauderdale’s conversion of this space into a state apartment. The painted scheme is positively shimmering. It also decorates the small closet behind one of the hidden jib doors in the room. This closet is windowless and I can only imagine that the honoured guests were always expected to use the close stool in the closet in candlelight, with the light dancing across the glitzy walls as the candle flickered. When we took down the two corner wall hanging panels that are currently being conserved (phase 2 of this conservation project), we found that some of this decorative scheme exists behind them along the edges of the woodwork. Our conservation adviser of painted surfaces Tina Sitwell is going to organise some paint analysis later this year.
    It’s also worth noting that although the metal is now tarnished, all of the embroidery on the velvet borders and corner motifs on the wall hangings is in metal wrapped cord that originally looked like bright gold thread.

  12. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Thanks very much for that Vicki – they clearly pulled out all the stops with this sort of decoration. And if you have that kind of glamorous interior, why not have a glamorous loo as well?

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