The Redecoration of Burgh House

1 May 2014

What’s in a paint colour?

Burgh House is a Grade I-listed Queen Anne mansion that once stood proud and aloof on Hampstead Hill. Much of the building’s grandest features, including the barley-twist staircase, panelled interior, mantelpieces and imposing wrought iron gates, were added in 1720 by Dr Gibbons, the creator of Hampstead as a spa village.

Nowadays the house has been absorbed into London's Zone 2 and has seen many varied owners and uses, passing into public use after the Second World War.

Currently the building is managed by an independent, self-funding charity and serves many purposes, ranging from a local history museum, art gallery, concert venue, and free community and education space, while also functioning as northwest London’s busiest wedding venue.

We have been gradually refurbishing the house (a never-ending job, it seems!), but first had to come up with an answer to a big question: how do you decorate a building like this?

Should one be true to the age of the building? In our case, this would mean approaching the decoration in an early Georgian style. Contrary to most of our ideas of Georgian tastes, the interior decoration of the early period was quite plain, with almost dour tones. Panelling like ours was, unless of the finest exotic hard woods, meant to be painted or grained to look like wood. Skirting, walls, cornices, window frames, shutters, walls and doors would often be painted in the same colour, with this colour used throughout the rest of the building, too. Typical paint colours of the period included off-whites, greys, stone and muted greens: these were affordable and purchased as pigments that were mixed with water when ready to be used. Richer colours made from pricier pigments such as golds, dark pinks and pastel blues may have been used by wealthier households in one or more of their grander rooms. The very wealthy may have painted a room in one of the most expensive colours, a dark olive green, as chosen by us for the recent refurbishment of the Burgh House Library, which was said to show off paintings at their best. Incidentally, one of the most interesting facts I gleaned from my research was that the painting of rooms was nearly almost undertaken by the family and servants themselves and not by paid workers, as painting was not considered to be a skilled job. It seems DIY is not such a modern phenomenon after all!

Over the course of the Georgian dynasty, the typical colour palette became brighter, lighter, bolder and more daring. By the end of the Georgian period, paint and paper were cheaper and much more readily available, with rooms delicately themed and furnished. The establishment of the printed press, the first ‘mass media’, meant that fashions changed as quickly as people could redecorate – even if they couldn’t afford it. A home like Burgh House would have been finely decorated and elegantly furnished.

Burgh House, however, has served a variety of purposes since the Georgian era, including being used as a military regimental headquarters before returning to domestic use; the last residents, Rudyard Kipling’s daughter Elsie and her husband Captain Bambridge, left in the 1930s.

Many of the interior features of the house, including our beautiful music room, are the product of the 1920s. Should we therefore decorate the house in the style of this era? We have photographs of the interiors during this period, showing a lighter colour scheme, chintz patterns, stripped wood panelling and piles of oriental carpets. The rooms were busy and eclectic; cosy and homely. We can tell from chips of paint that pea greens, ochre yellow, browns and beiges were used, with woodwork and related features highlighted for the first time in lighter colours

Today Burgh House takes a regular pounding from all its different uses and many visitors, and any decorative scheme we chose needed to be hardwearing. The solution came in the form of a photograph of the dining room at Burgh House from the 1920s. The picture shows warm-coloured, painted panelling with lighter woodwork and Queen Anne-style furniture. In this we found our happy medium and, with the support of Farrow and Ball, have been gradually mixing Queen Anne/early-Georgian paint colours on the panelling chosen to match samples of paint found around the house. These feature a beautiful mix of greys, stones, golds, olives and sages, which we have combined with the modern 20th-century practicality of off-white eggshell painted woodwork.

We are delighted with the result – Queen Anne reproduction meets genuine Queen Anne; bold but fresh rooms, durable and practical, retaining all the warmth of the home Burgh House was in the 1920s, while being true to the period of the building and its original listed features, and done in a way that will preserve the house and its interior to be enjoyed by generations to come.