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The art of illusion in historic houses

A detailed trompe l'oeil painting of statues of the four Doctors of the Church on the north wall of the Chapel at Wimpole Hall
A painting of four statues on the Chapel wall at Wimpole | © National Trust Images/Andreas von Einsiedel

If you’ve ever wandered through one of the houses in our care and have admired marbled columns or elaborate carvings, you may have been misled. Illusion and trickery played a major role in the decorative schemes of historic houses, with trompe l’oeil paintings designed to fool the viewer and false bookcases concealing secret passageways. Discover some of the best optical illusions at the places we care for.

Secret doors and false bookcases

Hidden doors suggest intrigue and excitement, conjuring images of daring escapes or illicit goings-on. Secret doors and passages can be found in many country houses, but they often have quite a mundane reason for existing. Some may have provided quick passage to another room, while others may have been installed for aesthetic reasons – for example if the door spoilt the symmetry of the room.

Where to find secret doors

Wimpole Estate in Cambridgeshire has hidden doors that are painted or wallpapered so that they blend in, making them very tricky to spot. At Overbeck’s in Devon, there's a secret door in the panelling of the stairs.

The library at Oxburgh Hall, Norfolk, contains a door concealed behind rows of fake books. One of the dummy books is entitled La Porte, hinting at what is hidden behind it, whilst others have humorous titles alluding to the family’s history.

Trompe l’oeil: the art of illusion

Trompe l’oeil translates to ‘deceive the eye’ in French. It's an artistic term for murals, paintings and materials that have been made to appear intricate and three-dimensional, but are instead an optical illusion as they're on a two-dimensional surface.

A view of the Whistler Room at Mottifont, with a suite of eighteenth-century green and white armchairs and settees. Rex Whistler painted the former entrance hall in 1938–9 with trompe-l'oeil trophies, plasterwork and cornice and transformed it into a Gothick style drawing room.
The Whistler Room at Mottisfont, Hampshire | © National Trust Images/Andreas von Einsiedel

The Drawing Room at Mottisfont, Hampshire

The Drawing Room at Mottisfont is adorned with Rex Whistler’s trompe l’oeil murals, the last he painted. Whistler was working on the murals when the Second World War began in 1939. The painted decorative scheme shows an architectural interior in the Gothic Revival style. There are also real curtains, painted to mimic ermine fur.

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Spirit photography

Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw was also a keen amateur photographer and liked to experiment with different photographic techniques to create a range of artistic images.

One photograph in the collection at Shaw's Corner, Hertfordshire, depicts two ghostly figures of Shaw. It was created using a double exposure technique, where the film or photographic glass-plate was exposed to the light twice, with the sitter moving position between the two exposures.

The technique had been used before, by early photographers creating ‘spirit photography’ which purported to have captured images of ghosts.

Objects that aren't what they seem

Take a closer look at some other objects in the collections we look after that aren’t what they might seem at first glance.

A close-up of a gold-framed flower design made from hair in the collection at Dunham Massey
Flower design in hair at Dunham Massey, Cheshire | © National Trust Images/Robert Thrift

Framed floral design at Dunham Massey, Cheshire

This framed floral design at Dunham Massey, Cheshire, is not actually made of dried flowers, but of hair. Hairwork, as it was known, was a popular craft in the mid-19th century.

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The future of illusion

Illusion and trickery in art have a long and diverse history and are still popular today. Technological improvements mean they can be more elaborate and realistic than ever, from photo-realistic paintings to augmented reality.

Sevres Wine Cooler, showing nymphs worshipping the bust of Pan, from a service made for Louis XVI, dated 1792, in the Porcelain Lobby at Upton House, Warwickshire

Art and collections

We care for one of the world's largest and most significant collections of art and heritage objects. Explore the highlights, our latest major exhibitions, curatorial research and more.

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