Rather than a straightforward Georgian restoration project, the Rainham Hall team developed a unique conservation approach to reflect layers of history.
Rainham Hall has been home to nearly 50 different inhabitants and families in less than 300 years, with each new incumbent making the building their own. Structurally the layout of the Hall building has been subject to only few alterations, such as the installation of a dumbwaiter and the expansion of the attic in the early twentieth century. One aspect that has constantly evolved, however, is the interior decoration and the building has ‘inherited’ a series of contrasting paint schemes reflective of the inhabitants at the time. In 2012, a specialist was appointed to complete a detailed paint analysis of the building and the final report illuminated the changes in decoration over the years.
Early decoration schemes
When the Hall was built for Captain John Harle in 1729 the interior decoration comprised of 5 colours on the wall panelling; a blueish grey, stone, blue, cool grey, and dark olive green. Many of the doors and much of the skirting was a reddish brown. During the first redecoration at the Hall there was a complete change: the panelling in many of the rooms was painted with a light grey oil paint with the skirting and doors painted black.
The Trompe l’oeil wall paintings
Originally the walls either side of the main staircase were painted with a pale Prussian blue oil paint, although it is impossible to say whether this featured any decoration or was a flat blue. During the first redecoration of the building a thick layer of varnish was applied to these walls, implying the presence of a decoration scheme. By the late 1780s, the Hall was occupied by Sarah Chambers, the former widow of John Harle’s only son. It is during Sarah’s time that we believe the Trompe l’oeil painting we see today on the staircase walls was painted. It is highly decorative featuring floral flourishes and a Vitruvian scroll pattern.
Late eighteenth and nineteenth century decoration
The rooms were repainted a further two to three times during this era, with pale greys and greyed whites used for the panelling and window sashes. Episodes of decoration appear to have encompassed the whole building with the same paints used throughout. There would seem to be no occasions until the late nineteenth century when individual rooms were selected for repainting.
From the late nineteenth century to the 1920s, many of the panelled rooms appear to have received 3 putty or buff coloured paint redecorations. It’s during this time that certain areas were redecorated more frequently than others.
Early twentieth century
In 1917 Rainham Hall was purchased by Colonel Herbert Hall Mulliner, an interior decorator, historian, fine art specialist and controversial restoration enthusiast. Mulliner never actually lived at the Hall, but oversaw a programme of restoration works. He modernised the house by converting some bedrooms into bathrooms, moving the kitchen into the cellar, making the original kitchen into a study and modifying the Stables so it could accommodate motor cars. He added railings, gates, and even the Harle coat of arms over the fireplace in the entrance hall. Following this work the entire house was painted in a grained scheme, replicating the look of wood grain. It was crude graining, apparently carried out with a brush rather than a comb. Mulliner’s graining scheme stayed in place for some 40 years and thick surface dirt was found when this paint layer was examined. Examples of the graining still remain today, hidden away inside cupboards.
Later twentieth century
The National Trust acquired Rainham Hall in 1949 in lieu of death duties of the last private owner, a solicitor named William Sturges. The building had previously been requisitioned in 1943 by Essex County Council to serve as a day nursery for local children whose mothers were out working. The nursery continued until 1954 when the lease expired, and a tenancy period began during which a series of individuals and families rented the Hall from the Trust until 2010.
In the 1960s, the wood graining was covered as the entire house was repainted using strong colours and highly distinctive schemes. In c.1964 Anthony Denney, a photographer and interior designer, became a tenant of the National Trust. He hired a number of specialist workers to restore the Hall according to his own interpretation of eighteenth century style. Denney’s paint schemes including the gilding and marbled paintwork in the entrance hall we see today, dark red in the bedrooms, rich blues and ‘maple’ graining on the second floor. A local newspaper printed a feature about Denney’s ‘restoration’ of the Hall, including this wonderful description:
" To take refuge inside Rainham Hall is to step into another era, where beauty was cherished with every stroke of a painter’s brush…"
Later tenants of the National Trust continued to redecorate the Hall in a variety of colours and styles. Many neutral tones were used; with the exception of a room known since the 1960s as ‘the Blue Room’. Located at the back of the house on the first floor, this room has been decorated blue since Denney’s time, but a new vivid paint scheme was introduced later on. Portrait artist, David Atack, and his family moved in during the late 1990s. It is thought that they introduced the bright rag rolling blue paint scheme in this room as part of their own ‘interpretation and restoration’ project at the Hall. The Blue Room scheme stands out and although it will not be to the taste of every visitor, it certainly provokes thought about different conservation approaches.
Conservation and interpretation project
The last tenants moved out in 2010, and the following year we started planning a major project to transform Rainham Hall and open it fully as a visitor attraction for the first time. With the support of the Heritage Lottery Fund, Veolia North Thames Trust and BIFFA Award, the capital works project began in early 2014.
The project team were challenged with developing a conservation approach for Rainham Hall that would be reflective of the changes in decoration and would not serve to ‘freeze’ the building at one point in time. We considered historical layers and questioned whether social or architectural significance should be the more notable influence. As a result, we’ve conserved and restored a variety of paint schemes dating from the 1720s, 1920s, 1960s, 2000s and many more eras in between, based on how individual spaces were altered over the years. A flow chart process was created to enable a consistent room by room review. One of the project team members at the time noted:
" ...a series of residents have called the Hall home, leaving a decorative imprint redolent of their time and taste, yet ultimately respectful of the inherent qualities of the building. The co-existence of the layers and alterations combined with the modest scale of its rooms makes visitors feel 'I could live here'."
The significance of historical layers is amplified by the fact that Rainham Hall does not have an indigenous collection and there is no known surviving inventory for the property prior to the 1960s. Visitors today encounter a series of different paint colours and decoration schemes relating to different eras and inhabitants. Even with a trained eye, it can be hard to separate the Georgian schemes from later ones, as later occupiers redecorated according to their own taste and interpretation of the eighteenth century building. Our new approach to conservation decision making is providing invaluable lessons for the Trust.