After the Second World War, the prevailing design for art galleries in Britain was simple white/light coloured spaces in which paintings were hung in a single row with no competition from elaborate Victorian decoration. Ornate plaster ceilings were hidden behind new conservation-driven laylights, the plasterwork smashed to house the supporting steel frames and coloured decoration was painted white. It was not only art galleries that were affected by this modernist aesthetic – the elaborate 19th century chapel at King’s College London was whitewashed, to be restored early in the 21st cetnury century and the Durbar Rooms at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office were similarly “modernised”, to then be restored by HOK (happily having avoided a threat of complete demolition and rebuilding). What was not understood however is that the artworks of great masters that have darkened with age are best seen against dark surroundings, not light-coloured, which acts as an unfortunate contrast to the eye. White may be fine for contemporary art, but is not a sympathetic background for dark historic works.
In the early 1980’s there was a sea-change. Sir Timothy Clifford, Director of the National Galleries of Scotland in Edinburgh, led the new approach. Post-war hessian was removed from the walls and the original mid-19th century colour scheme by William Henry Playfair was restored; paintings were double and even triple-banked, as they had been a century earlier, and complemented with antique furniture as it was recognised that the interior setting and the art works contribute to each other. In London at the National Gallery, the grand late 19th century galleries by Edward Barry were redecorated with their original colour scheme.
Efforts to undo the work of the post-war period continues. In the past few months, the Wallace Collection has refurbished its premier space, the Great Gallery, replacing the 1970’s laylight with something more sympathetic to the architecture of the original building, and the remodelling work at the Victoria and Albert Museum continues with the refurbishment of the Plaster Courts, now ablaze in their original colours, albeit not quite fully restored – this would possibly have been too much for modern taste and meant too much reinstatement of things which are lost. The Museum has achieved a sensible compromise which shows off the plaster copies of architecture and sculpture – which themselves have been out of and in fashion over the last century and are now a unique asset for the museum.
In September, the Wallace Collection reopened its Great Gallery after a two-year refurbishment costing £5m. Described as “the greatest picture gallery in Europe” by the art historian Sir Kenneth Clark, the refurbishment was financed by the Monument Trust – a charitable body of the Sainsbury family. One of the main aims of the refurbishment was to allow natural light into the gallery by replacing the modern laylight from the 1970s above which was hidden environmental control ducts and machinery with a new ceiling in more historic style that also enabled more light into the gallery..
The Cast Courts at the Victoria and Albert Museums were opened in 1873 to house one of the most comprehensive collections of 19th-century plaster casts of European sculpture and architecture in the world. The two galleries soar to 24 metres in height. The Weston Cast Court, which has recently reopened after refurbishment, displays over 60 of the museums’s 19th-century reproductions of Italian Renaissance monuments, including Michelangelo’s David, the Gates of Paradise at Florence Cathedral, a pulpit from Pisa Cathedral by Giovanni Pisano and Jacopo della Quercia’s great arch from the Basilica of San Petronio, Bologna.
The Cast Courts are unique in that they are the only public galleries in the Museum which display the same collection of objects as when they were first opened. The museum carried out extensive research into the original colour scheme and has reinstated a decorative scheme that pays tribute to the Cast Court’s original colours, architectural details and finishes. The 19th-century ceramic tiled floor has been restored and repairs to the glazed roof, ceiling and walls have returned the court to its original splendour. The Museum has compromised a little on the original colour scheme which was even more elaborate with inscriptions recording great artistic achievements of the past. Instead, the Museum has sensibly decided to show an example, that of Sir William Chambers. Recreation of the entire original colour scheme would detract from the exhibits and have a questionable relationship with them.
Work continues on completing the corridor space between the two courts.
Modern visitors more appreciative of the rich relationship of art to historic interiors; the Wallace Collection and the Victoria and Albert Museum and their donors are have recreated decorative schemes which enable the artworks to be shown at their best.