The Subtle Genius of Painted Panels
The use of color and often paint is an essential part of interior design. I think about it often in spaces old and new. We are currently working on an 18th-century house in London where the interiors are relatively simple and in the contemporary taste. Usually in this situation I would paint the paneling a single color instead of trying to pick out details with three or more shades. Multi-shaded paneling was big in the 1980's, but the effect was virtually ruined by over use. Like curtains with top treatments (valances or pelmets), I see a future again for this old idea, at least in rooms graced with wood trims or paneling.
I was reminded of John Fowler's instructions for this type of application from his book, "English Decoration in the Eighteenth Century," and also reproduced in his recent biography by Martin Wood. Of course, this type of paint work is all about understanding the logic of the architecture, the hierarchy of its parts and the visual dynamic of the room.
It is also about the sensitive use of gradations of white and color. Many times this is not the easiest thing to do and painting a room all white or one color is the simplest way to handle things.
Mr. Wood makes the interesting point that Fowler discerned that parts of English paneling are meant to have a visual hierarchy enhanced by paint (for example, to have the chimney breast and door casings appear stronger and large panels recessive). Fowler learned this in France where the paneling was decorated largely for vertical effect with less contrasting color on the panels. English rooms are usually about the horizontal nature of the room with lighter panels essentially wrapping the room.
It is amusing to compare Fowler's diagram for painting panels with his logical extreme of this application, the Marble Hall at the British country house, Syon House. Here he used 12 shades of white in this grand room by Robert Adam.
I see in my future some Georgian paneling in three shades of white...and maybe one day, even in twelve.
Images from top: Drawing by Santi, c. 1847, showing the arrangement of Balzac's grand salon in Rue Fortunee; a diagram showing how to paint paneling in three shades of white, taken from John Fowler's book "English Decoration in the Eighteenth Century."