Friday, January 8, 2010

... that is the question

This week has been dominated by beams - The Corinthian Column posted about them and I for reasons other have chosen photos in which beams are very prominent. Today's serving has nothing, despite what you might initially think, to do with beams but is more concerned with the changes made to the architect's original intention.

I don't want to get into a discussion about original intent but let me say that I do not feel that changes should not be made to what was originally intended. What, you might ask, would you put chintz on a Barcelona chair? Actually, why not? Its only a chair and not a holy icon to be approached with diffidence and reverence.

Some jurisdictions demand that changes must be approved before any work is begun so that which remains is preserved for following generations. There are two sides to the argument, for argument it remains, and having seen what was lost in the destruction of Pennsylvania Station in New York, I am a preservationist. However, time moves on, tastes and standards alter, and adaptations are felt to be essential.

The photos here are a case in point: a Lutyens house, one of his most famous and designed for the founder of Country Life to whom he'd been introduced by Gertrude Jekyll. I'm still trawling, by the way, through copies of 1980s magazines and came across these photos showing the changes made to the interior woodwork of Deanery Garden - changes quite drastic and probably irreversible, in terms of cost at least.

No doubt Lutyens intended that natural plaster, unstained oak, light brick and unfinished plank floors reflect and amplify as much light as got through the large but small-pained windows. Undoubtedly, he was aware that over time materials such as these darken and reflectivity decreases but perhaps that was part of what he thought of as the natural evolution of his creation.

In the 80 years since the house was built attitudes and standards had changed and what 20 years ago could have been seen as a desecration now looks completely right to my eyes. The house is lighter, less self-consciously medieval in atmosphere, and at this remove completely contemporary. Suffused with light, there is a jollity about the house, revelry almost, that is most attractive.

Liming, for those of you unsure as to the meaning, is a paint finish that mimics the effect lime-washing has on wood. It can be achieved on furniture with liming-wax or with white latex paint on larger surfaces, but the latter is not strictly to be recommended.

At its simplest liming is a rub-on, rub-off technique - paint is wiped on and rubbed off leaving residue in the grain and a glow of white over all the whole surface. Can be attractive but is rarely heard of nowadays, though it was terribly popular during the 1980s as were all paint finishes (what we now call faux finishes) and many a good piece of wood was limed to within an inch of its life.

As a remembrance of the Indian Summer of the British Empire, those years beginning the 20th century and leading up to the Great War, when Deanery Garden was built, it would seem fitting to give a suitable cocktail recipe, a Pimm's Cup perhaps, but given that the temperature in on-the-edge-of-the-semi-tropics Atlanta has finally reached 21 degrees at mid-day, I feel the need of something more warming.

I've chosen the Rusty Nail for its promise of warmth and also as a reminder of the effect water-based liming might have on metal.

The Rusty Nail
In an old-fashioned glass pour 1 1/2 oz Scotch and 3/4 Drambuie over ice and garnish with a lemon twist. In fact it sounds so warming, I might have one for lunch.

Photography by James Mortimer from November 1987 article written by Hugh Casson for World of Interiors.

Black and white photography from Edward Lutyens Country Houses: from the Archives of Country Life, by Gavin Stamp, Aurum Press, 2001.


  1. The whitening of Deanery Garden was a hideous unjust massacre. There is nothing good about it...just sad, sad sad.

  2. Have you ever seen it? The writer of the article, Hugh Casson, thought it was the right thing to do. I would not have done it but I like the result. I wonder, though, how it has stood up to 20-odd years of wear and yellowing from sun damage. My instinct is to leave well alone.

  3. No I have not seen it in person, but I feel confident that PAINT on all that beautiful old growth quarter sawn oak is a true crime. You are right, the whole interior would have darkened and aged- beautifully so! This is the kind of time earned natural effect one dreams of, that as you say will be hard or impossible to reverse. If maybe just the timbers and not the floors had been authentically limed in a delicate manner that would have been very pretty true to the period effect. Poor Mr. Luytens.

  4. I completely agree about the sacrilege committed on this priceless mature oak. You only have to see those fatuous cacti and other modish
    appointments to the house to know that these owners never deserved to live here. How could they efface the character of the house and the spirt of Lutyens so completely, so depressingly?

  5. I'll fix myself a double rusty nail to calm down, Blue!

  6. Anonymous - though I do like the effect I cannot disagree with you at all.

  7. I like the lightened/limed effect, but then anything to remove the darkness and sadness of old beams. I'm just not a fan of the dark. I'm all for preservation of the good, and restoration of that which needs it.

    I know I would never live in a house such as Deanery Gardens, in any colour, because of the profusion of wood and beams.

  8. Sounds like the rusty nail is to 18 year old Macacallan what limed beams is to above. I think my husband would knock that Drambuie right out of my hand! Happy weekend.

  9. Let's tackle the nub of your argument: I am sure I would welcome this whitening effect if it were a mock tudor building of little architectural value and they could decorate it how the hell they liked.

    But this is an extremely precious and rare Lutyens house (and he happens to be my favourite architect). . It is a national treasure and deserves more respect. How long does it take for those sort of oak beams to go ye olde darke style? Arts and crafts houses never seem oppressively dark to me.

  10. Rose - I don't argue for the liming of the woodwork but I do say that I like the effect. I realize chintzing a Barcelona chair is very different from permanently altering a single building of great architectural significance. I like the effect although I would not have done it.

  11. Blue, I think we are in accord about the effects of the liming/whitening where it's appropriate. And I'd love to see a chintzed Barcelona chair!

  12. I still have this article in my own files. At the time I thought it was stunning, and simultaneously I thought wrong, although I am no fan of excessive wood for wood's sake in an interior (I would flee screaming into the night from the usual Aspen ski lodge, for example). So, there we are. Stunning, but shouldn't have done it. hmmmm.

  13. PS, another view of the hall, which you didn't post, shows a blue and white striped dhurrie. I've craved one ever since....

  14. Down East Dilattante ... that is the question! The blue and white dhurrie is lovely but I didn't post it as it didn't add anything - should perhaps have done so for the sheer beauty of it. I too would love to have one.

  15. it ruined Lutyens's original concept, intention and vision.

    i'm with rose... if it were a say 1920s tudor revival, different story. but have to tell you, aesthetically, i love the white-washed look much better.