Posted in Feature

Decorating traditional properties

Decorating traditional properties Posted on 15 March 2021

Holmwood House NTS

Decorating historic properties is big business – if you know what you’re doing. Neil Braidwood discovers that it takes time to do a good job.

Most decorators, when quoting for a house painting job, want to be in for the minimum amount of time, so they can get paid and on to the next job. To be fair, most customers also want the job finished quickly so that they can get on with their lives.

But with older, and even historic properties, it’s not always that simple. 

If a building is listed with Historic Environment Scotland (HES) of special architectural importance, then you will be restricted to the type of paint you use, and even the colours. There are three types of listing – category A (buildings of national importance), B (buildings of regional importance) and C (buildings of local importance). 

The scheduled monument (higher than A listed) Royal Palace of Stirling Castle is owned and managed by HES, and when it came to appointing a contractor to complete its 10-year restoration of the apartments there in 2011, it turned to Nevin of Edinburgh

“I will never see the like of that again,” remembers Mark Nevin.

The family firm has been trading since 1977, when Mark’s dad John set the business up from his mother’s front room in Leith.

Since then, Nevin of Edinburgh has built an enviable reputation as experts in decorating historic houses, working on projects for HES and the National Trust for Scotland. 

Members of the Scottish Decorators’ Federation for over 30 years, the firm has worked all over the world using decorating skills that are on another level, including graining, marbling and signwriting. 

“The Royal Palace job took eight painstaking months, and involved mixing paints from pigments just as decorators would have done in the 16th century”, says Mark. “We had some help from artists on the Tromp L’oeil work – most of the ceilings are painted that way.” Tromp L’oeil, from the French, meaning to ‘deceive the eye’, was a popular technique employed in the 16th century, and is literally painting on a flat surface to make it look three dimensional.

Knowledge

Well, jobs like that don’t come along every day, but knowledge of decorating older properties is an important skill to have, setting you apart from less qualified painters who have little or no respect for the houses they work in.

Suzie Reid, Conservator for the National Trust for Scotland (NTS), remembers pulling a long case clock back from the wall of one property, only to discover the painter had painted around it – leaving a clock-shaped mark on the wall! “It didn’t happen on my watch,” she laughs. 

“When we choose contractors to work in NTS properties, we expect them to take care,” says Suzie. “It’s important that they respect the building and take pride in their work. Often, we are hiring them because of their experience and skills. It’s not always about getting the cheapest price, but rather a perfect job. 

“One of the properties in my remit is Holmwood House in Glasgow. This Alexander Greek Thomson building has many special painting techniques and applications, including stencilling. The contractor we employed to do the recreation work had a knowledge of Greek Thomson and extensive experience of stencilling. They even made their own stencils to work from.  

“We were lucky with Holmwood House, as many of the walls retain their original Thomson decoration, though covered with several layers of paint and paper from subsequent owners. We have been able to carefully uncover areas of this decoration in most of the rooms and so, along with chemical and microscopic analysis, have been able to use this information to confidently recreate the designs with a high level of accuracy.

Safety

Removing paper to reveal paintwork from a century ago is not without its hazards though. Some wallpaper from the Victorian era contained arsenic, and this poison, when inhaled, can cause death. The use of lead in paints was commonplace up until the mid 1970s, so paintwork applied before this date should be treated with caution, and tested where possible. 

All of the staff at Nevin of Edinburgh are trained to spot dangers like these in the properties they work in. Health and safety is paramount to the company, and many of the team have been on training courses and recognise the need to wear appropriate personal protective equipment such as respirators, goggles and gloves when working in areas that may be dangerous. 

“You don’t want to disturb lead paint,” insists Mark Nevin, “that’s when it gets dangerous – when you’re sanding it down to put a new layer on top. Best to leave it as undisturbed as possible. The best preparation is using wet abrasion or specially adapted extraction systems.”

Nevin has Safecontractor accreditation, and this important health and safety certificate can mean the difference between getting a job and not even being considered for it. 

“Many clients are looking for this kind of certification”, says Mark. “It gives them peace of mind that the contractor knows how to stay safe on site and there won’t be any accidents. It is an essential part of our business, and sometimes it’s the first thing that is asked on a tender document.”

Colour

Colour schemes are important when redecorating period homes. You won’t need to mix your own paint for the majority of them either! There are lots of heritage specific colour schemes from established paint companies. See our panel for some ideas. It’s one thing choosing an appropriate colour scheme for a property, and quite another matching original colours from walls painted hundreds of years ago. Paint scrapings can be taken from unobtrusive areas, and looked at under a powerful microscope to identify the makeup of the paint. 

Organisations like NTS and HES have their own conservators with these skills, but John Nevin, Managing Director of Nevin of Edinburgh specialises in microscopy paint analysis. The company has its own equipment, and is often asked by architects and individuals to analyse fragments of paint. This allows them to reproduce what was there originally. John has even been called on by the forensics department of Police Scotland to help with its investigations!  

Fortunately, there are apprentices learning many of these traditional techniques, and it’s something Mark Nevin doesn’t underestimate. “We spend years training these young people – almost moulding them to the type of work we do, so that they understand the ethos of the company. Once they have served their time, it’s not uncommon for us to keep a hold of them. It’s in our interests to keep the best people. We are investing in the future so that these skills will never die”. 

Picture: the dining room at Holmwood House, Glasgow. National Trust for Scotland