Town & Country (UK)
STROKES OF MAGIC
Claire Brayford explores the charming trickery of trompe l’oeil
The majestic halls where the walls come alive and you just can’t believe your eyes
When Maud Russell, the socialite and art patron, invited the British artist Rex Whistler in 1939 to transform the hall of Mottisfont Abbey, her 2,000-acre estate, she did not doubt his technical ability. After all, he had recently completed the breathtaking mural at Plas Newydd in north Wales, home of the Marquess of Anglesey – deftly employing trompe l’oeil, the three-dimensional artistic effect that, translated from French, means ‘to deceive the eye’. The pair spent many hours debating how to realistically depict the soaring gothic columns and vaulted ceilings, in keeping with the priory’s history. However, what Russell did not anticipate were Whistler’s touches of wit and whimsy that appeared as soon as her back was turned: gauntlets bound at the wrist to represent his creative restraints at her hands; colourful accents (his patron wanted an entirely neutral palette); a discarded glove and wedding ring (alluding to her many loves) and, most famously, a smoking urn painted in a ‘niche’ and deliberately reflected in the mirror opposite. This was a calculated tease, since Russell reportedly detested fires and ordered the butler to extinguish any lit on the estate.
But what is trompe l’oeil without a measure of mischief? ‘It’s like watching David Blaine’s street magic,’ says the Irish decorative artist Alan Carroll, whose work has graced the homes of Oprah Winfrey and Paul Simon. ‘It’s a visceral thrill when you realise you’ve been tricked.’
False doors, columns and drapes can be seen in Ancient Greek and Roman villas, but it was during the Renaissance, thanks to the development of painterly perspective, that trompe l’oeil really came into its own. In the realm of architecture, art evolved to create a sense of theatre, with visual effects able to dramatically transform a room’s spatial proportions – ceilings soared to such heights that the heavens themselves appeared to open, displaying power and prestige, especially in religious buildings.
In Britain, trompe l’oeil’s rich tradition can be seen in grand pictorial schemes such as the epic baroque Painted Hall in the Old Royal Naval College in Greenwich, which took Sir James Thornhill 19 years to complete (and earned him his knighthood). During the 17th century, the 5th Earl of Exeter called on the Italian artist Antonio Verrio to decorate six rooms of his Tudor home, Burghley House. In the resulting Hell Staircase and Heaven Room, the painter pushed the boundaries of perspective so far that the walls seem to fall away, leaving the viewer standing in a temple open to the skies, a shaft of rainbow light beaming upon them.
However, the technique does not have to encompass an entire room – it can be nothing more than an object or view that we believe to be the real thing, such as the mesmeric corridor of rooms behind a door painted by Samuel van Hoogstraten at Dyrham Park, or the extraordinarily lifelike violin hanging from a gilt metal peg conjured by Jan van der Vaardt in Chatsworth’s State Music Room. Since the idea is to mimic reality, the artist’s ‘hand’ should be completely invisible with not a brushstroke in sight. This sense of startling verisimilitude, combined with the meticulous skill of portraying perspective, light and shadow, requires immense technical brilliance. Today, having a bespoke illusionistic artwork in your home is very much a treasured luxury.
The trompe l’oeil specialist Alan Dodd, whose work includes the Pompeiian ceiling in Sir John Soane’s Museum, believes it translates just as well to a modest town house as a grand stately home. It can be used to create space, order, and even provide a means of escape – for instance, by
offering a glimpse through a door onto outdoor pastoral scenes, but the tone must be lightly handled or it can make a room oppressive and ‘the whole thing looks like cardboard’, he says.
Equally, a popular, elegant alternative that gives similar depth and drama is through a gentle grisaille landscape (a painting technique using shades of grey). One such sylvan scene can be found in the hallway of the antiques collector Diana Robinson’s 17th-century cottage in Wiltshire. The design could easily have been too grand for such a low-ceilinged space but is so skilfully conceived that the room transforms into an evocative misty bower. ‘I wanted the mural to look like it had been there for ever,’ Robinson explains. ‘It feels completely comfortable and harmonious.’ Far from holding the room to ransom, the fictional landscape acts as the perfect, pastoral backdrop for Robinson’s decorative antiques.
‘People get intimidated and think they shouldn't hang pictures and mirrors on wall paintings of this nature – I'm very against that,’ says Alasdair Peebles, the decorative painter behind it. ‘All interiors are there to be furnished. It is not about the illusion – the artwork should transport you and charge the space with an energy that is completely its own.’
A room hand-painted by Peebles would cost more than £8,000. It is, of course, less fiscally daunting to opt for wallpaper, and trompe l’oeil or scenographic handpainted versions by luxury brands such as De Gournay, Iksel and Zuber are excellent contemporary alternatives. Indeed, as the Iksel CEO Paul-eric Hanquet says of their luscious, leafy D-dream design that hangs in the library of Queen Maxima of the Netherlands, they can provide the ultimate Zoom backdrop. And if you want your investment to remain yours, you can have the work painted or applied to a moveable panel. A thoroughly modern twist on an ancient visual magic trick.