A debate on the presentation of the Great Hall proved to be lively and informative, with six experts putting forward their arguments for how the hall should be conserved or decorated.
The Great Hall - designed by James Gibbs in the early 18th century (c.1723 – 32), decorated by former owner and society decorator Nancy Lancaster in the early 1930s, and subsequently redecorated by John Fowler in the 1950s - has been the subject of much discussion during the last 50 years.
The Trustees of Kelmarsh are keen to make a decision on its future and so they invited six experts in historic buildings or interiors to outline their ideas at The Great Debate: How to Present the Great Hall of Kelmarsh Hall, chaired by Dr Anna Bülow, an accredited-conservator with experience of risk management.
Their proposals ranged from the recreation of the Gibbs scheme to a completely new scheme in the spirit of Nancy Lancaster. An audience of stakeholders and other parties interested in the conservation of listed buildings were then given the chance to question the speakers and make their own comments.
In summary, the speakers argued the following points:
Option 1: Recreation – Gibbs scheme
Sir Timothy Clifford, the former Director-General of the National Galleries of Scotland, argued that the Hall’s association with Gibbs and the Hanbury family, who built it, must be retained. He said that during that time, the Great Hall would have featured formal wooden furniture, weaponry, trophies and clear evidence of Kelmarsh’s hunting links. He argued that it was not meant to be a comfortable room and that the Great Hall is a prelude to what happens throughout the rest of the house.
Option 2: Nancy Lancaster – Recreated
Helen Hughes, an architectural historian and ICON-accredited conservator, argued that with Nancy Lancaster’s arrival at Kelmarsh, she brought with her a flavour of another exciting world. Her decoration of the Great Hall focused on open fires, candlelight and flowers. Helen Hughes argued that Nancy’s style at Kelmarsh was copied in other country houses across England and that she was the inventor of the country house style with John Fowler. The current scheme is a much more subdued version of the Nancy Lancaster scheme of the 1930s.
Option 3: John Fowler – Recreated
Marianne Suhr, a chartered building surveyor specialising in the repair of historic buildings and former surveyor for Kelmarsh Hall, debated whether the Kelmarsh Trust could justify the cost of paint conservation techniques when it relies on charitable funding. She argued this is the only scheme that can be truthfully re-produced because of the existence of paint samples. She urged Trustees to look at which scheme is the most important.
Option 4: John Fowler – Conservation
Elizabeth Hirst, an architectural conservator who recently conserved the Fowler decoration at Christ Church Oxford, argued that the current scheme bears the Fowler stamp and that paint conservation has worked successfully in other historic houses. She argued that Trustees should leave their options open but stressed the importance of conservation.
Option 5: New Scheme – Spirit of Nancy
Helen Yardley, a British designer who studied textile design at the Royal College of Art, argued that the Great Hall acts as an introduction to the rest of the house and it is not a room visitors stay in for long. She argued that importing Italian style colours into an English space does not work because of the difference in lighting. Helen Yardley also suggested that Nancy Lancaster, as a creative individual, would not want to recreate what is already there.
Option 6: Do Nothing
Dr Ian Gow, curator of the National Trust for Scotland, said the Great Hall is an iconic room and should be left alone. He argued that this is the only truly reversible option and that it is important to value and promote Kelmarsh Hall as it is.
The debate raised a number of issues, such as how the Great Hall should work alongside the Saloon, whether the surface of the walls would support another scheme and the importance of retaining the house’s warm, inviting ambience. There were also questions raised as to whether John Fowler ever actually worked on the decoration. A number of delegates suggested that Trustees must consider how the hall is used to generate income before coming to a decision.
Chairman of the Trustees, Peter Scott, said: "We found the Great Debate both refreshing and informative. We were delighted with the engagement of all who attended and the passion which they showed in their advocacy of the significance of those aspects of architecture, decoration and contents of Kelmarsh Hall. It gives us an excellent platform for our decision-making. We approach the task with renewed and more informed enthusiasm."
The Trustees will meet later this year to discuss the options.