Originally printed in The Telegraph
As the Marquess of Bath’s interior designer, Claire Rendall thought she’d seen it all – until his lordship unveiled his psychedelic vision for the Great Hall at Longleat
Alexander Thynn, 7th Marquess of Bath, peered thoughtfully at my swatch book and went straight for the boldest colours. “Process yellow, process blue, magenta and there, look, that’s a nice bright orange.” We were standing in front of the ornately carved stone fireplace in the Elizabethan Great Hall at Longleat. “Yellow hair for the figures and I think we should use the orange on the architectural pieces.” He was choosing the paints that he would like to use for the fireplace and dark wood panelling that lines the room, as well as the ornate screen from behind which visitors enter.
Not many trippers to Longleat realise that the Great Hall is one of the few architecturally original rooms left in the house. Longleat was built between 1560-80 for Sir John Thynne as a magnificent Renaissance palace. In Sir John’s day, if you weren’t convinced of the extraordinary wealth and prestige of its owner as you approached the impressive façade, the Great Hall would have left you in no doubt. It was a glamorous, brightly coloured salon, the setting for extravagant feasts and entertainment.
Pigments were rare and expensive, so they would have been used in abundance to show off. Gold and silver leaf would have sparkled in the candlelight. There are traces of murals where the fine but predictable Woottons now hang (the paintings were commissioned by Thomas Thynne, Viscount Weymouth, in the 1730s and are now owned by the Tate), and on the stone of the fireplace itself one can still make out a faint glow of red paint. It was a room with pizzazz.
The Victorians, however, had other ideas. In an attempt to stress the venerable antiquity of the family, they stripped off the bright colours and daubed the panelling a thick, muddy brown. A room that was once impressive for its lavish decoration as well as its size was turned into a dour, oppressive barn.
Lord Bath’s scheme is anything but dour. It would transform the Great Hall into a psychedelic vision straight out of The Beatles’ Magical Mystery Tour. One visitor has described my mock-up of it as “bonkers” – that was the printable bit. Another called it “an LSD version of tartan”. It is a palette very few of us would entertain in the privacy of our own homes, let alone a space which 2,000 visitors a day walk through. But Lord Bath has nurtured ambitions for the Great Hall since inheriting Longleat in 1992 and would love to impose his “1960s style”.
He seems unlikely to get his way however. Even a comparatively modest change was vetoed by the area inspector from English Heritage, who had to break it to him that it was out of the question in a GradeI listed house.
After 13 years, it is still a thrill to work at Longleat, where nothing comes as standard, especially the client. I have grown used to his exuberant love of colour. It is not arbitrary. I recall asking him, horrified, why he had chosen crimson for his penthouse curtains? “Because it contrasts so well with the green of the Capability Brown parkland outside,” was his answer. And one can’t argue with that. “Colour brings richness, joy and excitement. It is spirit-lifting,” he says. I have recently installed a 23ft-long, 10ft-high cabinet, made from the most exquisite, rippled sycamore. It has a glass screen in the centre with 2,500 coloured LED lights around the edge. Needless to say, Lord Bath prefers the pulsating mode so that every colour flashes in sequence, alarming the campers across the lake who can see the extraordinary light show through his window at night.
“The decoration of Longleat has shown the touch of each generation’s contributions,” says Lord Bath. What if the 4th Marquess hadn’t been allowed to cover the walls of what must have been very beautiful Tudor rooms with Genoese velvet in the 1870s, or to install the highly decorated gilded ceilings? Beautiful they may be, but they’re not to everyone’s taste.
“It is important that the 1960s leaves its mark too,” Lord Bath insists, “and it would be a vast improvement on the subdued colours of the Victorian era.”
There are those who would contend that he has done quite enough hippie daubing already in his private apartments. These grand rooms, which he started painting in a thick mixture of oils and sawdust in 1964, are covered from floor to ceiling in a breathtaking myriad of colour.
The ceilings too are either brightly painted or covered in intricate mirror mosaics by Lord Bath’s nephew, Alexander Thynne. All life is here, from teenage angst to the erotica of the famous Kama Sutra bedroom – a natural subject for a man who has had 74 “wifelets”.
The billiard room best reflects what Lord Bath would like to achieve in the Great Hall. Here bright, acid colours live alongside portraits of his ancestors and family photographs in the smorgasbord of history and styles that brings great houses alive.
There is a debate about where we should draw the conservation line and why. It is now planning policy not to allow Victorian windows to be replaced by the original, smaller-paned Georgian versions. This is because it is said that the large, out-of-proportion Victorian windows are part of the history of a building. I can see the point, but wouldn’t the Royal Crescent in Bath, for example, look fabulous if all the Georgian panes were restored? John Wood the Younger, 230 years ago, designed this unique facade to look a particular way; who has the moral authority to override him?
Under Lord Bath’s stewardship, Longleat last year attracted more than 750,000 visitors. So why shouldn’t he have his own way – and restore the Great Hall to colourful extravagance?
Lord Bath’s father, Henry, also had ideas about lifting the heaviness of the Victorian brown and found traces of burgundy, blue, red, green and gold on the ornate screen at the end of the hall. With a good deal of expensive investigation, it would be possible to restore the Great Hall to something like it was in Sir John’s day. But so much has been destroyed that we couldn’t be accurate and it would end up as a pastiche. Far better, in Lord Bath’s eyes, to go for a new scheme that is true to the original spirit.
As we cannot, my solution has been to digitally alter a photograph of the Great Hall and display a metre-long print in situ to show the proposed colour scheme. Lord Bath has asked that a book be placed nearby over the summer for visitors to put down their comments. Perhaps optimistically, he hopes there will be a groundswell of popular support with which he can approach English Heritage again.
Whatever happens, my hope is that visitors will leave understanding what the room was originally about – entertaining and showing off.