Fowler Pink?: The Kelmarsh Hall Conundrum

Interpreting an historical house is a fascinating process. Peeling back the layers and indeed deciding which layers to peel can be difficult and sometimes controversial.

Marianne Suhr, Surveyor of the Fabric at Kelmarsh Hall, wrote about a dilemma she and her colleagues recently faced in her paper "John Fowler and Nancy Lancaster at Kelmarsh Hall" published in John Fowler: The Invention of the Country House Style (Donhead, 2005).

Kelmarsh was designed by the important Palladian architect James Gibbs in the early eighteenth century in Northamptonshire. Architecture historian Nicolas Pevsner judged it“a perfect, extremely reticent design…done in an impeccable taste.”

However, Kelmarsh is best known as the house where Nancy Lancaster first established her taste in decorating. She and first husband Ronnie Tree came to the house in 1928 with the agreement to redecorate the Hall in lieu of paying rent. Upon arriving, the Trees found the Entrance Hall "a dark, rather sad green" which Nancy soon had painted over "an Italian pink, a light terracotta" which she copied from Lady Islington, "the person in England who had the very taste and the very best color sense." This pink, which became know locally as Kelmarsh pink, was much admired and copied by her neighbors. She complemented the pink with "two chairs covered in the most wonderful tangerine velvet, another in emerald green, one Queen Anne wing chair in bright yellow brocade and a chair and sofa in striped fabric I bought in Italy."

The current custodians of Kelmarsh realize the importance of Nancy Lancaster's contribution to 20th century decoration and decided to keep the Entrance Hall as a document of her early taste. However, the famous pink walls were flaking, which in fact had always proved to be a problem as the walls were originally of a burnished plaster mixed with marble dust and not meant to be painted. This condition meant that as soon as 1950 Nancy's pink walls needed to be refreshed. Enter John Fowler.

This is where things get sticky. In 1950, Nancy and 2nd husband Colonel Lancaster (the owner of Kelmarsh!) were divorcing, and furthermore she and Fowler were on the outs. Fowler who was entrusted with the project sent his color mixer Horace to work with a local firm, and came but once to inspect the project. According to a painter who was on the scene at the time, no effort was made to match the original pink.

Now that the walls are flaking again, do you take the color back to 1928 even if there's no guarantee that you can capture it but that is truer to the overall interpretation of the room, or do you conserve the Fowler pink and think of it as part of the room's history?

In the end, Kelmarsh decided to redecorate the lower half of the walls to 1950, and then to leave the paint above "with all its archeology."

What do you think?