For your library: Det Malede Rum (The Painted Room)

October 26, 2010

Conservators often get in detail quickly. They work in a fantastically painted environment, enjoy and study the colourful surroundings and then dive into the past. Who, what, where, when, how? Tests are done, samples are taken, pilot projects start, decisions are made, and restorations take place to restore the historic interior ‘to its former glory’. Conservators are the medium through which the past can speak. Apart from the reports that are made and enthusiastic talks that are given, there is also the International Architectural Paint Research Conference where conservators of the decorative historic interior share and discuss their ideas, findings or worries. It is an academic occasion, so important to develop our young field. And yes, it is a bit nerdy. Passionate people, you see.

Last August the fourth APR Conference was held. And Line Bregnhoi, senior conservator at the National Museum in Copenhagen, presented her gem that should appeal to academics and laymen alike. It is the book ‘Det Malede rum’ (the painted room), an enchanting and scholarly treatise on the painted interiors in Denmark of the nineteenth century, based on a two year research. She humbly said. Because of course a lifelong experience with decorative interiors, and an in several decennia built up sensitivity and knowledge, is needed in order to compose a publication of this quality.

Any traveller to Copenhagen will be overwhelmed by the abundance of neoclassical architecture, the royal palaces, the overall influence of the sculptor Thorvaldsen, and above all: the light. Any reader of this book will experience the same.
The book is written in Danish, and that sadly means that this thorough research and the forward results aren’t available for everyone. But don’t let that disencourage you.

The well written English summary and the many colourful pictures are more then able to lure you into the Danish decorative paintwork and to get immersed in Bregnhoi’s scholarship.
Paint, materials and techniques were documented, analysed and studied. Details of preserved wall and ceiling paintings were compared with contemporary accounts of painting practice. This is not an easy task as in Denmark the inflexible guild system survived until 1862 so painting manuals from this period do not necessarily reflect professional practice. As an example, the advocated paint systems in handbooks (distemper and oil paint) do not form the majority of the analysed binding media of the paintwork (which was ‘composition paint’- a mixture of glue and oil, that absolutely no contemporary manual mentioned).

It is a lesson for us all. In a time where the word is considered to be the most important communication method and the ‘head’ presides over the ’hand’, it is confronting to see that a building can speak up so definitely, using only its materials and visual language. The book has a fantastic bibliography, to help people like me to develop this way of ‘listening’ and to learn from the subject that we are to preserve and restore: the building itself.

Let me introduce the book to you…
Pompeian décor came to Denmark in the 1830’s; the study of Roman wall paintings had an immediate reflection on the interior décor. Can you see the playful but oh so airy adaptation in this room?

Painting trade, working methods and decoration types were classified, by studying a carefully selected series of nineteenth century interior paintings. You will recognise several brushes and tools in this painting of a painter’s studio. I personally love details like the trial of a Greek key pattern on the wall.

Painting tests with the analysed pigments (forming a very limited palette) shows how little ‘colour’ says about the appearance of a finish. The same pigment will have a complete different texture, light reflectance and hue when it is used in different binding types. I am sure many conservators will refer to Line Bregnhoi’s research when discussing historic paint colours in future. These values of a finish are so difficult to explain and understand.

And then there are the many pictures, showing gloriously painted rooms, one after the other. A coffee table book and scholarly treatise in one, suitable for the conservation specialist as well as the interior decoration enthusiast.
The book is true joy, so informative and inspiring. Please, let the translated publication come soon.

Line Bregnhoi Det malede rum. (Kobenhavn 2010) published by Historismus. It can be ordered here by filling in the form and ticking the amount of copies in the box for ‘eksemplar(er) af Det malede rum’