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A Victorian masterpiece emerges from beneath the whitewash

WHEN CHARLES Holmes became director of the National Gallery 80 years ago, he hated its ornate, Victorian decor. And, like a new home- owner keen on a clean sweep, he got rid of it.

Whitewash obliterated the intricate decorative scheme of J D Crace, interior designer to 19th-century royalty and aristocracy who had been responsible for work at the Brighton Pavilion, Windsor Castle and Chatsworth House.

Sheets of white and grey marble were mounted on top of the original green and pink in the imposing entrance hall. Every hint of late Victoriana was wiped out.

But when a lump of plaster fell from the ceiling five years ago, it emerged that Crace's work had largely survived its encasement. With tastes swinging back to displaying paintings in their full splendour, the vandalism of the 1920s is being overturned.

Behind the hoardings dominating the north side of Trafalgar Square, experts are peeling away the whitewash and the late marble additions.

When the entire renovation - part of a pounds 21m scheme to expand, update and refurbish the entrance and east wing of the gallery - is completed, the entrance and central hall will once more resemble the subtle Crace watercolour painting that survives to show his intentions.

Charles Saumarez Smith, the National Gallery's director, said the work was the culmination of the restoration of the galleries, a process which was begun under his predecessor, Neil MacGregor, in the 1980s with the support of the philanthropist Lord Rothschild.


"It is based on an assumption that it is most appropriate to show paintings in a setting that replicates the sort of setting that paintings were shown in historically," he said. The gallery becomes a surrogate for the stately home for which many of them were produced.

Although the existence of the Crace scheme was known, only when the plaster fell from the dome did it become clear how much might have survived beneath the whitewash.

Michael Morrison, an architect who specialises in historic buildings, brought in other experts and paint scrapes and samples were taken.

It quickly became obvious that the watercolour painting by Crace was more than an artist's impression or a bid for business. It was an accurate representation of what was created in 1887 when the original 1838 gallery was extended.

"What is going back up there is a historic recreation, not a fanciful interior decorator's idea of what it might be like," Mr Morrison said.

What is particularly exciting about the rediscovery is what it showed about the history of taste, Dr Saumarez Smith added. "This rather ornate opulent interior was done in the 1880s and then Charles Holmes becomes director in the 1920s and didn't like Victorian things and just got rid of it all." A similar purge on ornament and colour took place in the 1970s when galleries, including the National, veered towards neutral backgrounds of white walls and beige carpets.

"Galleries go through cycles in attitudes to interior decorating and to what constitutes best practice for looking at the paintings," Dr Saumarez Smith said. "At least what Holmes did was reversible."

The one hitch in proceedings is that they do not yet have the money to complete the project. The Getty family gave pounds 10m and private fundraising has brought in pounds 3.5m. But the Heritage Lottery Fund turned down an application for pounds 6m on the same day that it gave pounds 11.5m to the gallery to save Raphael's Madonna of the Pinks from sale abroad.

Now all hopes are being pinned on a revised application to the fund for pounds 4.1m. A decision is expected this month. Dr Saumarez Smith believes the scheme should be backed, not least because it is the logical extension of the redesign of Trafalgar Square.

The project under way behind the hoardings will open the East Wing of the gallery, previously a badly planned labyrinth of corridors, to create a new entrance from the recently pedestrianised square outside. It will house new public facilities including a cafe and bookshop and has a new, airy atrium in a previously unused courtyard.

Inside the existing entrance, not only will the Crace decoration be restored, but pillars will be knocked down to create a more spacious foyer with new information desks. This will ease the flow of visitors - now more than 4 million a year compared with the 30,000 expected annually in the 19th century.

The central hall will be air-conditioned for the first time, enabling some of the gallery's most dramatic and valuable paintings, such as its Titians, to be the first works visitors see.

Copyright 2004 Independent Newspapers UK Limited
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