Details: Grisaille – 50 shades (or more) of grey

Returning to the detail I wanted to compare to the Violin at Chatsworth.


As I walk around houses, I continue to be introduced to artistic techniques and architectural styles. From this developed my “details” page.  My posts are not meant to be detailed research pieces on techniques, phenomenon or craftsmen.  What they do reflect is how many facets make up the great country houses: in many of the greats all of the “details” that I notice can be found.

At Houghton I was bemused somewhat by the main stair up which we entered from the basement to the piano nobile.  You see, while there is an exterior stair at Houghton leading to the piano nobile where the entrance hall is situated, and up which guests were intended by the house’s architect to arrive, in a way that I know annoys Simon Jenkins, the public ‘tourist’ tour of Houghton starts with a door in the basement and ends with the visitor exiting from the entrance hall down the external stairway.  Thus, we, the visitor see the house in an order and from various viewpoints quite unintended by the architect.

In the centre of the ‘back stairs’ up which we entered is an angular floor to height space.  At basement level is a square plinth with four columns, one at each corner (see below).  On the top of the columns is a flat slab of marble, with a statue sitting on it.  But we could see all the metalwork holding the statute in place.  On the walls are paintings of what in Roman antiquity would have been real carvings, represented in shades of grey.

Hardly fine detailing!

Why would someone like Robert Walpole, with all his magnificent treasures, engage in painting the walls rather than adorning them with real sculpture?  Why wouldn’t he seek the effect shown above in the picture I took at Chatsworth (although you can see even they have painted some of the sculpture)?

                                                                                    From Country Life images

When I asked the  guide at Houghton this question he said two things:

  1. by the time he came to the staircase, Lord Walpole just didn’t have the funds to have real carvings; and
  2. Lord Walpole’s guests didn’t come up the stairs by which I entered: they used the exterior stairs to the piano nobile and when they therefore simply looked through the doorway to the internal stair they saw what appeared to be real stone. The bannister concealed the metalwork holding the Borghese gladiator in place.  Mirrors & smoke?


And that’s it.

Grisaille creates the illusion of sculpted stone using shades of grey paint and was particularly associated with Dutch painters.  It lends itself to trompe-l’œil, but we have seen that trompe-l’œil doesn’t have to represent just stone, but encompass everything from a violin hanging on a door to the door itself.

So these two cousins were something I saw in situ during 2012 and a bit like when I once owned a Ford Fiesta, now I manage to see the techniques all over the place.

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