Thursday, February 12, 2015

Entry Hall Color: What Would the Victorians Have Done?

As we settle into our new home and tackle the projects on our three month "to do" list, I've noticed a shift in priorities.  My next order of business should be to sand, prime and paint the ceiling in the guest room.  I ought to finish one room before moving on to the next, right?  But now that the guest room is more or less presentable, I find myself less and less motivated to keep working on it.  I suppose "presentable" is a relative term; the guest room clearly still needs a lot of work.  But in comparison to the rest of the house, it looks pretty gosh darn good.  And so, I'm more compelled to spend my time working in the areas that we use everyday, but that drive me crazy in their current half-finished condition.  The entry hall and the bathroom are two such spaces.

Our entry hall

The entry hall is quite lovely, and it's one of my favorite spaces in the house.  The hall is relatively modest in size, but it nonetheless feels elegant thanks to the beautiful millwork on the moldings, the newel post, and the balustrade.  In the early afternoon, soft light filters through the 8-foot double doors, creating a warm and welcoming space.  However, at the present time, the entry way feels haphazard.  The previous owner applied a coat of primer to the walls, but they were otherwise bare when we moved in.  Then, I had the brilliant idea to use the entry hall to test paint samples. Not just for the entry way -- which would make sense -- but for other rooms in the house, too.  There are currently seven shades of paint in the foyer, and my husband is starting to worry that I might be considering a career in modern art.  Since we walk through the entry hall several times a day, it seems like it ought to be one of the first areas where we focus our attention.

View of the entry hall, from the living room

Our plan is for our more formal rooms (ie, the entry hall, living room, and dining room) to be decorated in the Victorian style.  The goal isn't to build a museum in our house or to erect a shrine to the Victorian decorative arts.  Rather, we'd like to incorporate the Victorian aesthetic in a way that makes sense for modern life.  So I started to research Victorian entry halls, particularly around the time when our home was built (1870s- 1900).

View of the entry hall, from the dining room

Robin Guild, author of The Victorian House Book, writes that "the basic pattern of the Victorian house remained remarkably consistent.  Whatever the size or status of the house, the focus of the building remained the entry hall, stairway and upper landings off which the many, often small, rooms led.  In great houses and estates, the hallways was a grand affair boasting a magnificent fireplace, and possibly and elaborate beamed ceiling...At the other end of the scale, row houses had a narrow entrance hall, with a door opening immediately to the right or left into a drawing room or parlor.  This arrangement was intended to give the visitor an immediate view of the most impressive room in the house, finished with the finest cornices, fireplace and baseboards.  The staircase led up straight ahead and past it ran a passage leading to the dining room and kitchen at the rear.  In many row houses a large double door linked the two principal ground floor rooms" (Guild 105).  

Although we live in a single family residence, Guild's description of a Victorian row home is a near match for our home.  We have the same side-hall configuration that he describes, as well as a pocket door linking our living and dining rooms.  We live in a relatively urban area and many of the homes are situated on long, narrow lots, so it makes sense that we have a floorplan similar to that of a row house. 

Guild goes on to explain that, "today, with our less visible air pollution, we forget that entry halls once had to act as cordons sanitaires between a comfortable indoors and a horse-driven, dusty or muddy world outside.  A hall also had to impress the visitor and set the tone for entry into the public rooms. Despite the fact that many hallways in row houses were poorly lit, often only by a fanlight above the door, dark colors were widely used....the fact that a hall is not a room where you spend much time gives you a little liberty to decorate with extravagant color schemes, using a profusion of colors and patterns that is exciting when passing through but would become infuriating in a room in which you wanted to work or relax" (Guild 114).  Guild also notes that American entry halls tended to be brighter than their British counterparts, suggesting that there was some difference in color preference based on geography.

Based on Guild's description, my first instinct was to choose a rich, saturated, jewel-toned color for our entry hall.  Perhaps a ruby red or an emerald green.  In fact, The Victorian House Book shows a picture of an entry hall painted a stunning shade of emerald.  The Historic Colors of America paint line had several tones in their Victorian collection which seemed suitable, such as Codman Claret and Picholine.  Even before starting my research, I liked the idea of having a bold color in our foyer so I was pleased to learn that these colors may have been accurate for the period.  After sampling some red paints, I was even more convinced that it would be the right choice.  

However, once I consulted additional sources, I started to encounter conflicting information about Victorian entry halls.  The Wikipedia page for Victorian Decorative Arts states that halls would usually have been painted a dark neutral, such as gray.  Similarly, Bricks and Brass, a UK website with information about period homes, states that in the entry hall, "the décor of the body of the wall was kept neutral to avoid clashes with the rooms opening off it."  These descriptions seemed inconsistent with the information in Guild's account.  I doubted that Guild's was inaccurate, but perhaps I had misunderstood the text.  So I decided to consult original sources from the Victorian era, to see what the Victorians had to say on the matter. Thankfully, many of these original sources are available for free online.

In 1882, Ella Rodman Church wrote in How to Furnish a Home that "The entrance of the house indicates the character of the entire building, the lower hall or vestibule often furnishing the keynote to the whole interior.   This keynote -- addressed to the eye -- should be pitched low; there should be no striking brilliancy of color, although warm tones are admissible, but as a leading up, as it were, to the richer hues and more elaborate adornment of the sheltered apartments" (9). 

Drat.  It sounds like Mrs. Church would not have condoned a jewel-toned hall.  She further advises that "With a hall like that found in many modest-sized city houses -- where the long flight of narrow stairs seems to have started on a run from the upper story and just to have stopped short of rushing out through the front door -- long and narrow, all the width being needed for the parlors, very little can be accomplished in the way of beauty.  There is only to cover floor and walls to the best advantage, and put as little on them as possible...The walls should be light in color and unobtrusive in design" (10). 

But perhaps Mrs. Church ought not to be treated as the only voice on the matter of Victorian interior design.  In the same way that current tastes encompass a range of ways for decorating the modern home, it's very likely that a similar variety of opinions existed in the Victorian era.  So I searched for additional sources.

In the published lectures of Robert Edis, a 19th century British architect, he states that the walls in an entry hall should be "painted some good color -- not too light to show fingerprints -- to two thirds of their height with some simple pattern stencilled over their surface, but, if possible, varied -- that is to say, light upon dark and dark upon light -- and the whole carefully varnished, not only to protect the paint but also to render the walls easily cleaned without damage" (148). 

Edis's description of a "good color" is vague, but his concern with camouflaging fingerprints resonates with other Victorian texts I've encountered.  Church similarly worries about fingerprints and therefore warns her readers that "paint is more suitable in halls and stairways than paper, as the latter is too apt to be soiled by the careless fingers of servants, and cannot be washed" (12)*.  Unlike Church, however, Edis has no qualms about hanging wallpaper throughout the entry hall (150).  As another option, Edis recommends "panelling 6 or 7 feet tall in plain deal, painted in red or dark blue lacquer color, and with a good flock paper frieze, painted light golden yellow, flecked with reddish or brighter golden touches, to relieve it from the general sameness which one tint presents when not brightened up by decoration." (151).  For a ceiling color, Edis prefers a "light vellum pink, or gray tone" (150) and reminds his audience that they will likely need to repaint the ceiling often as it will become soiled by the gas used to fuel the lights in the home. 

Charles Eastlake, another British architect and a prominent figure in the Arts and Crafts movement, thought that the color of the entry hall ought to depend on the amount of light it received.  In Hints on Household Taste, he states that "in cases where, is too often the case, a small fanlight over the entrance door is all the provision for illuminating the hall, it will be as well to choose a delicate green or warm grey tint.  Where, on the contrary, there is plenty of light, the dull red hue, which may still be traced on the walls of Pompeii, and on the relics of ancient Egypt, will be found an excellent source of color" (47).

Thank you, Mr. Eastlake and Mr. Edis.  When I google "Pompeii Red" the resulting images are of a bright crimson red.  That's all the evidence I need to proceed with choosing a red color for our entry hall.

By the way, Eastlake also worries about fingerprints in the hall; he suggests that paint applied "at a level of four feet from the floorline would be safely removed from contact with ladies' dresses and careless fingermarks" (47).


*Some of Church's discussions of household servants may strike modern readers as distasteful.  However, it is my understanding that, in many ways, her attitude towards servants was progressive for the time.  As an example, her book includes a chapter on furnishing the servants' quarters and recommends that the staff be provided with a "pleasant and comfortably appointed room to retire to" (Church 96) with a few pictures on the wall as "such thoughtful touches make a servant feel that she has been considered beyond the mere necessities of life" (Church 99).


Church, Ella Rodman. How to Furnish a Home. New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1882. (link to electronic copy)

Eastlake, Charles. Hints on Household Taste in Furniture, Upholstery, and Other Details. London: Longmans, Green. 1869. (link to electronic copy)

Edis, Robert. Decoration & furniture of town houses: a series of Cantor lectures delivered before the Society of Arts. London: C. K. Paul & co., 1881. (link to electronic copy)

Guild, Robin.  The Victorian House Book: A Practical Guide to Home Repair and Decoration. New York: Rizzoli, 1989.

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