December 2014: Choosing a colour scheme doesn’t usually involve a microscope but then again Hoxton Hall isn’t your usual building. This 1863 early salon style Music Hall is Grade II* listed (in the top 6% of all listed buildings in the UK no less). So when we were deciding paint colours with Hoxton Hall as part of the hall’s restoration, conservation and modernisation, we looked to science in the first instance for answers.

Photomicrograph of a sample from the wall recess showing its surviving decorative history. Photographed in cross-section with a 5X lens.

Photomicrograph of a sample from the wall recess showing its surviving decorative history. Photographed in cross-section with a 5X lens.

Scraping 103 samples from the hall’s walls with a scalpel, architectural paint researcher Lisa Oestreicher revealed layers of paint under a microscope. Micro-chemical tests were also carried out to identify pigments.

Lisa found very little decoration had survived from the first four years of the hall’s establishment over 150 years ago. No decoration on the plaster surface suggests wallpaper may have been used.

When the hall converted to a fully functioning drinking hall with entertainment in 1866, elaborate multi-coloured stenciled decoration started to dominate the wall surfaces; stencils provided cheap, colourful and quick decoration to attract punters. The samples then suggest that more somber and unified schemes were introduced when the Blue Ribbon Army temperance movement purchased the hall in 1879.

Further analysis suggests that in its heyday the hall’s walls would have been a light cream colour stained by tobacco smoke. Imagine the spectacle (and smells) of a gas-lit auditorium where liquor, tobacco and human bodies converged.

Next we moved from science to the arts. The great painter and printmaker Walter Sickert (1860-1942) immersed himself in the music hall world in his desire to capture modern life on canvas. He was particularly fond of the Bedford Music Hall in Camden, London, – unfortunately no longer standing – describing it as ‘my old love’.

Painting by Walter Sickert

Painting by Walter Sickert

Sickert enjoyed being in the crowd during a performance, capturing the Bedford from different perspectives. With no colour photos or paintings of Hoxton Hall to reference, the paintings gave us an insight into what a typical music hall in Britain – of which only a handful from over 500 survive – would have looked like.

His paintings and prints indicate a dark and austere atmosphere, with a lighter backdrop, but with significant amounts of dark brown and reds. These tally with today’s popular public perceptions that music halls of that era were ‘spit and sawdust with a hint of glamour’.

Taking all of these findings into account Hoxton Hall had to find a balance between a technical replication of colours and modern-day needs. With smoking regulations not as lax as there were in the late 19th century, floor to ceiling walls of the light cream colour identified in the paint analysis would never be darkened by tobacco staining, gas lighting and heavy industrial pollution; it would stay too clean and look far too clinical for the ambience we’re trying to create in Hoxton Hall.

It goes without saying that lighting will also be instrumental in maintaining Hoxton Hall’s charm and atmosphere – more about this and a Victorian form of air conditioning (yes it did exist!) in another post.

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