How the right colour can enhance paintings in a gallery

Not many galleries or museums can boast of having a paint called by their name. Yet, there is a deep terracotta red produced by Craig & Rose called Dulwich Picture Gallery Red.

Now, after more than ten years, the time has come to contemplate repainting the walls of the stunning major space of the Gallery, the enfilade, and its chief curator Dr Xavier Bray is pondering on a new colour. It does not mean a stark change from its present shade much loved by the Gallery’s visitors. “I would like a touch more brown to tone down the pink hue and a slightly more matt texture just to absorb the light.”

He does admit that no one is quite sure where the original colour comes from. “It is said that a fragment of a similar red was found on the walls when they were repainting it eons ago and Sir John Soane, the architect of the Gallery, would probably have recommended a Pompeian Red.”

Xavier Bray would also like to paint the ceiling a darker shade of cream so as to soften the contrast with the walls and to enhance the natural light. When Soane designed the Gallery two hundred years ago he had to rely on natural light from the cleverly set windows in the roof and on clear days, when the electric lights are turned off, it is a marvel to see the Old Masters as they must have been seen by Soane.

Colour plays an important role in the Gallery, each exhibition demands its own colour scheme and with the play of shades the curator can create an atmosphere, which reflects the works on show. “It can be done either to lift the paintings or to complement them.” Xavier Bray guides us through the two exhibitions, which are now on at the Dulwich Picture Gallery. The first one is Van Dyck in Sicily, awarded four stars in the Daily Telegraph and called “enticing” by the Financial Times. The exhibition was curated by Bray’s predecessor Xavier Salomon.

Van Dyck in Sicily

“Xavier also picked the colours of the walls for this exhibition and I must say it works very well.” The walls in the first room, dominated by Van Dyck’s  masterly state portrait of Emanuele Filberto of Savoy, has a neutral shade of a deep grey, almost the colour of wet slate. Next to the portrait is Filberto’s parade armour, the one he is wearing in the portrait and its metal adorned with gold inlays really stands out against the grey. The impact is almost theatrical. A marble bust, yellowing with age, looks lifelike against the wall.

In the next room we can see Van Dyck’s devotional paintings and three of the walls are covered in a rich papal purple. The wall connecting to the first room remains slate grey; this trick leads the eye gently from one area to the next.

The other exhibition is in stark contrast to Van Dyck’s large masterpieces. For the first time ever Dulwich Picture Gallery shows Indian art, a collection of twenty four intricately painted miniatures, the earliest from c.1605. These are the famous ragamala paintings inspired by music.  The paintings are pages from a garland (mala) of visual melodies (ragas).

Vangala Ragini of Bhairava Raga, Rajasthan, Marwar/ Jodhpur, c. 1605, Gouache on paper, 20.5 x 14.8 cm, Claudio Moscatelli Collection

These were not made to hang on a wall but were loose pages, sometimes bound or left as a set on a shelf to be enjoyed after shared food and music. Lizzie Watson curated this exhibition, a colourful feast for the eye, and she took her inspiration for the exhibition design from the palette of Vangala Ragini of Bhairava Raga, the oldest painting in the show. In the first space, the warm Indian Yellow title vinyl contrasts to the Farrow & Ball greyish purple wall colour called Brassica. “The purple makes the orangey yellow hues in this room almost luminous, as in the Vangala painting,” says Lizzie Watson.

In the last room she picked a bright, almost shocking red called [del RED] Incarnadine, which beautifully complements the later ragamalas which are more subtle in their colourings. “The word ‘raga’ also means passion and is frequently associated with the colour red, so it seems quite fitting that the last room should be red”.

Recently the Gallery changed the colour of the walls in the Dutch Room, the last room on the left side as you enter the Gallery. It has now a light blue with a grey tinge, which works wonderfully with the Dutch landscapes. “Against a darker background the almost translucent Northern skies in these paintings would look dirty”, says Xavier Bray.

Colour can create an atmosphere, complement or contrast the works of art on show, no wonder the curators spend hours with colour samples. “The right colour background can make a picture sing,” says Xavier Bray. “And what we do here in the UK is often copied by museums and galleries the world over,” he adds proudly.

Van Dyck in Sicily: Painting and the Plague, 1624 – 25 and Ragamala Paintings from India: Poetry, Passion, Song on until 27 May.

Colour in the Home - Farrow & Ball’s colour consultant Joa Studholme gives an illustrated talk on how to create different interiors by using colours.

Saturday 10 March 10.30am – 11.30am Linbury Room, Dulwich Picture Gallery.

Cost: £10 £8 Friends – coffee afterwards

Booking by phone 020 8299 8750 Mon-Fri 10 am – 3pm Or book by email friendsticketing@dulwichpicturegallery.org.uk.    


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