It is unfortunate for the interest of Art at the present time that in civilised countries it has come to be regarded as the result of theories utterly remoted from the question of ordinary taste." - Charles L. Eastlake, Hints of Household Taste, 1865

Victorian Mansion

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An Unexpected Commission

          During the first couple of months of 2005 I worked on a commission to produce conceptual designs for a country house built in the 1880’s. The house, which was originally part of a larger agrarian estate outside of Cleveland, had undergone many ill-advised transformations during its long life culminating into a present state of deterioration and decay. My client, a gentleman touched by a loving spirit for the old and the romantic, wanted to return the house to a state of former glory.

My original intention was to discuss a series of ceiling mural paintings for a ball room. (Small ink sketch on cardboard)

          My initial contact with the client was not related to this commission. We had met to discuss a mural project for his home. However, my client’s interest had shifted from the mural to his new acquisition and, after taking me on a tour, asked me to do the designs for the restoration. I was rather shocked by the request and had feelings of foreboding. This was not the commission I had prepared for.

          Having spent two years working on the Gordon Square Theatre mural -and considering that I was still recovering from an accident, I was weary of becoming bored working on another project for an extended period of time. But to sweeten the offer my client doubled my customary fee. Suddenly, I had an epiphany about using the additional income to help fund pre-production on my film project, and before I could blink twice I was sold –or bought.

Touring the Site

          This was one job where one has to start from scratch since, to begin with, there where no surviving architectural prints of the house; there were no photographs; no written descriptions of its original look. Over a century’s time, windows had been replaced with newer styles, floors resurfaced, wall treatments painted over, fixtures replaced, and the kitchen had been completely redone (in the worse possible manner).

Resurfaced floors and ill-advised
wall treatments and faux painting.
-Entrance way.
Fretwork designs and wood-
hidden in layers of paint.
-Conservatory detail.
Damaged and painted plaster
ornamentation and walls.

-Dinning room detail.

          On the plus side, all the changes (with the exception of the kitchen) were basically cosmetic and reversible, most of them a consequence –in my opinion, of a lack of financial resources (and the advice of a professional decorator) to maintain the regal upkeep such a gem required. The woodwork and plasterwork were intact but covered in layers of shellac, varnish or paint.

          My job would consist in researching the history of the house, creating reconstruction drawings of its original architecture, and finally, produce designs visualising the décor and furnishing worthy of a Victorian patron of taste and wealth. Later on, my client would contract workers and decorators to restore the house. But by hiring me to produce the designs, he would get a good idea of the finished product before initiating a project that would not doubt entail a considerable financial investment.

Working Procedure

          The question most asked of me by other artists and students is: How do I prepare for a large project. The answer is always the same: I divide a project into a succession of steps and then proceed to accomplish them one by one in an orderly fashion. The first step is doing research. Period. But doing good research takes a while –and I will talk more about this step later on.

This is my most important professional tool: a digital camera.

I purchased my Canon PowerShot G1 camera when they first appeared in the market. At the time it was a considerable investment since this model was for professional use.

But this investment has paid itself many times over in gold. I have saved thousands of dollars in film and development and continue to use this workhorse on a weekly basis.
I simply take as many pictures as my heart desires to later download into my computer for storage. I keep the ones I need; the rest I delete.

My camera kit also includes a close-up lens, a conversion lens adaptor, and a sturdy carrying case. I also replace the original CompactFlash card (used to store images recorded by the camera) with a larger capacity one (128 MB).

If you do not own a digital camera, you should invest in one. A simple one will do.

          The first thing I did at the site was photograph everything; every single detail, room by room. I also photographed images from books and other reference sources. At home, I classified the pictures into files, named the files for easy reference, and burned them into a CD. By doing so you avoid loosing your picture files if your computer crashes or your hard drive goes bad. You also free valuable space that you will need later on. Remember, keeping good picture reference files will greatly speed up your work.

          After taking photographs, I proceeded to make a floor plan of every level. This is a time consuming job done with a measuring tape, pencil and pad. When doing this kind of work, measure twice to avoid errors and do it in a systematic fashion. Do not miss a thing. Take notes. Take plenty of notes. You do not want to go back to the site because you forgot to take a measurement or because you forgot to write down the meaning of a specific number.

          Make elevation drawings of every wall and mark the position of each electrical fixture, panels, doors, ornaments and mouldings. Make separate sketches of individual details -and number the pages! Do not forget to measure ceiling heights and the position of lamps and decorative details. Notice later below how this drawing was rendered as a painting of the main parlour sidewall.

          Take exact life-size reproductions of every piece of moulding. Why? Because you will need to reproduce them in your design; your final design paintings will be done to scale. Attention to detail is paramount. Do not forget to number the pages and identify the details for easy reference on the corresponding elevation drawings.

Punch! Professional Home Design Suite is a professional-level home design system developed for anyone who needs fast, accurate home drawings and wants the flexibility to view their plan in 3D.

With this software you can do architectural drawings, plumbing installation, electrical plans, estimating, 3D visualisation, interior design, and landscaping.

For more information about this product visit the following website:

          After spending six weeks at the site making detailed drawings, I began work on the computer With the help of a home design software program -Punch!, and with my drawings and pictures as references, I began to recreate the house using the imaging software. The first thing I completed was the floor plan for the first two levels of the house which contained all the principal rooms (detail, above left). Then I worked the elevations making sure I had occurate ceiling heights and the exact positioning of windows and doors, electrical fixtures, radiators, and so on.

Note: you can still do this part of the job the old fashion way on a drafting board with just pencil and papel. It takes longer but the results are the same.

          I kept things basic. While Punch! is a great program to work out design ideas, it is not designed to do a job demanding an exacting level of detail. The program does have a nice 3D feature that allowed me to walk through every room inside the 'virtual house' to get a perspective feeling of the space from almost any point of view. The next best thing to this is that once I had a view that I liked, I could take a picture from any perspective point of view and then transfer the image to another program like Photoshop.

          Punch! is a fun program for the creative mind but it does take a while to get used to it without having to scream for patience to your deity of choice (you will on occasion do so). The program does have a few irritating bugs but you can create visually compelling home designs in no time at all. It is an exciting experience to walk through your 3D design but you need a computer with plenty of power. The 3D feature is a memory hog that will taxed your computer to a halt on a large project.

          With all the research completed and my reference files in order, I them prepared myself for a long stay at my computer where the rest of the design work was going to take place. Here's some advice: you are going to spend a lot of time sitting so make sure you have a comfortable chair and a bottle of aspirins. Hours will fly-by before you take notice and eye-strain will be a constant ache. Drinking plenty of water helps.

          I used Adobe Photoshop version 7 to produce all the work. My goal was to make 2-dimensional paintings representing the designs for each elevation of every room. But to produce a perspective view of the finished product I took one of the 3D images I uploaded from Punch! into Photoshop (above left) and then applied the paintings of my finished designs to each wall, the floor, and the ceiling. I even showed the actual scenery of the site through the windows and finished the perspective rendering by applying a Photoshop ‘lighting’ rendering filter for the final look (above right image).

          I am not a computer wiz. Like everyone else, I have to work at it. At best, I'm a visual learner. While preparing for this project I realised that I was not proficient with Adobe Photoshop, so I got a book to learn more. The book was Teach Yourself Visually: Adobe Photoshop 7 from the popular series of books by the same name, from Wiley Publishing Inc. ( Check out all the books in the series. In a couple of evenings, with the help of the book, I was already doing wonders in Photoshop. Sometimes you have to sit back and simply watch the magic happen before your very eyes. But I’m getting ahead of things. You still need to construct your design elements.

          Design elements is what I call object reproductions of all the fixtures, ornaments, mouldings, and any other decorative element you will cut and past unto layers to complete a finished design painting. Notice the radiator example above. I made a drawing of the radiator sections and noted the measurements. I also took a reference photograph of the actual radiator which had been painted over with blue paint. Finally, I reconstructed the bronze-cast radiator in Photoshop in exact scale to the original.

          These are other examples of design elements. On the left is a photograph of an electrical fixture, a combination switch and outlet with a brass-plated cover. At the center is the reproduction created in Photoshop. Sometimes I manipulate elements from a photograph into a reproduction, but for the most part, everything is reconstructed from scratch. The texture from the different objects and surfaces is also created using various Photoshop applications. On the right is a reproduction of an gilded urn woodcarving detail. The originals had were covered in layers of encrusted white paint.

          My design elements library for this project consisted of several hundred objects all painstakingly created to scale in Photoshop. When it came time to create the final design paintings, I would search through the library for the needed object like a shopper searching for items in a Home Depot warehouse, then select, copy and paste were needed, as many times as its required. Having a well stocked warehouse is key to avoid construction delays. The same goes with constructing design paintings in Photoshop. Take your time to do the grunt work so that you can enjoy the design stage.

          As you have seen, my working approach for creating the final design paintings by manipulating the software is quite simple, but creating the finished art is not. You need patience and unflinching attention to detail and you need to know how to handle the software to exploit its amazing capabilities. But first, you need to design. Creativity and imagination does not come with the software package.

The finished designs

          I had never before produced restoration designs for a Victorian house. This kind of work does not come around too often in ones lifetime. But neither was I a neophyte on Victorian architectural styles and décor. Besides being an experienced decorator and set designer, I considered myself more qualified than most to tackle a Victorian restoration because of my own personal artistic and literary inclinations. For years I have been an eager student and practitioner of Victorian painting counting among my favourites Victorian artists, such as Alma-Tadema, Lord Leighton, Millais, and Rossetti, and Victorian architects and designers, such as Pugin, Burges, Talbert, Dresser, William Morris, and Charles Mackintoch.

          In addition, I have always been a voracious reader of Victorian literature, which dates roughly between the death of Scott in 1832 and the death of Tennyson in 1892. I have visited museums dedicated to the preservation of the era and have buried myself deep into the history of the times, and its developments in nearly every sphere of human undertaking. What's more, I shared a Victorian passion for archaeology, ancient civilisations, and exotic cultures. And as I walked through the rooms of this old house that I was being offered to restore, I was already crossing back into time.

Flaming June, by Lord Leighton, is considered to be the painting that best exemplifies the Victorian era. I include reproductions of paintings of the time in my designs to indicate where art should be displayed, like above the mantelpiece of the main hall. The original Flaming June is part of the magnificent art collection of the Museo de Arte de Ponce, in Puerto Rico. The main hall's usual accoutrements were often a piano or organ, other tables, marble-topped if wealthier homes, for displaying works of art, photo albums, and travel mementos. They were used for large entertainment gatherings and dances. Ideas of parlour decor were gleaned from contact with the English gentry. The French, as in this design, were always to be imitated. Notice the gilded rossettes on the frieze and the urns on the fireplace.

          The rest of the images on this page are examples of the finished design paintings. They represent various rooms and spaces in what my client referred to as 'the summer house.' I called it 'a mansion' because any house with rooms for servants, guest rooms, bedroom chambers, butler's pantry, kitchen, pantry, scullery, main parlour, vestibule, conservatory, dressing room, library, drawing room, study, servant's hall, smaller rooms and six baths, is, by any other name, still a mansion. A mansion is indeed a large and stately dwelling house. Some are huge estates, others are of modest proportions. But they are all regal.

These are variations of the main parlour sidewall showing two treatments for the dado panels. The one on the left has a combination of marbling and fabric, and the one on the left a combination of marbling and gilded frames. The perspective image of the space (below) shows yet a third variation of the dado. The windows are covered with under lace curtains and boldly patterned heavy drapes (shown without the tie-backs) suspended from elegant brass rods. Large paintings are suspended with string from the picture rail (moulding) which runs around the room below the frieze line.

          There are two approaches to restoration. One is to build up a place to look like a museum. The other one attempt to restore the place to look like people from the time continue to inhabit the space. I favoured the second approach. Instead of building a mausoleum to store Victorian relics, I designed the space to look like real Victorians still live in it -as if walking into a movie. I not only wanted the place to look authentic, I also wanted to capture the spirit of the times. An era where people work tirelessly decorating, repairing and improving their homes to create havens from the pressures and bustle of the outside world.

During the 1870's and 1880s Victorians simplified the decoration of their public rooms. Such simplification often happened on the floor which was usually covered in wall to wall carpet. Carpets were difficult to maintain and were arguably a fire hazard more than any other item. So designers began to reveal the real beauties of hardwood floors in the form of a wood mosaic method called parquet. I suggest the use of such floors for the main parlour though I would recreated the look by painting the pattern with stains and coating the design with several coats of synthetic varnish -a very inexpensive modern solution that looks like the real thing. The ceiling (not shown) would also be decorated with a fresco painting, considered a mark of status among upper class Victorians.

          Most of what we know today about "the Victorians" we learned from their writings, their art, and their literature. Photographic archives of the time are in black and white so their lives seem to us dark and sombre. Natural and man-made disasters such as fires and wars have destroyed most of their world, and the passage of time has faded away the few surviving examples that remained to us. Their tangible relics have been preserved in museums and restored homes but even these depositories of 'Victoriana' fail to give us a complete picture of the times.

An entrance way or vestibule was more than a connecting passage from the front door to the main hall, or other rooms. The entrance way in the Victorian home was there to make an impression upon the visitor, to make a statement about ones position in society and the world. Often, it also provided an extra space for entertainment. After the 1840's, encaustic tiles made of powdered clay were set in variety of visually stunning geometric designs, today a hallmark of a house from the era. The two decorative wall designs (inspired by Greco-Roman art) at each side of the door are actually mosaics which are impervious to cold winter temperatures. Compare this image to the previous photograph of the actual entrance way.

          An endless number of books have been published on all aspects of the Victorian age, not the least on its architecture and interior designs. I do not intend to school you on such topics which today are readily available at the push of a few keys or on the shelves of your local library. But I do mean to stress the fact that designer working on this kind of project cannot afford to skip on the reading. To supplement my historical research, I added close to fifty books to my personal library. My favourite source for rare hard-to-find and out of print books is Dover Publications Inc. ( Established in 1941, Dover's catalogue of books is both impressive and fascinating. Their collection on Victoriana is quite extensive.

This is a view of the kitchen with doors connecting to the servant's hall, the rear entrance, the icebox room and other food storing pantries. A servant's call box (not shown in this view) is also located here. Unlike today, Victorian kitchens had no built-in storage cabinets or working counters. They had a large table for food preparation and the cast-iron wood or coal burning stove or range. An orderly sideboard, for storing pots and pans and other cooking utensils, was the hallmark of a well trained staff. In wealthier homes like this one, the silver, glassware and fine china were kept in the butler's pantry, along with table linens. The dado (lower part of the wall) was also covered in glazed tiles or bricks. As a purely decorative surface (and because of the ease of cleaning), tiles were more widely used than almost any other material. Floors in particularly large kitchens were of stone or brick.

This is the "buzzer board" which was mounted on the kitchen wall and the buzzer located above the box. The buzzer board, also known as the "Call Box", had a series of lights corresponding to the various rooms around the mansion. To summon help, a call buttom was depress at any of these rooms, the buzzer above the call box would ring loudly, and the light to the corresponding room would turn on. This was a very effective system of communication -which might drive the staff crazy when there were children in the house.

          Many people are not aware that what today we call “Victorian” architecture is in actuality a series of architectural styles, most of them imitations of earlier periods from Europe and Great Britain, ranging from the formal, austere and patterned interiors of the 1830’s to the simpler Arts and Crafts rooms seen at the turn of the century. It is called Victorian to indicate that Queen Victoria, who came to the throne in 1837 and died in 1901, was the ruler of England during most of its extent. In fact, Queen Victoria was the first English monarch to see her name given to the period of her reign whilst still living.

The word "parlour" belongs to the Victorian era. Sitting room, drawing room, living room are synonyms, but for the Victorians, the parlour, or parlour life, represented the most important aspect of Victorian life. The parlour (large houses contained several parlours) was were families assembled, met their guests and entertained themselves and others through conversation, playing games, putting on plays, viewing stereographs, singing and enjoying music, writing letters, and engaging in the paramount parlour activity, reading.

          More often than not, several Victorian styles coexisted in the same space as Victorians merged and changed things as new fashions replaced the old ones. Some of these changes are reflected in the styles I chose to restore some of the rooms in the mansion. For example, while the main parlour has a continental flavour along the classical lines of the Greek revival, the servant's hall is closer in styles to the Arts and Crafts period.

The parlour shown in the above painting, connects to the conservatory, the main hall and the library. Between 1870 and 1890, rich dark colours and highly patterned papers and fabrics were fashionable. Wallpaper became such a dominant decorative element that people were literally papering everything that didn't move, including closets and ceilings. The colour red (ox-blood) became a status symbol. The above painting does not show ceiling decoration or the Eastern carpet on the hardwood floor.

          At the final decades of the nineteenth century, the United States was still relatively a young nation seeking its own identity, culturally, politically, socially, and artistically, while sustaining strong ties to its European heritage. The ambivalence between striking out as a young nation with ideas of its own and the desire to emulate the sophistication of England and the Continent was exemplified in the mixture and blend of architectural and interior styles. This time in American history was described by Mark Twain as "The Gilded Age."

Victorians were avid travellers, collectors and pack-rats. Collecting from around the world became a passion and they mixed exotic goods from India and other parts of the British Empire with heavy Victorian furnishing and period finery. The spirit of the East and of Victorian enterprise is capture in this setting, reminiscent of an adventurer's private haunt. Other exotic items, maps, nautical art, and Eastern carpets (not seen in this view) completed the decor of this library which is connected to the family parlour. The bookshelves would be stuffed with all kinds of books.

          I spent three months working on this project. Not only did I created designs for all the major rooms and furnishings, I also put together an illustrated compendium of historical sources and documentation to back each design. It was an exhausting amount of work but the final results were well worth it. By the time I finished the paintings, contractors were already working on the kitchen area to make the necessary repairs a house this old required. Since all the electrical wiring had to be replaced to bring the structure up to building codes, this provided the perfect opportunity to strip down the surfaces to recreate a Victorian kitchen as shown in the designs.

I borrowed the from original ornamental patterns in the conservatory to create this design for the back porch which had to be completely reconstructed. I am particularly pleased with the trellis designs. They are suspended in place with wires.

          Just about everything Victorian is available in today's market, even reproductions of cast iron stoves designed to work with natural gas. Tiles with Victorian motifs and designs are sold from several specialty suppliers or can be imported at reasonable cost from the same manufacturers the Victorians favoured in England, Portugal, Italy and Spain. The same goes for fabrics and wallpapers. Like the Victorians of old, my client may spend a small fortune realising his dream. But then, this happens only once in a lifetime.

By the 1860s the icebox was introduced, at this time an insulated wooden cabinet with brass hardware, though it wasn't until the 1880s that it was prevalent. As shown on this painting, the mansion had a state of the art icebox installed in a room connected to the kitchen. The back wall has a small door so that dry ice deliveries could be made directly into the icebox from the outside.

I designed this ceiling mural for the conservatory. The Victorians excelled in their expression of love for nature. They brought it inside whenever possible with houseplants, fountains and other natural objects. Wealthier homes such as this one had conservatories for indoor gardens. The mural repeats the fretwork design from the walls of the conservatory to create a frame around a glass roof like that of a greenhouse. The Victorians did similar things sometimes using stained glass windows to bring the outside in.

The wonders of ancient Egypt, Mycenae, Troy, Persia, India, Rome and Greece were being rediscovered and excavated with a frenzy bordering on mania. The Victorians gave rise to the age of modern archaeology and the styles of the ancients soon found their way into their homes, their literature and their art. Beautiful Greco-Roman terrazzo floors and mosaics from archaeological sites in North Africa and Pompeii found new expression with the Victorians. Above is a terrazzo floor design for the conservatory. The wave design is authentic; I added the Lily pod for effect (Egyptian influence). Once polished, terrazzo floors shone like glass. Unfortunately, not many examples of these type of works have survive.

This painting shows the doors that connect the family parlour to the conservatory. All the fretwork designs were already there. All I did was apply a colour scheme to bring out their natural beauty. Since the conservatory is a place for reflection and the enjoyment of nature, I added two marble benches on each side. Victorians loved to display art everywhere. The two paintings included in the design are there to indicate a space where art could be shown. The paintings above the benches are reproductions of Victorian paintings that show their romantic side. As seen in the paintings, the Victorian ideal symbol of beauty was the virginal redhead. Notice also that Flaming June is also a redhead.

This is a painting of my perspective design for the mansion's conservatory. All the design elements already mentioned -the ceiling mural and the terrazzo floor mosaic, come into place to create a magical space. I added a bronze fountain (the original had been removed). Italian fountains of the Renaissance and Baroque eras were objects of fascination for Victorians. They were installed as symbols of gentility in civic centres, public parks, suburban villas and country houses.

In this design, the terrazzo floor would reflect the fountain figure like a nymph on a pond. This was a common theme in Victorian painting. The plants indicate the flower beds for growing flowers, ferns and sometimes vegetables. The use of the colour blue was considered a mark of status. We have no surviving examples of Victorian decor using blue because very expensive paint pigments then used to produce this hue were not stable (paints were mixed on site; there were not Home Depots). In time, the pigment would usually turn dark or black with the exposure to sunlight. My use of blue is based on written descriptions and what I can discern from paintings.

This is another version of the conservatory using a different colour scheme. The advantage of doing layers in Photoshop is that you can change colours instantly with a click of the mouse. These paintings are done to scale and faithfully reproduce the mansion's architectural and decorative features. The images presented in this page are smaller and of less resolution than the actual paintings. The originals, burned into disk in TIFF, PSD, and JPEG formats, can be zoomed in to clearly observe the most minute details.

2008 update:

For one of the best and most vivid descriptions of the Victorians and their time, read William Manchester’s book: The Last Lion –Winston Spencer Churchill, Visions of Glory, Part I. Manchester is a master of detail and this book of filled with fresh encounters and anecdotes. It really is a fascinating, lively and richly entertaining read.