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The majority of historic buildings that we see today do not appear anything like they would have done 50 or 100 years ago. Setting aside obvious major alterations, minor detail changes have had a dramatic effect. Historic lead-based paints, whose natural colours were at one time universal on all joinery items, have generally given way to modern chemical paints, which tend to fail and peel rather than fade over time. This is coupled with an almost uniform application of brilliant white on timber window frames and jet black on ironwork. Grey cement-based pointing and renders take the place of traditional ochre-coloured lime plasters and washes, resulting in a drab visual appearance - as well as a damaging physical consequence.

These alterations may seem trivial, but their effects can be readily seen in early colour photos of our historic building stock from the 1940s and '50s, when compared with views of the same buildings taken today. Decoration may be ephemeral, but it is often critical to the way a building appears.

And so to John Soane's Moggerhanger House in Bedfordshire, which Inskip + Jenkins has recently restored. For many years a county sanitorium, it became redundant and was sold for just £1 in 1994 as part of an enabling development package for a speculative housing scheme in its walled garden.

The render of the house had been coated with badly soiled white masonry paint, while the windows had been painted over with layers of white gloss. It looked very much like yet another depressing institution with a bleak future.

Inside, pastel shades of glossy institutional 'lime green' and 'peach' had erased much sense that any historic decoration survived within the structure. A still splendid but much mutilated kitchen range in yellow brick appeared to sit rather awkwardly next to some earlier-looking red-brick stables, both of which had been thoroughly degraded by functional 20th-century alteration.

Indeed, with so much of the old fabric concealed by later finishes, it was little wonder that the importance of this building had been so under-recognised. The sense that this house and estate would soon emerge as one of Soane's key masterpieces was unimaginable.

Moggerhanger had been a small unpretentious Georgian house set on a commanding ridge-top site in the Bedfordshire countryside. It was acquired by a Bank of England director, Godfrey Thornton, who commissioned the bank's architect, John Soane, to remodel the house. The first phase of work was completed in 1793. But the larger and more significant phase would follow when Stephen Thornton inherited the house from his father.

By then it was 1806, and Soane was at the height of his powers. Reconstruction of the Bank of England was under way and most of Soane's country houses were built. In a substantial scheme that was not completed until 1812, Soane remodelled Moggerhanger entirely, enlarging it to the west, relocating the entrance to the north and reroofing the building completely.

His overhaul skilfully incorporated the geometry of the existing fabric, including his own work of 1790-3. It was a complex effort, as symmetries and Classical axes had to be maintained and achieved. But while the spatial relationships of the house are extremely sophisticated, the restoration has demonstrated the importance of strident decorative and colour schemes to reinforce Soane's architectural ideas.

Although decorations enriched the interiors of Soane's own houses at 12 Lincoln's Inn Fields, London (1793) and Pitshanger Manor, Ealing (1800), they are associated principally with his later works, such as 13 Lincoln's Inn Fields, and in particular the Law Courts of Westminster, constructed in the 1820s.

The scheme at Moggerhanger suggests that Soane used the house to develop and experiment with decoration. It was essentially a prototype of what was to come and, with so much of Soane's later work now lost, the regaining of Moggerhanger is of tremendous signififiance.

Peter Inskip and Stephen Gee of Inskip + Jenkins carried out the repair of the external fabric first, stripping off the ugly white masonry paint to reveal Soane's original biscuit-brown 'Parker's Roman Cement'. Soane was a strong advocate of new materials, and this patented hydraulic lime render was a longerlasting material than the softer materials traditionally used.

Although much damaged, the render had survived nearly 200 years of weathering remarkably well, and it was chemically analysed and repaired in a matching mix.

This same phase of work also included a complete renewal of the slated roof coverings and the redecoration of the external window joinery. Detailed paint analysis was carried out by the paint specialist Catherine Hassall, who revealed that Soane's original paint colour for the windows for the first phase of works had been a lime white, but that on the 1808-12 scheme a dark charcoal grey had been used. This was the first hint of the radical decorations to be uncovered. On the west front particularly, Soane's dark glazing bars caused the window detail to disappear, so that it is the pure arched shape of their openings that we now read. It is reminiscent of those raw Piranesian prints with their boldly defined areas of light and shade.

Microscopic paint analysis was to become the vital tool in the architectural and archaeological conservation work on the interiors at Moggerhanger. Revealing the successive layers in a section of paint, the resulting image is sufficiently detailed to enable the individual pigments of colour to be identified in each paint layer, and therefore allows a historic paint to be matched in an identical chemical composition.

This is a far more accurate and reliable method than seeking to match paint visually from a surface paint that has been scraped back on site, as the top surfaces of re-exposed paint may have faded or chemically changed over time.

Microscopic analysis also reveals the extent of dirt that has built up between the paint layers. This is useful in determining how long each decorative scheme was left exposed, and therefore the sequence of decoration schemes. While Soane had left a detailed record of tradesmen's bills at the Soane Museum, which listed the quantities of plasterwork and paint decoration in each room, these bills did not specify exactly how the elements were combined. Laboriously uncovering the layers at locations throughout the house was not dissimilar to the securing of forensic evidence in modern police work.

In the absence of early paint layers, later walls and partitions could be identified with certainty. An arcade of 'Soaneian' arches at ground-floor level in the main staircase hall had always appeared to collide slightly awkwardly with the lower stair flight, but as it appeared on all of Soane's plans for the house, it was always thought to be original. It emerged that these arches had originally been solid, essentially forcing the eye upwards in the hall.

Of course, with hindsight this made perfect sense, as Soane had devised a route sequence through the house which led up via the staircase to the upper-floor boudoir - the most important and delicate interior from his 1793 alterations. One can imagine Soane standing at Moggerhanger gazing upwards at the semireconstructed house around him on a site visit, and ordering the lower openings to be closed.

But the blocked arches left a very dark passageway behind, which in turn led to a further discovery. A rough pencil annotation drawn over a first-floor plan had always been thought to refer to a surviving sinking in the plaster ceiling above. It became clear that this must have been an inserted opening in the floor, long boarded over, with a glazed roof lantern above. This missing rooflight, leaded over in the late-19th-century, was reopened and reinstated following Soaneian precedent elsewhere.

Barely the width of a passageway, this was Soane's 'tribune' - a double-height space which heralds the intimacy of those parts of his museum that would emerge from 1813 onwards, and the spectacular top-lit lobbies of the Law Courts. The rediscovery of this 'tribune' is vital in understanding the progression of his country-house designs, linking the sequence of top-lit 'tribune' spaces at Tyringham, Buckinghamshire (1793) to Wotton, Buckinghamshire (1820).

Elsewhere, the internal restoration has recreated the fully varnished and grained entrance hall. The ceiling had been lost when the structure above had been remade as a flat concrete slab following an attack of dry rot in the 1930s. Inskip and Gee found from paint scars in the wall the exact pitch of Soane's lost pendentive dome, which has been reinstated with a large Classical patera at its centre, recast from an original in the Soane Museum.

Looking outwards from this dark hall, through the dark painted window frames and Soane's porch columns, the parkland appears decidedly more vivid and lush than before. To move beyond into the tall and light-painted staircase hall is now dramatically uplifting, and shows how carefully Soane used natural light and colour contrasts to manage the experience of his architecture. Even in the service areas of the house, paint analysis combined with careful physical examination confirmed a hierarchy of plaster types. Smooth painted plaster gives way to rough painted plaster, and finally to limewash on raw brickwork as one reaches the kitchen.

Perhaps the most staggering aspect of this restoration has been the bold decision to reinstate Soane's limewash on the building's exterior. Stone and brick buildings were routinely limewashed in the past, whether to keep them looking fresh or to assist with weathering, or, as here, to harmonise different ages of buildings that had been constructed of different-coloured materials.

Soane's first-phase red-brick stables of 1793, the whitebrick kitchen addition of 1812, and indeed the main house itself have now been coated in a dazzling yellow-ochre limewash. Seeing the buildings harmonised in this way is a revelation. Suddenly it is the form and shape of the buildings that we read from across the park and in distant views, with their dark-painted windows that look like punched recesses. The whole reason for Soane's enterprise at Moggerhanger now becomes clear. Here was a house that needed to be seen and read as a rigorous architectural statement, and not as a mere assemblage of buildings of different ages.

This restoration of Moggerhanger therefore has wideranging implications. It exposes subtle relationships with many lost Soane buildings, which can now be recognised and experienced, but goes on to raise the obvious question of what more might be discovered if a similarly rigorous approach were to be taken in any one of Soane's other buildings - most importantly, perhaps, the areas of the Soane Museum that have been altered by later curators there.

In the wider context of historic-building-repair work, we need to question assumptions that are based on current decorative perceptions. Behind every brilliant white window and blackpainted railing there may lurk an altogether more enriching history of colour. And under many a window head and eaves soffit board, perhaps traces of limewash too.

Moggerhanger is owned by the Moggerhanger House Preservation Trust and run by the Christian charity Harvest Vision, which uses it as a residential meeting centre. They are to be warmly congratulated for their restoration of the building. The challenge must now lie in the careful furnishing and maintenance of the house to avoid that creeping process of 'institutionalisation' which was once so close to destroying it.

Moggerhanger House sits in parkland at the edge of the small village of Moggerhanger near Sandy in Bedfordshire. The historic rooms in the house are open to visitors during the summer; the grounds can be visited all year round. The Moggerhanger House Preservation Trust is currently trying to secure funds to restore Humphry Repton's landscape scheme. For details of other events at the house visit www. moggerhangerpark. com Credits Architect Peter Inskip + Peter Jenkins Architects: Peter Inskip, Stephen Gee, Mehmet Berker, Simon Perera, Michelle Hedges, Janna Posiadly, Barbara Basini Client Moggerhanger House Preservation Trust Quantity surveyor Gordon Cain Structural engineer Ralph Mills Associates Mechnical and electrical consultant MCA Consulting Engineers Paint analyst Catherine Hassall Environmental consultant Colebrooke Consulting Contractor E Bowman & Sons Subcontractors Chimneypiece sculpture Corin Johnson, archaeology Albion Archaeology, wallpaper conservator Sandiford & Mapers, ironwork Ridgeway Forge, timber treatment Ridout Associates, plasterwork Hirst Conservation

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