Last edited 25 Jul 2021

Main author

Institute of Historic Building Conservation Institute / association Website

Restoring Orleans House Octagon

The house where the future king of France once lived was demolished to make way for a gravel pit but its Octagon, designed by James Gibbs, remains in restored splendour.

Orleans House Octagon.jpg
Built for the entertainment of royal visitors in the manner of a private retreat away from the formality of the main house (since demolished), the Octagon was designed to entertain (Photo: Morley Von Sternberg).

The Orleans House Gallery stands in the west part of the grounds of the original Orleans House. The six-acre site includes both natural woodland and a parkland setting close to the river, on the stretch of the Thames between Twickenham and Richmond. The house took its name from Louis Phillipe Duc d’Orleans (1773–1850), later King of the French, who lived there from 1815 until 1817 during his exile. The property was originally built in 1710 for James Johnston, joint secretary of state for Scotland under William III, by John James. The baroque Octagon, Grade I listed, was designed by James Gibbs and constructed around 1720. By the early 20th century the site was derelict. In 1926 the furniture and furnishings were auctioned off, and Orleans House and several of the buildings were demolished to make way for a gravel pit. The Octagon and its service wing survived demolition, together with the converted stable block, and have become the Orleans House Gallery, an art gallery which is part of the London Borough of Richmond upon Thames arts service.

The HLF-funded Transforming Orleans House project was completed in 2018 after a 17-month refurbishment. Using the restored Octagon as a centrepiece, a new north wing gallery housing gallery rooms, a shop and accessible toilet facilities was designed by Kaner Olette Architects, with presentation by ZMMA, and built by Quinn London. The gallery now has a programme of volunteer training, family activities and educational visits, and the Octagon has been popular as a wedding venue.

This final phase concludes several decades of Donald Insall Associates’ involvement on the Orleans Octagon and stables, from providing conservation advice on phased repairs from 1996 onwards, to overseeing major restoration works. Practice founder Sir Donald Insall and consultant John Dangerfield, who both live locally, advised on phased building conservation and repairs to the Octagon since 1996; and in 2014 the practice was commissioned to prepare a conservation management plan. The project was inherited by Robin Dhar and me, who with our team took on the repair and representation of the Octagon.

The project has been of importance to Donald Insall Associates, not just as a series of projects but also as an opportunity to pass on the knowledge and experience of the building to the next generations in the practice. Likewise we collaborated with newer generations of craftsmen with whom we have been working over many decades.

Donald Insall Associates has now worked with three generations of craftspeople from John Joy Plasterers (formerly AG Joy and Son). At Orleans House, Jon Joy carried out the intricate repairs to the plasterwork, including sculptures. We worked with Jon and his father Bunny at Windsor Castle in the 1990s on the post-fire restoration project. At Orleans House Gallery, we worked with Jon and his son Tom, their example highlighting the benefits of the passing of skills and knowledge through the generations.

The interior of James Gibbs’ Octagon is enriched with decorative plasterwork by the noted stuccatori, Giuseppe Artari and Giovanni Bagutti, who also worked on prominent Georgian buildings such as St Martin-the-Fields (Gibbs), Castle Howard (Vanbrugh), and Clandon Park (Leoni). It is a highly individual, attractive and enjoyable garden building. Built for the entertainment of royal visitors in the manner of a private retreat away from the formality of the main house, it was designed to entertain.

The conservation and repair of the interior, in particular, presented great opportunities for the contemporary specialist conservators and craftspeople, as it required extensive repairs to the original plasterwork by Artari and Bagutti, redecoration including oil gilding, repairs to the marble floor and historic joinery, and the installation of a new water-gilded timber chandelier.

The work presented us with opportunities to see the magnificent interior at close proximity from the scaffolding. The plasterwork in the ceiling was particularly loose, probably due to a series of water leaks prior to the comprehensive copper roof repairs we carried out in 2008. It was secured with stainless steel washers, loose areas were consolidated, and intricate plaster decoration of shell work and trellis panels with rosettes and acanthus scrolling were fully repaired by master plasterer Jon Joy and his team.

Prior to the project works, the interior was decorated in pale blue, with ivory scheme offsetting the gilded (gold-painted) elements. Ian Bristow undertook some initial paint analysis samples in 1992 and provided an overview of the historic decoration scheme. Further extensive paint analysis was carried out by Jane Davies between 2016 and 2017, taking over 500 samples from both internal and external architectural elements. Her research established that the original 1720s scheme and the very similar 1750s scheme were both stone-coloured, followed by predominantly blue schemes in 19th century onwards. It was agreed that the 1750s scheme should be selected, as it best corresponded with the current architectural arrangement of the Octagon.

Architectural paint research also established the placement of gilding. By the early-to-mid- 20th century, Dutch metal was applied rather than gold leaf. This, combined with tired blue walls throughout the interior, had left the room looking very dull. The team followed the findings of the architectural paint research to reinstate the gold leaf to the 18th century placement. To the internal plasterwork, specialist decorator Hare & Humphreys carried out an oil gilding process; all surfaces to be gilded were prepared to a smooth finish and painted with an ochre-coloured eggshell paint, followed by a 12-hour size, thinly applied to the surface where gold was to be laid. This was left to cure for a day or until a correct level of tack had been achieved for the gold leaf to adhere smoothly. 23½ carat gold leaf was applied to the surface in sheets using a badger-hair brush. Any excess gold was removed and the surface was burnished using a squirrel-hair brush.

During the construction works, an original timber sash frame was uncovered while unblocking the bricked-up north-east window opening. The team discovered evidence of older joinery removed when the window was blocked in the 1860s, when the north wing was extended to accommodate larger kitchen facilities. A new large timber sash window was installed to replicate the existing, restoring the sense of symmetry intended by Gibbs by centring the fireplace and south window as the axis, with the doors to north and west wing to either side, complemented by very large sash windows on the south side facing Thames riverbank.

Further discoveries including the uncovering of the original Portland stone flags beneath the 19th century marble slabs, which match the design of the Portland stone flags below. The marble was an enhancement carried out for the French royal family in exile: the coloured marble closely matched floors at Chantilly. The team decided to retain the existing marble floor finish of polished white Carrara and Belgium black to the central area, and the Rosso Francia tiles were used to repair the border.

A focal point of the restoration of the Octagon was the reinstatement of a chandelier, which was lost in 1960s. The water-gilded limewood chandelier was made by Hare & Humphreys, its design based on the only two known photographs of the lost chandelier.

This article originally appeared in Context 167, published by the Institute of Historic Building Conservation (IHBC) in March 2021. It was written by Ayaka Takaki, an architect and associate director at Donald Insall Associates.

--Institute of Historic Building Conservation

Related articles on Designing Buildings Wiki

Designing Buildings Anywhere

Get the Firefox add-on to access 20,000 definitions direct from any website

Find out more Accept cookies and
don't show me this again