The Works


(Also known as THE LAIGH HALL)


Historical Evidence
Design, On-Site Methods, & Materials
References and Footnotes
Back to KDR Index
Back to Historic Painting Page

Over the centuries, the original Laigh (or "lower") Hall has become two rooms, now referred to as The King's Dining Room and its Ante-Chamber. For practical, modern purposes -- Edinburgh Castle being a living, working property -- a decision to retain the Hall as two rooms was necessary so that the hall remained divided in a 1:3 proportion. The rooms are used for private functions for members of the Royal Family and members of parliament, usually to entertain overseas diplomats and political figures. They also have a potential use for members of the new Scottish Parliament.

The rooms' recent history is one of misuse. Its early 20th century usage was as a "naff-caff" tearoom. Following a bomb in the 1970s, it was painted white and hung with weaponry and "spare" DeWitt paintings from Holyrood Palace's Great Hall. The need for redecoration an increasing priority. By 1996 the Castle had new cafeteria premises and an ideal weaponry receptacle (the Great Hall), and the decision was made to return the room to its former glory.

The choice of early 17th century decor seemed appropriate for various reasons. Adjoining royal apartments, Mary's Room and the Birth Room, had been built to protect Mary, Queen of Scots through the last stages of pregnancy to the birth of her son James VI of Scotland. James VI himself used the Laigh Hall as a dining room on his visit to Edinburgh in 1617. There seemed enough historical evidence to base a "conjectural reconstruction" (footnote 1).

Once the Castle and Historic Scotland had made these decisions under the direction of Clare Lawrence, Historic Scotland Project Architect, research work proper had to be started. Stenhouse Conservation Centre were approached with a remit to advise on

  •    Colour
  •    17th century styles of decoration
  •    Painted frieze design
  •    Heraldic coats of arms
  •    Painted plaster decoration
  •    Types of paint and techniques
  •    Gilding
  •    Decorative stencil work

Initially, it was thought that Stenhouse staff members would take on board any design work necessary. However, by Spring 1998 it was apparent that a combination of work overload and the inability to agree a design with the Project Architect for the painted frieze and panel stencil led to the addition of an artist with a speciality in mural-painting of any required style to the team. The artist was employed to take over and continue research into appropriate materials, design layout, heraldic imagery, on-site work and liaison between the Project Architect, Historic Scotland and Edinburgh Castle. This allowed for more artistic licence in keeping with 17th c.. practices, whilst freeing conservation staff for conservation work.


There were four direct Castle references upon which to base colour and design choice:

    1) The Queen's Birth Chamber regarding the use of oil paint and colour suggestions;
    2) Peter Maitland Hood's report (see references), including extract of the Masters of Works
        Accounts for Edinburgh Castle in 1617
    , regarding materials and colour choice;
    3) The Edinburgh Frieze (plaster fragment) regarding design;
    4) Heraldry regarding design.

The Queen's Birth Chamber

The starting point for gathering evidence upon which to base the design and decorative methods was to investigate and verify previous interior decoration used within contemporary Castle rooms. Paint scrapings from the Birth Room (the room in which Mary, Queen of Scots gave birth to james VI) were taken to help colour choice and paint type decisions. this small room is oak-panelled to picture-rail height. Cartouches displaying the date (1566) painted in oils upon Scots Pine panelling flank the Scottish coat of arms, forming a frieze between the lower panelling and the oak-lined ceiling (also decorated, in oils, with thistles and crowns), painted by John Anderson.

There is substantial Victorian overpainting, and both the blistered surface and "chopped" look to the edges of the coat of arms suggest that this piece never belonged to the room. the blistering suggests it was once used as an overmantle. We can, however, be reasonably certain that it belonged within the Castle, and that its initial paintwork belongs to the correct era. Some use of earth colours -- English red light, terre verte, yellow ochre, lamp-black and lead white -- are evident. Interestingly, a malachite green was also found.

Masters of Works Accounts for Edinburgh Castle in 1617

Mr Hood's report, commissioned by the Project Architect, contained the Masters of Works Accounts for Edinburgh Castle in 1617 which shows the use of pigments and oils. This formed another firm historical basis for the decisions on colour, medium and materials for the painted frieze. It features a huge quantity of the expensive pigment orpiment; heraldry must therefore have been principal in all designs (the Stewarts' heraldry being the lion rampant upon a yellow - orpiment - field).

The Edinburgh Frieze

A small piece of plaster depicting leather strapwork, fruit, flowers and birds was found between the ceiling of the King's Dining Room and the apartments above after the 1970s bomb blast. This became known as "The Edinburgh Frieze", the only surviving original decoration. This became a strong influence in the linking designs on the painted frieze between the heraldic imagery and cartouche frames.


It is known that heraldic design was a favourite interior decoration of kings and noblemen of the period. Throughout Scotland, remaining painted walls and ceilings of this time display heraldry and heraldic motifs: the Great Hall of Edinburgh Castle, the Chapel Royal in Stirling Castle, Grandtully House, Kinneil House, Skelmorlie in Largs, Pinkie House in Musselburgh, and more. Colours used in 17th c. heraldry included orpiment, vermillion, and dark azurite.



The artist was brought in at a stage when the general concept of the frieze design had been established: heraldic arms framed by cartouches, linked using strapwork and 17th c. motifs to be placed on stone-coloured background. Part of the artist's remit was to make the frieze interesting enough to become a conversation piece over dinner. Several 17th c. motifs and devices were studied in the attempt to achieve this.

Main Influences
Principal friezes and wall paintings of the same era (1550-1650) visited and studied by the artist were

  • Palace of Holyrood: Queen Mary's Bedchamber, painted frieze in tempera depicting
        fruit, flowers and insects. Obviously the work of a highly skilled craftsman (footnote 2).
  • Stirling Castle: Chapel Royal, highly skilled tempera work attributed to Valentine
        Jenkin. Depicts cartouches, some framing the Honours of Scotland linked with ribbons
        and fruit.
  • Kinneil House, tempera. Depicts heraldry linked by the use of free-flowing abundant
        foliage, flowers and heraldic beasts.

Also valuable to the linking design images was the inclusion of grotesque imagery popular at the time, especially by the nobles who had artistic and cultural pretensions, as James VI did.

Cartouche design
Painted Renaissance decoration was often of foreign origin and influence, in particular French and Italian. The two cartouches decided upon were based on Portuguese and Italian tile designs.

Following approval of the initial pencil sketches, full size design sketches in oil were painted, discussed and developed into an acceptable working design.

Design: Panel Stencil
Originally based upon plaster relief work in the overmantle, the design requirements changed. The new design came from wrought iron banister work at Holyrood, though the line became slimmer and more plant-like. To maintain harmony throughout the applied decoration, fine plant forms were added to the linking design imagery in the frieze, replacing a heavy wave pattern (footnote 3).

Design: Window Ingo, Anteroom
Direct sketches of heraldic emblems taken from the plaster ceiling in the anteroom and Mary's Bedchamber at Holyrood were made and copied onto the oak panelling.

On-Site Methods

One of the oil sketches was cut out and used as a template. Using graphite as a drawing tool, the cartouche template was transferred onto the panelling. Typical of 17th c. construction, measurements in the KDR are variable. In order for the design to fit the panelling, the subsequent transference was achieved by drawing directly onto the wall. Linking designs to the frieze and heraldic images at the anteroom ingoes were applied directly using brush and paint. All tempera work was applied using bold outlines and colour fill with brush and paint. The plasterwork overmantles were simply painted in tempera earth colours to suit the subject matter, fruit being given depth by lifting out colour with rag and adding a little black to accentuate form.


Oils (painted frieze, anteroom window ingo)

Some thought and research went into the creation of a 17th century "palette", i.e. a limited colour range using 17th c. pigments (footnote 4). In discussion with Linda Fleming of Historic Scotland, a basic palette was agreed (see , ) and non-toxic replacement mixes for the heraldic colours formulated. Sax Oils, a British company which specialises in authentic paints supplied the necessary quantities of our basic palette (footnote 5). Pure linseed oil and pure turpentine were used as mediums. The frieze surface is Scots pine panelling (except at the North window, where the ingoes are formed from plaster), while the ground used was flat oil rather than lead-based oil due to health and safety regulations. The anteroom window ingo surface is oiled dark oak. Paint was applied without the use of any medium, to aid speed of drying. The authenticity of the oil paint used meant an absence of modern chemical driers.

Tempera (overmantles and KDR plaster window ingo)

Basic Windsor & Newton artists' pigments ground in water and ox gall-bladder. Rabbitskin glue was used as a medium, while chalk was used as white. Pigments used were yellow ochre, terre verte, Bohemian green, raw sienna, English red light, lamp black, burnt umber, and burnt sienna.


In discussion with Ray Hemmett of Historic Scotland, various brushes were chosen from catalogues from Lewis Ward & Co, London and A S Handover Ltd, London:

Hog Hair

  • Round Nos.16, 12, 8, 4
  • Flat Oval Fitch, No.16
  • Round Fitch, No.14
  • Pointed Sash
  • Hermetique
  • Domed Sash
  • Sash in Copper Ferrule
    Squirrel Hair
  • Swordliner, 6" Handle
  • Small Swan
  • Goose
  • Mop
    Red Sable
  • Ticket Writer, No.4
  • Artist's, Nos. 9, 7, 3, 2


The Project Architect's input proved most valuable to the overall look of the room, though at times it was difficult to perceive her vision. It might have been helpful to have been given more knowledge of other design work to be included, e.g. fixtures and fittings. This way, the overview to the design could have been more easily accessed and therefore helped with unification of design style.

As an artist, the design and methods used have not been a straight copy or tracing of anything seen, but an interpretation of 17th c. decorative arts. Accuracy of design style was important in terms of historic authenticity, but rather than being a carbon copy of, say, the Chapel Royal at Stirling Castle, a new work of a high quality has been created. Of necessity, anything creative will have that person's individuality stamped upon it. In essence, I was recreating the role of the 17th century painter, using as near as could be achieved the same tools and methods. I imagine the original direction to the artist was to impress the king and his visitors. Today's visitors - the tourists - should be no less impressed; having worked in the KDR while it was open to the public, I am satisfied that they are, and will continue to enjoy it for another 300 years.


Ray Hemmett, (1996-8) Initial meetings and liaison with Clare Lawrence, Project Architect re Stenhouse involvement; meetings with Peter Hood (author report, "Some Painterwork Practices, Methods & Techniques of the 17th Century", March 1977); Project Site Manager; early preparatory design work for the painted frieze; research into shell gold; research into brushes; colour and paint research.

Linda Fleming, (1996-98) Early involvement in design work re painted frieze; research into the Edinburgh frieze; colour samples for paint surfaces; agreement of appropriate colours; paint sampling (scrapings from Queen Mary's Birth Room); liaison with Project Architect re appropriate media; early health and safety advice.

Alan Simpson, (1996-98) Heraldry research for painted frieze and overmantles; research into gilding techniques of the period; application of gilded surfaces; size-tempera application and research; liaison with the Lord Lyon's office.

Lauren Murdoch, (1998) Involvement in stencil design; research into stencil techniques of the period; stencil maker; colour sample block for anteroom; research into stencil application methods; on-site stencil gilding and painting.

Robert Sykes, (1998) On-site stencil gilding and painting.

June McEwan, (1998) Research and design, painted frieze; research into heraldry, cartouches and linking motifs of the 17th century; research 17th century style of painted walls; liaison with Project Architect, Edinburgh Castle; carrying out on-site work; research into paint colours; experimentation in media; creation of 17th c. palette, including non-toxic replacement colours for orpiment/vermillion/azurite/lead white, following 20th C health & safety regulations; involvement in stencil design; carrying out painting of plaster overmantles; liaison with Lord Lyon's office; research and carrying out of window ingo painted images in anteroom.


Robert Willmott, Case Study Four: Painted Frieze in 17th c Style, Conjectural Reconstruction (unpublished report, 1998)
M R Apted, Painted Ceilings of Scotland (Edinburgh, 1966)
A C Fox-Davies, Complete Guide to Heraldry (London, 1925)
A C Fox-Davies, The Art of Heraldry (reprint, London, 1986)
Edmund V Gillon Jr, Cartouche and Decorative Small Frames (New York, 1975)
Peter Maitland Hood, Some Painterwork Practices, Methods & Techniques of the 17th Century, (Commissioned Report, 1977)
R D Harley, Artists' Pigments c1600--1835 (England, 1970)
Linda Fleming, Historic Plaster Investigation, The Edinburgh Frieze (unpublished report, 1997)
London South Bank Centre, The Grotesque (London, 1995)
Owen Jones, The Grammar of Ornament (London, 1998)

Mrs Rhodes, Lord Lyon's Office, Edinburgh provided valuable information on matters heraldic.

Special mention should be made of KDR gilder Alan Simpson (Historic Scotland, Stenhouse) for his impeccable research into individual heraldic layouts of the Stewart lineage.

1) Robert Willmott, Case Study Four: Painted Frieze in 17th c Style, Conjectural Reconstruction (unpublished report, 1998)
2) Most painters of the time were local craftsmen. Some can occasionally be identified, and signed their work as artists, notably James Stalker at Skelmorlie.
3) The heavy wave pattern of early frieze design was out of place when set against the gold leaf delicacy of the stencil work and light touch of the chandelier.
4) R D Harley, Artists' Pigments c1600-1835 (England, 1970)
5) The choice of Sax oils also lay in their speed of delivery. The nearest company hand-grinding pigment into oil being in Germany with a five-week delivery date.

[Back to Top]