An opening, a beginning… and, like a symphony, the introduction to a house can be gentle, in a minor key, or explode with the decorative equivalent of a trumpet fanfare. Today, there are no rules for decorating halls, no hard-and-fast theories of colour or even furnishing. This room, which, in a town house, may be little more than a corridor-narrow, dark and angular-occasionally, in larger country houses, achieves a quintessence of pure architectural glory: a soaring, lofty space in which light, volume and mass, uncluttered by needless decoration, make the spirit leap for joy.
Alternatively, richly apparisoned ‘sitting halls’ can extend a hearty bear-hug of a welcome-a fire vigorous beyond the club fender, deep sofas in a cluster, a palimpsest of rugs and, for those who know where to look for it, a toasting fork near at hand. There will inevitably be ground rules. Chief among them: mud or no mud? This conditions choice of floor, furniture (if any) and fabrics. There are practicalities, too: do you need a stick stand, boot rack, somewhere to hang a hat or coat? Is this where gardening gloves, galoshes, picnic rugs, fishing rods and road maps come home to roost? Is it a room of passage-a connecting space, no more-or somewhere you will actually spend time?
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How often is it used? For example, if you live in the country, do you and all your guests habitually use a side door/garden door/kitchen door, making the hall a wallflower of a room most often visited for the purposes of dusting? Do doors open from the hall into the drawing room, dining room or kitchen-in which case, the hall’s decoration ought to take into account the decoration of those spaces-or is it simply the meeting point of a jumble of passages? Is it a multi-purpose space: hall-cum-dining room, cum-study, cum-bookroom?
Traditionally, halls would include a table and a barometer. In the age of internet weather forecasts, the latter may be superfluous. The table will still be a practical inclusion. Let it be 18th-century Irish mahogany, carved with lion masks, supporting an English Delft bowl for car keys, house keys and dog leads; or something simpler-an Arts-and-Crafts chest crowded with Bernard Leach slipware, with a vibrant canvas by Bridget Riley hung above it. Old-fashioned hall chairs, grandfather clocks, hunting trophies, grand pianos and visitors’ books have all fallen foul of shifting fashion, grounds enough perhaps for their appeal.
The perfect hall is just a tiny bit aloof-like the hero of a novel by Barbara Cartland, handsome and welcoming but happy within its own skin, confident of its attractions: a take-me-or-leave-me decorating idiom, politely seductive. It offers clues to what lies beyond, and clues about its owner-cluttered with library books waiting to be returned, seedlings in trays in front of a window, a collection of old coaching prints hung frame to frame, glamorous damask-inspired wallpaper custom-coloured in acid green, fuchsia or silver leaf, a baize-covered table on which an unfinished jigsaw awaits the grandchildren’s next visit.
Flowers or plants forge a connection between inside and out, from mossy pots of auriculas or bright nerines to towering arrangements of cow parsley or narcotic-scented lilies. In the countryside, the hall’s smell is of fresh air, for the door often stands open, of flowers and the earth, perhaps (just discernible) a cold scent from the stone flags or the whisper of linseed oil applied once every year to time-polished slate. Somewhere, if you crane your neck, you will spy the stairs, promise of further lovely rooms as yet out of sight and hopefully-your host, hastily descending to greet you.