Country houses for sale

Improving wood and wood graining

Ian Harper is a master of disguise, skilled in the art of deception. You will never catch him with a false moustache, or putting on a funny accent, however, as Mr Harper’s art is that of the brush. He is a decorative painter whose virtuoso work can transform the ordinary into the lavish and beautiful, fooling the eye and delighting the imagination.

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Although Mr Harper can turn his hand to almost anything, from marbling to large scale frescos, it is his special gift for imitating wood grain that has made him indispensable in my neighbourhood. The art of wood graining is an ancient one (there is walnut graining at Hampton Court dating from the Tudor period) and in Spitalfields, where many early 18th century houses survive, Harper’s work represents the continuation of a long tradition. The Georgians were very conscious of the status of materials and went to great lengths to disguise cheap panelling, doors and handrails.

Hard woods were scarce and expensive, but by employing a decorator skilled in the art of graining, ordinary pine could be upgraded to give the effect of oak, walnut and mahogany. Mr Harper, who studied at the Slade, has been working in this special field of decorative art for 20 years. He achieves his effects through the application of oil scumble (a tinted glaze) over a coloured ground worked with a range of brushes and combs.

As well as basic artist’s media such as oil paints, he also adopts, for particularly sensitive work, the traditional technique of watercolour with a beer glaze and an oil varnish. He admits that his favourite work is often where he has to match layered colour in ancient paint and graining. There was no margin for error when he repaired a section of graining on the front door of television historian Dan Cruickshank’s house. He has also recently completed a magnificent room at a house in Fournier Street, where he employed water-based linseed oil paint to match that on rediscovered panelling. His proudest work was the decoration of the Whitechapel Bell Foundry (an amazing survival in the bustle of one of the East End’s busiest streets). Mr Harper was so enamoured of the place that he ended up buying a bell as a souvenir.

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Any visitor to Spitalfields can admire Mr Harper’s beautifully grained front doors. The example above is from a grand double fronted town house. The rich oak graining adds a sumptuous layer of texture to the façade. With this particular house, the graining is not the only piece of deception despite its five-window front, the building is only one room deep, a common arrangement for town houses of this period. Eager to improve decorative elements authentically, the Spitalfields community seems to have an endless supply of work for Mr Harper. He is also much in demand from other quarters, however. One night, he received a summons from 10 Downing Street, not to discuss some highly important matter of home security, but to carry out some surreptitious graining repairs: the perfect job for one of England’s finest decorative spin-doctors. Telephone Ian Harper on 020–7586 4163 or visit

* Find more on restoring Georgian property on our dedicated webpage