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Relighting history

The text below was that submitted to Light Magazine for their article ‘Relighting history’. It was published in Light Magazine, p13-16, July 2000.

Lighting in Historic Buildings

A request to light an historic building can bring out even some of our better lighting designers in a cold sweat. The thought of possibly having to satisfy various heritage bodies as well as a client and perhaps a committee of trustees can be daunting. For many working out what lighting may be appropriate for a given era of building or how to fix or locate wiring in a listed building can be beyond their level of expertise. But for many the rewards for a project well executed are enough to overcome these hazards.

The term historic building itself is very wide including in many peoples minds any listed building, be it a thirties semi or a Tudor mansion. Perhaps for the purposes of this article we should think of the term meaning any building where there is either a need to consider which lighting style matches the period of the building or where the listed nature of the building makes the installation of the lighting interesting.

Luckily perhaps most old buildings do not need to be lit in a way that is any way ‘historic’ They have been converted internally to new uses and may be designer loft apartments, swish hi-tech offices or even supermarkets. In these cases just simple common sense about the routing of wiring, location of lights and perhaps some unusual design calculations is all that is needed.

Lighting up the architecture

For many buildings of historic interest the actual shape, style or form of the building’s architecture needs to be highlighted or at least not lost in gloom. For these spaces some consideration is needed to determine the best way to let the light flow over the structure in order to bring out the architectural detailing. The shape of complex ceilings or ornate plasterwork can be enhanced by light flowing across them the introduce areas of light and shade. Spotlights can then be used to pick out smaller ornate details.

Whilst I was working for Oscar Faber in the mid eighties the late Bill Allen and I were asked to light the Divinity School at the Bodliean Library in Oxford. The brief was to enhance the fine vaulted architecture and to provide ‘sparkle’ for events. If the task of lighting the oldest lecture room in England was not enough of a task the Secretary of the Library asked us not to fix lighting or wiring to the ceiling, walls or floor. After wild thoughts of lights on helium balloons we got down to some lateral thinking. We experimented with lighting from the outside through the large windows but this had the expected bizarre results and many obvious disadvantages.

The final solution had two elements – uplights in the window reveals and downlights between bosses in the ceiling. [The photograph on the left shows the uplights.] These were mounted in the western reveals of each of the large windows running down both sides of the room. These threw light forward from both sides across the vaulted ceiling towards the front of the room.

The uplights were free-standing on the platform below the windows and held securely into the reveal by two pairs of arms that located into the mouldings to either side. The wiring was run in the joints between stones down into a convenient heating trench.

[The second photograph shows the prototype of the downlight units.] These contained their own transformer and two independently aimable tungsten-halogen spots. These were to provide punch and sparkle for events held within the room as well as display lighting for normal exhibitions.

They were to be held up by special spring clips that located into existing grooves in the inner side of the two bosses. This was to avoid any permanent fixing into the stone itself. The wiring was to be run down a groove in the mouldings to the floor and then across to the heating ducts.

What are appropriate fitting types?

I was once asked by a client to provide appropriate external lighting around a twelfth century church. I explained that we would have to compromise on historical accuracy a little, as burning torches in brackets on the walls may be regarded as a tad dangerous these days. In the event small modern lights discreetly located were the answer in this particular case.

For properties where torches, oil lamps or candles were the only type of lighting used originally there is little choice but to move to more modern forms of lighting. Whilst some private properties do still use candles for atmosphere there is an understandable worry over doing this in most public buildings. Even where it is possible to use candles safely there is often a need to supplement them. As candles are very expensive to use supplementary electric lighting in often needed for use most of the time.

Even in the early part of this century there was a big overlap in the use of electric lighting and gas lighting. Often houses would have both types and even in some cases still use candles for the bedrooms. There is often no exact type of light that is correct. At least with old gas and electric lights there is a good possibility to introduce modern light sources into the fittings in a discreet way.

What many clients actually want to see is a light source that is ‘old’ and can be thought to be in keeping with the age of the room or building by most casual viewers. However, whilst few people are art historians with a detailed knowledge of light sources through the ages they are likely to spot that a heavy wooden chandelier is not correct for a fine Georgian domestic interior.

One good source of inspiration when considering the lighting of an historic building in a faithful way is to study old photographs of the building, if they exist. These will often show early light fittings in use. These can often be reproduced in a way that complies with modern standards, but satisfies the heritage considerations.

For the properties where there was early electric lighting then new lighting can be provided that matches the original fittings. These will need to be brought up to modern safety standards in terms of physical and electrical safety. Even where there are working old electric lights they should be checked for modern standards of earthing and insulation levels. Remember, it may be you who has to grab onto that live brass chandelier when you are carrying out the final setting-up of the lighting!


A surprisingly large number of historic buildings are used as offices. In a city such as Bath many Georgian houses in the city centre have been converted for use as offices. This includes grade 1 listed properties in prominent positions as well as the more run of the mill old properties. For most of these where the interiors have been fitted out to modern standards the lighting can also be fairly straightforward modern styles. Sometimes there will be the need to take into account unusual ceiling heights or make allowances for careful routing of wiring through the building.

With many of the grade1 properties not only has the interior lighting got to fit in with the interior style of the house but it must also not spoil the view into the property from the outside. Looking up at a grand Victorian façade and seeing fluorescent lights on chain suspensions inside is not a pleasurable experience.

In one Georgian house in Bath being used for offices I was quite happy to specify chandeliers with tungsten lamps for the principal first floor rooms. These were visible from the street and were appropriate for the grand rooms. Task lighting was to be provided as needed by the tenants. The use of potentially bright chandeliers in the rooms when display screens would be used was not a problem in this case. The room geometry meant that screens could not be positioned in a way that would result in any reflections to worry about.

Heritage buildings

Many historic buildings are used to exhibit art or heritage collections. These may be local museums, stately homes or art galleries. This means that there is often a need to light the artefacts on display as well as the building itself.

In 1997 Gallery 5 of the Wallace Collection in London underwent extensive refurbishment to restore many lost historical features and decoration. This allowed us the opportunity to introduce modern lighting systems and lighting controls. After previous trials it had been established that new lighting systems mounted on the existing ceiling were not visually acceptable. Also recessed systems did not give the desired level of flexibility and would permanently damage the existing ceilings.

The solution was to have a new central dropped ceiling inserted with appropriate historic detailing to match the existing cornice. Around the perimeter of this lowered ceiling circular spaces have been provided in the decoration that can be opened to allow spotlights within to light pictures and furniture discreetly. Fibre-optic lighting systems were also installed in the surround to light the carved chandelier and furniture in the centre of the room.

( See page describing The Wallace Collection).


It is almost more important in an historic building than in a modern building to ensure that safe access for maintenance is designed into the scheme. As with all lighting schemes it is relatively easy to make the project look good after careful aiming and setting-up of the lights and their controls. If the positions or complexity of the lighting makes future care and maintenance of the lighting difficult then the lighting is a failure.

With historic buildings there can be more difficulties built into the maintenance regime then a modern building. Often it is not possible because of delicate carpets or furniture to get access platforms to all areas. Even the use of high steps can be nerve racking where there are open displays of fragile ornaments, such as in a stately home.

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