How's it hanging?

You spend a fortune on a nice bit of art, then you face the question of what to do with it. Is a white backdrop compulsory? Or should you follow the example of Tate Britain and paint the wall a complementary colour?
Click to follow

When Maureen Paley was 15, she knew someone who owned a real Andy Warhol print. They had spliced it into a thick gilt frame and hung it against a turquoise wall that exactly matched Marilyn's lurid blue eye-shadow. Outrageous, she thought, but also fantastic, and a career was born. "The way they treated that picture had a huge effect on my aesthetic," says Paley, who runs Interim Art, the influential East End gallery.

For the past 16 years, however, you would never have known this from her home, which was also her gallery. The White Cube aesthetic reigned supreme: all white walls, grey painted floorboards. Now the gallery has been rehoused and her gaudy gilt Warhol side is taking over - colour has invaded the cornices and patterned paper is spreading over the walls.

Not that long ago, everyone who had aspirations to owning serious art longed for a spartan loft or a grand mansion that would do it justice. Modern art demanded white walls, anything older had to be hung against something historically accurate. But now a tide of moody colour seems to be washing over galleries all over town, turning them into visual extravaganzas. Will it spill over into our homes too?

Tate Britain has been doing the coloured wall thing for a while now, but its current Ruskin/Turner/PreRaphaelite show, designed by architect Richard MacCormac with paint effects provided by partner Jocasta Innes, is perhaps the best example yet of the power of colour. Tuscan red, hippie purple, even black, with tinted spotlights to finish, send you deep into the Ruskin universe.

That bastion of English Heritage respectability, Kenwood House in Hampstead, north London, has just redesigned its collection in collaboration with interior designer Alec Cobb to seduce visitors into thinking they've wandered into a sumptuous private club, exciting fears among staid locals that it was turning into a heritage hotel. "We want to make it beautiful, seductive and homely," enthuses EH's director of collections, Julius Bryant.

What is going on? Can we expect to see Changing Rooms' Lawrence Llewellyn-Bowen in charge of the Oscar Wilde centenary shows later this year? Are interior designers taking over the art asylum?

"There has been a sense developing that you could decorate the space without defeating the art," observes Paley carefully. "Lots of contemporary art demands to be hung with room to breathe, which implies white walls and a minimalist space. But it is still possible to hang it on walls of colour or pattern. It has to be done carefully, but it does work and can be surprising and fascinating. I have seen it in a number of my collectors' homes, in a couple of cases where the background decor was deliberately chosen for the art and another where the art becomes part of the way the house is decorated. It's an approach that allows the work to live in the decor of the home."

In the late 18th century, a Chinese browny-red was noted for its warming effect on gilt frames and became a picture room favourite, bestowing status on whatever it showed. A dark green was also used a lot because it let the pictures take precedence. But since the 1950s , when Jackson Pollock and Betty Parson's refusal to hang against hessian and pea green or red walls caused an outcry, white walls have been the new orthodoxy.

"But it's like, why do fridges have to be white?" protests gallery owner Antony Williamson. "I have painted walls all sorts of different colours. There's no particular reason why art should be on a white wall." (His current show, stunning multicoloured light boxes by David Batchelor, isn't even on the walls, but plonked down on industrial shelving units.)

Mark Irving, editorial director of web art site, agrees with Williamson. "There is a certain fad for the White Cube look. But I think it's more interesting to contrast and combine work of different periods with colour." He is particularly enthusiastic about the painter Howard Hodgkin's central London home - Hodgkin uses the same moody palette for his walls as for his paintings. Irving describes it as a space "where the artist's awareness of spatial line and colour have been allowed to extend to the living environment."

Hodgkin's approach is a way of showing how porous and flexible the work is, that it is not confined within the frame. Irving uses a similar device in his own kitchen, which he uses for entertaining - he has hung a family painting against Farrow and Ball's Picture Gallery Red. "It's the same red as in the painting but it also is very much a validation of the status of the painting."

The new colours at Kenwood echo the pigments and mood of the art: the feminine wing is a deep subtle lilac with an intricate floral, red, violet and green carpet; the masculine side starts out a thick biscuity buff and ends covered in wine velvet gauffrage, with grey ceilings.

Even art owners too attached to white walls to consider any other colour have be able to choose the right white. Penny Hughes-Stanton has just set up North House, a buzzy new gallery, from her 18th-century house overlooking the Stour estuary at Manningtree, Essex, all herringbone brick, stone flags and creaking bare boards. She too works with an interior designer, Alex Judson, but would never consider using colour. "I'm a white person: white walls, white sofa, white everything." She painted the main gallery in Leyland's Antique White, a matt greenish tone that suits works on paper. "But at first I chose Farrow and Ball's old white, which was terribly creamy and National Trust, and interfered with the colour of the work." Other rooms are brilliant white - "Too much, horribly cold, must go."

If you're going to use colour, says Anne Hanson-Bradbrook, paint manager at Bolloms, the art galleries' favourite paint company, "the secret is to keep it matt, so the picture stands out like a jewel. And always brush it out - the slight texture of rollering will always reflect light back."

Match your walls to the colour that is the second or third most dominant in the art, suggests vice-chairman of the Twentieth Century Society, Alan Powers, whose book, Living With Pictures, comes out later this year. He collects British 20th-century art, which he hangs against subtle shades of sage green, pink and blue. "Black and white prints look good on yellow, and dark green is a good colour especially if the room is used a lot at night. He recommends moving away from white. "It takes up too much of your eyes' available energy," he says.

Julius Bryant advises that you look for the palest part of the picture and don't let your walls go any lighter than this. His pet hate is glaring white Do Not Touch signs because they override his collection's subtle lighter tones. Whatever colour you choose, he says, "once you can feel the volume of the figures or whatever, and the picture becomes three-dimensional, then you know you've got it right."