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Greek's sonnet in stone

The classical beauty of a Glasgow villa is being restored while its doors remain open to visitors. Douglas Blane takes a peek inside.

Scraping away with a scalpel at the layers of paint and wallpaper applied over 150 years, while perched on scaffolding 25 feet above the stairwell floor, is no job for the faint-hearted. But the painstaking archaeology continues in an attempt to restore Holmwood House to its original finish. How much easier it would be if experts could travel back in time and learn about the decorations from the architect himself.

Alexander "Greek" Thomson designed many of the most attractive and original buildings in Glasgow, from the 1830s to 1870s. His prolific output ranged from small terraced houses to large public buildings such as the magnificent church still standing in St Vincent Street. Holmwood House, in Netherlee Road, is considered his finest villa in the classical style for which he is best remembered.

"If architecture be poetry in stone," wrote an enthusiastic admirer, "this exquisite little gem, at once classic and picturesque, is as complete, self-contained and polished as a sonnet." Today, a visitor approaching up the sweeping drive, past the lawn dotted with trees, sees a lovely Grecian-style villa on a hill above a river.

Credit for its preservation belongs to the National Trust for Scotland, which bought the property in 1994, and the Alexander Thomson Society, whose implacable opposition a few years earlier dissuaded a developer from converting it into flats.

Many of Thomson's buildings have been lost to modernisation, but Holmwood House should now be safe. The Trust has already devoted much effort to restoring the exterior and continues on the interior. "It could take another 10 years," says property manager Sally White. But its doors have been open to the public since last year, with a special programme of tours and workshops aimed at children and their teachers.

Glasgow's Year of Architecture was 1999, during which the new Lighthouse Centre for architecture and design held a major exhibition on Thomson. Many schools ran projects on him and organised outings to inspect some of his buildings.

Our Lady of the Missions primary school has a special affinity with Holmwood House. This used to be the school's home. The sisters acquired the villa for a convent in 1958 and established a primary school, which soon expanded into purpose-built huts behind the house. By 1992 the school was overflowing and pupils and teachers had to transfer to new accommodation a few miles away, in Thornliebank. The nuns moved shortly afterwards to separate accommodation.

Headteacher Philomena Strachan remembers the last day well. "We were pleased to go to a new school, but very sorry to leave Holmwood. It's a special place with a long tradition and it's very beautiful," she says. "On the lawn, which we used for sports days and garden fetes, we hel a special mass on the last day to thank the sisters. I think the children felt very cared for here."

None of today's pupils is old enough to have been taught at Holmwood House, so their teachers provide a stepping-stone to the past. The guide's commentary - "When it's sunny the light coming through the cupola projects the pattern on the cornicing, and it moves during the day and changes to twinkling stars" - is interspersed with teachers' memories: "The sisters used to let us use this front room, with its beautiful bay window, for functions. They wanted the school to feel part of their community. The cook would often bring us home-made apple pies."

During the visit the children are divided into three groups. One is given a guided tour of the house followed by a quiz. The second sits in the kitchen court making line drawings into stencil designs similar to those Thomson used. And the third has to imagine coming up the driveway to Holmwood in a carriage and gathering in the dining room for the evening meal. They are asked to visualise and sketch the furniture they would be using.

This has to be a work of imagination because Holmwood has an unsolved mystery: nobody knows the nature of the furniture which Thomson - who had a free hand in every detail of the house - designed. Or where it is now. But Sally White is hopeful: "I think it will turn up some day. They would have been very beautiful pieces, very distinctive. I think someone must still have them.

"The dining room is the grandest in the house," she adds. "It's a lovely place to have a meal. If there's a function in the evening with people walking around, relaxed with a glass of wine in their hands, it's wonderful - as if the house has come alive again."

One of the unique features of the house is the original interior decoration, hidden away under layers of paint and paper, and the trust has decided that, unlike many of its properties which show changes in decor down the years, Holmwood House will be restored as far as possible to Thomson's conception.

Work will continue throughout the year, says Sally White. "There are so many TV programmes about changing interiors: in two hours you can have a new room. But conservation is the opposite of that: in 20 years you can have a restored room.

"I don't want to shut people out," she says. "I love seeing how the children react to the building and I don't think having them around is a problem. We've had kids from all over Glasgow and they've been great."

* Holmwood House, 61-63 Netherlee Road, Glasgow G44 3YG. Tel: 0141 637 2129. School workshops Mondays-Fridays 10am-noon for Primary 5 to Secondary 1. Older pupils can come to the house to sketch in the afternoon.

Maximum class size 30 pupils, teachers 1:10 pupils. Admission: pound;1 per child, adults free.

For more information contact property manager Sally White.

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