OB Loves

Trompe l’Oeil

The visual trickery of trompe l’oeil has entranced viewers for centuries. From the French term meaning ‘to deceive the eye’, referring to the use of paint to create an illusionary scene, landscape or architectural feature.

This style was first devised by the Ancient Greeks using a combination of pigment and wet plaster to produce colour. This was then used to render architectural ornaments such as faux columns, architraves and porticoes, creating a mesmerising optical illusion for the beholder. This playful use of paint saw artists challenge each other to create the grandest and most spectacular illusions, questioning our concept of what is real and what isn’t. In this blog, we explore trompe l’oeil’s fascinating history and why this ancient technique is gaining popularity in interiors once more.

A fresco from the House of Meleagro, Pompeii, 1st Century. Image via ThoughtCo.

The earliest example of trompe l’oeil is said to have come from Ancient Greece. A contest took place between two prominent artists of the time: Zeuxis and Parrhasius. Zeuxis painted grapes with such skill that birds came down to peck at them. To triumph his rival, Parrhasius painted the illusion of a curtain, which was so convincing that his fellow-painter tried to draw it aside. By playing with shadow and light, these artists discovered they were able to create the illusion of dimension and depth, transforming flat surfaces into three-dimensional marvels with only paint and brushes as their tools.

Andrea Mantegna, Camera degli Sposi: Ceiling Oculus, Palazzo Ducale from 1474. Image via The Royal Academy.

By the Renaissance period, the style had reached its apotheosis. Biblical narratives and religious imagery adorned the walls and ceilings of Italian churches and cathedrals with this newfound technique. Most famously of all was the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel with its timeless frescoes painted by Michelangelo. By the Middle Renaissance, trompe l’oeil murals became the decoration of choice. The ceilings of magnificent Italian palazzos were transformed into infinite skies adorned with exotic birds and foliage, whilst windowless rooms suddenly looked out onto sublime vistas. In Italian, this soaring effect is known as di sotto in sù (“seen from below”) creating the impression that figures or objects are suspended or floating above the viewer.

Ex Libris Wallpaper from the Fornasetti collection by Cole & Son. Image via Cole & Son

'Through clever mastery of colour, shading and perspective the artist can create realistic and convincing illusions'

In this way, trompe l’oeil challenges the boundaries of what is real and imaginary. Through clever mastery of colour, shading and perspective the artist can create realistic and convincing illusions. One of our favourite proponents of this artistic technique is Piero Fornasetti. The Italian designer first began applying the technique to furnishings in the 1960s, creating a dinner plate that appeared to hold a fish and a folding screen that formed the illusion of a shelf of books. In our luxury residences, we love to include Fornasetti’s decorative ornaments to add a touch of playfulness and intrigue.

Historic Royal Palaces Great Masters Royal Jardiniere. Image via Cole & Son.

'With space now at a premium, the technique offers a sense of grandeur, creating the impression of additional room'

With space now at a premium, the technique offers a sense of grandeur, creating the impression of additional room and more attractive views without the need for structural work. This style allows artists to overcome in-built limitations and create an instant sense of place. Trompe l’oeil can be applied to a multitude of surfaces from furniture and decorative objects to ceilings, walls and even the facades of buildings. One of our favourite ways to introduce trompe l’oeil into the home is through wallcoverings. We love Cole & Son’s new ‘Historic Royal Palaces’ collection inspired by six iconic royal residences. Featuring beautiful architectural detailing such as Tudor wood panelling, ornate ironwork and classical pillars, this collection presents an enchanting window into the past.

Trompe l'Oeil example. Image via Pigmentti.

With its ability to transport viewers to another time and place, trompe l’oeil is just as delightful to the viewer now as it was in ancient times. Through clever juxtapositions and use of perspective, the technique invites us to question what is real and illusionary. From a ceiling that looks upwards to the heavens to a windowless room that now benefits from breath-taking panoramas, the possibilities are truly endless.