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Some Myths Laid to Rest
By Patrick Baty
A careful reading of Dr Ian Bristow's recently published Interior House-Painting Colours and Technology 1615-1840will answer many of the old-wives' tales that have developed in the field of historical paint and colour. Recent conversations with a number of specialists involved with the care of historic houses, however, have revealed that a very high level of confusion still persists. Having ignored the evidence that has appeared sporadically during the last 25 years, it is quite likely that Dr Bristow's latest work will be considered too difficult by many who would most benefit from its publication. What follows are a number of the statements or questions that seem to indicate the areas of greatest confusion. The aim of this article is to provide answers, or to correct myths, in each case citing references to support them (a number of references have been taken from Dr Bristow's work). The views expressed are those of the author, and should not be regarded as necessarily representing those of the Traditional Paint Forum or its members. Perhaps, readers with alternative viewpoints might be encouraged to respond, and by so doing initiate a debate. 1) "A traditional paint finish, whether in an oil- or water-based medium, was rather patchy and tended to show the passage of the brush." ---------Does one suppose that a random effect was either likely or wanted when one reads the following passages from T.H. Vanherman's Every Man his own House-Painter and Colourman, of 1829? Having finished your second colour, and given it a day's repose, you must prepare for the third, by rubbing down the whole again with glass-paper, just skimming over lightly; use your duster, and lay on the third colour, mixed as the second. This must also have a day's rest; after which you begin as before, by rubbing down gently with the glass-paper; dust again, and then lay on the fourth colour, or finish. You must observe, in laying on your colour, either on panels, stiles, or other flat work, that you cross the brush, both backwards and forwards, and in all directions, to equalise the paint, and then you lay it off, by beginning at the top and drawing your brush firmly down, and then from the bottom upwards, to meet and make the joining good. Be careful not to leave any hair marks on the work, or any puddles in the corners of mouldings, carved work, or elsewhere.1 As explicit, is the observation by Thomas Martin:


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Good painting is known by the fullness and solidity of its appearance without any marks of the brush.2 The careful use of less expensive undercoats that would be suitable for certain finish colours, and that would cover well, can be found in a number of works. John Pincot and Vanherman, for example, recommended a grey colour under various greens3 while Dossie referred to the use of red lead under vermilion.4 Tingry in his The Painter's & Colourman's Complete Guide of 1830 emphasises that: Oil painting has a character of solidity which makes it often to be preferred to that executed with varnish or in distemper".5 He goes on to warn that: It will be proper also to brush off the dust, which sometimes covers the last coat, and which, if mixed with the new one, would alter the uniformity of its tint.6 Clearly here he is indicating the even finish required of an oil paint. A few pages later, while talking of distemper, he goes on to say: All objects comprehended in the distemper applied to cielings [sic], walls, &c. do not require much nicety in the choice of the glue: hence solidity being more attended to than neatness, common glue dissolved in water is very often used.7 Perhaps those who still believe that early lead paints were translucent when applied are confusing early practice with the phenomenon of "pentimenti", well known to paintings conservators, where darker underpaintings slowly become visible through the top layers of paint as the refractive index of the oil increases with age.8 Surely a case of a little knowledge being a dangerous thing in this case? -------------------2) "All oil paints would have had a flat finish in the past". ---------This is a very widely held belief, but one that is clouded by late twentieth century notions about what is an appropriate finish for early surfaces. A number of authors are quite specific about the finish considered suitable: Take Notice, That all simple Colours used in House Painting, appear much more beautiful and lustrous, when they appear as if glazed over with a Varnish, to which both the drying Oyl before-mentioned contributes very much, and also the Oyl of Turpentine, that the Painters use to help to make their Colours dry soon; but TRADITIONAL PAINT NEWS VOL 1 NO 2

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Experience teaches, that some good clear Turpentine dissolved in the aforesaid Oyl of Turpentine, before it be mix'd with the Oyl Colours, will make those Colours shine much when dry, and preserve their Beauty beyond most other Things, drying with an extream glassy Surface, more smooth than Oyl alone; and shall also better resist the Injuries of Air and Weather, provided too much be not put in.9 Clearly, Smith is referring to paint in an external context here, and there were sound reasons for this. The notion that a matt finish was used on the painting of exterior surfaces is false, and based on the tendency of lead paint to "chalk" after only a few years. An account of 1774 reveals: The third year the gloss is gone - in the fourth if you rub the painting with your finger, it will come off like so much dust.10 T.H. Vanherman, perhaps influenced by a vested interest in selling his own paint, was even more alarmist, citing the unfortunate case of the Duke of Richmond's new conservatory in 1804. Apparently, this had been painted with three coats of his own stone coloured Impenetrable Paintand then been give a fourth coat of white lead. Before nine months was up the white lead had disappeared leaving only the stone colour.11 It is not possible to make a paint with white lead that was as glossy as a modern gloss paint, but for external purposes the finish would have definitely had a high degree of sheen. A shinier finish was made possible by the application of a coat of oil varnish, and this was certainly done, especially on both the painted and grained front doors of Victorian London.12 On interior surfaces a flat finish became highly desirable from the 1740s onwards, but this added to the expense and resulted in a fragile surface. The process of achieving this was known as "flatting" and involved the application of white lead paste thinned with oil of turpentine.13 In the large number of price books that appeared from the early nineteenth century, "flatting" is invariably included as an "extra", usually adding a third as much again to the cost of painting a surface.14 It is thus more than likely that the majority of painted surfaces would have displayed a degree of sheen, perhaps approximating to a modern mid-sheen finish. ------------------3) Traditional paints were invariably environmentally friendly, being "natural" products. ----------


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The myth of "salmon eggs and peanut oil" has been exploded already,15 yet one still reads rose-tinted articles that expound the virtues of traditional paint from an ecological point of view. There are many examples that can be cited to correct this belief, using the well-worn examples of lead, mercury and arsenic, but the extract below points out some little known facts about one seemingly innocuous dye-stuff that was used as a pigment. The production of Indigo had a dramatic effect on the local ecology: The production of anil, that is indigo powder, is the only form of producing a natural dye that might lead to serious environmental problems under certain circumstances. 200 kilograms of indigoferaleaves must be fermented in order to produce one kilogram of indigo powder (referring to pure dye). In this case you have to accept ca. 200 kilograms of leaves that have become acidic and oxygen-consuming through fermentation, and approximately 2-4 cubic metres of acidic (pH 4-4.5, almost like vinegar) and low-oxygen (-200mv) water with high BOD5 values. Simply disposing this waste creates health problems for the workers, and the ecology suffers lasting damage from soil acidification which has particularly serious consequences in the tropics.16 -------------------4) "Emulsion paints are a product of the 1960s". ---------Strictly speaking, an emulsion is: A milky liquid, consisting of water holding in suspension minute particles of oil or resin by the aid of some albuminous or gummy substance.17 The formulation of emulsion paints is well documented and there appears to have been a revival at the end of the eighteenth century.18 One well known recipe that appears slightly revised in a number of later works is that of the Frenchman Antoine-Alexis Cadet-de-Vaux, which was originally published at the time of the Revolution.19 This involved the mixture of skimmed milk, freshly slaked lime, oil of caraway/linseed, or nut, and Spanish white [chalk]. This early "milk paint" was of dubious value as the following letter to the editor of The New England Farmer and Horticultural Journal of September 1828 indicates: Mr Fessenden: I think your correspondent...has taken a too favorable view of milk paint...Having used these materials for several buildings, and carefully prepared it too, TRADITIONAL PAINT NEWS VOL 1 NO 2

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I was I must own disappointed. The effects were of short duration to encourage further experiment...If so cheap a substitute for oil painting could be had, it would be a great benefit extending a neatness of appearance through the county. But I fear, too partial a view of its durability is entertained by your ingenious correspondent.20 In London, T.H. Vanherman was marketing a number of emulsions: an "Impenetrable or AntiCorrosive Paint" for external surfaces, an "Aromatic Paint" for interiors, and his "Carniola or Venetian Paint",21 although how much these were used is questionable. It was another sixty years or so before emulsion paints in the form of the oil-bound water paints (often misleadingly referred to as "oil-bound distempers") appeared on the market. Duresco22was one of the earliest and best known of these, but others such as Aspinall's Wapicti, Hall's Sanitary Washable Distemper, and Vernolene, were popular for many years.23 -------------------5) "The making of a paint scrape is a useful method of establishing what colours had been used on a painted surface". ---------See the article entitled "TO SCRAPE OR NOT TO SCRAPE?" on pages 9 to 15 of this journal. -------------------6) "The fashion for black railings began in the 1850's as a sign of mourning for Prince Albert". ---------The analysis of a number of external railings in several English cities reveals a remarkably similar sequence of paint colours. Grey (known usually as Lead or Iron colour) or Stone colour appears most commonly on 18th century railings.


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From the end of the 18th, and beginning of the 19th century, dark greens tend to be found. Variants of this colour are common throughout the century, with dark red oxides becoming popular in the final years. These latter often bore such names as Venetian red, Indian Red or Purple brown. Dark greens and red oxides continue throughout most of the first half of the 20th century with black eventually becoming the predominant colour since the end of the Second World War.24 -------------------Works Cited Armstrong, Francis. An Account of a Newly Invented Beautiful Green Paint. London: John Caley, 1774. Quoted in Richard M. Candee, "Materials Toward a History of Housepaints: The Materials and Craft of the Housepainter in Eighteenth Century America" (M.A. diss., State University of New York, Oneonta, 1965). Bischof, Michael. "Natural Indigo from El Salvador". Textile Forum 2/96. Bristow, Ian C.. Interior House-Painting Colours and Technology 1615-1840. London: Yale University Press, 1996. Cadet-de-Vaux, Antoine Alexis, "Memoir on a Method of Painting with Milk", The Repertory of Arts & Manufactures (vol. xv, 1801), pp.411-21. 16 vols. London 1794-1802. Constable, W.G.. The Painter's Workshop. 1954. New York: Dover Publications Inc. Reprint 1979. Donaldson, T.L.. Handbook of Specifications. 1859. Dossie, Robert. The Handmaid to the Arts. 1796 edn. Martin, Thomas. [John Farley]. The Circle of the Mechanical Arts. 1813. Pincot, John. Pincot's Treatise on the Practical Part of Coach & House Painting. Ca.1811. Skyring, W.H. Skyring's Builders Prices. 1854. Smith, John. The Art of Painting in Oyl. 5th edn, 1723 The New Sydenham Society's Lexicon cited in The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary on Historic Principles. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1973: 1:650. Tingry, P.F.. The Painter's & Colourman's Complete Guide. 3rd edn. 1830. Vanherman, T.H.. Every Man his own House-Painter. 1829. TRADITIONAL PAINT NEWS VOL 1 NO 2

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1(Vanherman 1829, 35-36). 2(Martin 1813, 463). 3(Pincot ca.1811 10; Vanherman 1829, 8) 4(Dossie 1796, 56). 5(ibid., 229) 6(ibid., 233). 7(ibid., 242). 8(Constable 1979, 97). 9(Smith 1723, 40). 10(Armstrong 1774, 10). 11(Vanherman 1829, 5). 12(Donaldson 1859, 523 & 635). 13(Bristow 1996, 102). 14(Skyring 1854, 96). 15In a review of Traditional Paints and Finishes, by Annie Sloan and Kate Gwynn, for The World of Interiors, September 1993, the author drew attention to the myth that early paints were "natural" products. 16(Bischof 1996, 26-27). 17(Syd. Soc. Lex. 1612). 18(Bristow 1996, 117-18). 19It also appears in A.F.M. Willich, The Domestic Encyclopaedia: or a Dictionary of Facts and Useful Knowledge Chiefly Applicable to Rural and Domestic Economy... 4 vols. London, 1802 edn. 3:328-29; Elijah Bemiss, The Dyer's Companion. 1806. 2nd ed. 1815, reprinted New York: Dover Publications Inc, 1973; Ernest Spon, Workshop Receipts. 1873. 99. 20I am indebted to Matthew Mosca for this information. 21(Vanherman 1829). 22See Traditional Paint News, vol.1 no.1, pp.78-79, also Walter Pearce, Painting and Decorating. London: Charles Griffin & Co, 1898, 133-34. 23See Paul Hasluck, Practical Painters' Work. London: Cassell and Co. 1909, 55-56. Also by the same author was House Decoration, which, in an undated special edition, gave details on many brands popular at the turn of the century (pp.119-130). 24This information is based on analyses carried out on a large number of pieces of external ironwork dating from between ca.1700 to 1887.