A Potted History

A revised form of this article first appeared in Perspectives on Architecture. April 1994: 70-71. Myth, misuse, and muddled thinking have made the field of historic colour one of great confusion. Ironically recent legislation limiting the use of lead paint to Grade I and Grade II* listed buildings will probably encourage some clarification of the issues involved. Amongst certain bodies, attention is now being focused on appropriate paints and colours for use in historic buildings. It has at last been realised that primitive paint scrapes and interior-decorator led concepts of colour have little place in the academic redecoration of period interiors. Disregarded for so long, the techniques perfected by Dr. Ian Bristow and others are now being recognized as the only way of establishing, with any degree of confidence, the colours used in the past. Ignorance, and occasionally deliberate distortion, have misled those visiting many of our historic buildings. In supposedly-restored rooms, an assumption is often made that because the furniture has been arranged, and the pictures hung in an eighteenth century manner, the colour of the walls is appropriate to the setting. Guidebooks are not being used to explain why decorating decisions were made. Theories on historic colour are thus formed, and are reinforced by some of the less critical glossy magazines who tend to oversimplify and use sweeping superlatives. The colour of a paint is inextricably linked to its constituents. Anyone comparing a limewashed wall in Tuscany with a conventional paint colour chart will see that texture and finish are as much a part of the overall effect as the type of red ochre pigment used, for example. It follows that for a paint to be labelled "historic", "authentic" or "traditional" the ingredients must match those used in the relevant period. With a few exceptions, and largely for reasons of economy, health and safety, and availability, this is no longer an option open to the paint-buying public. A compromise must be made, but always with the ideal in mind if anything meaningful is intended. Information about the product must be given to substantiate these tags, and thus informed, the purchaser can decide on the degree of historical accuracy or authenticity. Historic or authentic colours are those that have some precedent, although if neither the period nor sources are made clear they cease to have any special meaning. Beware, too, the Trojan horse ranges that intersperse the genuine with the seemingly plausible. Context is also important. Do the colours ostensibly used by an extremist North American religious sect have any relevance to eighteenth century interiors in this country? Similarly, the labelling of tins with "buttermilk paint" or with other names that appeal to our innate snobbery are to be questioned, as their composition and origins are effectively being disguised. All this does is to pander to our rosetinted view of the past. For a coloured oil paint to exhibit all the well known and desirable characteristics of White Lead, it must contain at least 78.4% of lead carbonate. Furthermore, to be considered suitable for an academic redecoration project, it must be combined with linseed oil and tinted with pigments of the kind traditionally used. If one is pursuing this to the limit, these pigments should be ground only as fine as early technology would permit, modern paint stainers being considerably finer and brighter. Traditional water-based media are generally easier to reproduce. Soft distemper, composed of


powdered chalk, pigment and animal glue size is invaluable in the redecoration of elaborate decorative plasterwork. The use of a modern emulsion would very quickly clog up the detail, whereas the distemper can be sponged off when repainting is required. Although of more limited application, limewash can also be prepared in a form almost identical to that originally used. If one accepts that it is practically impossible to obtain an oil paint that replicates the effect of an eighteenth century lead paint, can one use a modern paint that has been colour-matched to a recipe of that time, and what will be the difference? A modern eggshell, or flat oil paint, presents a smooth and even surface, with none of the life and depth of the original. A modern gloss, on exterior surfaces, will display few of the characteristics associated with the finish found on eighteenth century joinery. However, an appropriate colour, correctly used, can often give an acceptable impression of the original scheme. Caution and information should prevent the erroneous citing of historical precedent, and such solecisms as the use of a blue colour based on smalt on ones front door, for example. This particular pigment was made from crushed cobalt blue glass, and although occasionally used on fine ironwork, where it would be strewn over a layer of still tacky paint, would not have been found on large vertical surfaces. In a room with faded furnishings and worn gilt frames, the use of authentic colours as they might have appeared when new can lead to an imbalance. This is often used as a pretext for the selection of muted, tasteful, colours, and the application of twentieth century aesthetics to an earlier setting. As a result, little attempt is made to establish what colours would have been used, it being considered that they would be too bright for most purposes. Paint ranges based on "adjusted" colours have little to offer in terms of historical accuracy, and cannot excuse the need for research. The effects of dirt, age, and chemical change on the original colour can sometimes be quite dramatic, and render such adjustments meaningless. Divine inspiration and good taste alone are not going to enable us to see the sort of colours that were in use in the past. Paint analysis, the colour-matching of surviving colour cards, and the mixing of early paint recipes using original materials will all provide a more reliable guide to authentic colour. If need be, these are the colours that can be used as a baseline from which to produce considered adjustments to tie in with aged artefacts. Some years ago, aware of the growing interest in the subject, we reproduced a number of colours that were in use, in interiors, during the second half of the eighteenth century. These were based on a well-preserved set of sample cards prepared by a house-painter for a client in 1807. Encouraged by the response to this small range covering a limited period, we broadened our research and carried out a study of a variety of sources printed between 1676 and 1930. The colours most often referred to were noted, and for the earlier years recipes were followed using the ingredients given. Pigments were obtained from a number of suppliers, and the obsolete ones were manufactured in small batches. The resulting colours were then assessed either subjectively, or by comparison with the few named colour samples that survive from the early nineteenth century. Manufacturers' colour cards became more common during the latter years of Victoria's reign, and these were used to provide references to the more recent examples. Modern house-paints, of a type unknown when these colours were popular, have been matched to the results of our study, and this range of colours will soon be available from one of the major paint manufacturers in this country. While an attempt has been made to reproduce a selection of


colours representative of many of those in use during this 250 year period, they could not be described as "authentic". If used in an appropriate context, however, they will convey the feeling of early decorative schemes. There must be no obligation for all historic interiors to be painted with traditional paints in appropriate colours. This would be an abnegation of progress, and an evasion of twentieth century design decisions. Such a move would have deprived us of the delights of the Library at Christ Church, Oxford, and the Wyatt Cloisters at Wilton House, in Wiltshire. Compulsion would have denied the very significant contribution of such individuals as John Fowler, David Hicks and David Mlinaric. However, if efforts are being made to assemble objects of a particular period in order to show how rooms were used, perhaps by an historical figure, the decoration of the walls is of great importance. The colour selected should be established by proper analysis, the paint carefully chosen, and applied as it would have been originally, not as altered by the passage of time, and mellowed by the subjectivity of current good taste. We must bear in mind that "it may not be pretty but it is true." Patrick Baty


Illustrations: 1. a) Example of old colour distorted by oil medium and exclusion from light - appears green. b) Example of same colour as it would have appeared originally - blue. 2. Examples of "common" colours mixed to original recipes.