Paint is used on external surfaces to provide: Protection, Decoration, or Identification
…and very often it serves at least two out of three of these functions. Here it could be argued that all three are being served:
a) The wooden door is being protected from the elements,
b) The door has been very carefully and very well painted, conveying a feeling of quality,1
c) A sober, no-nonsense colour – black – has been chosen, which, combined with the highly polished surface emphasises the status of the building and its occupants.
As a contrast, here is a door that:
a) Has also been protected from the elements,
b) Has been very carefully and thoughtfully painted, and
c) Is also making a statement, but this time of the two-fingered variety!
Without going to this extreme it is still possible to make a statement, whilst both acknowledging the architecture and also ones neighbours.
Front door colours are something that I and my company of Papers and Paints have specialised in for many years. Most house owners are very conscious of what the colour on their front door says about them and want to present a good face to the world
But first a little background:
The eighteenth century convention was for a dark door as this example from Bath shows. Note how the door furniture is painted black rather than being shiny brass. The door, however, would never have been black
This treatment was to change very little over the next century, although the colour range broadened.
“the front door is to be finished green, and is to be twice varnished with the best copal varnish, and is also to have the number of the house painted thereon”
So read an early Victorian specification, which is revealing for what it tells us about the high degree of sheen that was considered desirable.
In the early years of the nineteenth century a rather murky green would have been produced by adding a black pigment to yellow ochre. However, from the second quarter of the century Bronze greens and Brunswick greens became popular. These both appeared in a number of variations and saw great use over the next one hundred years plus.
In its light form the former colour gave the impression of patinated bronze. An example of this can be seen on the door of the Soane Museum, in Lincoln’s Inn Fields, London.
The brighter Brunswick greens were made possible by the introduction of the pigment chrome yellow in the 1820s. An example of the light form of this can be seen here:
This is the sort of colour scheme likely to have been found on a typical suburban house until the 1960s. The darker version of this colour was sometimes known as “British Racing Green”.
If not painted green, front doors were often grained in imitation of oak (often referred to as Wainscot). This sort of treatment was frequently given to other external joinery as indicated in another nineteenth century specification:
“To grain in the best manner in imitation of wainscot, and varnish twice with strong copal, the whole of the external woodwork of the lodge.”
Graining is still seen widely in Edinburgh and other parts of Scotland, but less so in England. I wonder if this example photographed in Chiswick nearly twenty years ago survives? The superb walnut-grained front door has a protective curtain, which would have prolonged its life even more.
Surprisingly perhaps, a grained front door will remain looking good for much longer than a merely varnished wooden door, where little protection from UV light is provided. Very quickly the wood goes grey, as can be seen here:
A number of brownish colours were also employed. These ranged from reddy-brown, through browns of the same tonality of oak, to much darker chocolate browns. Sometimes the doorcase, if there was one, and the door surround would have been painted in the same colour as the front door. Frequently, however, these elements would have been painted in a pale stone colour.
A popular brown is mentioned here in connection with the windows:
“The sashes are to be finished dark purple brown; the front door is to be painted green and to be twice varnished with the best copal…”
So reads another typical specification of the 1840s for a small terraced house of the type that can still be found in many British cities.
As mentioned already, doors would often have had a glossy finish, which was achieved by applying two coats of copal varnish over the (already shiny) oil paint. The notion that a matt finish was desirable on external surfaces during the period is false, and based on the tendency of lead paint to “chalk” after only a few years. From an early date it was well understood that a paint with a degree of sheen was necessary to cope with everyday wear and tear and the rigours of the weather. It is somewhat ironic that the huge demand for an “external eggshell” paint has been led by those companies producing ranges of ostensibly “historic” colours.
A walk through the streets of surviving eighteenth century houses in Spitalfields, London, used to be a faintly depressing experience (as can be seen in the following article that I wrote for Country Life in 1992 – Such solecisms as brilliant white combined with prissy picking out in dark blue could be found alongside other colours of a kind unknown before the 1930s. That has largely changed although now one is somewhat overwhelmed by “taste” as these two examples from Bath show:
Here we have the “Anonymous” front door with its satin nickel door furniture and its close cousin the “Phantom”, where camouflage is the order of the day.
It’s good to see that others have expressed concern at the ‘neutering’ of our front door colours, although salutary to see a Frenchman writing about the problem seventy years ago:
Alas, year after year, and more and more, is this tradition of strong colours disappearing. This tradition which serves on English houses as the stamp of Britain, and which the world over is significant of English strength, is tending to be replaced by other mediocre colours: neither delicate nor strong, and often detestable. The insipidity of _____’s Lavender struggles with the superb solidity of Bass, and the result is neither one thing nor the other: a mutual concession which, as with all concessions, ought not to be classed as art (while it is admitted that it might be worthy of other things even diplomacy). One would say that the refined range of colours is trying to supersede the strong.
The great strength these noble and loyal colours could have given is all being wasted. For example, the doors of Bedford Square: strong blues give way to anaemic or acid blues; the deep reds become a pink that is saddening to the heart. Elsewhere, in the admirable Edwardes Square and its surroundings, ungrateful violet replaces British browns; virile greens are transformed into the green of a salad raised in a cellar. And the royal red, the vermilion-orange of the old omnibus, becomes a little gooseberry-coloured on the motor-bus; similarly the pillar boxes. And observe that, in spite of the fact that this old tradition expressed British strength, it had extreme distinction, even softness, in addition to its powerfulness.2
(To be continued…)
For advice on front door colours contact Papers and Paints
1 There are two identical front doors for No 10 Downing Street that are swapped over whenever maintenance is required. The ’0′ in the number 10 is painted at an angle as the original door has a badly-fixed zero. Perhaps only in Britain would a tradition evolve from such a mistake!
2 Amédée Ozenfant. “Colour: The English Tradition.” Architectural Review, 81 (January 1937) 41-44.
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