“You will not take up your appointment in Oman – I want you to run an Army Youth Team in Northampton”
With those words my Lawrence-like dreams were over and I realised that my military career had effectively come to an end.
What to do? Apart from a vague knowledge of early 20th century British art I knew nothing other than soldiering. However, six months working for a Bond Street dealer told me that a career in fine art was not the away ahead. In spite of enjoying the early stuff I certainly didn’t understand works such as those of Joseph Beuys which made selling them quite a problem. Felt and lard I can deal with, but not in connection with ‘art’.
A chance meeting with a fellow cavalryman led to a brief period of picture-framing. Initially this was merely collecting and dropping off works that my colleague had framed but slowly I took on much of the work myself – operating in the shed at the back of my father’s shop premises in Chelsea. My wife, Alex, and I taught ourselves to gild, and we began to paint frames too, experimenting with some of the paint effects that had begun to be popular in the late 1970s. However, it became clear that picture-framing was unlikely to support a family so I had to think again.
Slowly it dawned on me that I was ideally placed. My father had started Papers and Paints twenty years before, after a similarly frustrated early career – this time in the family wine business. However, over the years he had put together a company with a strong reputation for service and expertise. His skills as a colour-matcher were legendary and I started to pick up some very useful tips. Tall and spare, with his half-moon glasses he might initially have appeared rather daunting and certainly not the typical owner of a paint shop but he had built up a very loyal clientele and had become a local institution.
Distemper, saponification and “flashing” (goodness, what was that?) were all words that entered my vocabulary. If ever paint could be described as exciting, I had come into it at the right moment. It was being seen that walls didn’t have to be flat and two-dimensional, that ‘movement’ could be imparted by the layering of coloured translucent glazes with brushes and sponges. We were entering the period of “Paint Effects” and my father, Robert Baty, was in the thick of it.
Pa had been colour-matching objects brought into him for many years – initially making adjustments to existing colour formulations and then devising new colours. Old flakes of paint; wallpaper; fabric; carpet (tricky) and obsolete colour cards being items that were brought in on a daily basis. Slowly I was introduced to the dark arts and (under careful supervision) learnt how to match colour and how to cope with what I later learnt was called metamerism – the phenomenon of coloured surfaces appearing differently under varying light conditions.
I also learnt how to listen to what customers wanted; to try to unravel some fairly complex thought processes at times. It was always good to have a clear request, such as…
…perhaps one of the more memorable of these.
A few of the sharper observers of the human condition have picked up on this kind of exchange:
Writing from Samoa in October 1892, to a colleague in London, Robert Louis Stevenson expressed very well a typical request that we at Papers and Paints hear on the telephone every day:
“Perhaps…it might amuse you to send us any pattern of wall paper that might strike you as cheap, pretty and suitable for a room in a hot and extremely bright climate… The room I have…in mind is a sort of bed and sitting room, pretty large, lit on three sides, and the colour in favour…is a topazy yellow. But then with what colour to relieve it ? For a little work-room of my own at the back, I should rather like to see some patterns of unglossy – well, I’ll be hanged if I can describe this red – it’s not Turkish and it’s not Roman and it’s not Indian, but it seems to partake of the two last, and yet it can’t be either of them because it ought to be able to go with vermilion. Ah what a tangled web we weave – anyway, with what brains you have left, choose me and send me some – many – patterns of this exact shade.”
It seems that this problem has existed for many years:
In time one learnt how to deal with the manifold problems of colour and (more importantly) colour perception.
The new world of “Paint Effects” was scary by comparison, for a third dimension was introduced into the world of colour. Not only was a knowledge of the techniques of applying the paints and glazes necessary, but one also had to understand what would happen when one colour was overlaid by another.
Quite why we started to tint glazes for customers I don’t recall – presumably in order to be helpful, and maybe because it was assumed that we could. This was fine in theory and worked surprisingly well until faced by the occasional customer who would buy the glaze but not the undercoat – preferring to “get it later” (i.e. buy it elsewhere). That’s an accepted problem faced by any small specialist – one gives advice but often for no return (you may find me returning to this theme again and again). However, it did become a nuisance when some of those same people would come back and claim that the glaze was incorrectly coloured and “could we adjust it?” We soldiered on for a while, but had to give up tinting glazes as there was never any guarantee that the customer would listen let alone comply with our recommendations.
I remember attending a week-long course in specialist painting at Vauxhall College with a couple of young would-be painters straight out of finishing school and a number of bemused apprentices. We were under the tutelage of a wonderful character who had been ‘on the brushes’ for the best part of fifty years. What a great experience to learn from an old-fashioned painter who had started work before the War! I was taught about floggers, draggers and softeners and how to mix the perfect megilp.
He obviously taught me well because within a couple of years I was approached by the first of a long line of publishers and commissioned to edit or even ghost-write some of the stream of books on specialist painting that came out in the 1980s and early 1990s. I was particularly delighted to help with the revision of perhaps the best known – Paint Magic by Jocasta Innes, which is still available. I might, however, have been a wee bit hard on the first edition as she obliquely indicates in her thanks:
“First a big thank you to Patrick Baty, of Papers and Paints , whose unsparing critique and great erudition helped blast the project off its launch-pad.”
(To be continued…we start to employ staff…)
Desert photograph by permission of http://www.freenaturepictures.com/desert-landscapes-pictures.php
Gambols cartoon – Roger Mahoney
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