“Long Acre1 in the year 1802 was an ideal situation for a firm of colour and varnish makers, the neighbourhood being the cradle of the arts, where wits, artists and cognoscenti congregated and where, too, the lady of fashion found the latest equipage with panels by Stothard, Moser, or Angelica Kauffmann. It was in the neighbourhood of Long Acre that the House of Parsons established itself in the reign of King George III and where it remained for over 110 years. The quality of their varnishes and colours became renowned and many a smart carriage, neighbouring theatre and lordly mansion, bore witness to the excellence of the firm’s products.”
Later they established themselves at 315-317 Oxford Street, in premises previously occupied by a firm of famous coach builders, and there they continued to uphold their fine tradition and maintain their place in the forefront of the paint industry.
Soon after War was declared in 1939, their Oxford Street premises were closed and their Head Office staff evacuated to their Works at Mitcham, in Surrey, until they opened their new showrooms and offices at 70 Grosvenor Street, just off New Bond Street.
The company ceased trading in the 1960s, just after Robert Baty had opened Papers and Paints in Chelsea. Like so many long-established paint companies Thomas Parsons & Sons might have just faded away. However, they left behind a legacy of sorts – a book that was to remain influential even fifty years later.
Thomas Parsons’ A Tint Book of Historical Colours (often just known as Parsons’) was first published in 1934 and contained 136 colours taken from the decorative and applied arts. This work was extremely influential in the days of limited paint colours, and formed the inspiration for a number of later commercial paint ranges. The sixth edition of the book was to appear in 1961, by which time the company was beginning to fade.
The colours were split into ‘family’ groups according to use or origin, for example: Colours of Egypt, Pompeian Colours, Mortlake Tapestry Colours, Wedgwood Colours and Majolica Colours being just a few.
In the foreword to the work they say:
“Receiving requests from time to time for notable colours of the past reproduced in present day decorative paints, and as the means of obtaining copies of these were sometimes difficult and occupied a great deal of time, we felt there was the need for some convenient form of reference for such colours; hence the publication of this book. We do not profess that it is by any means comprehensive but we show what we believe are the better known of these colours and as near to the originals as it is possible to match in decorative paints.”
Once word had spread that Pa was a wizard at matching paint colours new customers would appear clutching copies of this precious book to ask him if he could match a Parsons’ colour for them.
Twenty years later, when I joined the company, I was intrigued to learn of this ritual and to see that there was still a demand. It was great to be able to look through the book as my father set about producing a perfect Pompeian Red or Moorish Green for the Parsons’ devotees.
As the work was published in six editions, over nearly thirty years, it was hardly surprising that the colours in each book varied slightly. The recipes had been recorded in our ever-growing formulation books, but the number of variables was large. We were encouraged by Mrs Muriel Parsons, the last surviving director of the company, to reproduce the colours. I suggested that, rather than deal with the matches on a piecemeal basis, we got hold of a few copies and set about reproducing the complete range. At that time they could be had for about £40 ($65). The book now change hands for as much as £300 (approximately $490), which is perhaps not surprising as it is a well-designed and very attractive object. Thank heavens we built up our collection of the different volumes when we did.
Our 1950 edition of the book was in the best condition and it is this that we matched and eventually reproduced as our range of Historical Colours. We produced a leaflet to accompany the hand-painted colour cards, which explained what they were and what they were not.
The interest in the colours was immediate but very quickly it was clear that many misunderstood their purpose. In order to demonstrate the source of these colours we had retained the name Historical Colours. However, what I hadn’t considered was that many customers would come looking for paint colours that had actually been employed by the house-painter in previous centuries, rather than colours used in the applied arts.
It was fortunate that I had already completed a research degree focused on the Methods and Materials of the House-Painter in England 1660-1850 and had made a very useful find. We were able to deal with the more purist approach with our range of Traditional Colours.
As already indicated, A Tint Book of Historical Colours shows colours grouped in ‘families’. The images above, for example show some of those from Ancient Egypt. These were sourced from Mummy cases, furnishings and wall paintings and were limited to primaries of mineral origin – red from haematite or yellow ochre, burnt to redness; cobalt and copper for blue; malachite for green and orpiment for bright yellow.
The pottery and fabrics of China and Persia provide a wealth of wonderful colours, from the delicate blue-green glaze of early Fen Ching porcelain and the Celadon glazes to the brilliant turquoises of Chinese and Persian pottery. Reds, such as Rouge de Fer characteristic of Chinese export porcelain and the Sang de Boeuf of the Qing dynasty are shown above. The latter was imitated in Europe, especially in the porcelain factory at Sèvres, France, which produced a substantial amount of sang de boeuf in the late 19th century.
Colours from the Classical World
The famous Imperial Roman purple was made from the shells of sea snails found on the coast of Tyre. An amethyst-coloured variant was obtained from another species of shell fish. Porphyry Red is a colour taken from that igneous rock and Etruscan Red from Etruscan red-figure pottery of ancient Tuscany.
The Pompeian colours (shown at the top) have been taken from “this Brighton of the Romans” (as so charmingly described in Parsons’). Here, the ash had caused the colours of the walls to remain as fresh as when they were painted. Once again, these were based on indigenous ochres deepened with haematite.
Owen Jones’ use of primary colours in his decorative scheme for the interior of the 1851 Great Exhibition was based on his meticulous study of the Alhambra, the seat of the ancient Moorish kingdom. A selection of these colours is also shown.
Named after the two great patrons of art, Catherine and Marie de Medici, these colours are useful for emphasising the features of a structure or as a background for ornaments.
Colours from Tapestries
One of the largest families of coloured artefacts was that concerning tapestry. The dyers of the Verdure, Aubusson, Beauvais and Mortlake tapestries were renowned for their skill in fixing colour.
Michel Chevreul worked as the director of the dye works at Les Gobelins tapestry works in Paris, where he noticed that the perceived colour of a particular thread was influenced by its surrounding threads, a phenomenon he called simultaneous contrast. His work on colour has had a lasting influence on painting, the decorative arts, gardening and dress.
Born in Burslem in 1730, Josiah Wedgwood, founded a firm that gave us not only the famous Wedgwood Blue, but the various Jasper colours. It is not only the colour palette that distinguishes Wedgwood ware, but their inimitable reliefs of pâte-sur-pâte from designs by Flaxman, Roubiliac, Pacetti and others. Their wares were sent as far afield as St Petersburg for Catherine the Great and westward to Washington.
Other pages show examples of the colours of the Grès de Flandres (stoneware of Flanders) originally made at Cologne, the Low Countries and the Rhineland and of the distinctive blue of Royal Worcester. Pages of Delftware colours and those used on the Majolica bas reliefs of Luca della Robbia can also be found. Less convincing perhaps, although pleasing, are the William and Mary; Georgian Greens and the three Adam Greens.
The influence of A Tint Book of Historical Colours was both immediate and wide-reaching. Some four years after the first edition, Elizabeth Burris-Meyer, described as the “Dean of the School for Fashion Careers” in New York published a work that was clearly based on it – Historical Color Guide. She went on to publish several more books on colour and, in the 1960s was the kitchen editor for (American) House & Garden magazine.
Although itself not a scholarly work, Parsons’ Historical Colours did set out to show colours that were actually used on decorative artefacts. The colours in the American work, however, were much more abstract and so one finds “Macaroni” (an off-white) – designed to convey the 18th century English fop2 and “Cactus Bloom” (a pink) to suggest a Mexican palette. Samples of metallic colours were also included. Apparently undertaken “in answer to a demand for workable information on the derivation of schemes for artistic, business and industrial use” the colours are generally far more vibrant and perhaps less useful for interior decoration than those in Parsons’ Tint Book of Historical Colours.
Papers and Paints first reproduced the Parsons’ colours as a collection in the 1980s and the range still remains one of our most popular. Hand-painted colour cards of 112 of the colours can be bought from the Shop.
1 Thomas Parsons’ original premises were at 8 Endell Street, Long Acre.
2 One doesn’t suppose that this off-white was meant to represent the pasta of the same name!
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