Colour Ranges

Nov 13th, 2011 | | Colour Ranges | History | 7 Comments

The Hierarchy of Colour in Eighteenth Century Decoration

Handel House Bedroom - Matthew Hollow

Lead Colour in the Handel House Museum © Matthew Hollow – with thanks to the Museum

The use of colour in the decoration of early eighteenth century interiors was much more straightforward and austere than many people believe. The relative complexity of the panelled wall surface was not an excuse for the elaborate picking out beloved of so many interior designers. This was clear when one realises that in a simplified form the panelled wall was designed to represent the Classical order:

Tuscan Order
The Tuscan Order
The dado represents the pedestal; the wall represents the column and the cornice the entablature

Softwood panelling was meant to be painted, almost invariably in one colour from the base of the skirting to the top of the cornice. An exception might be the painting of the skirting fascia in a dark colour – often chocolate brown. The use of a practical dark colour was not restricted to skirtings, one also finds it on window shutters and doors, which would have received frequent handling, as well as on door architraves. The bare wood was not meant to be seen. When that is understood it can be seen that this sort of thing is nonsensical:

Painted Cornice & Stripped Panelling
Stripped Panelling and Cornice Painted as Ceiling – both Wrong

In eighteenth century London paints were available from the colourman as ready-mixed pastes, which would be ‘let down’ to a workable consistency by the house painter. The price varied considerably depending on the colour as will be seen below.

In rooms of the ‘middling sort’ it is most unlikely that the mouldings would have been picked out, except where the more expensive colours were being used and cost was not a major consideration. If the cheaper, or Common colours, were being applied, the extra cost of the labour would have been disproportionate. Colour was used to unify the major architectural elements rather than sub-divide them.1 The fussy picking out of architectural detail betrays a lack of understanding and is characteristic of the work of twentieth century interior decorators like John Fowler. One of his biggest legacies has been the ‘three shades of white’ on doors and panelling.

A Late Marbled Closet
A late seventeenth century Marbled Closet (with replaced mouldings)

Of course, in wealthier households it was not unusual to encounter a room (or closet) of greater elaboration, where marbling, graining, gilding or the use of gilded leather might have been employed, however the purpose of this essay is to show how the use of a single paint colour alone might convey status.

Colour Range

The range of paint colours used was very limited and was restricted by a number of factors:
a) The compatibility of pigments with each other;
b) their availability and cost (several were imported from the East and West Indies, for example), and
c) the conventions of the day – although these conventions were obviously related to the other factors.

The colours being offered by the London colourman Alexander Emerton in the first half of the century are recorded and the prices were listed in William Salmon’s Palladio Londinensis, which was published in 1748. Salmon also refers to the early beginning of DIY in this intriguing paragraph:

“Painters Work being very expensive, and this being the only part in Building wherein a Gentleman can be assisting either by himself or Servants, it being almost impossible for any Gentleman to do either Masons, Bricklayers, Carpenters, or Smiths Works; whereas it is well known and daily experienced since the Advertisement of ALEXANDER EMERTON, that several Noblemen and Gentlemen have by themselves and Servants painted whole Houses without the Assistance or Direction of a Painter, which when examined by the best Judges could not be distinguished from the Work of a professed Painter”.

William Salmon's Palladio Londinensis

William Salmon’s Palladio Londinesis

From this we learn that the cheapest colours, those that saw everyday use and, as a consequence, known as the Common Colours, were the following:

The Common Colours

Cream Colour and Lead Colour
1) Cream Colour and Lead Colour

Pearl Colour and Stone Colour

2) Pearl Colour and Stone Colour

Wainscot Colour and White

3) Wainscot (or Oak) Colour and White

The Common Colours were available, in paste form ground in oil, at 4d or 5d per pound. The tinting components were inexpensive iron oxide pigments and black in a lead white base. It is possible that a tiny amount of Prussian blue was added to the Pearl Colour. As can be seen, the colours were generally of a light or mid tone.

Good examples to illustrate the use of Common Colours that were found as a result of paint analysis can be seen in:
a) the Benjamin Franklin House, where a combination of Stone colours in conjunction with Chocolate Colour and a Timber Colour have been reinstated to show the house as it was when Dr Franklin lived there in the late 1750s;
b) the Handel House Museum, which had been lived in by George Frideric Handel from the 1720s to his death in 1759. Here Lead Colour has been employed throughout the building in combination with Chocolate Colour. The next door house, which had been occupied by Jimi Hendrix in 1969 was found to have been painted in a single Stone Colour throughout. Also,
c) this charming house of 1769 on The Terrace, Richmond, which had once been owned by Mrs Fitzherbert, the mistress of the future King George IV. Although later in style and construction Stone Colour had been used throughout the building.

The point to emphasise here is that it was common practice to use a (mainly) single colour throughout a house in the early eighteenth century. Even in the early 1770s, Sir William Chambers says to a client, for whom he was building a house in Berners Street, London:

“If you have any Particular fancy about the Painting [of] your principal Rooms be pleased to let me know[.] my intention is to finish the whole of a fine stone Colour as us[u]al excepting the Eating Parlour which I purpose [sic] to finish pea Green with white mouldings & ornaments.”2

Slightly more expensive were the following colours all available, ground in oil, at 6d per pound:

Chocolate Colour and Walnut Colour

1) Chocolate Colour and Walnut Colour

Mahogany and Cedar
2) Mahogany and Cedar

These colours, which might be referred to as Timber Colours required greater amounts of pigments, consisting largely of red and yellow oxides and black.

More expensive than these were the following colours which ranged in price from between 8d and 12d per pound:

Gold Colour and Olive Colour
1) Gold Colour and Olive Colour

Pea Green and Sky Blue
2) Pea Green and Sky Blue

To produce these colours more expensive pigments were employed – possibly Massicot in the Gold Colour and Prussian blue and yellow iron oxide in the Olive Colour. Pea Green could have been made in a number of different ways, involving the use of Verdigris, or Prussian blue and either Naples yellow or Massicot.

Still more expensive were the following, all of which were available at 12d per pound:

Orange and Lemon
1) Orange and Lemon

Straw Colour and Pink
2) Straw Colour and Pink

Blossom Colour
3) Blossom Colour

It seems that Orange may have been made with yellow iron oxide and red lead. Lemon might either have been produced with Naples yellow or with an organic yellow (see below). The fact that Straw Colour was charged at 12d per pound suggests that it was not composed of yellow iron oxide as indicated by contemporary authors such as John Smith. It is more likely that it was a brighter colour perhaps containing one of the lead-based yellows. Pink is a deceptive name, because it now means a light red or rose pink, whereas in the eighteenth century it referred to a yellow colour produced from a number of organic sources.3 The pigment Dutch Pink, for example, was generally made with ripe buckthorn berries. Blossom seems likely to have been made with vermilion or red lake.

Finally, at the bottom, and incredibly expensive at 2s 6d per pound:

Fine Deep Green
Fine Deep Green

It must be appreciated that Fine Deep Green was between six and seven times the price of the ordinary Common Colours and one would have certainly been making a statement by applying it to ones walls. Some years ago I was asked to carry out the paint analysis of a number of the interiors at Newhailes, in East Lothian.

Newhailes, East Lothian
Newhailes, East Lothian

We know, from surviving accounts, that in 1742 Sir James Dalrymple had bought Fine Green paint from Joseph Emerton (the brother of Alexander). For some reason the price charged was 4s per pound – some ten to twelve times the cost of the Common Colours! One must also remember that he would also have paid to ship it up to Scotland from The Strand, in London. He was clearly making a very bold statement! Analysis showed that the Dining Room retained its Fine Green until 1870, when the house was tidied up for letting.

Hogarth's Countess's Levee

William Hogarth used a Fine Green to help show the status of the new Countess in the Marriage à-la-mode series. It is later contrasted with the more humble Wainscot Colour of her father’s London house to which she has returned to die.

Humphry Repton's Fragments
The Ancient Cedar Parlour and the Modern Living Room from Humphry Repton’s Fragments of 1816

“No more the Cedar Parlour’s formal gloom with dulness chills, ’tis now the Living-Room; where guests, to whim, or taste, or fancy true. Scatter’d in groups, their different plans pursue.”

The nature of the room changed dramatically between 1700 and 1820 and this development is best illustrated by these two views from Humphry Repton’s Fragments, where he contrasts the “modern living room” with “the ancient cedar parlour”. These illustrations and the accompanying verse provide perhaps the clearest commentary on the changes in the use and the arrangement of rooms that had occurred by the latter date. Clearly the colours at their very different prices continued to be used, but in a different manner.

Availability of Paint Colours
The colours shown above are, by definition, approximations that have been produced on the computer with Photoshop. Samples, following original formulations, were produced when I completed my thesis many years ago. Should anyone want eighteenth century paint colours mixed they can be obtained from Papers and Paints in London.

1 Ian Bristow. “The Role of Taste.” Traditional Interior Decoration. vol. i, no. 1 (Spring, 1986): 76-85.
2 Quoted in Ian Bristow. Architectural Colour in British Interiors. Yale University Press. 1996. 153.
3 There is speculation, owing to its greenish yellow tone, that it is derived from the German word pinkeln translated in a dictionary of 1798 as ‘to piss, to make water’.

Papers and Paints can be found here:

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Comments (7)

Leah Marie BrownNo Gravatar » 02. Dec, 2011

Brilliant blog post. Merci!

PatrickNo Gravatar » 02. Dec, 2011

You’re very kind. Thank you.

Sarah WaldockNo Gravatar » 20. Oct, 2013

Patrick, I always find your articles so interesting and informative, and I’ve just repainted a room in a novel I’m in the throes of writing after reading this, because I’d forgotten I should obscure wood. My Elizabethan linenfold panelling is now stone-coloured.

PatrickNo Gravatar » 23. Oct, 2013

Thanks Sarah. In fact Elizabethan panelling was usually left as oak when not painted decoratively. It might be safer to revert to bare wood in this case.

Clay StaffordNo Gravatar » 12. Dec, 2013

Patrick – Most informative post. Thanks for sharing this information and taking the time to put it together.

Mike ShottonNo Gravatar » 09. Dec, 2014

We live in a 1760-ish house near Banbury. One room has all the original softwood panelling, which a previous owner stripped (it would appear, by sandblasting!) before applying wax polish (!!). We want to restore it to its original appearance, and have even found a trace of the original colour. Would you be prepared to help and advise? We can, of course, send photos etc.

PatrickNo Gravatar » 09. Dec, 2014

Oh dear. The wax is likely to cause problems of adhesion for subsequent paints. You will have to remove as much as possible. The only way to learn anything of the earlier decorative schemes is by making cross sections of the surviving paint layers. However these are likely to be much distorted unless little ‘islands’ of original paint survive. Sadly one can do nothing from photographs. It may be best to use an off-white / pale stone colour as (depending on context) this is what it is likely to have been.