In 1950 the Georgian Group issued the above sheet offering advice to householders on the external painting of Georgian buildings. The suggestion was that, in spite of continued post-war shortages, there would be a wish to repaint “in anticipation of the opening of the Festival of Britain.”
There is little doubt that the guidelines, if followed, would have produced a very tasteful well-mannered result. However, when I was recently asked to review them it was clear that the colours that were recommended had little to do with eighteenth century practice.
According to my colleagues at the Georgian Group, questions on paint colour remain some of the most frequently-asked even now when most paint manufacturers seem to be producing ranges of historical colours. Of course, there is little point in offering these colours if one is not prepared to explain how they might be used, but that does not seem to be a concern.
The framework of the Georgian Group guide is a good one and I thought that it might be useful to offer alternative suggestions based on nearly thirty years research in the subject.
Information on what colours and which type of paints were used in the past comes from a number of sources:
1) Contemporary manuals, diaries, letters and building accounts;
2) Contemporary paintings, drawings and even early photographs, and
3) The analysis of painted surfaces in / on numerous historic buildings.
To illustrate these I will offer a few examples of each and then show a few images of good practice.
Some years ago I completed a research degree that focussed on The Methods and Materials of the House-Painter in England 1650-1850. As well as writing a thesis on the subject I investigated the house-painting trade in London and produced an annotated bibliography of works dealing with paint and colour.
The sort of works that I pored over ranged from seventeenth century house-painting manuals to early works on colour theory. In recent years I have slowly drifted forward a century and have written extensively on paints from the 1930s and looked at recommended colours for post-war factories and offices and Ministry of Works colour schemes. Some of the areas covered have been fairly off-beat, such as war-time camouflage colours and the colours employed to paint Henry VIII’s heraldic beasts.
Images such as this are rare, and this is a bit late for help with eighteenth century colour, but the topographical drawings and watercolours by George Scharf and his father George Johann Scharf are some of the most informative of their type. In this drawing of Delahay Street of 1863 one can see that the doors were green, the bollards “brown-black” and the walls on the left a “dingy whitewash”.
The earliest set of photographs that I can remember being of use to support my analysis of the paint were those showing the construction of the Royal Albert Bridge in 1859. The hitherto unexplained pale colour seen in the black and white photographs was in fact the (glass-reinforced) white layer that I found.
The process of paint analysis can be found elsewhere on this site. It is a very useful tool in the dating of surfaces as well as providing information on the colours that were used. The lump of paint above was taken from the external timber cornice of a house in Westminster that was built in 1705. Information provided from this, when compared with samples taken from the interior of the house, enabled the dating of each of the decorative schemes, the date of the reglazing of the windows and it confirmed that the doorcase was original.
A careful study of the individual paint layers from hundreds of buildings has enabled me to offer the following as an updated guide to the painting of Georgian buildings
|Type of House||Stone||Red Brick||London Stock (Yellow) Brick||Plastered or Rendered||Stucco|
|Cornices, Windows, Window Frames, Door-Frames, Fanlights and Wooden1 Porches||Pale Stone colours, Off-White||Pale Stone colours, Off-White||Pale Stone colours, Off-White||Pale Stone colours, Off-White||Pale Stone colours, Off-White|
|Front-doors2||Bronze Greens, Brunswick Greens, Invisible Greens, Red-Browns, Olive Browns||Bronze Greens, Brunswick Greens, Invisible Greens, Red-Browns, Olive Browns||Bronze Greens, Brunswick Greens, Invisible Greens, Red-Browns, Olive Browns||Bronze Greens, Brunswick Greens, Invisible Greens, Red-Browns, Olive Browns||Bronze Greens, Brunswick Greens, Invisible Greens, Red-Browns, Olive Browns|
|Railings3 and other Ironwork||Bronze Greens, Greys, Stones||Bronze Greens, Greys, Stones||Bronze Greens, Greys, Stones||Bronze Greens, Greys, Stones||Bronze Greens, Greys, Stones|
|Rain-water Pipes, Soil-pipes, etc.||Greys||Greys||Greys||Same colour as façade||Same colour as façade|
|Façade (where painted1)||—||—||—||Stone colours||Stone colours|
1 Stone should never be painted; it may be cleaned with care should this become necessary. Once painted the process is usually, though regrettably, continued. In such a case it is subject to the same rules as if it were rendered.
2 If there are window-boxes or shutters, these are best painted the same colour as the front-door.
3 Railings should never be treated with aluminium paint.
4 To get the best result, it is essential that arrangements should be made for terraces or semi-detached houses to be painted the same colour at the same time.
5 Contiguous buildings in the country, when these do not form part of a formal terrace or other architectural unit, generally benefit by being painted in different colours. However the village street needs to be treated as a whole and arrangements made for a colour scheme as a result of which each building sets off the others and contributes to a total effect.
Some Examples of Good Practice
A subtle point, but notice the off-white on the left hand window and compare it with the brilliant white paint on the right hand one. Apart from being garish, brilliant white goes a cold bluish grey when it ages.
The dark reddish-brown is appropriate on the front door of this small eighteenth century house in Beaufort Square, in Bath. The door furniture is largely black and the external joinery is off-white / a pale stone colour. The down pipe is grey in simulation of lead. The railings would not have been black until the mid-twentieth century – a grey or a bronze green would have been better. You can read more on the treatment of external ironwork in one of the papers at the bottom of this post.
Further thoughts on the treatment of front doors can be seen HERE.
This sort of detail is not often shown, but one can clearly see that the railing are grey (often called Lead Colour) in this painting, which hangs in the Court Room of the Foundling Museum.
The exterior of the Georgian Group’s Headquarters in Fitzroy Square, London has been painted in a near text-book fashion. The door is bronze green and in a gloss paint (see below) and the external joinery has been painted in a pale stone colour. The door knob might best be painted black rather than being of shiny brass, but that is a small point. In a perfect world the railings and lamp would be grey (as cross sections revealed), however one then hits the problem of being the only house in a terrace ‘marching in step’. There is little point in painting railings in a different colour to ones neighbours if it disrupts the overall uniformity of the terrace.
If you look carefully at the photograph of the façade of No. 6 Fitzroy Square you might notice that the rusticated ground floor has been painted to resemble the Portland stone above it. In order to do this I took a series of colour measurements using a portable spectrophotometer – the right hand photograph above shows this process being carried out. The left hand one shows the gate piers at Apsley House being measured so that paint could be matched to that stone.
Some years ago I had the opportunity of carrying out the paint analysis of six adjacent Robert Adam buildings in Charlotte Square, Edinburgh. The paint layers on the exterior railings showed how they had originally been painted grey, only changing to green in the mid nineteeth century. As these buildings form the south side of the Square we were able to paint them all grey without problem.
It is amazing how a theory has developed that all old paint was “chalky” and that gloss finishes were never used. I have written about this fallacy before and it can be seen HERE. Suffice it to say that evidence to support my findings can be seen in the photograph below:
The ‘Wall-Worker’ from ‘Street Life in London’, 1877, by John Thomson and Adolphe Smith
By permission of the Library of the London School of Economics.
For some thoughts on the painting of the interior of Georgian buildings you might be interested in The Hierarchy of Paint Colour in Eighteenth Century Decoration.
Photograph by John Thomson from Spitalfields Life © Bishopsgate Institute. By permission of the Library of the London School of Economics.
Although I have been a Committee Member and Trustee of the Georgian Group for twenty years, these are my personal recommendations and not necessarily those of the Group.
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