Jul 10th, 2013 | | History | No Comments

The Painter-Stainers Company and the House-Painter

Cambodian Lacquered Saddle

A saddle from the Yi ethnic minority province in Yunnan province, China.
Saddle has a leather base with lacquer overlay. Saddle bow to left hand side

The earliest surviving ordinances of the Painters’ Company date from 1283 and show the existence of an organized body. At this time the main occupation of the members was the painting of saddle bows (the arched upper front part of a saddle), and they were originally a branch of the Saddlers’ craft.

The Stainers’ were employed in the production of stained or painted cloths, which were used instead of pictures on plaster walls. These had the advantage of being portable, and were less expensive than the tapestry hangings of the well-to-do.

In 1502 the two Companies presented a joint petition to the Lord Mayor for their union. Amongst their new articles it was decreed that they were to be called “Payntour Steynours”.

St Mary Aldermary
The Painter-Stainers Company – window in St Mary Aldermary, London

Finding that their trade had begun to suffer as a result of people that had not been apprentices to it undertaking painting, the Company petitioned Queen Elizabeth. The result was the grant of a Charter of Incorporation in 1581. This was later followed by the confirmation of a lengthy set of rules known as “The Book of Ordinances”, which very clearly spell out the restrictions on the trade of painting.

Control over the Trade

It decreed that every person within a four miles compass of the City who practised the art of painting should pay quarterly dues to the Company, and that, with the exception of gentlemen exercising the art “for recreation or private pleasure”, no one should use the art, unless he had been apprenticed for seven years to a Painter.

No person might take an apprentice, unless he himself has served seven years as an apprentice and has been passed as a skilful workman. Furthermore, the oath of the freemen required them to keep the secrets of the mystery, and not reveal them except to apprentices.

The quality of work produced was carefully controlled; work which was intended to stand the weather was only to be carried out by expert workmen “with oil colours and gilt of fine gold.” No one was to produce work “wrought with stencil or otherwise as painted…upon cloth, silk, leather or other things…”, this was considered false and deceitful.

Swearing, blasphemy, and the reviling of other members would lead to a fine. Any member who was found to be dishonest would be expelled.

The Master and Wardens had the power to enter, without force, any premises, within four miles of the City, and inspect all works relating to the art, and fine the painter, owners or seller of a work that did not meet the required standards. Power was also granted to destroy all such deceitful works.

It was further decreed that no freeman, other than a member of the Painter-Stainers’, using the art of painting for gain, should take on an apprentice in this art, but should present him to the Master and Wardens of the Company in order that he might be bound to one of them…so that at the end of his training he might become a freeman of the Company of Painter-Stainers’.


Plasterer – with thanks to The College of West Anglia

Dispute with the Plasterers

Competition was largely unaffected by the charter, for an Act of Parliament was brought against the Plasterers in 1606. The Act points out that they now practised the art of painting in oil as well as size colours, to the great injury of the Painter-Stainers’, who were thereby “disabled to get any competent living for the relief of themselves and their poor wives and children”.

As a result, it was decreed that no plasterer from then on should use the art of Painting, unless previously apprenticed to a Painter for seven years. But it was accepted nonetheless that a Plasterer might use certain pigments in size (or distemper) on plaster.

Yet more Acts were passed in 1612 and 1626, with the aim of protecting the interests of the Painter Stainers. However, little seems to have been achieved, because in 1664 they were still seeking assistance:

“The Painter-Staynors are in number above 400 householders within and about the City of London, besides their families; the greater part not attaining to the perfection of workmanship, have usually lived upon the grosser part of the science, as painting upon timber, stone, iron and such like, which the Plaisterers now intruding into the said science of Painting, have utterly taken away; but our Bill now exhibited is only to restrain them from oil colours.”

The Plasterers, themselves, petitioned the government on three occasions in the late seventeenth century about foreign painters coming into England and taking over the decorative schemes which they might otherwise have covered with plaster.

The Painters stressed that they were only claiming protective intervention in the City of London, saying:

“The countrie is at libertie, for the Acte is but to extend to London the liberties and suburbs.”

It appears that by the latter half of the seventeenth century, the Painters-Stainers’ regarded themselves as consisting of four main groups: the Arms Painters, House Painters, Leather Gilders and Picture Makers. This seems to be the first reference to the house-painting element by name, and indicates just how recent the use of oil paint on buildings was. Prior to this, interior walls would have been covered by tapestry hangings and more latterly oak wainscot.

Great Fire Of London

Great Fire Of London – Waggoner. Guildhall Art Gallery

Effect of the Great Fire of 1666

The Great Fire of London drew attention to the restrictive practices of the Livery Companies, and seriously weakened their authority. The Rebuilding Act of 1667 transferred the authority to regulate prices and wages from the Companies to the Government, and, although limited to seven years, it allowed all building workers the same right to work in London as freemen of their trades.

Although great numbers of buildings were erected in the City in the years following the Great Fire, many people who had fled the conflagration stayed in the suburbs. A report of 1673 mentions that 3,423 houses and shops still remained unoccupied and measures were taken to encourage people to repopulate the Square Mile.

All persons who took up permanent residence in the newly built houses were admitted into the freedom of the City without paying any joining fees. This concession led to an increase of over 10,000 admissions in the period 1675-80.

The effect on the Painter-Stainers’, if one remembers that only freemen were allowed to trade or open shop in the City, must have been profound, especially as many house-painters would have been reluctant to submit to the control of the Company. Once a freeman, he could lawfully relinquish the trade he had originally served his apprenticeship in “and exercise any other trade at his will and pleasure”.

Decline in Influence

In June 1677, in a move to increase their influence, the company admitted several new members who had no training or knowledge of the art of painting. They included a clergyman, a Dutchman and the Lord Mayor of York.

Two years later a person was admitted into the Company by purchase. This was reflected in other Companies, and slowly they became the wealthy social institutions that administer charitable trusts, which we see today.

By the middle of the eighteenth century, the Painter-Stainers’ Company had ceased to exercise close regulation of the trade. In 1749, the Company failed, in the Lord Mayor’s Court, to win an action brought against it by the Club of Journeymen Painters, who had complained to the Chamberlain of London that a liveryman had employed a workman not free of the City. Leading masters in the trade confirmed that in summer it was impossible to carry out all the work without employing as many temporary workers as freemen that no freeman was ever refused employment and that he could usually fix his own terms.

Ironically, it was largely the seasonal nature of the trade that led to the journeymen’s clubs being tolerated by their masters.

Covent Garden Market

Labour Relations

Although, in common with most trades, the painters organised themselves into clubs for mutual support, they were not inclined to be radical. Between 1717 and 1800 there are only two recorded occasions of house-painters being involved in labour disputes in the British Isles. In both instances, in 1749, and again, in 1754, it was initiated by the employment of non-freemen. This might be compared with the woolcombing trade who were involved in 64 disputes, seamen and ships’ carpenters in 37, and tailors and staymakers in 27. The reasons why one trade should have been more militant than another are not clear, although the degree of their organisation can be linked to the rise and growth of the public house.

The club, or box club, would meet on a regular basis at a particular inn, where they would pay two or three pence each, either to the landlord, or to an elected member, for safe keeping [in a box]. This fund was used to help members when sick and unable to work:

“and when any of the members die, there is not only a sum of money allowed by the society for the burying of such members but likewise the widows or nominees of such deceased members receive from the society the sum of five, ten or more pounds.”

Any person caught working while being supported by the club was expelled.

The Rise of Do-it-Yourself Painting

It is possible that the comparative moderation of the painting trade can be associated with the growing loss of any kind of monopoly that they may have had over the activity of house-painting. This can be demonstrated by the increasing availability of semi-prepared painting materials from the end of the seventeenth century, and the number of works explaining their use. This development eliminated the need to possess the “chief secret” of house-painting; the mixing and compounding of the colours.

In 1687, John Smith, in his The Art of Painting, noted that:

“Those that list not to be at the trouble of grinding colours themselves, may have of any sort…ready ground, at the colour-shops, at reasonable rates, either in smaller or larger quantities.”

In 1718, a patent was granted to Marshall Smith for a:

“machine or engine for the grinding of colours, to be used in all kinds of paintings” (Smith, Patent)

In 1734, William Salmon in his Palladio Londinensis, or the London Art of Building remarked that:

“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.”

Emerton & Manby

Emerton & Manby 18th century Advertisement – showing horse mill

In 1747, in his The London Tradesman, Robert Campbell commented on the trade of painting, saying that it:

“is now at a very low ebb, on account of the Methods practised by some Colour-Shops; who have set up Horse-Mills to grind the Colours, and sell them to Noblemen & Gentlemen ready mixed at a low price, & by the Help of a few printed Directions, a house may be painted by any common Labourer at one-third of the Expense it would have cost before the Mistery was made public.”

The 1788 edition, of a work that was to appear in many editions between 1676 and 1825, claimed:

“The whole Treatise being so complete, and so exactly fitted to the Meanest Capability, that all Persons may be able, by the Directions, to paint in Oil Colours, all Manner of Timber-Work; such as Posts, Pales, Palisadoes, Gates, Doors, or any Thing else that requires either Use, Beauty, or Preservation from the Violence or Injury of the Weather.”

John Pincot in his Treatise on the Practical Part of Coach and House Painting of ca.1811 set out to explain:

“the easiest and cheapest method of painting according to the principles of the old school, by which gentlemen, builders and others may direct, and persons of moderate capacity may understand, and by attentively observing saving to themselves or their employers 50 per cent.”

He went on to say:

“my advice may be of infinite use to the gentleman, the farmer, the manufacturer, even those whose premises are necessarily extensive, and every care should be taken for the preservation thereof; and often at certain seasons idle hands might be usefully and profitably employed in painting wood buildings, fences, gates etc. as any common labouring man might, with the instructions I shall here give, be able to acquit themselves with credit to themselves and satisfaction to their employers.”

In 1827, Nathaniel Whittock seems to have acknowledged both the decline of the apprenticeship system and its cause, when he refers to the lack of trained painters, in his The Decorative Painters’ and Glaziers’ Guide:

“The facility with which ready prepared colours can be procured at the respectable colour shops in London and other large towns, has led to the great neglect of information on the first principles of painting; and it is not one house painter in twenty who is acquainted with the pigments and vehicles necessary to his business.”


Allens Colourman’s Shop, St Martin’s Lane, 1829 by George Scharf the Elder (1788-1860)

For more on the history of the Painter-Stainers Company see: W.A.D. Englefield. The History of the Painter-Stainers Company. 3rd edn. Hazell, Watson & Viney, 1950.

Papers and Paints can be found here:

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