Oct 18th, 2010 | | Exterior | Paint Technical | Recent projects | 8 Comments

History seen in 300 years of paint

Sir Isaac Newton

Sir Isaac Newton

It is often assumed that the main task of an architectural paint researcher is to identify the original colours employed in an historic building. Whilst this can be established if sufficient evidence survives much much more information can often be obtained.

An examination of the paint layers and their comparison will also show when changes have taken place within a building. Research into the previous occupants may show who was responsible for such work. For example, a recent project on a London house that was built in 1705 has revealed that significant cosmetic alterations were made in the 1820s to bring the house up to date – fashionable chimneypieces were installed; the front door was changed and certain of the rooms were connected by new doorways. Furthermore, it can be seen that the narrow window on the first and second floors were bricked in during the last years of the eighteenth century, while that on the ground floor survived until the 1860s.* The years when the house was occupied by a leading architect of the early twentieth century can be seen in the paint layers as further changes were made – some in an antiquarian style, which had confused the architectural historians.

There are several ways of working out the rough date of a paint layer. Clearly (if complete) one can be reasonably sure of the first and last in the sequence. The constituents often provide clues. The first appearance of Titanium Dioxide in a sequence, for instance, generally marks the 1960s (although notable exceptions have been found). Chrome Yellow, especially when found in the composition of Brunswick Green, tends to suggest the post 1820 period, while the arsenical Emerald Green indicates a date after about 1814.

One advantage of looking at exterior paint is that as paint is applied for its protective, as well as decorative function one finds many more layers. Crudely, having once again established that the sequence is complete, if one divides the age of the building by the number of painted schemes1 a repainting cycle can be established. This will vary depending upon the location, surface and type of building. Typically it will be in the range of four to seven years.

Patrick Baty identified 71 individual decorative schemes in this fragment of paint

While sampling in the 1705 house a workman brought me a lump of paint that he had prised off the external timber cornice. At first I thought that it was a piece of china, such was the weight and shape. However, it was immediately clear from the traces of the characteristic early eighteenth century red oxide primer at the bottom to the bright white final layers at the top that I was holding three hundred years of the buildings decorative history.

The microscopes that Patrick Baty uses for paint analysis

The microscopes used for the analysis
Once the sample had been set in a clear embedding resin; cut; polished and examined under the microscope I could see that the exterior had been painted an astonishing 71 times. A repainting cycle of approximately 4.2 years is remarkable, but by no means unique, with a similar period having been found on houses in both Portman Square, London and Brunswick Square, Hove. In both of these cases frequent maintenance was dictated by the terms of the lease.

The lowest 15 schemes of the 71 found by Patrick Baty

The lowest fifteen schemes
It can be seen immediately that white or off-white (a colour known as “pale stone colour” in eighteenth century painters’ terminology) was employed on nearly every occasion that the house was painted. Another example, perhaps, of reality being somewhat different to the colours suggested by many of the more fashionable ‘historical’ colour ranges.

The top 23 schemes of the 71 found by Patrick Baty

The top twenty-three schemes
NB Transition from Lead via Zinc to Titanium-based paints. Also the weathered wartime scheme and the introduction of the Clean Air Act in 1956.

In common with most samples taken from London exteriors two recent events can be seen quite clearly. The first was the years of poor maintenance that mark the Second World War. Weathered paint is visible in the form of volcano-like cracks in the upper layers and this generally indicates the fourteen or so year period brought to an end by the removal of building controls in October 1954. The introduction of the Clean Air Act of 1956 is also evident, for prior to 1956 the surface of each decorative scheme was clearly marked by a layer of airborne soot. From that period on it is often difficult to see where one scheme ends and another begins.

The changing nature of the white component in paint is also clearly reflected in this cross section. Here we can see that White Lead (Pb) was the main constituent until about 1939. Zinc Oxide (ZnO) was employed in the 1950s and a blend of Titanium Dioxide (TiO2) and Zinc Oxide was applied for the rest of that decade, with pure Titanium Dioxide having been used on all subsequent occasions.

The information provided by this cross section also enabled me to establish when the sash windows had been replaced; the elaborate doorcase stripped and (surprisingly) it allowed me to offer rough dates for the last forty years of the interior schemes.

The significance of this sequence only really becomes apparent when one applies a timeline against it.

A cross section showing 300 years of paint from a house in Queen Anne's Gate, London

The 71 schemes applied to the building
The house was built in 1705, the year that Queen Anne knighted Isaac Newton, the first scientist ever to receive the honour.

Taking a number of subsequent random dates we can see how the building was painted in:

1726, when Voltaire arrives in England, and Benjamin Franklin leaves for Philadelphia;

1752 – Britain adopts the Gregorian calendar, and we lose the days between the 3rd and 13th of September that year

1770 – Captain James Cook drops anchor in what he would name Botany Bay, and the crew of the Endeavour become the first recorded Europeans in Australia.

1800 – The Acts of Union is signed by George III, creating the United Kingdom the following year.

1830 – The Liverpool and Manchester Railway opens the first intercity rail service between the two cities, under steam power.

1865 – Isabella Beeton dies and W.B. Yeats and Robert Bevan are born

1900 – Winston Churchill is elected to Parliament for the first time

1939 – The Second World War begins

1975 – Margaret Thatcher becomes leader of the Conservative Party and Bill Gates founds the Microsoft Corporation.

It appears that the building was last painted in 2005, the year in which the Provisional IRA issued a statement formally ordering an end to the armed campaign that it had been pursuing since 1969.

In my years as a paint researcher I have never encountered such a complete sequence of decorative schemes. Literally, history in the palm of ones hand.

Acknowledgement: Lucy Inglis

1 This was later borne out by the discovery of a watercolour of the house.
2 A “scheme” is defined as the undercoats and top coat that were applied on each occasion that the exterior was repainted.

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Comments (8)

funcolors » 28. Sep, 2010

Patrick, that's truly amazing. And what a cool perspective granted to a sliver of old paint: "Literally, history in the palm of ones hand." Loved that in particular.

Nick Raymon » 05. Oct, 2010

thank you for sharing your great post. I really appreciate the efforts you have put in your blog.It is interesting and helpful.
Good luck with it!!!
Toronto Painter

Rosemary FieldNo Gravatar » 14. Mar, 2011

This is a bit of a cheek, but please could you advise me where to get guidance on the appropriate use of paint to apply to a Victorian church organ?
We have a Burne-Jones window opposite the instrument, and are considering options for decorating pipes or casework in an 1850 church built in the Gothic revival style…..
Thank you very much
Rosemary Field, Director of Music, St. Stephen, Westminster

PatrickNo Gravatar » 14. Mar, 2011

Thank you for the enquiry. It’s not a bit of a cheek at all. The only time that I have done such work was on the organ pipes at All Saints, Margaret Street. *The* experts are Howell & Bellion who undertake a great deal of ecclesiastical work.

Matthew J. MoscaNo Gravatar » 02. Apr, 2011

Hello Patrick- what an extraordinary paint sample! the passing of the Clean Air Act is a wonderful notation- I have seen similar conditions where the soot and particulate is greatly reduced- but never in the context of such an accumulation. Thank you!
All the best

thatsnothistoryNo Gravatar » 19. Jul, 2011

I love the way that sample shows so graphically the impact of the Clean Air Act. I hope you don’t mind, but I’ve taken the liberty of using the image (with credit) on my own blog: http://thatsnothistory.blogspot.com/2011/07/thats-notcleanair.html

PatrickNo Gravatar » 19. Jul, 2011

Of course. I’m delighted that you found it useful. I see this phenomenon whenever I’m looking at cross sections from London exteriors.

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