Apr 7th, 2012 | | History | Paint Technical | Portfolio | Private Houses | Residences | 3 Comments

The Paint Detective

Charleston Poster

It was having given my recent talk at the Charleston Art & Antique Forum, in South Carolina, that I was prompted to illustrate here just how effective properly-executed paint analysis can be.

What follows is a bit of an experiment, for I have included some images from my American talk and have added a commentary beneath each one – rather like a slideshow. If this works I might repeat the exercise again.

Brodie Castle Samples

Samples taken from each representative element

Here is an example of what happened when I was let loose in the drawing room of the 16th century Brodie Castle, near Inverness, in Scotland. My brief was to uncover how it had been decorated in the 1860s.

As you can see, eighteen or so tiny samples have been taken from all representative elements of the joinery. This is just in one corner of the room and a total of ninety five samples were taken from the room’s surfaces.

As you can see, the removal of samples does cause some damage, but one tries to be as careful as possible. The information that can be produced is usually enough to pacify even the most conservative curator.


The location of each sample is carefully recorded and the fragments (which should be intact and retain part of the substrate as well as all the layers of paint) are stored in a numbered bag. In the workshop they are placed in a silicone rubber mould that has been half-filled with resin. A pair of tiny labels are added to each sample and liquid resin poured on top to cover them.

Once set, the encapsulated samples are ready for the next step. Each block is cut in half and then polished with a series of wet and dry abrasive papers progressing from 120 – 12,000 grit. This is a frankly tedious business which takes time, but results in a completely smooth and clear sample that can be examined under the microscope without distortion.


A range of microscopes employed for examination


The samples (or cross sections) are examined under the microscope and the image on the R/H is the sort of view that one gets, if lucky.

From this I can work out how often a surface has been painted, what colours were employed and I can frequently date individual schemes. A knowledge of pigments and painting techniques is essential. All this information shows me how rooms or buildings looked at earlier stages in their existence.

Culzean Castle & Benjamin Franklin House
Culzean Castle and Benjamin Franklin House

Ideally, the individual paint layers will be smooth and even and easy to read. These 20th century paints (on the L/H) on a garden building at Robert Adam’s Culzean Castle, also in Scotland, are very clear. A total of seven decorative schemes can be seen, the first of which probably dates from the 1960s (I know this because of the presence of titanium dioxide in the paint).

However, often it’s very difficult to unravel the story as in this example (on the R/H) of the 45 paint schemes found on the 1730s railings of this house in Craven Street, London. Benjamin Franklin lived here for thirteen years in the second half of the 18th century.

Carlton House & Location

Carlton House ca.1783-1827 and The Prince Regent
The map shows its position between what is now The Athenaeum and The Institute of Directors

Although Carlton House no longer exists, I will show how I was able to demonstrate that some of its original architectural fittings were salvaged and reused in other buildings.

The house was refurbished for the Prince of Wales (later King George IV) in 1783 and redecorated on a number of subsequent occasions. The magnificent interiors were recorded before the building was demolished in 1827.

It was located at one end of Pall Mall and at the bottom of what later became Regent Street. Here we see it superimposed on the existing map spanning the present-day Waterloo Place between the Athenaeum Club and the Institute of Directors.

Prince Regent Debt

George, Prince of Wales, was the eldest son of King George III. When his father was struck down by the first of his temporary bouts of ‘madness’ the Regency Bill was introduced and he, at least in theory, was able to stand in for his father.

The Prince was a big spender and a huge amount of money was poured into his architectural and decorative projects. By 1795 his debts amounted to some £640,000 (the modern equivalent of over £35 million), much of it being spent on decorating and furnishing Carlton House.

Some years ago I rediscovered the Gothic Dining Room, which had been dismantled and moved to another location and was hidden under layers of later paint.

Tor Royal

However, before saying any more about Carlton House, let me show you this run-down, but rather fine farmhouse in the centre of Dartmoor.

Tor Royal was built in 1785-93 by Sir Thomas Tyrwhitt. He had been private secretary to the Prince of Wales until 1796, when he was elected to the House of Commons as Member for Okehampton. He was also instrumental in having several roads constructed across the Moor and for the creation of a small town which he named Prince’s Town (now Princetown), in honour of the Prince of Wales (the Duke of Cornwall).


As many will know, Dartmoor is an isolated and rather desolate 370 square miles of moorland in the middle of Devon. It is perhaps best known for two things – the first being the mythical Hound of the Baskervilles, of Sherlock Holmes fame, and the second being…

Dartmoor Prison

Dartmoor Prison.

It was Tyrwhitt’s intention to turn what was then an inhospitable and isolated area into a thriving place to live and work. His first project was to persuade the government that Prince’s Town would make an ideal location for a depot to house prisoners from the wars with France and (later) America. As a result, he built the Prison, which was completed in 1809 and is still in use.

Sir Thomas also had the idea of a railway linking the town with the coast. The plan was to bring in the materials for the reclamation of the land, such as lime, sand, coal, timber and even tea and sugar for the occupants. The journeys back to Plymouth would carry granite from quarries at King Tor and possibly Dartmoor peat, as well as the produce from the farms.

Princes of Wales

The land is owned by The Duchy of Cornwall, which in effect means the Prince of Wales. It seems that for years it had been used by various Princes as a retreat, well out of the public eye.

From the 1870s Prince Albert Edward (later King Edward VII) is said to have brought his mistress, the actress Lillie Langtry, to Tor Royal.

In 1912 it was modified for Prince Edward (later King Edward VIII). He was Prince of Wales between 1910 and 1936. It is known that he paid several visits here in the two years that he was conducting his affair with Wallis Simpson.

POW Feathers

The motif of the Prince of Wales’s feathers is displayed both inside and outside the house and betrays the Royal connection.


There are other unusual elements within the wing of the building known as the Royal Suite. The first being the steam engine motif in the plaster cornice of the Atrium (which is shown here), and which commemorated Tyrwhitt’s Plymouth and Dartmoor Railway, which opened on September 26th 1823.

The second unusual element are two pairs of magnificent doors, of which these are one.

Sun Damage

However it was when I examined the other pair of doors that I started to wonder if they might have come from somewhere else.

The lower R/H panel of one was showing signs of sun damage, yet it was far from the window. It was clear that the doors had been moved from elsewhere.

As the damage was still evident they had obviously not been redecorated since having been installed at Tor Royal.

South Side of building

So I knew from the fine decoration that they had come from a rather grand house;

a) and (from the sun damage) that they had been on the South side of that house;

b) I also knew that these doors had led into a room that was originally to the East of this room.

c) The fact that it was beside a window might suggest that the doors had connected a series of linked rooms (enfilade). I could also see that the doors had usually been left open.

Cross Section

The cross-sections taken from the doors were particularly interesting. They showed me that they had been painted six times:

a) There were three schemes of gilding – schemes 4, 5 and 6;

b) Scheme 3 was a blue one that was varnished, and

c) The first two schemes were of graining designed to imitate a pale wood,
d) perhaps Satinwood.

Already, with the Prince of Wales’s connection, I was beginning to wonder if the doors might have come from Carlton House, when that was demolished in 1827.

If so the wood-graining would have been very early because it is usually not found in the UK until the 1820s. Here it was the first and second of six schemes that were applied before 1827.

However, then I remembered an account which described graining having been carried out by French workmen at Carlton House in 1783.

The subsequent blue scheme was also quite distinctive and I knew that blue had been used in two rooms at Carlton House.

At that stage I studied the published plan of the house.

Carlton House

Here is the Principal Floor:

1) With a view of the garden front, which faced South;

2) The two rooms marked with ‘X’ are of particular interest;

3) The Blue Velvet Room, which is shown looking West, and

4) The Blue Velvet Closet (here we’re looking South).

These two views were recorded by W.H. Pyne in about 1816. While the Blue Velvet Room (on the Right) had peach-coloured doors on the inner faces, the next door room (on the Left) – The Blue Velvet Closet – had blue doors.

Blue Velvet Closet

The sun damage on the bottom panel told me that this pair of doors was almost certainly the one shown in this image.

The net curtains protected the upper panels.

So I could demonstrate with little doubt that this pair of doors had once led into the Prince Regent’s Bedchamber of Carlton House.

My client was delighted that I had proved this and the house has been refurbished and the doors carefully restored.

Paint analysis is not merely a tool to find out what colours were used in the past. When combined with a full analysis of the surviving documentation it is a very powerful archaeological tool.

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Comments (3)

CorinneNo Gravatar » 07. May, 2012

Thank you for this amazing article and the insight into your work and history. Truly fascinating.

PatrickNo Gravatar » 08. May, 2012

You are very kind. I hope that you enjoyed it. It was rather a long post, but it’s a complicated story to put across.

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