The most useful paint lessons from the past four centuries

Patrick Baty of Papers and Paints tells Fiona McKenzie Johnston how we can look to the past to better inform our paint colour choices
Paul Massey

In the 21st century, we’re blessed with such an array of paint colours that often we need professional help in narrowing down our choices. Even deciding on something as seemingly simple as a light blue bedroom can leave you agonising for days over the subtle differences between ‘Fair Blue’, ‘Lulworth Blue’, ‘Sky Blue’ and ‘Borrowed Light’, and whether you want a blue with yellow in it, which can look grey green-ish in some rooms but is soft and warm, or a blue with violet in it, which is bluer, but often colder too. Was it easier when there were fewer hues on the market? Might it be an idea to decide to limit ourselves to the shades that were available at the time our house was built? Who could fail to be inspired by the sublime pastel – and yet punchy - interiors Ben Pentreath has created for a John Nash-designed house in Hampshire. Ben drew inspiration for the palette from Regency style (which is very early 19th century, like the house) and 1960s John Fowler (Fowler himself being a fan of Regency.)

The architectural historian Patrick Baty, author of The Anatomy of Colour, is the expert on the colours of the past four centuries. As such, he is the go-to for the National Trust and English Heritage, and has consulted for a wide range of museums, government buildings, places of worship – “and perfectly ordinary modest houses,” he says – advising on appropriate paint colours for buildings from the 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries, and providing a full technical analysis of the painted decoration in order to establish previous colour schemes. With his wife, Alex, he owns and runs Papers and Paints, which was founded in 1960 by Patrick’s father, Robert. He has also worked with Dulux and The Little Greene Paint Company (in conjunction with English Heritage) to create new ranges based on colours from 1700 to the 1950s.

“I’m interested in what was done, or, if one isn’t being forensically analytical, what might have been done,” Patrick says. “But then, and this will be engraved on my tombstone, I say, ‘so what?’ I found a set of 1807 hand-coloured paint cards, and on the back of the cards, the painter had written where he had used the colours, and what they cost, so I could see which were the most expensive, and which were the most popular. Many of those colours had been around for many years prior to that. And those colours, which now exist as the Papers and Paints traditional range, have a distinct character that seems to work in most situations if used properly – they’re my Desert Island colours. Having said that, maybe you want a brighter yellow on your front door than a yellow that was available in 1850." Front doors and ‘so what?’ aside, here are the lessons he has learnt.

The simple elegance of stone

In 1700, there was what Patrick describes as a ‘hierarchy of colours’ – simply, some colours were more expensive than others because of their ingredients. At the more cost-effective end, you had the ‘common colours’ such as stone, “and they were widely used, regardless of social status.” He recalls working on three 1730s buildings at the same time: the Duke of Cumberland’s apartments at Hampton Court Palace, a smart gentleman’s house on New Burlington Street in Mayfair, and a house in Soho. “I thought I might find gilding – especially at Hampton Court – but all three were decorated in almost exactly the same shade, which was stone. The differences would have come in the pictures and soft furnishings; the paint was merely a foil, a background, and as such stone can be very grown-up, very sophisticated. The hundreds of projects I’ve been involved with, stone colour predominates by far. Our needs differ very little from our 18th century ancestors.”

“An entrance hall in any house, up until the 19th century, would almost certainly have been a stone colour,” Patrick continues. “And that’s for a reason. First, halls and staircases were considered semi-external spaces,” and he references the hall at Houghton Hall , “which is quite a chilly space, and would not have had soft furnishings.” The second reason is that “if the hall is in stone, it’s easier to run off the other colours. If you were to commit yourself to blue, say, you’d have to think more about the colours of other rooms.” Stone, incidentally, is a catch-all term for a wide range of shades. “Fresh Portland stone is off-white. Bath stone is quite different – there are literally hundreds of variants – magnolia is stone.” There are ways of using it to great effect. “I’m currently working on an 1850s house, but built in the 1820s style, and it’s got a double hall, as in you walk from one into the other. We’re using a cooler colour in the outer hall, and a warmer shade as you get further into the house.”

Farmhouse attic bedroom covered in tongue-and-groove panelling - we take a look at the work of interior designer, shopkeeper & architect Ben Pentreath, purveyor of modern English style.Simon Bevan

The correct approach to painting panelling

“In the 18th century, the purpose of panels was to imply the classical order,” explains Patrick, going on to describe recognising different architectural styles, even though there aren’t Ionic or Corinthian capitals. “Therefore, to pick out the panelling in different colours as John Fowler used to do is madness,” he declares. “You want one colour, and the worst thing ever is to paint the cornice of an 18th or 19th century panelled room in the same colour as the ceiling – you’re essentially cutting off the column capitals and destroying proportion.”

Timber colours were more expensive than the ‘common colours’, and as such panelling was more often painted in stone, or one of the other less expensive shades. The composer George Frederick Handel’s house on Brook Street in Mayfair, which he moved into in 1723 as the very first occupant, had the panelling painted in ‘lead’, i.e. grey.

The reason behind brown gloss on woodwork

Timber-coloured paints have been found on the doors, architraves, skirtings and shutters on a number of early 18th century houses – and it can still be used now to great effect – witness Alexandra Tolstoy’s cottage, where the woodwork is painted a dark gloss brown throughout. The advantage is that it doesn’t show up scuff marks or finger marks, and if it’s on the wainscotting – as in Bridie Hall’s entrance hall in London – you can bring in luggage and wet coats and whatever else without worrying about marking the walls.

However, as already mentioned, the timber colours were more expensive. Patrick discovered that in the countryside, earth was used as the base ingredient (paint was sold as pre-prepared coloured paste, and you mixed it with linseed oil and turpentine – more linseed made it glossy, more turpentine made it matt). “So actually, those chocolately colours would have been available way back in time,” notes Patrick. “And different parts of Britain were painted in different colours because of differing soil types.” Oxford was renowned for its yellow-ish soil, hence ‘Oxford Ochre’, which was the best type. “There, the farm carts were painted yellow. And on the Shotover estate, the houses were painted a reddy-brown colour, known as ‘Burnt Oxford Ochre’ – because our ancestors realised that if you burnt the earth, it changed in hue.”

Whatever the treatment, the colouring and gloss treatment of the woodwork was a practical solution to a common problem, and – unless you have a fleet of cleaners – one that’s still worth paying heed to.

Simon Brown

Extreme fashion tends to be shortlived (especially if executed badly)

It was in the second half of the 18th century that the craze for colour took off, initially by way of pea green in principle rooms. And then, with the popularisation of Robert Adam’s classical revival in the 1760s and 70s, came the slew of fanciful plasterwork, and exquisite sugared almond ceilings. The decoration was intended to harmonise with the designs of the fireplaces, carpets, furniture and fittings, and was light, pretty and made great use of the repetition of small-scale ornaments, inspired by those in Ancient Greece and Rome, often picked out in different colours (which is the treatment John Fowler got so right). “It wasn’t universal though by any means,” points out Patrick. “And it really only lasted forty or so years – by 1810, it was over.” (The Nash house in the New Forest revived by Ben Pentreath was built in 1801.)

Sir John Soane, in the same period, painted his dining room in Pompeian red, and went on to use ‘Picture Gallery Red’ at Dulwich Picture Gallery. He was also an early user of the bronze effect, which had been introduced in Germany the previous century. The effect could either be implied by using a green or brown green paint, or bronze metallic powder could be dusted onto an appropriately coloured surface to give it a metallic glint. And anyone who has been to Pitzhanger Manor, Soane’s house in Ealing, will have noted his proclivity for painted marble.

Patrick compares it to the 1980s enthusiasm for paint effects, “I was terribly keen on tortoise-shelling and dragging,” he says, “but then the trend lasted maybe less than a decade.” It’s very much back now; they key is to find someone who’s really good at it rather than attempting it yourself, which is one of the reasons why we moved on so quickly last time.

Colour can replace architectural form

“I wouldn’t use the Papers and Paints traditional colours in a 1930s or 1960s house,” says Patrick. “I would use colour of that period.” The 1930s saw a desire for straight lines and, often, quiet, pale colours – it was a rebuttal to the strongly patterned wallpapers of the previous generations (think William Morris). Additionally, new building methods for residential properties saw larger windows, and rooms that opened out onto gardens, which necessitated a restraint in colour and ornament to prevent the interior from competing with the exterior. It was when we started thinking that north-facing rooms should be painted in warm colours, so those containing red, orange or yellow.

Further into the century, as dados and picture rails became less and less common, “our interiors started to depend more on colour than architectural form,” says Patrick. The post-war period saw the introduction of modern emulsion paint, and, as new houses were typically smaller than their predecessors, “colour was used to brighten the atmosphere.” Happily, there’s a Papers and Paints 1950s colour chart, a celebration of the moment that colour became far more than a finish, when we finally realised that “colour could make a direct and positive contribution to the design of a building,” says Patrick.