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History of paint in National Trust places

A close-up of the gilded pale blue and gold ceiling in the Drawing Room at Attingham Park
The Drawing Room ceiling at Attingham Park | © National Trust Images/Paul Barker

The use of paint in historic interiors tells stories of fashion, wealth and status, revealing how the manufacture of paint and pigment has evolved over the years. Here, we look at four different National Trust houses to examine how historic paints reflect the social status of their owners and the fashions of their time.

Marker’s medieval hall, Killerton Estate

Marker’s on the Killerton Estate in Devon is a medieval hall-house built around 1450 using traditional skills and local materials, typical of the simpler architecture of its time.

The walls at Marker’s are a soft, sun-baked yellow. By today's standards, the decoration seems very limited, but painted scenes once enlivened the surfaces. This was typical of many houses of this period, where surfaces were once adorned with biblical stories, arabesques, cartouches, floral patterns and even stripes.

Limewash and distemper paint

In the late Middle Ages, the most common finishes for homes like Marker's were water-based paints. Limewash was made by mixing crushed, burnt lime with water, while the more durable distemper was made from chalk mixed with ground animal bone, horn or skin.

Limewash and distemper were cheap to make, dried quickly and were permeable, meaning it could be applied to fresh lime plaster without affecting its curing or drying process.

A view of the Parlour at Marker's Cottage on the Killerton Estate, with a large painted wooden screen across one wall and a glimpse into the yellow-painted hall.
The Parlour at Marker's Cottage | © National Trust Images/Chris King

Creating colour

Distemper could be coloured, though its range was generally limited to shades of yellow, red and brown pigments. Terre verte, or ‘green earth’, was a natural mineral used to colour distemper, while darker colours and blacks were made by burning bone, wood or vines.

Visually, distemper paints have a soft, matt appearance and slight unevenness in colour. This makes them distinctive from oil-based paints.

Uncovering a medieval mural

In 1985, a painted wooden screen was discovered in the Parlour at Marker’s, hidden behind a wooden lath and plaster wall. The mural revealed a painting of a ship dated between 1470 and 1510, painted on the wall surfaces and timber framework.

The mansion at Attingham Park

In contrast to the humbly built home of Markers, the mansion at Attingham Park reflects the opulence of Regency style, which came into fashion in the 19th century.

The first Lord and Lady Berwick adopted the fashionable French style of characterising spaces as either masculine or feminine, and the house was divided into two symmetrical halves of matching suites: Lady Berwick’s feminine wing to the east, and Lord Berwick’s masculine wing to the west.

Masculine and feminine interiors

A view of part of the Boudoir at Attingham Park, in pastel colours with gilded painted wall panels. A fireplace and door are both visible.
The Boudoir at Attingham Park | © National Trust Images/Andreas von Einsiedel

Lady Berwick’s ‘feminine’ Boudoir

The circular Boudoir embodies femininity. Lady Berwick chose pastel hues and gilded painted panels for her most intimate room, which would have been considered the height of sophistication and feminine taste at the time – Marie Antoinette had a similarly painted boudoir at her château in Fontainebleau. A series of roundels attributed to French artist Louis-André Delabrière adorn the domed ceiling and depicts scenes on the theme of love.

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Eighteenth-century paint colours

In the 18th century, several new pigments became available – including Prussian Blue, which was notable as so few blue pigments were available. By the end of the century, Verdigris was also available at a reasonable cost and used widely as a paint or glaze.

Natural yellow pigments presented more of a problem, as they were transparent and only suitable as a glaze in oil. However, in the early 19th century, Chrome Yellow was created, allowing a wider variety of yellows, reds and oranges.

William Morris at Red House

During the second half of the 19th century, significant changes in decorative fashions can be traced to William Morris. Although Morris's house, Red House in London, was built before the Arts and Crafts period (circa 1880–1920), the house and Morris himself are often cited as the precursor of the movement, which emerged as a reaction against the mass production ushered in by the Industrial Revolution.

Morris's response was to make objects with integrity, which celebrated craftsmanship and an understanding of materials.

Original decorative schemes at Red House

Most of Morris’s original decorative schemes at Red House are unfortunately covered by subsequent layers of paint and wallpaper; however, paint analysis and careful uncovering of sections of the scheme provide a glimpse of the original design.

Morris used bold colours and extensive stencilling patterns on the ceilings, which he applied by placing pinpricks in the fresh plaster to help him align his patterns. He used a more freehand approach for painted decoration on the walls. Morris’ patterns were based on natural forms and his colour palette of deep reds, orange reds, deep blues, dark greens and yellows was earthy rather than vibrant in appearance.

White wooden settle in the drawing room at Red House in London
The settle in the drawing room, designed by William Morris. | © National Trust Images/Andreas von Einsiedel

Arts and Crafts at Stoneywell

In contrast, Stoneywell in Leicestershire resonates with simplicity and quietude. Having attended a lecture by William Morris, Ernest Gimson became one of the leading architects and designers of the Arts and Crafts Movement.

He designed Stoneywell for his brother as a summer home and painted its plain walls in the traditional materials of limewash and distemper in subtle shades of white, stone and cream – a calm background for the handcrafted furnishings which were so important to followers of the movement.

The disappearance of lead white

While Arts and Crafts interiors favoured subtle shades of white, stone and cream, the colour palette increased with the manufacture of synthetic pigments in the 19th and 20th centuries.

However, one pigment that was nearly lost was lead white, which had been used since 400 BC. Due to its toxicity, it was banned and only allowed for use in Grade I and Grade II listed buildings.

Titanium White replaced lead white and became the principal white pigment used in the 20th century. Today, synthetic versions use lead-free creamy-white pigments.

This article has been adapted from an original article in the Autumn 2019 issue of the National Trust Magazine.

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