If walls could talk: the history of paint in our places

Christine Sitwell, Paintings Conservation Adviser Christine Sitwell Paintings Conservation Adviser

Centuries from now, what might the wall-paint colours of your rooms and interiors say about you?

Paintings Conservation Adviser Christine Sitwell takes a look at four different interiors of our places and explores how historic wall-paint choices reflect the social status of their owners and the fashions of their time.

Past owners of country houses have had an enormous influence on historic interiors by indulging their passion for the latest fashion, creating their own eclectic style or covering an existing decorative scheme because it was either too garish or old-fashioned for their taste. In some instances, it's been possible to record, reveal or recreate schemes from different architectural periods using archival research, curatorial expertise, conservation skills and paint analysis.

Medieval simplicity at Marker's, Killerton Estate, Devon

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

The walls at Marker’s are a soft, sun-baked yellow. By today's standards, the painted decorations seem very limited, but typical of many houses of this period, decorative painting once enlivened the surfaces 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 such as limewash, made by mixing crushed burnt lime and water, and the more durable soft distemper, made from chalk mixed with ground animal bone, horn or skin.

Limewash and distemper were cheap to make and dried quickly, and could be easily applied and reapplied. Both are permeable, so decorators could apply them to fresh lime plaster without affecting its curing or drying process, which can take up to two years.

Distemper could be coloured, though its range was generally limited to shades of yellow, red and brown pigments, and be burnt to give a darker colour. Terre verte – ‘green earth’ – was a natural mineral used to colour distemper. 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.

Earlier decorative scheme offers a glimpse of the past

In 1985, an early painted decorative scheme at Marker's was uncovered on the wooden screen, revealing a painting of a ship dating between 1470 and 1510. The decorative scheme covered the wall surfaces and flowed onto the timber framework.

A painted panel at marker's

The original wooden screen in the Parlour at Marker's had been hidden behind a wooden lath and plaster wall until conservators uncovered it in 1985.

earlier scheme was painted on the wooden screen

Remains of earlier paint on the wooden screen show St Andrew with his cross.

Remnant of a painting of ship

The earlier paintwork also shows a ship with a shape typical of those built between 1470 and 1510; this helped date the mural.

Regency brilliance of Attingham Park, Shropshire

In marked contrast to the humbly built home of Marker's, the opulent mansion of Attingham Park presents an explosion and variety of colour.

Attingham's contrasting colours: Pompeian red of the Dining Room's plasterwork ceiling; pastel blue of the Drawing Room
Pompeian red walls and pastel blue walls of Attingham
Attingham's contrasting colours: Pompeian red of the Dining Room's plasterwork ceiling; pastel blue of the Drawing Room

Attingham Park was created in 1785 but by the early 19th century, the Regency style was in fashion. The 1st Lord and Lady Berwick adopted the fashionable French style of characterising spaces as either masculine or feminine. The house at Attingham was divided into two symmetrical halves of matching suites, beginning at the Entrance Hall, with Lady Berwick’s feminine wing to the east and Lord Berwick’s masculine wing to the west.

Attingham's 'feminine' and 'masculine' interiors

The Boudoir at Attingham Park, Shropshire

Lady Berwick's wing: the Boudoir

Lady Berwick’s circular Boudoir at Attingham Park, with its pastel shades and gilded painted panels, is pure femininity. The small dark patch of wall at top left shows the colour scheme before being cleaned by conservators.

The Dining Room at Attingham Park, Shropshire

Lord Berwick's wing: the Dining Room

The Dining Room, in Lord Berwick’s masculine wing of Attingham Park, is decorated in a rich Pompeian red. The banqueting table is set with an opulent display that gleams in the warm light produced by candles and Argand oil lamps.

The circular Boudoir embodies femininity. Lady Berwick chose pastel hues and delicately painted grotesque and arabesque motifs picked out with gilding for her most intimate room. It would have been 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 adorns the domed ceiling and depicts scenes on the theme of love. 

Detail of the highly decorated ceiling of the Boudoir, attributed to Louis-Andre Delabrière. It shows a circle of medallions depicting various cherubs.
Detail of the highly decorated ceiling of the Boudoir, attributed to Louis-Andre Delabriere
Detail of the highly decorated ceiling of the Boudoir, attributed to Louis-Andre Delabrière. It shows a circle of medallions depicting various cherubs.

In contrast, Attingham’s Octagon Room is an example of a masculine space. It was originally Lord Berwick’s study, but until recently its original colour scheme was covered by later layers of paint. In 2006, paint analysis and the careful removal of layers of overpaint by a conservator exposed a rich warm black overlaid with delicate streaks of vermilion red, creating the appearance of a fanciful exotic timber. Based on this evidence, the black-and-red graining scheme has been recreated on the room’s window frames, pilasters (rectangular columns) and bookcases.  

The Octagon Room at Attingham Park, once Lord Berwick's study
The Octagon Room at Attingham Park, once Lord Berwick's study
The Octagon Room at Attingham Park, once Lord Berwick's study

Brilliant and intense: Prussian Blue to Chrome Yellow

Several new pigments became available in the 18th century. The introduction of Prussian Blue was particularly important as so few blue pigments were available. In addition to being extensively used in oil paint, it was also used in marbling.

Verdigris was initially too expensive to be used for house painting but by the end of the century, it was reasonably priced and like Prussian Blue could be used as a paint or a glaze.

Yellows presented a problem in that the organic yellow pigments were fugitive and transparent and therefore only suitable as a glaze in oil but could be used more effectively in distemper.  It was only in the early years of the 19th century that Chrome Yellow became available and with it a wider variety of yellows, reds and oranges.

Arts and Crafts at Red House, London and Stoneywell, Leicestershire

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 on the outskirts of London, was built before the period defined as Arts and Crafts (circa 1880–1920), the house and William Morris are often cited as the precursor of the movement.

The movement emerged from 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. 

The Drawing Room at Red House with wall paintings by Edward Burne-Jones and a settle designed by William Morris with later additions by Philip Webb
Settle in the Drawing Room at Red House
The Drawing Room at Red House with wall paintings by Edward Burne-Jones and a settle designed by William Morris with later additions by Philip Webb

Most of Morris’s original decorative schemes at Red House are unfortunately covered by subsequent layers of paint and wallpaper so it is difficult to imagine the impact of the bold colours and extensive stencilling patterns on the ceilings and painted decoration on the walls. However, paint analysis and careful uncovering of sections of the scheme provide a tantalising glimpse.

Morris liked to use 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. His 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.

Morris used bold earthy colours and extensive stencilling patterns on the ceilings at Red House
Detail of ceiling at Red House, Kent
Morris used bold earthy colours and extensive stencilling patterns on the ceilings at Red House

In contrast, Stoneywell in Leicestershire resonates with simplicity and quietude. Having attended a lecture by William Morris, Ernst 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 chose to paint 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 Dining Room at Stoneywell with its simple décor that highlights the handcrafted furnishings
The Dining Room at Stoneywell, Leicestershire
The Dining Room at Stoneywell with its simple décor that highlights the handcrafted furnishings

A surplus of colours and the near disappearance of lead white

At the same time that Arts and Crafts interiors were favouring subtle shades of white, stone and cream, the colour palette greatly increased due to the manufacture of synthetic pigments throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. However, one pigment that was nearly lost was lead white, a pigment which had been in use since 400 BC and has the reputation for the warmest undertone of all the whites. Due to its toxicity, it was banned and only allowed for use in Grade I* and Grade II* listed buildings. Titanium White would replace lead white and become the principal white pigment used in the 20th century. Today, synthetic versions use lead-free creamy-white pigments.

The influence and power of paint

Over time, the use of paint in historic interiors has been influenced, just as it is today, by fashion, wealth and status, the discovery and manufacture of new pigments and the replacement of some traditional paints due to toxicity or instability. Paint has such power to tell stories about people, their tastes and the way they lived. The wealth of interior decoration in historic houses not only delights us but provides inspiration for creating our own interiors.

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

Paint colours from the Little Greene and National Trust collection

Contemporary colours inspired by our places 

Christine Sitwell has recently helped the team at The Little Greene Paint Company to develop a new licensed range of shades of green inspired by National Trust places. These include ‘Sage and  Onions’, a verdant green inspired by the garden gate at Hill Top, Beatrix Potter’s Lake District farmhouse, and the moody blue-green ‘Goblin’, adapted from Charles Paget Wade’s Turquoise Room at Snowshill Manor in Gloucestershire.

In return, Little Greene gives a contribution from each sale to our conservation work.