This exclusive interview with renowned British historian of paint and colour Patrick Baty was conducted by Nicola Linza and Cristoffer Neljesjö in London during March 2011.
How did you get involved in historic paint colour analysis?
My original career was as a British Army officer, although that was somewhat frustrated when my posting to the Oman was cancelled in a reshuffle. I resigned my commission as a result. What was a parachuting Cavalry officer, with no wish other than to be a soldier to do? The only other thing that I had any slight knowledge of was early 20th century British art. A great grandfather had been quite a significant artist at that time and I had grown up surrounded by works by him and his colleagues.
For a time I worked for a Bond Street dealer, but left to set up a small picture-framing business. It wasn’t really making any money and within a short time I had joined my father who, after a similar abrupt change of career, had opened a shop in Chelsea that specialised in decorative paint and colour
Before long I became intrigued by the pigments used by artists and house-painters alike, their names and origins, whether they were naturally-occurring or synthetic and their characteristics. I realised that the colours used to paint buildings in the past would have been limited by those that were available and I set out to recreate these early palettes. Further study suggested that there were also strong conventions attached to the use of colour and that these differed from those of the present day
Prompted by a newspaper article, I found myself pursuing a part-time research degree centred on the methods and materials of the 18th and 19th century housepainter. Even before I had completed this I was approached to advise on the redecoration of one of the gentleman’s clubs in St James’s. This led to further work and of different types. Soon I was learning about microscopy and paint chemistry, both subjects that would have held no interest for me years before. However I knew that these would enable me to get a clearer idea of what was done in any building that I might find myself working on.
For many years now I have been working on the decorative schemes in historic buildings.
What precisely do you do when brought into a project?
The type of project varies hugely and that is what I enjoy about the work – not just the building type, but the problems that each building presents. Most of my work consists of problem-solving – establishing what the aim of the exercise is and arriving at a reasoned and informed answer. This will be obtained either by carrying out a microscopic analysis of the painted surfaces and documentary research or by using the experience gained on other projects.
I am less concerned about whether a surface was blue or pink, for example, although this sort of information is revealed by the microscope. What is far more interesting is why it was a particular colour was selected and when was it applied. As a result of such an investigation I can also learn about physical changes that have taken place in a room and see whether there are any underlying technical problems likely to present themselves at a later date.
The projects vary hugely. I may find myself working in an 18th century drawing room; on 19th century Tower Bridge; on an early 20th century bandstand in the East End of London or a Wartime RAF Bomber station. One has to become a master of many subjects – art / architectural history; social and economic history; basic chemistry and physics – some projects involve the use of scanning electron microscopy and spectrophotometry, for example. The planning and preparation required before the sampling of three houses in different parts of Scotland in as many days is also something that has been made easier by my first career. My training as a military parachutist has given me the confidence to cope with such things as a night walk over Brunel’s Royal Albert Bridge (185 feet above the water) in order to take samples. Most projects involve grappling with heights to some extent.
Which project proved the most difficult?
One of the most difficult projects was the analysis of the London house that the composer Georg Frideric Handel had lived in from 1723-59. It had been occupied by a series of antique dealers for much of the 20th century and altered hugely. It was only after I had examined all the panelling that I discovered that just 3 of the 65 samples dated from Handel’s time. With the evidence from these 3 samples and my knowledge of 18th century decorative conventions I was able to devise a scheme for the whole house, which is now a museum.
If you could select one colour palette to do a room what would it be? And have you used it before?
Some years ago I found a collection of hand-painted colour cards that had been produced by a house-painter in 1807 for a client. I carried out a microscopic examination of these and colour-matched them in modern paint. The result was the first range of ‘Historical Colours’ in the UK and this was to spark off a number of other ranges by other companies some years later.
The colours are far more complex than the sort of colours found in most commercial paint ranges, being mixed using four or more colourants. This has the effect of not only adding ‘optical texture’ and interest, but it also makes them almost impossible to match by others, even with a spectrophotometer.
I have used the colours to great effect on a number of projects and have found similar colours having been used while carrying out the analysis of many 18th century buildings.
Subsequently I have been employed by a number of paint manufacturers in the UK and Europe to devise commercial paint ranges.
Of all the historic properties you have worked on does one stand out? And why?
I certainly have my favourites. It may be because the house itself is one that - in another existence - I would like to live in (one certainly does get spoilt for choice in this business). Sometimes it is because everything falls into place and one can uncover many of the secrets and build up a pretty complete picture of the building, or structure, for a client.
On a few occasions it is because the client is a dream to work for.
I think that it may be more accurate to say that I have my favourite projects, within certain categories, and these are some of them:
a) Favourite country house – Castletown Cox, in Ireland
b) Favourite museum – Geffrye Museum
c) Favourite palace – Hampton Court Palace
d) Favourite bridge – Royal Albert Bridge, near Plymouth
e) Favourite castle – Culzean Castle, Ayrshire
f) Favourite housing estate – Golden Lane Housing Estate
g) Favourite church – Christ Church, Spitalfields
h) Favourite concert hall / theatre – Royal Festival Hall
i) Favourite Government building – Lancaster House
j) Favourite club – Cavalry and Guards Club
k) Favourite school - Stowe
Patrick Baty has acted as a consultant on many major restoration projects in the United Kingdom. He is a long-standing committee member of the Georgian Group and a Fellow of both the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland and the Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures & Commerce. Baty's company, Papers and Paints Ltd, has a Royal Warrant of Appointment to Her Majesty The Queen.
The above interview with Patrick Baty 2011 © Manner of Man Magazine/Welldressed. All rights reserved. Reproduction is strictly prohibited without written permission.