There was a very interesting article in eighth anniversary issue of Antiques & Fine Art magazine. It was written by Christopher Swan, a furniture conservator at Colonial Williamsburg. Mr. Swan is aware (as are many students of old furniture) that period paints were far more brilliant than most of us realize. Many have the misconception of the past as a world of honey colored wood, and pale colors. Many museums are now making an effort to show us that brightly colored world as it really existed. Frequently, the effect and can be quite jarring. Other times, it can be illuminating.
Prior to the mid 1970s when restoring a house, museum people usually scraped a painted surface down to the first layer. Looking that the first layer, they painted the room in the color they observed. As a result, a lot of colonial and federal period house interiors were painted muted colors – creams, beiges, grays.
During the mid-1970s chemists and researchers working for some museums began to study old paint. The Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities (now known by the much easier name Historic New England) in Boston was at the forefront of this research. They discovered that what you see when you look at old paint, is not usually what they original owner saw. Old paints are fugitive, meaning they change color. Two things (among others) happen to paint over time. One, the pigments change color in response to sun light. They often fade, but can also darken. Two, the oil will yellow, changing the paint’s appearance.
Unaware of this, early restorers really skewed the public’s perception of period colors. Our ancestors came to be viewed as having been quite drab, when the real story was the exact opposite. They loved color. They loved lots of it and they loved it bright. The particularly loved it on wood. The rhapsodic fascination with the “natural beauty of wood” is a 20th century obsession, not 18th.
Mr. Swan is part of a new generation of researchers, building on the foundations laid in the 1970s. As with all research, techniques improve and knowledge grows. He recently painted two reproduction bow back side chairs with paint mixed to match an original green paint recovered from a pair of labeled Windsors made by Andrew and Robert McKim working in Richmond, VA ca. 1795 – 1805. Today’s Windsor chairmakers are going to be surprised at the results.
Let me first tell a story. I had known since 1971 that Windsor chairs were originally painted, and that by far and away the most common color was green. In fact, the street name for Windsors was “green chairs.” That was reinforced for those of you who received the copy of the 1787 Ebenezer Stone ad I emailed recently. Stone advertised he made, “Warranted Green Windsor Chairs” in Boston.
When I first started making and selling chairs, I did the same as the first house restorers. I examined early Windsors in their original green, or that showed traces of the original paint. It was always a dark green. So, this was the color I used.
I switched to Lexington green milk paint during the late 1970s. I recounted the reasons why in an earlier post, and you can find it in the archives. Lexington green was similar to the color I had been using, so I felt comfortable with it.
Another event made me very comfortable with Lexington green. Some time during the mid-1980s I received a phone call from a woman named Ann Jackson. I immediately put my foot in my mouth. Ann told me she owned the Rockler store. Having spoken at several Rockler stores, I knew there were a fair number of them. I asked which store she owned. She answered, “All of them.” Ann was gracious and overlooked my faux pas.
She explained she was taking a course, and she was writing a paper on Windsor chairs. She hoped I would take the time to talk to her about Windsors and Windsor chairmaking. I did.
A while later, I received a call from a curator at SPNEA (now Historic NE.) He explained that the society was preparing to reproduce a couple of their Windsor chairs, and these reproductions would be sold through the society’s catalog. The plan was to offer the chairs in a natural finish, as well as some various colors of stain. The curator’s call was to ask me what would have been the typical original finish.
I told him Windsors were almost always painted green. I further added that being a museum with an educational function, it would only be proper for SPNEA to also offer the chairs painted. At the very least, they should inform people buying their chairs that Windsors were originally painted green.
The curator called back a while later. He had presented my argument, and it had worked. SPNEA agreed that the chairs should be offered in green, even knowing that most people would surely buy them stained (that natural beauty of the wood fixation.) Did I perchance know the exact shade of green?
I explained that I had always used Lexington green milk paint, but could not confirm it was the exact color. I knew enough about the growing field of paint research to know that possibly it was not. The curator made note that SPNEA did have a paint analysis laboratory, and he thought perhaps they could do the work. However, he would need some paint samples taken from old Windsors. I offered to let the analyst take samples from chairs in my collection.
Yet another phone call from the curator. He had spoken with the people who make the decisions. He thanked me for my offer to provide samples, but the society felt it more proper to obtain the samples from the chairs being copied. Thought stripped, there were small areas where samples of the original green paint could be obtained.
The major problem was the lab. Its work would need to be funded, and there was not enough money in the curatorial budget. It appeared the idea of offering the reproduction chairs in green paint was going to be a dead letter.
I recalled my conversation with Ann Jackson, and had the idea that maybe Rockler would like to help. Ann was agreeable, and financed the paint research. A month or so later, I received a color sample from the curator. Guess what? Lexington green. From then, on I was very comfortable with that color for my chairs. Furthermore, I recommended it to anyone wanting to reproduce the original Windsor green.
It is now 25 years later. As I noted above, technique and knowledge march on. We’ve come a long way since the development of paint analysis in the mid-1970s, and a long way from the state of the art in the mid-1980s. Christopher Swan has gone a big step beyond the earlier research. He not only analyzed paint samples taken from the McKim chairs, he also mixed a period formula to make a Windsor green. I think his method and results described in his article are trustworthy.
Swan’s pigment was verdigris, as called for in the formula he used. He points out that verdigris is a mixture of various copper acetates and produces a blue-green color. Swan points out that in contact with an acidic medium like linseed oil, verdigris will turn brown, and eventually black. This same darkening will occur if it comes in contact with light and oxygen. To slow these processes that darken verdigris, chairmakers either mixed varnish in their paint, or applied varnish overcoats.
The varnish could only slow the dual process caused by the acid in the oil, and light and oxygen. Eventually, verdigris darkens. This is why Windsor green usually is thought of as a dark green. That is how we received it, but not what it originally looked like.
Today’s Windsor chairmakers who want to recreate the look of old chairs in their work, will have to make an adjustment if they want to keep up with Mr. Swan’s research. Forget Lexington green. Swan’s results are best recreated with Tavern green milk paint. Two top coats of wiping varnish will recreate the glossy appearance of an original finish. Remember, original paint was protected from darkening by the varnish mixed into, or applied over the paint. It too, was shiny.
Chairmakers who have studied here probably remember the writing arm Windsor in the show room. I did that chair in Tavern green. To better help you, imagine this comparison. Lexington green is the color of mature foliage in mid- to late summer. Tavern green is closer to the color of young leaves in the spring and early summer.
By the way, if you are visiting Colonial Williamsburg, and wish to see the chairs Christopher Swan painted, they are on display in the Wig Shop.
If you would like to receive periodic updates, tips, tool reviews, and new sources, that are outside the scope of this blog, join our mailing list by emailing me at firstname.lastname@example.org