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Paint expression

The contemporary desire for more colourful buildings should take a gold leaf out of the historical canon

In order to shock the senses in the age of steel, glass and bright whites, one could scarcely do better than emerge from the time machine at any date before 1550 to face a prominent building - say, a medieval cathedral, a Roman house of any pretension, or a Greek temple. The chances are it would have been painted lime-white, cream, orange, pink, red or ochre, its details maybe in yellow, green, black, gold or perhaps blue.

Unfortunately, the modern take on Roman ostentation too often equates to shades of ivory framed by cement lions and underfed porticoes.

Applying colour was the last part of the building process but, like makeup, it worked with the structural fundamentals of mass and depth to create a first impression that artificially emphasised chosen details - like columns, portals, or heraldry. It also ranged from the cheap to the incredibly expensive. Blue came from limited sources: famously, real lapis lazuli from Afghanistan, and azurite from copper, but also what the pharaohs' painters once called iry: artificial lapis lazuli, a double silicate of calcium and copper that the Romans relabelled Alexandrian (or Egyptian) blue.

Ochres generate the most basic reds when ubiquitous iron-rich earth minerals are roasted to provide a range of muted ruddiness that is at its brightest in a shade of light terracotta. In Roman times, the bloody scarlet of cinnabar red was 50 times more expensive than common reds. It still adorns the Villa of the Mysteries at Pompeii but had to be imported from Almaden in Spain to Rome. Adding to the cost, in an industrial quarter near the Temple of Flora, it was purified, synthesised and then ground to prevent it turning black. The transported, bound and applied pigment was then glazed and protected with wax. For those wanting to convey their social standing, the expense of dressing their property with inevitably rare, rich colours conveyed was worth it.

Despite the best efforts of their jewellers, enamellers and scribes, Anglo-Saxon builders turned their backs on the iridescent blue, green and gold mosaics of contemporary Italy and the east. They stuck to the cheap bacon-and-egg palate of ochres, with which church interiors - to go by fragments from the 10th century - were painted. No one knows to what extent their timber buildings were coloured, as little remains but post-holes, but a thousand years ago, England's green and pleasant land probably witnessed some buildings washed with powdery yellows, dull reds and pinks among the pure white of limewash.

Catholic tastes The tradition of massive masonry structures was ushered into England during the mid-11th century, in an age when Europe was witnessed as being 'clad in a mantle of white churches'. Over a century, our piecemeal cathedrals and abbeys were rebuilt as vast single structures and some, like Canterbury, were painted internally in vivid colours to complement stained glass and intaglio marble floors, like enlarged pages of richly coloured bibles. Look closely at any medieval monument and the chances are that in the crevices you'll find small traces of colour. In some cases - like the door arches sheltered beneath the porch of Christchurch Priory in Hampshire - the blacks and blues remain distinct. Analysis shows that the early 13th-century facade of Wells Cathedral was brightly coloured, presenting a theatrical screen full of painted sculpted figures. Exeter's west front was a rainbow, too.

Colour is inseparable from Catholic culture, and whitewash synonymous with the Protestant age. When the reformers of Edward VI and Cromwell's more severe Puritans whitewashed the interiors of churches and defaced painted saints, their legacy was a correspondence between the virtue of the plain word and the plainness of hues:

clear, lucid and honest. But it would be over-simplistic to claim that the succeeding centuries represent a unified Protestant ethos that directly informed the muted palette of Modernism; from John Calvin to John Pawson.

However, during the long Renaissance, the interest in colour was boosted by the rediscovery of Roman interior design after 1500, as artists held candles up to the vaults of Nero's buried Domus Aurea near the Colosseum and saw painted grotesques;

the excavation at Herculaneum two centuries later caused another sensation. These strident ancient colours informed the work of 'Grand Tourist' architects like William Kent at Kensington Palace and Robert Adam at Syon and Osterley Park.

Yet another factor was colourful clothing, which Elizabethan paintings contextualise within architectural interiors lined in silk damasks and hung with curtains of rich velvet. This was the age of the first wallpapers, which reflected something of the technique of fabric printing in the repetition of bold, linear designs. Even the strict Palladian Lord Burlington hung his 1720s villa at Chiswick with green, red and the deepest blue damask fabrics.

The yellow peril As the Industrial Revolution rumbled into view, the 18th century was enlivened by the invention of Prussian blue, the first mass-producible blue since antiquity. It was used to supplement shades of green and blue verditer painstakingly derived from copper (that ideally had been urinated on). The century saw an explosion of sulphury yellows that avoided the potentially lethal lead antimoniate, or the arsenic of orpiment, or the expense of the best artists' yellow made from tin. In 1780, an Englishman called Turner patented a calcinated mixture of lead oxide, sea salt and soda that had been discovered by a talented Swedish colourist called Scheele: 'patent yellow' was on the market, an illuminating shade for wallpapers. One result of the British Empire in India was the discovery of 'gamboge', a deep yellow made from the concentrated urine of cows fed on mango leaves. It was kind to neither the cow nor the extractor, and was replaced with chrome yellow by the middle of the 19th century. Soon came burgundy violet, ultramarines, cobalt blue, chrome reds, orange and green, as well as yellow and zinc white.

Long-established lead white was basically lead oxide created from sheet metal using vinegar fumes and carbonic acid, while filling factories with a poisonous sulphuric fug. It offered a very slightly soft, greyish-green hue.

Still, this ancient recipe covered more opaquely and cheaply than the zinc white pioneered in Dijon in 1781, so lead oxide remained in use as a white pigment, and was only superseded by titanium white in the 1920s, which remains the popular alternative.

The use of lead as a paint ingredient for external and internal joinery only fell from favour 50 or so years ago, when alkyd oil paints came on the market. Lead has a thick, slightly temperamental fluxing quality in paint like egg yolk so that it should properly be applied with small, pointed hair brushes of about 5cm, which leave distinctive drag marks. Lead paint also gives off fumes and is poisonous in sufficient doses when its powdery decay drifts into the atmosphere. Its use in conservation is always a matter of debate, although there is considerably overstated paranoia in modern concerns over its use.

Many of our buildings continued to be treated to whitewashed masonry, or ruddled brick, a fashion for all-over external colour that was reinforced in the age of stucco. But titanium white appeared just in time to serve the age of bleached Modernist render. In mid-20th-century Britain, among a sea of bottle-green windows and black doors, came a wave of sharp white joinery paint that is now ubiquitously slapped on to the fascias of most houses, and hence it became the only colour of uPVC 'glazing units'.

All this white on a building produces a blinding effect akin to The Osmonds' smiles; but if you soften the colour - say to the light cream or even grey reminiscent of British dental work - the whole building relaxes into a balanced arrangement of its constituent parts like many of the houses along the limestone belt. The country as a whole could benefit by reducing the bright whites, a colour whose true home is on the shores of the Aegean, where it reflects the clear, sharp light of the sea and the southerly sun. The direction faced by the eternally optimistic Bexhill Pavilion.

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