Historic interiors consultant and author of 'Anatomy of Colour' Patrick Baty explains how paint can reveal the secrets of a building’s past.
Following a career in the army, in 1981 Patrick Baty joined his father’s shop just off the King’s Road in Chelsea. Founded in 1960 as the country was gripped by DIY-fever, Papers and Paints quickly became a London institution, pioneering a colour matching service that has since been imitated but never equalled. With customers of all sorts seeking materials and advice on decorating houses from the grand to the ordinary, the shop’s records naturally formed the foundation of a unique archive tracing fashions in interior decoration through the sixties and seventies. When in the mid-1980s he produced a set of historical colours, Patrick Baty sowed the seeds of not only an enduring trend, but of his own future as a historical paint consultant.
You learned your business at the sharp end – how has your practical training as a housepainter informed your work as an historian?
In the shop I learnt how people perceive and describe colour, and what colours appeal to them, as well as how light affects the appearance of certain colours. I also learnt how to deal with painters and picked up tips from them – many of these tips have changed little over the last 300 years. It also gave me a grounding in what paint is and how it behaves. There are times when an oil-based paint might be better than a water-based one – the characteristics of one versus the other must be understood. An important lesson is that one cannot always have what one wants!
How good are people at judging the best way to decorate an interior?
Most people can benefit from a few words of advice. They can become overwhelmed by the size of a project and need help rationalising things. They often need reassuring that each room does not necessarily have to be decorated in a different fashion.
When did you become a paint historian?
Having produced a set of historical colours in the mid-1980s, I began collecting and transcribing early works on colour and house-painting. I then began a mini research degree on the housepainter, his methods and materials between 1650-1850. On completion, I began to learn about pigment microscopy and the forensic examination of historical buildings. Before I knew it I was employed with two colleagues to carry out the analysis after the fire at Uppark House in 1989. Since then, job has followed job and I have worked, by myself, on several hundred projects large and small in this country, in Ireland, and in the USA.
How does paint analysis help you to establish the look of a complex historical interior?
Paint analysis will show what is there and often when it had been applied, and will also show when a surface has been stripped but traces survive. For example the early 18th century King’s and Queen’s staircase balustrades at Hampton Court Palace had been stripped in 1918, but I was still able to identify the original scheme on both. Increasingly, I am employed as a quasi-archaeologist to date structures or rooms and to show when alterations have been made. The information revealed by paint analysis can be devastating: for instance I have been able to prove that an 18th century doorcase being sold in an architectural salvage yard had been stolen from a house in Watford – they have since been reunited.
Was there a point at which people began to care more about historical authenticity?
The number of paint ranges with a historical theme spawned by my two early ones led to a greater general awareness that there might have been a different use of colour in the past, certainly different conventions. We would frequently be asked for quite detailed historical advice by customers in the shop.
How much have tastes changed over the past 300 years?
Many of the colours used in the 1950s were identical with those used in the 1750s. This was especially true of the so-called Common Colours – the cheaper, more neutral colours typically used to cover large surfaces.
How do our preconceptions about decorative schemes of the past compare with reality?
The mass of commercial paint ranges with a historical theme, almost without exception, have little basis in fact. Even when they do, no context is given and colours end up being used inappropriately. Sadly, some of the heritage organisations have not used these paints with care and so have helped to perpetuate myths and solecisms. It is still quite rare for the decoration of a house open to the public to be fully explained, and so visitors assume that what they are seeing is based on research rather than the whim of a curator.
Interview by Florence Hallett