When Color Could Kill: Stories In the History of Paint

Victoria Finlay is the author of Color: A Natural History of the Palette and Jewels: A Secret History. She resides near Bath, England, and is writing a second color publication for the Getty Museum. Her research has led her around the world and deep into the history of color — and the risks we’ve taken to bring the most beautiful hues into our houses.

“[I am] sorry to find that the Green paint which was made to provide the dining room another coat must have turned out so awful,” composed the 45-year-old George Washington in the battle in 1787. The summons to the farmer-turned-soldier to take the role of commander in chief of the continental army had come at a somewhat inconvenient time for the decoration at his home at Mount Vernon, and he wrote home frequently, asking updates on each aspect of the job, for instance, long-running saga of the green to be utilized at the massive dining room.

The large dining room at George Washington’s home in Mount Vernon, Virginia.

George Washington’s paint in question was verdigris, a pigment produced from suspending copper over a tub of vinegar; it was very trendy in both Europe and America at the close of the 18th century. Looking at its restoration (using hand-ground paints) at Mount Vernon, Virginia, now it still seems so exotic — you can see why the upcoming president obsessed about it. However he and his craftsmen hadn’t done their compound prep, to miserable effect.

If Washington or his works manager, Lund Washington, had had access to the 15th-century classic Il Libro dell’ Arte (The Craftsman’s Handbook) from the artist Cennino Cennini, they would have discovered that, according to the publication:

A shade called verdigris is green. It is very green alone. And it’s manufactured by alchemy, from vinegar and aluminum. This shade is great on panel, tempered with dimensions. Take care to not receive it around any white lead, for they’re mortal enemies at each respect. Work it up with vinegar, which it retains according to its own nature. And should you want to generate a perfect green for bud … it’s beautiful to the eye, however it doesn’t last.

But Lund set lead white about the finishes, and within a month or two, the bright turquoise had darkened and had to be replaced — though it was finished again in time for G.W. along with his family to be in this room in 1789 when they learned he was to be the first president of the USA.

Notorious green

The paint that afterwards became notorious for being toxic was discovered almost accidentally in Sweden in 1775 by a scientist named Carl Wilhelm Scheele. It was a bright and almost shocking shade, reminiscent of deep emerald. He predicted it Scheele’s Green, also by the start it was a feeling. Parents particularly adored it for their children’s bedrooms, as it was much brighter than the dull grays and browns they were used to, but it was also used for artificial flowers, rugs and clothes, and it remained in vogue for a century.

Yet this shade was a killer: Children and invalids died from sleeping in their green chambers; a Persian cat locked in an darkened bedroom has been found covered in pustules; Napoleon expired rather mysteriously on St. Helena Island at a green bedroom, and it was just in the 1980s that anyone was able to do an analysis on his own hair. It’d traces of a few of the vital ingredients of Scheele’s green: arsenic.

Why England’s article boxes are reddish

The color of England’s pillar post boxes, which we now take for granted, was a topic of profound consternation once the post office began using them (rather than home collections) from the 19th century. The first boxes were green, until people complained that they were constantly bumping into them so from the early 1880s they were repainted an eye-catching reddish silicate enamel. The tooth didn’t survive, and in a number of places faded hopelessly to a pinky white inside a month or two.

The problem was, for years there wasn’t any paint available that was bright and yet could withstand the competing challenges of sunshine and frost. From the post office archives there are lots of letters from members of the public complaining about the color. One person suggested they paint them grey like battleships, which at least could have had the virtue of staying color consistent — because surely people knew by then in which their regional post boxes were to be found.

Crisp Architects

Color becomes constant

As part of my study, I went to deepest Dorset, England to visit the headquarters of Farrow & Ball, based in the 1980s when the English National Trust wanted an expert to mix paints for its great homes in need of redecoration.

Nowadays Farrow & Ball paints, using terrific names like Clunch (from old slang for a chalk building block), Blackened (speaking to when soot was utilized to make an off-white pigment using a silver colour), String, Downpipe along with the startling Dead Salmon appeal to people wanting the colors in their sitting rooms to be just like those in British stately houses and then, sometimes, just a tad more eccentric.

Before I went, I had a romantic image of the people at Farrow & Ball using several of the same pigments and ingredients that a 19th-century decorator could have used, but this isn’t the situation. First of all, 19th-century decorators needed to assemble the paint components for themselves (as a young Irish immigrant noticed when he came at Brooklyn in the late 1870s, determining there should be an easier way. His name was Benjamin Moore).

Wall paint: French Gray, Farrow & Ball

Best & Company

Secondly, as Farrow & Ball’s managing director, Tom Helme, pointed out, the quality of these exact fugitive 19th-century paints wouldn’t have been great enough for our modern-day requirements. “Nowadays people want the color on their walls to stay constant. In the past people knew it would change immediately, and they were resigned to it.”

And next, as I found in my trip, lots of the old paint colors are now illegal. These include lead white, which was banned from the U.S. in 1977 but which is still utilized in several nations — as recently as last year, activists at Calcutta, India, were protesting that deities thrown symbolically into the river Ganges through processions should not be painted, as the lead is poisoning the sacred river.

Wall paint: Blackened, Farrow & Ball

Mercedes Corbell Design + Architecture

We can, naturally, be nostalgic for a past in which the colors of those paints were made from real things: stones, plants, galls, soot and sometimes (in the case of carmine) little rounded bugs. But we can be grateful too: Now’s synthetic colors probably won’t poison us they will probably not blend with other paints and have dramatic chemical reactions. And unlike with George Washington’s much-wanted, although quickly evaporating, large green dining room, we can be pretty confident that after it’s on the wall, it is going to stay on the wall until we make the considered decision to paint over it and try something new.

The author using Doreen Tipiloura of the Tiwi Islands, who painted Big Sheep Little Sheep Dreaming, showcased in Color: A Natural History of the Palette, published by Ballantine in the U.S. and Sceptre from the U.K.

More: Back to the Future of the House

See related