Faux finishes

This one was published on internationalroutier.wordpress.com on July 21, 2010


Most of us living in the Antipodes have at some time or another substituted one material for another for reasons of availability, cost or even prior experience working with one material over another. Sometimes the substitutions are small, such that the finished product resembles the original when local radiata is used in place of the European pines, or Tassie Oak for European ash. Sometimes, more serious cheats are done such as using ply instead of oak wainscot, which is forgivable if the ply ground and edges won’t be seen, or modern chrome tanned leather in place of buff, which is inexcusable even if single buff was treated with saltpetre in, what I will admit only under duress, is a form of mineral tannage.

People have always wanted to appear to be living in conditions better than they could afford, or take shortcuts to save money, so let’s take a look at some examples of people doing exactly that in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. We might take some cues from their deceptions when making our own. In a way, camouflaging materials so an object looks like something else is similar to the medieval tradition of deception in food, where “entrails” are made of fruit, “fruit” pies made of meat and castles of sugar.

By far the easiest way to hide an unauthentic material is a simple coat of paint. There’s heaps of websites providing lists of colours, binder and carriers, many of them disagreeing with each other so there’s some good sport to be had there. Pigments Through the Ages is good if you are working on a decorative project. There’s also a good Wikipedia article that discusses modern sources of historical pigments and one on the NVG website that discusses historical sources of pigments. This is particularly important if you’re using Australian native hardwoods, which tend towards tortuous grain and pink colours. These weren’t generally available to the middle classes until about a hundred years later than the period we represent (in what antique collectors now refer to as the “Age of Mahognany“).

Saker, c1640. Royal Armouries, Fort Nelson

This is a reproduction saker of the 1640s, although the barrel could be original. The red paint is iron-oxide based and the black is some form of carbon. It is used as a protective coating and while the 1645 manufacturing instructions for this type of carriage say the side-pieces of the carriage and the wheels are elm and the axle-trees and spokes are oak, it could be covering oak, elm, ash or for the purpose of the exercise, scribbly gum. There’s a whole range of sins that have been historically covered with this cheap, reliable pigment.

Reproduction arrow chest, 1545

This is our attempt at a copy of an arrow-chest from the Mary Rose. It’s a six board chest made in an afternoon and even the nail locations are documented. We used pine, painted in, you guessed it, iron oxide. I think the Morris board is a nice touch. It wasn’t on the original chest we copied, but is taken from the head of a barrel found a few metres away.

Red chest, Barley Hall, copied from a late 14th century Flemish original. Original and reproduction both constructed of quarter-sawn oak, painted with red ochre pigment on a rabbit skin glue base.

This chest is a slightly earlier period in the parlour at Barley Hall, York. The late 14th C original still exists in a church near Ripon, UK and still has the red paint visible. Again oak, but could equally be ply or MDF under the paint. You could use MDF, but will have to apologise to Jesus for committing such an atrocity.

Note the wall hangings in the background. Red and green paint on fabric, the great hall has even nicer ones with large roses and crowned cyphers. The photo below shows the hangings in the Great Hall.

Great Hall, 15th century Barley Hall, York.

Painted or plain fabric was often used to cover cheaper wall surfaces, for example in Bolsover Little Castle the cheaper grey finished walls were covered with red satin curtains. More on Bolsover later. Argyll’s Lodging in Stirling has a cheapish purple dyed wall hanging in the bedroom. Plas Mawr has green in some parts, and blue, red and white check in the upstairs hall. If you couldn’t afford wainscot through the house, but could afford paint and canvas, the below hanging could be an option.


Wall hanging immitating wood pannel, paint on canvas pannel, c 1600.
The Lockers, Hempel Hempstead, Heartfordshire, now in the V&A.

Hangings aren’t the only option, for example St Alban’s cathedral has internal brick walls that have a thin layer of plaster and are then painted to look like stone. Painting plaster to look like stone has a history stretching back to at least the Etruscans, but in some cases they got way too carried away and painted stone to look like, well, stone. Painted marble finishes go back almost to the beginning of time. Gladstone’s Land on the Royal Mile, Edinburgh and the High Dining Room at Argyll’s Lodging in Stirling are both fine examples of plaster or wood walls painted to look like stone columns.

Mid-17th Century painted finish on wood and plaster designed to look like stone under candle-light.
Argyll’s Lodging, Sterling.

Back to Bolsover for the finest examples of painted plaster I’ve seen. The Little Castle was built by William Cavendish, who obviously enjoyed a well executed visual pun as much as the next bloke. The atrium ceiling (1640) has painted vaulting that looks like marble (pigments chalk white with indigo and gold veins), the next room has real vaulting made of painted incised plaster that looks like stone and continues into the painted decoration on the walls of the Labours of Hercules. The oak panelling is painted to look like slate (lead white tinted with carbon black from locally mined coal). The next room, the Pillar Parlour continues the shape of the stone but this time uses real stone. The trick in this room is the walnut paneling is really painted plaster and oak (the pigments are castle brown and yellow ochre).

Bolsover Little castle, mid-17th century. Plaster and oak painted to look like stone, the grey is probably meant to be covered with red satin curtains.

Bolsover Little castle Pillar Parlour, mid-17th century. Stone and oak painted to look like walnut.

The doors at Bolsover are carved to match the stone door frames and painted in our old favourite, rust. Another example of the practice is Ham House, Surrey, where rooms are painted in imitation of olive, cedar and walnut wood, and the elaborately carved and gilt staircase (c. 1637/8) is painted and veined to imitate walnut.

Remember oak in Blighty is just the local hardwood, philosophically the same as us using grey gum or the Victorians using Mountain Ash. If you want something exotic, paint your selected base to look like it. Here’s a ~AD1600 oak door in the V&A painted to look like pine.

Oak door, c1600. V&A Museum.

It wasn’t just big things, portable assets often received this sort of treatment, too. The cover for the Standish razor (1612) is pasteboard embossed and painted to look like leather.

Razor owend by Myles Standish, 1612

Standish Razor & Case. Steel, horn, brass and pasteboard, 1612. Pilgrim Hall Museum

The introduction of lacquer from Asia in the sixteenth century gave rise to local imitations where it could be used to disguise wood as metal. These roundels from ca. 1620 are sycamore, lacquered and painted with white and gold.

Sycamore rondells used for serving food, c1620. V&A Museum.

Metal pike armour and sword hilts also got this sort of treatment, reinforcing the metal association. A cheaper way to imitate this was using black paint as on this 1620 cabinet.

1620 cabinet

Pine Writing Cabinet. Black-painted pine with mother of pearl inlay, 1620. Pilgrim Hall Museum

The deceptive finishes seem to have been popular with both the upper and middle classes, sometimes to save money, sometimes as at Bolsover out of a sense of fun where the fake finishes become part of the intellectual game. The techniques had been around for a while before earliest manual in England on the subject of decorative painting, The Art of Painting in Oyl was published in 1676 by John Smith although some of the techniques get a brief mention in Theophilus. Japanning was first accurately described in the Treatise of Japanning and Varnishing by John Stalker and George Palmer (London, 1688).

If you want to use modern paint to represent most historically accurate paints, it may be safest to aim for something between a flat and low-sheen finish unless the original was varnished or lacquered. Make sure your chosen colour was available in the period you do and the pigment affordable for someone at your station in life in your chosen period. Remember it’s hard to go wrong with rust.

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