TRADITIONAL PAINT GUIDE FOR
THE VICTORIAN PERIOD (1837-1901)
The purpose of this guide is to show how different paint finishes and colours would have been used, in the period when many traditional terraced houses were being constructed, and so enable the modern user to create a realistic period style.
It is not meant to be a complete guide to period restoration, which is a complex and laborious task requiring specialist products. But it will help the modern owner to use authentic period colours with confidence, if the aim is to recreate period decorative style. Of course, modern taste must also be considered when choosing an actual colour scheme.
Please note: We have not tried to create a "printer-friendly" version of this page, because it would still suffer from the limitations of colour reproduction mentioned below. Instead, if you would like a printed booklet of this Victorian Paint Usage Guide, including more accurate colour swatches, please contact Mr Kerrison, and he will gladly send you a free copy.
Although paint technology continued to develop during the Victorian period, there was still considerably less choice of paint finish than is available today. The finishes remained basically oil-based paints and water-based distempers, with the former being used on woodwork and some plaster surfaces, and the latter almost totally restricted to plaster surfaces such as ceilings. Resin-based varnishes were also often applied to timber, or as a protective coat over painted imitations of marble or woodgrain.
Distemper, or size colour, was made from ground chalk, bound with a glue size made from animal bones, horns or skin, and tinted with a suitable pigment. It had many advantages: cheapness, the wide range of tints available in it and the speed and case of application. Its chief disadvantage, however, was that it was not particularly durable and was neither washable nor suitable for areas of heavy traffic - hence the modern name "soft distemper".
Oil-based paints were prepared with white lead, linseed oil, turpentine and pigment, with the finish - the degree of sheen - being regulated by altering the ratio of oil and turpentine. Traditional oil paint dried to a glossy finish that tended to dull down after a short time. In addition the linseed oil content caused it to yellow, especially in areas deprived of light; this was most obvious in white paint, which yellowed rapidly, but colours would change too, with blues taking on a greenish tinge.
Modern paints have changed considerably, offering not only easier application and greater durability than their predecessors, but significantly safer formulations.
In spite of technological advances in the manufacture of chemical dyes during the second half of the 19th century, the use of paint colours throughout the Victorian period remained surprisingly close to the late Georgian period. Whilst wallpaper and furnishing fabric manufacturers eagerly embraced the new mauves and purples, paint colours retained the restraint of the Georgian era. However, developing theories of colour harmony led to increasingly complex colour schemes, care being taken to balance light and shade.
By the 1840s the use of restrained, secondary tints such as Buff, Lilac and Salmon was common, though paler tints of those and other strong colours were also used; Victorian interiors were by no means always the dark and gloomy rooms we have come to expect.
The chief difference from the Georgian period, however, was the practice of picking out architectural features with different - and often surprisingly strong - colours. The area below the dado rail was often decorated with an embossed wallpaper painted in a deep colour, such as a Brunswick Green or Purple Brown, which had the effect of breaking the sudden contrast between the carpet and the lighter coloured wall above.
The moulding around the top of the wall tended to be picked out in a colour richer than that of the wall, though not as dark as the dado, and became increasingly ornate.
White distempers were often used for ceilings throughout the Victorian period - though these were always creamy off-whites, not the modern bleached brilliant whites of today, which should not really be used in a period colour scheme. By the 1850s, however, richly coloured ceilings were becoming increasingly common, even in relatively modest middle-class homes, with individual elements of the plasterwork, papier-maché or embossed paper picked out in strong colours.
Following on from the late Georgian decorative style, archaeologically-derived colours such as Lilac, Picture Gallery Red, Red and Crimson were popular for interior walls, especially in principal rooms, where they were considered the most suitable background for paintings and prints, and in dining rooms.
In drawing rooms, bedrooms and especially libraries, greens such as Sage Green and Light Brunswick Green were popular. Blues and bright yellows were not extensively used in Victorian colour schemes.
Woodwork was usually painted in dark colours such as the Bronze Greens, Brunswick Greens or Purple Brown. Woodgraining was often used to imitate more expensive and exotic woods. Pine, the most frequently used timber, was never seen stripped bare in the modern style, as it was considered cheap and unfashionable.
The modern practice of painting woodwork white only appeared in the 1880s-90s with the enthusiasm for the "Queen Anne" style of decoration. Windows, skirtings, doors and stair balusters were painted white to give a bright, clean effect, further enhanced by the introduction of electric lighting into homes.
Exterior woodwork was usually decorated in a green colour - one of the Bronze Greens or Brunswick Greens - to blend in with foliage and in the case of the Bronze Greens to resemble weathered bronze. Purple Brown was also used for exterior woodwork - one contemporary specification for a small house calls for the front door to be painted green and the windows Purple Brown.
Exterior masonry - or stucco - was generally painted in imitation of local stone in colours such as Buff and Yellow Ochre, Stone and Dark Stone. The purpose of the stucco was to hide the cheaper brick beneath and to imitate more expensive stone - bare brickwork would never, and should never, be painted as it not only takes away from the character of a house, but can also cause structural damage.
Traditional Terraced House Specialist for Norwich and Norfolk since 1939
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