[Interview] Patrick Baty: Paint Detective

Posted on: September 19th, 2012 by David Garber 1 Comment

Patrick Baty is the world's preeminent architectural paint historian and consultant. Based in London, England -- where he runs a second-generation family shop called Papers and Paints -- Baty has consulted on a wide range of archaeological and restoration projects in both the United Kingdom and the United States. We spoke with him to hear more about historic paint colors and their significance.

Why are historic paint colors important?

Paint colors of the past are not important in themselves -- however, when one is faced with the decoration of an historic building a knowledge of what was used is important. Color was frequently used for a particular purpose. There was a strict hierarchy. The purpose of the room and the status of the owner would often be indicated by the paint color that was applied. Much of my work is carried out in buildings that were once lived in by historic figures and are now open to the public.


The interior of the George Frideric Handel house in London.

If one is going to show a house as it was when Benjamin Franklin or Handel, the composer, for example, lived in it, there is a requirement to show how it was decorated at that time. When an historic interior is painted in colors that have a precedent, it begins to make sense and reads well.

Describe a day in the life of a historic paint color consultant.

My days vary -- most of the week has been spent carrying out microscopy, writing reports and answering emails. Yesterday I was climbing a scaffolding on a large 1840s house in St James's Square. Having carried out the analysis of the external paint and supervised the color trials I was asked to check on the preparation of the surfaces. Were they clean enough? Was the right filler being used? And did the contractor seem to know what he was doing?

Today, I was at Hampton Court Palace, where I had to give a presentation to officials from English Heritage explaining how one of the 18th century staircases was to be decorated. Although I hadn't carried out the analysis I was asked to work from a report produced by someone else and to develop a decorative scheme based on it. Work on historic buildings is carefully supervised in the UK and permission must be given before it takes place -- so I frequently have to write a rationale before redecoration is allowed.

What are some of the most fascinating projects you've worked on?

The range of projects that I have carried out is wide, and they each have their fascinations. However, three memorable ones are:


A cross-section of paints applied to the Royal Albert Bridge.

  • Royal Albert Bridge -- This is a major landmark, designed by the famous Victorian engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel. It required me climbing the 172-foot structure in the middle of the night, when the trains were not using the bridge, and taking samples on the end of a rope. The 1850s photographs, which showed it being constructed, were very helpful in my interpretation of the paint evidence.
  • Hampton Court Palace -- One of my most interesting projects here was the recreation of a Tudor garden. My task was to identify the heraldic 'beasts' that King Henry VIII used to indicate his Royal lineage, to establish which colors were applied on which elements and to prepare a technical specification for the painters.

The most high-profile?

It's difficult to say which has been my most high-profile project. I have worked in some very well known buildings. However, I suppose the one that is most recognizable around the world would be Tower Bridge, which in many ways is the symbol of London. Once again a head for heights was required as I had to take samples from all elements of the bridge, which is 213 feet high.


The Tower Bridge.

The documentary research took even longer than the microscopic analysis. The responsibility of getting everything absolutely right on such a high-profile project is immense. You can just imagine that someone somewhere knows quite a lot about the bridge and would be very eager to point out any mistakes, so one's argument has to be water-tight.

Do you have any apprentices training under you?

Over the years I have had a few interns working with me. Several have come from the United States -- including one of the rising stars -- but I have also had a very good intern from Sweden. It is a very demanding pursuit, and I find that few are able to deal with all aspects: being comfortable at heights, able to work in archives and libraries and prepared to spend hours at the microscope, willing to give presentations and lectures -- sometimes to large or very important audiences, and also to have a genuine passion in the subject.

What would you recommend as an introduction to the field of historic paint colors?

An accessible book that introduces the subject of historic paint colors has yet to be written. Dr. Ian Bristow, who has done so much to develop the field in the UK, wrote two magnificent volumes in the 1990s, but they are very dense works and one is now out of print. I began to learn about the subject by studying early house-painting manuals and by reading up about pigments and painting materials in order to find out what was available at a particular time.

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One Response

  1. Madeline Douglass

    September 20, 2012

    This is a good book on the subject.

    http://www.amazon.com/Paint-America-Colors-Historic-Buildings/dp/0471144118