Bright Orange Baseboards in 18th-Century Williamsburg?

Uncast baseboard sample photographed upside-down, reflected visible light, 100x. James Geddy House, Colonial Williamsburg, Virginia.

Do my eyes deceive me, or is that really a bright orange paint dating back to the 1770s–90s?

Hi, my name is Sara Lapham, and I am a furniture conservation major in the WUDPAC class of 2013. This summer I am spending two months in Virginia analyzing historic paints for the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation (CWF). It is a wonderfully collaborative experience working under Edward A. Chappell, CWF Roberts Director of Architectural and Archaeological Research; Susan L. Buck, PhD, Conservator and Paint Analyst (WUDPAC class of 1991); and Kirsten Travers, CWF Paint Analyst (WUDPAC class of 2011).

So what exactly do I mean by all of this paint analysis talk? There is an on-going investigation into the paints used in Williamsburg in the 18th century. Using methods of microscopic analysis and color measurement, paint analysts are able to characterize the binding media, identify pigments, and match 200+ year-old paints to modern day commercial colors. With the information gained from these investigations CWF is able to restore many colonial buildings to their historically accurate colors as well as understand how spaces within houses evolved over the years and what changes were made to building façades.

My primary focus for the summer is in helping Kirsten Travers with her investigation of the interior paint history of the James Geddy House (c. 1762). The room that I am studying is a second-floor bedroom that is currently painted pink. The evidence in the 21 samples from this room shows that earliest generations of paint include grays, yellows, blues, greens, reds, orange, and black. As you can see in the photomicrograph below, there are at least 22 generations of finish on the baseboard. This means that the baseboard has been re-painted about every 10 years since the house was built in the 1760s.

Photomicrograph edited and labeled in Adobe Photoshop: sample of baseboard cast in polyester resin. Cross-section view, reflected visible (left) and ultraviolet light (right), 200x. James Geddy House, Colonial Williamsburg, Virginia.

All of this brings us back to my original question. Was the baseboard really painted bright orange back in the mid to late 1700s? Not quite. It was more like Benjamin Moore’s “Rust” color. How do I know this?

Taking a color sample from the James Geddy House. Photo by Kirsten Travers.

As part of the paint analysis process, I take color measurements from small areas (0.3 mm in diameter) of the earliest finish generations using a colorimeter/microscope. I use these measurements to help find commercial paint colors that match the historic paint. By comparing the historic and commercial paint measurements, I can quantify the accuracy of the match and confirm actual paint colors.

Applying this method to this seemingly bright orange paint, I find that it can more accurately be described as a darker reddish orange. Knowing the true colors that James Geddy chose to decorate his house with allows us to understand and appreciate the aesthetic taste of that time in ways that would not be possible without the technology that we have today.

Sara Lapham majored in art history and studio art at the University of Miami. After graduating in 2007, she began her path to a career in art conservation. Sara is the furniture major in the WUDPAC class of 2013. She is about to complete her second-year summer work project in Colonial Williamsburg and is looking forward to starting her third-year internship at the Philadelphia Museum of Art in the Furniture and Woodwork Conservation Laboratory.

Winterthur is celebrating 60 years of graduate programs in art conservation and material culture studies in the current exhibition A Lasting Legacy: Sixty Years of Winterthur Graduate Programs, on view through June 16, 2013.

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