Patrick Baty 'The Paint Detective'

This month's Industry Insiders guest needs little introduction. You may know historical colour consultant and paint expert Patrick Baty from the world-famous Papers and Paints in Chelsea. Founded by Patrick's father, Robert Baty, and now carried on by his son and Patrick's wife, Alex, this family business has become a cornerstone in the field of paint and colour consultancy.

Known in the industry as "The Paint Detective," Patrick has a scientific approach towards paint analysis, and you'd be hard-pressed to find a historical British building that he has not advised on. We speak to Patrick about the process of historical paint consultancy and why it is fundamental to understanding our past.

Miranda - Can you please tell us about when you first discovered your fascination with paint analysis, and where this stemmed from?  


Patrick- I think that it would be more correct to say that I have a fascination with buildings and the people who once lived in them. Paint analysis was the natural follow-on from the requests that I would have in the shop for such things as ‘a good Adam green’, or a ‘Soane yellow’. I set out to find out what colours Robert Adam or Sir John Soane used and then discovered that there was virtually nothing of a serious nature written on the subject. The only way was to examine the buildings that they actually worked on. This meant learning about pigments and the methods & materials of the early housepainter. After a few years’ reading around the subject, I ended up pursuing a research degree focussed entirely on this. The next stage was to learn microscopy and how to examine paint.


M - What are some of the most intriguing discoveries you've made through your paint analysis work, particularly in relation to historic buildings?


P –I have made many discoveries. Perhaps two of the most notable concerned Carlton House, a building owned by the Prince Regent, that was demolished in 1827 and is long gone. However, while investigating a house less than 50 miles west of London, I rediscovered the famous Gothic Dining Room. It had been dismantled and then reinstalled in this other building. The surfaces had been overpainted many times, but the original treatment proved that it was the same room. In another house, on the middle of Dartmoor, I could demonstrate – from an analysis of the paint – that a pair of doors had also been reinstalled from somewhere else.  It became clear that they had originally led from the Blue Velvet Closet to the Prince’s Bedchamber, also in Carlton House. It was just six layers of paint that enabled me to do this.




M - How does the process of paint analysis work? 

PCore samples of painted plaster or wood are taken from all representative elements within a room. These are set in a clear resin block with a unique identifying number along with it. When the resin has cured, the block is sawn in half and the cut face is polished with a series of progressively finer sheets of wet and dry abrasive paper. Once it is perfectly smooth and glass-clear the block can be examined under the microscope and photographed. The individual layers can be seen from the substrate and its overlying first decorative scheme through to the existing scheme. The details of each of these ‘cross sections’ are plotted on a spreadsheet and compared.  These details will include the colour, the constituents and the technique employed e.g. grained, glazed, varnished or gilded.  All of this will help with the rough dating of individual layers as will the type of primer and the actual number of schemes.


When this information is compared with the known history of the building a very accurate summary of the decoration applied can often be produced. On one building in Westminster, I was once able to show how the exterior had looked at 5-yearly intervals from 1710. Using this information one then sets out to recreate the most relevant scheme (not always the first).


M –How has technology evolved to aid in paint analysis, and what role does it play in your investigative process today?


PTechnology developed to assist with the conservation of works of fine art has proved very useful with the understanding of house paint. I mainly use microscopy under Plain and UV light, although very occasionally have resorted to Scanning Electron Microscopy to assist with the identification of an elusive pigment. However, house paint has generally been quite basic, by comparison with fine art, and one tends to see variations on the same theme again and again. The important thing is not so much technology, but an understanding of what one is looking at and a knowledge of the practices of the housepainter. A scientist with a white lab coat will be unable to carry out meaningful paint analysis in the same way that an architectural historian with no knowledge of the science will remain equally in the dark.

M - Your work often involves uncovering the original colour schemes of historic buildings. Can you share any surprising findings or instances where the original colours differed significantly from common perceptions?

P-In spite of the work carried out on the analysis of historic buildings over the last thirty years, the common perceptions are often quite different to reality. Many people think that they understand how houses had been painted in the past, but not many do. Very few architects and interior designers actually read the technical texts, let alone the handful of books or articles written by myself and others.  It is always interesting to ask people how they come by their knowledge of past decorative techniques.

I remember meeting disbelief and initial reluctance to follow my advice, when I told those responsible for the Handel House that it had originally been Lead Colour (grey). Similarly, when I reported to the panel of experts at the V&A, that the Norfolk House Music Room had been bright white in 1756, I had to fight my case and prevent them specifying a ‘tasteful’ putty colour. In a museum context I feel that it is vital to tell the truth, not merely to give the public what they expect to see.


M - Why is it so important to you to preserve and understand historical paintwork?


-It is important to understand historical decoration so that one knows how to present a room. If a notable historic individual had lived in the house and if an attempt is being made to show it as it was when he / she lived there, one needs to reinstate a relevant scheme. Alternatively, if one is about to decorate a room in an important building it can be helpful to understand how it had been treated in the past. Often an earlier scheme can act as a prompt / guide for the redecoration. Of course – if one is not making claims for authenticity and, provided that English Heritage / the Conservation Officer allows – one can decorate a room as one thinks appropriate.


However, bear in mind that if one is dealing with a Grade I or II* Listed structure the statutory authorities have to be convinced that the right thing is being done. Almost invariably, they will insist that proper paint analysis is undertaken.


M - How does your work differ from traditional approaches to conservation and restoration?

p- It doesn’t – or shouldn’t. It uses a combination of science with knowledge to restore historic buildings. One cannot have one without the other. The two skills act hand in glove.

In the past, the restoration of historical buildings was often left to those who were considered to have unimpeachable ‘good taste’. The problem with that is that it was based on matters of opinion rather than matters of fact. Although they may not always care to follow precedent, most people are now aware that there are ways of finding out how a room had once been decorated.


M- How do you balance the preservation of historical accuracy with the practical considerations of modern restoration projects, such as environmental concerns?

P - Whilst historical accuracy is important in terms of colour and finish, it is no longer desirable or even wise to be too much of a purist as far as the paint type. Lead paint is very much a thing of the past, and solvent-based paints are not as widely available as fifteen years ago. Indeed, there are good reasons for finding water-based options. Care should be taken. Water-based ‘soft’ distemper is very much a traditional product, but does not come in a tin, is not easy to apply and is certainly not durable. It is also not always appropriate.

However, beware. The labelling of paints is often confusing. A paint that uses linseed oil as the medium, but with titanium dioxide as the main pigment, cannot be regarded as more appropriate than a frankly modern coating. Titanium does not work with linseed oil in the same way that lead carbonate does. The presence of linseed oil does not automatically make the paint ‘traditional’. All too often manufacturers use buzz words to suggest that their product is more historic or natural than others.  Almost never is this questioned.





M -Looking ahead, what do you envision as the future of paint analysis and its impact on our understanding and preservation of cultural heritage?


P -Paint analysis is one of the most useful methods of learning of a building’s past. The number of times that a room has been painted, and the colours and techniques employed tell us about the people who occupied the house and their aspirations.  One can see if a house was well-maintained, at the height of fashion or scarcely touched. An understanding of the decorative schemes applied is not just about buildings, it’s about people.

Paint analysis also confirms what is an original element, what is early and what is modern – in spite of seeming to be early.


M –Do you have a project in mind that was particularly challenging that you navigated, and if so, how did you do this? 


P –Many projects start off by being straightforward, but then something crops up that complicates things. In the State Drawing Room, at Stowe, I found that the ceiling had been both gilded and silvered, but that the silvered areas had an extra scheme of gilding. Of course, it is quite obvious now, but it took a while to work out that the silvering had tarnished within a year or so of application and those elements were over-gilded to cover the tarnish. In that case, when we restored the ceiling, we used platinum, rather than silver leaf, as that won’t tarnish.




You can order Patrick's book; Nature's Palette: A Colour Reference System From The Natural World here.

Click here to view the Papers and Paints Instagram

Click here to view the Papers and Paints Website  


Would you like to be interviewed as one of our Industry Insiders?

Register your interest below and our content manager will be in touch