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Architectural Paint Research



Architectural paint research is a fascinating field; using archival data and the physical evidence of decoration, skilled interpretation can provide an illustrated history of a building.

The requirement to undertake architectural paint research is becoming an increasingly common condition for obtaining project funding and listed building consent because a good understanding of a site is the foundation of a successful conservation project.

Architectural paint research contributes to the development of an informed approach by interpreting the architectural, decorative and social history of the site. It allows different approaches for conservation and restoration to be explored, examining such aspects as replication of paint finishes and issues with paint compatibility.

Hirst Conservation has undertaken a wide range of architectural paint research projects that include public and private historic buildings, parks, cinemas and theatres.

Processes involved

  • Paint research is founded on archival research, which can be used to explore how key events may have influenced the decorative history of the site
  • Paint samples are taken from architectural features, and their location recorded diagrammatically and photographically. The samples are mounted in a clear embedding resin, and examined microscopically
  • Photomicrographs are taken and used in cross-reference with archival material and architectural features to identify the periods at which specific layers occur. Tables of stratigraphy help to illustrate how these layers are interrelated
  • The results of the research are qualified by analysis of pigments of the original paint layer. This is undertaken by micro-chemical testing in conjunction with polarising light microscopy, identifying the paint and media types
  • To gain further information, on site uncovering tests can be undertaken, whereby the upper paint layers and surface coatings are removed to expose windows of the underlying paint scheme/s. Uncovering tests can be used to gain knowledge of the colouration, paint type, and true layout of a given scheme.

Investigation of wall paintings, easel paintings and decorative surfaces:

Where justifiable, it is occasionally necessary to take minute samples of paint from easel or wall paintings for analysis. Equally, this may be performed using larger samples from decorative interiors. Analysis may be carried out for research purposes, to date a painting, to better understand an artist’s technique, to establish the sensitivity of a paint layer or to identify non-original material or coatings, the presence of which may impact upon treatment options.

To determine paint characteristics, pigment and media type, UV fluorescence and polarised light microscopy is employed together with staining, microchemical, solubility and flame tests in order to establish the characteristics and composition of various organic and inorganic materials within the samples.

Some of our projects include:

  • Cardiff Castle – Research into the William Burges interior of Cardiff Castle and the exterior of the clock tower.
  • Royal Society of Arts, London – Investigation of the Adam’s ceilings to the Library, Shipley Room and Reading Room.
  • Cusworth Hall, Doncaster – Investigation into the decorative surfaces of the 18th century country house, Cusworth Hall.
  • Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge – Investigation of 19th century exterior gates and railings
  • Wrest Park, Bedfordshire (English Heritage) – Investigation of the 19th century, exterior metalwork
  • Audley End, Essex – Investigation of the original finishes to the interior and exterior of the service wing