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Patrick Baty’s East End Projects

September 12, 2017
by Patrick Baty

Upon the publication of his definitive work, The Anatomy of Colour, Patrick Baty, acknowledged authority on historical paint, pigments and papers looks back on cherished East End projects

The bandstand at Arnold Circus is painted a handsome Brunswick Green

Although I have probably only worked on a dozen buildings in the whole of the East End, these have been amongst the finest and most interesting of their kind, ranging from the relatively humble to the magnificent. Yet I did have an ancestor, Timothy Bevan, who lived at the junction of what is now Mare St and Paragon Rd, and, when I gave a talk to the Hackney Society, a local historian recognised me from an eighteenth century portrait of my great great-great-great-great grandpa. A memory that still causes the hairs to rise on the back of my neck!

When the Market Café in Fournier St, favourite eating place of Gilbert & George, closed and the premises were converted into a shop I was asked for advice on the colours – both interior and exterior.  Over the years, I had already helped the owners of at least three other houses in the same street, including the Rectory of Christ Church. By definition, these were all variants on a theme with many of the same suggestions being made. Usually, the information is well received, but sometimes it is a losing battle because people often have their own idea of what eighteenth century decoration looks like and, when faced with the early colour palette, prefer the artificial reality of ‘Copper-Kettledom.’

I am delighted to say that ‘Red’ Mason, the project architect on the restoration of Nicholas Hawksmoor’s magnificent Christ Church did more than listen. He asked me to carry out a full analysis of the painted surfaces within the church and then insisted that the original scheme was reinstated. We had to use a good deal of common sense too, as there were technical issues that were not faced by the early painters. However, this aspect is well understood, because so rarely does one use ‘authentic’ materials and I am not a believer in the so-called ‘traditional’ paints used by some enthusiasts.  All too often their main components are products that were unknown before the mid-twentieth century – casting some doubt on the ‘traditional’ appelation.  I am very much a pragmatist, one must understand historical practice, but one must also produce a scheme that can be maintained, is not inordinately expensive, is long-lasting and can be repeated. Health and Safety is also, very much, an issue thee days.

Another Hawksmoor church of the East End that became a project for me was St George in the East.  Admittedly, it is a bit of a cheat to include this, as the interior of the church was destroyed in the Blitz.  However, the north and south gates and their overthrows were thought to be original and I was asked to examine their paint layers. In this case, I was able, from the paint alone, to tell my client that the gates were not original to the construction of the church. Although erected at the same time as each other, it seemed likely that they dated from the end of the eighteenth or beginning of the nineteenth centuries. Old, but not original.

I have never actually had a wishlist, but if I did, the very rare surviving shopfront of 56 Artillery Lane would have been on it. Needless to say, I was thrilled to be invited to undertake the paint analysis of the premises and its neighbour at number 58.  Forty-two decorative schemes were found on number 56, which means that roughly every six years it had been repainted since the 1750s. Pale stone colour was used consistently until the end of the nineteenth century, when graining in imitation of oak had been introduced. After further graining, a number of schemes of a deep red-brown colour were applied – probably from the very early years of the twentieth century until the premises were refurbished in the late sixties. Black was employed once before the dark green that was introduced in the seventies and existed until 2005.  Needless to say, some felt the green was more of a ‘Georgian’ colour than the stone colour that was readopted.  Interestingly enough, another eighteenth century shopfront – this time in Dean St, Soho – was also found to have been painted stone colour originally.  Dark green had been employed initially, however, on the shopfront to number 58, which I was able to show had been installed in the 1820s.  From the 1870s, it seems both shopfronts tended to be painted in tandem.

In spite of having been badly damaged by a fire in 1972, it was useful to examine the interiors of numbers 56 and 58.  It is by looking at a large number of such interiors that one develops a reasonable idea as to how buildings of this period were treated. This information enables me to provide general advice to those clients who do not want to have analysis carried out, but just want steering in the ‘right’ direction.

Number 58 Artillery Lane was very satisfactory from another point of view. My enlightened client managed (courtesy of The Spitalfields Trust) to buy back the panelled room that had been removed from the first floor in the twenties and shipped over to the Art Institute of Chicago.  Analysis was also undertaken on that and the original scheme has been reinstated.

More than anything, it is the variety of jobs that I am asked to tackle that I find most stimulating.  I have never found myself in a rut and my work is certainly not confined to genteel drawing rooms and panelled interiors. To be asked to examine the fire-damaged bandstand at Arnold Circus was a welcome challenge. Having already sampled a few bandstands in public parks across the country, I get great pleasure from working on projects that can be enjoyed by the many.

The Boundary Estate, constructed from 1890, was one of the world’s earliest social housing schemes.  It was built by the London County Council to replace the Friars Mount slum in the Old Nichol between Shoreditch High St and Hackney Road in the north, and Spitalfields to the south. The rubble was used to construct a mound in the middle of Arnold Circus at the centre of the development and the bandstand sits on this. In doing my initial research, I was struck by how much a part it still played in the local community. This bandstand, which was built around 1910, had been badly vandalised but it has now been repainted in its original Brunswick green colour and, once again, sits proudly at the centre of things.

Another community asset that gave me a sense of fulfilment was the analysis of the paint at Assembly Hall of Shoreditch Town Hall. Before I started, I was entirely ignorant of the symbolism of the torch-bearing figure on the façade and the significance behind the motto ‘More Light, More Power’. At the end of the nineteenth century a very ambitious and forward-thinking complex had been constructed in Shoreditch which combined a refuse incinerator, electricity generating station, library, baths and a washhouse.  Rubbish was burnt to drive turbines that generated electricity to light the streets and steam that heated the baths and library. The remains of the burnt refuse were recycled further as aggregate for the concrete used in constructing the extension to the Town Hall. A very neat, modern, solution.

Yet another project that gave me a nice rosy glow and broadened my education was the analysis of the Channelsea Bridge (Northern Outfall Sewer bridge) in Stratford. Greatly ignored for many years, this forms a significant part of the group of historic structures at the Abbey Mills pumping station and reflects the early expansion of the complex to cope with London’s growing population.  The sewer runs from Wick Lane in Hackney to Beckton sewage treatment works.   Most of it was designed by Sir Joseph Bazalgette after an outbreak of cholera in 1853 and the ‘Great Stink’ of 1858. Later, I especially enjoyed walking over the newly-refurbished bridge while completing the Capital Ring.

Perhaps my, oldest and certainly one of my favourite, East End clients has been the Geffrye Museum for whom I have carried out a great deal of work.  Recent projects have included the restoration of one of the almshouses to its 1780s and 1880s appearance and the repainting of the exterior of the Museum based on the results of my paint analysis.

Thus each job feeds the next and snippets of information picked up during the analysis of one will prove useful on another. And it has been my pleasure to condense and include this knowledge in my book The Anatomy of Colour, which is the first account of the use of paint and colour in decoration in this country from 1650 to 1950.

Barber’s Barn, Hackney. Once home of John Okey, a signatory of Charles I’s death warrant, and later of Patrick Baty’s ancestor, Timothy Bevan (1704-1786) who ran the Plough Court Pharmacy.  Its grounds were later cultivated by John Busch, nurseryman to Catherine II of Russia.  The house was demolished in the mid-nineteenth century.

Horses were once led blindfold through this passageway at 5 Fournier St, former The Market Cafe and now the Townhouse

Rectory, Fournier St

Interior of Christ Church

58 Artillery Lane

Geffrye Museum

A room at the Geffrye Almshouses furnished as it might have been in 1780

A room at the Geffrye Almshouses furnished as it might have been in 1880

The Anatomy of Colour, published by Thames & Hudson is available from all good bookshops and (with a small discount) from John Sandoe

8 Responses leave one →
  1. Dean Armond permalink
    September 12, 2017

    Thank you for a superb article and a tip of the hat towards the person who took the photographs!

  2. Barbara Elsmore permalink
    September 12, 2017

    Fascinating thank you. Keep up the good work – it is quietly appreciated and enjoyed by many.

  3. September 12, 2017

    What an amazing occupation working out the colour pallette for historical buildings /structures. I have visited some of these places, most recently the Geffrye Museum. The atmosphere, especially later on in the afternoon when the green was empty, was like I had just popped out of the Tardis into the early C19th. Interesting to think about the work that goes into producing this sense of authenticity.

  4. Jim McDermott permalink
    September 12, 2017

    Mr Baty can come and give my place a lick of paint any time (though it being a former stable I suspect I already know what prevalent colour originally daubed its walls).

  5. Marpleyard permalink
    September 12, 2017

    Such an interesting piece and great photographs. More buildings to visit and see from a new perspective.i shall certainly buy the book. I love Spitalfields Life!

  6. pauline taylor permalink
    September 12, 2017

    An absolutely fascinating read and much food for thought within it. My son has recently been busy painting rooms in our premises in Trinity Street, Colchester; originally built circa 1400, they were given a ‘facelift’ in 1790, so there are layers and layers of paint to be revealed and it is wonderful to try to imagine what they would have looked like in all the different colour schemes. The choice of colour schemes for our refurbishment has given us both much pleasure and I am delighted with how it now looks, just hope the resident ghosts (who we have yet still to meet) will approve !

  7. gkbowood permalink
    September 13, 2017

    I love the story about the uncanny resemblance of you and your ancestor’s picture. I must confess I was disappointed that the noted picture was not shown beside your own (selfie?) in this article!

  8. Joyce permalink
    October 17, 2017

    I can’t thank you enough for your articles.
    I wonder if you even realise the pleasure you give to us all.
    As an English lady, resident in Lexington, Kentucky during the summer, and Montevideo, Uruguay, I’m frequently home sick……. I adore your articles and variance.
    May they long continue.
    Thank you so very much, jk

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