higgins, the house painter
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plate detailBibliographic Description

The House Painter is a splendid example of the kind of trade manual which serves as a primary document in the history of technology, manufacturing, culture, and aesthetic styles. It is among a number of works in the Smithsonian Institution Libraries (SIL) available to researchers that is now also accessible to the general public via the Libraries' web site.

The SIL copy is a well-worn, craftsman copy, and is an intriguing artifact in itself. To augment the presentation of the work, this digital edition has included impeccable plates from a similar, more well-preserved copy of the book graciously loaned to the SIL by Mark Adams of New Hampshire. Mr. Adams is a conservator, historian of decorative techniques, and practitioner of decorative varnishing and painting.

The work is listed in National Union Catalogue: Pre-1956 Imprints (vol. 245) as being owned by Columbia University, the New York Public Library, and Yale University. The bibliographic database OCLC lists holdings at the Henry N. Flynt Library (Historic Deerfield Inc., MA), the Strong Museum (Rochester, NY), the Athenaeum of Philadelphia, the National Art Library (Victoria and Albert Museum, London, UK), the National Library of Ireland (Dublin), and the University of Cape Town (South Africa). The RLIN bibliographic database additionally lists the Canadian Center for Architecture (Montréal) as an owner.

The title has been found in American Book Prices Current volumes 89 (1982/83) and 93 (1986/87) and Bookman's Price Index volumes 50, 54, and 57.

The book(s)

William Mullingar Higgins. The House Painter, or, Decorator's Companion: Being a Complete Treatise on the Origin of Colour, the Laws of Harmonious Colouring, the Manufacture of Pigments, Oils, and Varnishes: and the Art of House Painting, Graining, and Marbling: To Which is Added, a History of the Art in All Ages. London: Thomas Kelly ..., 1841. TT305.H63 1841 RB NMAH.

SIL copy:

Cover: Half-leather, with marbled paper over pasteboard
Dimensions: 28cm.

Pagination: iv, [2], 233, [1] p., 31 leaves of plates; ills.
Collation: [A]2 b1 B-Z2 2A-2Z2 3A-3N2 [3O1] ; 31 pls.

    Front cover; verso: Front paste-down
[A1] [i-ii] Title page and verso
[A2] [iii]-iv Preface (2 pp.)
b1r [v] Contents
b1v [vi] Illustrations
B1-3N1r [1]-229 Text, 31 plates interspersed between p.154-175*
3N1v-[3O1r] [230]-233 Index
[3O1v] [234] Publisher's Advertisements
    Back free end-paper; verso
    Back paste-down; verso: Back cover
* Plates are numbered on verso: woods 1?15, marbles 1?15.
Wood no.7 is present in two versions.

Mark Adams's copy:

Cover: Half-morocco (straight-grained), with cloth over boards.
Dimensions: 28cm.

Pagination: iv, [2], 233, [1] p., 30 leaves of plates; ills.
Collation: [A2] b1 B-Z2 2A-2Z2 3A-3N2 [3O1] ; 30 pls.

    Front cover; verso: Front paste-down
    Front free end-papers (2 lvs.)
[A1] [i-ii] Title page and verso
[A2] [iii]-iv Preface (2 pp.)
b1v [vi] Illustrations
b1r [v] Contents
B1-3N1r [1]-229 Text
3N1v-[3O1r] [230]-233 Index
[3O1v] [234] Publisher's Advertisements
--- 1-15, 1-15 30 Plates *
    Back free end-papers (2 lvs)
    Back paste-down; verso: Back cover
* Plates are numbered on versos: woods, 1-15; marbles, 1-15.

The SIL copy of Higgins's House Painter is a fascinating representation of a heavily-used craftsman's manual: it shows extensive annotations, inadvertent splashes of paints and other working materials, various kinds of wear and tear, and home-made repairs.

The annotations consist largely of owner signatures and the sorts of youthful sketches, doodles, and scrawls not uncommon in textbooks and instruction manuals. They will be discussed in the section on Provenance below.

The copy is cased in half-calf dyed black with a narrow decorative roll in blind along the inner edge of each leather piece. The spine cover is simply decorated (6 panels divided by double fillets, with a short title in the second) and has almost completely lost its original gilding. Where the leather itself has been lost at the headcap and front hinge, amateur repairs used a fabric fill-in. The front free end paper is missing, and the cover casing has separated from the text-block along the front inner joint, exposing the glued-paper spine support. The text pages are foxed (from impurities inherent in the paper, but probably heightened by exposure to light, air, and moisture as the book was in use), dirtied, and splotched. The text-block has split in several places, and sections appear to have been re-sewn with an overcast stitch in white thread.

The plates are hand-colored examples of wood-graining and marbling, 15 of each stamped with numbers on the verso, on stiff heavy paper. In the SIL copy each is bound facing the appropriate page of text, in numerical order (except for wood no. 9 which comes between nos. 1 and 2). Most of the graining plates also have a pencilled name of the wood on the verso. Wood plate no.7 exists in two versions in our copy. Numerous plates have tears along the edges and have been inexpertly repaired by glueing scraps of paper over the tears on the versos of the plates - these scraps include several that contain bits of handwriting, as well as a dark rough paper that has also been used to hinge together sections where the text-block is broken. Marble plate no.2 shows extensive paper loss along all margins; the jagged edges have been filled in with Japanese paper by SIL's Book Conservation Laboratory.

The Adams copy is much finer, beginning with the cover which is half-morocco dyed black, with a dark, though now faded, book cloth bearing a moiré pattern covering the boards. This cloth and the straight-grain morocco can both be dated to the 1830s. The spine cover is decorated in gilt (6 panels divided by double fillets; a short title in the second panel; a small, central ornament in all others). The text-block matches that of the SIL copy but is cleaner, whole, and less worn in every respect. As the collation table indicates, the leaf bearing the contents and the list of illustrations has been mistakenly bound in along the fore-edge; although neither recto nor verso of the leaf bears a page number, this mis-positioning is evident from that fact that the signature mark appears at the bottom of the verso of the leaf, as bound. The correct orientation of the leaf can be seen in the SIL copy.

The plates show several differences between the two copies: in the Adams copy they are gathered together at the end of the volume, which seems a less practical arrangement for an instruction manual; the number stamps are different - the stamps in the SIL copy say "No. ##" while those in the Adams copy show only the number itself, and the type face and size are different; and the images of the woods and marbles vary considerably.

The difference in the arrangement of the plates, as well as the existence of two contemporary covers, might suggest that the work was sold in 1841 in the old-fashioned manner: as unbound sheets and plates that the purchaser would have bound to order. Yet the covers bear stylistic similarities, while their differences rest primarily in the materials used (with a minimal addition of spine decoration). These materials - the standard-issue marbled paper and the cloth - as well as the casing technique for attaching the cover indicate that these are publishers' bindings. The availability of two versions of the cover (at two prices) was a common option through the mid 1800s, as can be seen in publishers' advertisements from the period.

The variations between copies of the plates may be nothing more than the inevitable differences arising from individual hand-coloring. Some seem substantive enough to indicate, however, that the plates might have been produced by more than one artist, or that they were drawn from more than one sample of each wood or marble. The variations in the stamping of the plates might, similarly, be the result of their production by different artists.

All of these differences combined might also suggest the possibility of separate issues of the work.


The SIL copy of The House Painter was originally purchased by the Libraries in 1990 as part of a collection of books on varnishes and furniture finishes originally owned by Robert D. Mussey, Jr. Mussey is a noted conservator and specialist on wood finishes from New England.

The volume bears the following indications of previous ownership:

- "Chas Nicholson" is inscribed on the upper margin of the title page.
-The notation "Bought & Sold... Ex..." appears on the same page. "Ex" is used in older, Latin inscriptions meaning "from." The rest of the inscription is not clear.
- "William Nicholson" has been written, banner-style, in block letters under the title on the title page.
- "Mr. William Nicholson. Douglas. Isle of Man" is scripted at the top of the preface page.
- Other names, "John Quayle" [ ] are family names common to the Isle of Man

William Nicholson (ba. 1818) was a house painter, decorator and glazier who lived in the town of Douglas on the British Isle of Man around the time this book was published. Located in the Irish Sea on the Northwest coast of England, the Isle of Man has a rich and unique culture emanating from Celtic and Scandinavian traditions.

The 1861 Douglas Census and baptism registers indicate that he had a son named Charles (b. 1849). Another son of William was John Miller Nicholson (b. January 29th, 1840, d. March 23, 1913). John is considered to be the most accomplished of artists from that region, noted for his talent for meticulously capturing details with pencil. He had a passion for the sea apparently inherited from his mariner grandfather. At a bustling port on the east coast of the Isle of Man in the mid 19th century, there were ample opportunities to view tall sailing ships such as the one depicted on the front paste-down of the House Painter. It is likely that the drawings and artful doodles seen in this book capture the work of a budding young artist in the Nicholson family. Shy and adverse to publicity, John Miller Nicholson exhibited his works from 1873 to 1888 at the Royal Society of Artists and the Royal Institute of Painters, among other locations.

Charles B. Wood, the antiquarian bookseller in Cambridge, Massachusetts, from whom both copies were originally purchased, has no further information on the provenance of the books. Mr. Wood states that at least one copy was "undoubtably" bought in England by him.


100 Years of Heritage: the Work of the Manx Museum and National Trust. Edited by S. Harrison. [Douglas, Isle of Man]: Manx Museum and National Trust, 1986, p. 103-105.

American Book Prices Current. New York: Bancroft-Parkman, Inc., Vols. 89 (for 1983) - 93 (for 1987).

Art of Mann: A Presentation of Selected Works of Manx Art from the Eighteenth Century to the Present Day. Edited by Michael Ingra, Rick Tomlinson, Robin Bigland and Alan Kelly. Surby, Isle of Man: Moods of Mann Limited, 1996. p. 72?76.

Bookman's Price Index. New York: Gale Research, Inc., Vols. 50, 54, and 57.

Coakley, Frances. "John Miller Nicholson 1840-1913." 1999. http://www.ee.surrey.ac.uk/Contrib/manx/people/artists/jnichol.htm (March 2000).

Cresswell, Yvonne [Curator of Social History, Manx National Heritage, Douglas, Islae of Man]. Letter to author. 6 March 2000.

The Dictionary of British Artists 1880-1940. [Suffolk, Eng.]: Antique Collectors' Club, [1986]..

John Millar Nicholson. Douglas, Isle of Man: Victoria Press, 1931.

Keen, John Joseph. The Personal Names of the Isle of Man. London: Oxford University Press, 1937.

Kinvig, R.H. The Isle of Man: A Social, Cultural, and Political History. Rutland, VT: Charles E. Tuttle Co., Inc. Publishers, 1975.

Wood, Charles B. [Bookseller] Note to author. 20 February 2000.

Wood, Christopher. The Dictionary of Victorian Painters. Woodbridge [Eng.]: Antique Collectors' Club, 1979.

Leslie K. Overstreet
Curator of Natural History Rare Books

Gil Taylor
Librarian, Museum Support Center Library
Smithsonian Institution Libraries
September 2000


The authors would like to express their appreciation for the support and advice received from Mark Adams (conservator), Yvonne Cresswell (Curator of Social History, Manx National Heritage), Claire Dekle (Book Conservator, SIL), Stephen Van Dyk (Librarian, Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum Library, SIL), and Cynthia Van Allen Schaffner (author of American Painted Furniture, 1790-1880, New York: Clarkson Potter, 1997.).