higgins, the house painter
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plate detailIntroduction

The House Painter; or, Decorator's Companion: being a complete treatise...
by William Mullingar Higgins

As a conservator, I did not hesitate to recommend this work for the SIL digital collections. In my work, I have been asked to examine, interpret and treat a variety of painted and varnished surfaces. I have been guided by the historical record, scientific analysis of objects, and experience. The House Painter is a rare work indeed: it is both a written and a physical document. It is a rare period example of both technique and materials. The "plates" which illustrate it are actually painted paper which is grained or marbled by an artist.

So why create a digital version of The House Painter? The answer is in three main parts: the material nature of the document, its rarity, and its current value to the craft. Added to this, we have the ability to compare this truly unique work to other extant copies in the edition. This comparison process begins here with the Smithsonian copy compared to one in a private collection.

First, let us consider the material nature of the book. This book is a time capsule of materials as well as information. A good part of its value is in the nature of the decorative paint samples bound in the volume. Rather than colored plates such as chromolithographs or photo reproductions, this book contains actual grained and marbled samples. As such, it is now a true three-dimensional work. The samples can be viewed as repositories of both technique and materials. In this work, we have both recipe and product in adjacent space, rather than the recipe and a multiply-translated facsimile of the painted surface. We can inspect and appreciate the surface quality and the depth of the effects. Furthermore, these 19th-century examples have not been subject to the rigors of use and the weathering from 150 years of exposure. Because of the nature of bound objects, the book has kept the samples safe from most handling and exposure. So while its relatives have faded and worn (if they have survived at all), we are fortunate to have versions only slightly altered of the elegant effects seen in period homes of the past. More than a repository of information, this book contains material information that does not need to be decoded from text. In fact, the information transcends the words, and its meaning is found without written language. Quite simply, it is made of the materials and processes it describes.

Next, let us address the idea of rarity. Since the book contained the painted samples, it was not likely produced as a large edition. The SIL book is one of only 8 known in the world today. Obviously, the great advantage to digitizing this and other rare works is accessibility. The contents may be viewed by many people, with no damage to the book. While these readers will not experience the book in the fullest sense, they will have access to its contents. Many people can now use and enjoy a book that few even knew existed. Even though it is rendered here in two dimensions, there is now unprecedented access to the author's purpose: to convey color use, paint manufacture, and color appreciation.

The third reason for the choice of this book is tied to the craft. The craft of decorative painting is currently undergoing a revival, and this book can serve as a valuable resource. Higgins describes a decline in skill and taste among decorators of his day. Today, designers, decorators, and consumers are rediscovering the beauty of a glazed, grained, or marbled surfaces. Higgins described the social and psychological benefits to well chosen and executed paint schemes. Today, the benefits in our industrial society are the same, and just as easily achieved. A skillfully rendered surface can be achieved in similar or the same material. The models in The House Painter are an excellent guide for the recreation of period effects, and for creation of inspired contemporary effects.

Finally, I also indicated the importance of comparing this Smithsonian copy to others from the edition. We have included the plates from a copy owned by R.M. Adams of New Hampshire. I feel that the plates (the actual paintings) are part of a much larger sheet, which was cut to fit the page size. Higgins states that the graining and marbling was done by an artist, so we should expect a large sheet since it is more efficient to create.

Further appreciation...

Higgins is writing at a time when the nature and materials of the craft were about to change. The economics of large-scale production of paint were just beginning to take hold. European factories for paint and varnish had been in production for several decades. However, the production was essentially a large-scale version of the village colorman and varnish-maker. In essence, Higgins is describing techniques of manufacture which existed little changed for centuries. However, in the coming decades of the 19th century, enormous change would take place. The introduction of synthetic colors in the 1850s dramatically changed the pallette of the painter, though not necessarily the paint.

Although Higgins speaks in an authoritative voice, it appears he is neither chemist nor colorman. He is listed on the title page as "Architect, Formerly Professor of Mechanical and Experimental Philosophy at Guy's Hospital." This would indicate, in the language of his day, that he was a professor of engineering and physical science. His particular viewpoint, and the perspective of his time, is apparent in several instances. His description of the origin of color in chapters 1 & 2 is not helpful to the painter, despite his admonitions to the contrary. Higgins' affection for the new theories of his time is obvious, and the optical theories are still valid. However, his confusion with the nature of light and the nature of color is with us even today. Higgins describes the cultural uses of color in chapters 3-5, and this is an interesting record of the times.

Higgins does seem to be a critical observer of manufacturing and craft processes, and chapters 7 & 8 are particularly interesting. These cover the subjects of paint and varnish manufacture. This is formulation chemistry, 19th century style. These descriptions are a valuable addition to the historical record: very little in the way of recorded pre-industrial process exists today.

Further investigation...

There is one other area of study that would be quite important in the future: a detailed analysis of the chemistry of the components in the samples. Modern analytical tools could both verify the components, and record them for use in the study of this class of decorative painting. While Higgins said these samples are "the product of the brush...(of )a talented artist," were they really done in the steps described, in the materials listed? Some appear to have been varnished, though none is listed in the steps described. What other ingredients might there be? Were they created as one or more large sheets and cut to fit, as I have suggested? It will be interesting to compare the plates from others in the edition, to see if they were adjacent originally, or suggest a larger pattern. I am hoping that owners of the other copies might participate in a comparison using digitized images.

Further reading...

Several books would be helpful in the study of period's technology and materials:

Ian C. Bristow. Interior House-Painting Colours and Technology. New Haven and London: Yale University Press. 1996.
TT323 .B794 1996X. Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum Library and Museum Support Center Library

Feller et al. Artist's Pigments: A Handbook of Their History and Characteristics. Washington, DC : National Gallery of Art ; Cambridge [Cambridgeshire] : Cambridge University Press, 1986.
ND1510 .A77 1986X. Museum Support Center Library, National Museum of American Art and National Portrait Gallery Library, and National Museum of American History Library

John W. Masury. The American Grainer's Handbook. New York, J. W. Masury & son [c1872]
TT330 .M4X. National Museum of American History Library

Hezekiah Reynolds. Directions for House and Ship Painting 1812 (facsimile reprint American Antiquarian Society, Worcester MA 1978. New introduction by Richard M. Candee; also reprinted in Antiques April 1978, pp 849-853)
TT320 .R463 197. National Museum of American History Library

Nathaniel Whittock. The Decorative Painters' and Glaziers' Guide. London : Published by Isaac Taylor Hinton, 17, Warwick Square, 1827.
NK2175 .W62. Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum Library and Dibner Library of the History of Science and Technology

Mel Wachowiak
Senior Furniture Conservator
Smithsonian Center for Materials Research and Education

September 2000