Best of British
The art of historical paint-making
THE STUDIO OF historic paint and lacquerspecia list P ed rod a Co st aFelgue irash as the air of an apothecary’ s workshop, with glass bottles of bright pigments, jars of brushes and paintstained bowls. He spends his days grinding ancient pigments with a pestle and mortar then mixing up paints, using the same ingredients and following the same processes employed by craftsmen 200 years ago. ‘There’s a life and spirit to these old pigments,’ he says.
Originally from Lisbon, da Costa Felgueiras had always been interested in historical buildings, and when he moved to London in 1990 began visiting antique shops and researching the histories of the treasures he found. ‘I wanted to find out how these things were made so I could bring them back to life,’ he says.
After completing a conservation degree at The Sir John Cass School of Art, Architecture and Design in London, studying paint ‘recipes’ recorded in 17th-century books, he went on to become one of the leading conservators in the UK, with clients including Historic Royal Palaces. ‘It was quite a challenge to decipher the old poetic language and materials but the years I spent with the recipe books were the most valuable of my life,’ he explains.
Unlike modern paints, which tend to be water-based, historic paints are made by mixing pigments with linseed oil. They dry far more slowly but are longerlasting, with more texture and depth. The pigments are often made from exotic substances – certain shades of blue, for example, are created from lapis lazuli.
His own home in Whitechapel, east London, is a prime example of his craft. ‘I decided to use only historical materials where possible, so all the walls are in lime and horsehair plaster,’ he says. A few modern materials crept in, such as cement to underpin the foundations, but the overall effect was so impressive that it led to him being recommended to lead the restoration of Strawberry Hill, art historian Horace Walpole’s Gothic castle in Twickenham, south-west London.
This proje ct took five years and involved recreating the original paint colours, including ecclesiastical purple, a mix of blue verditer, cochineal and chalk. As da Costa Felgueiras puts it, ‘If you are doing an important house you have to use historic materials. Otherwise, it’s been Disneyfied.’
From top Pedro da Costa Felgueiras; to make his paints, he grinds up traditional pigments then mixes them with linseed oil. Interview by Diana Woolf. Photographs by Leo Goddard