Regency Colormen

It is certainly true that Regency gentlemen, particularly dandies, prefered brightly-colored clothing. But they are not the "colormen" who are to be the subject of this article. Rather, I will discuss the true Regency colormen, those who made and sold the paints used by the artists of the time, both professional and amateur. Without these expert, professional colormen, the painted and printed images of the Regency which remain to us would be very dull indeed.

The colorful chronicle of the Regency colormen …

Before we proceed, it is important to make a clear distinction between the various types of colormen, or, more correctly, "colourmen," abroad in the world. Those color men and women who spout sports trivia and history to fill in the boring bits during broadcast sporting events will most definitely not be considered here. But there were two other colourmen known in the Regency, one connected with bribery and corruption in voting, the other with the direction of troops in training and encampment. The first group of colormen were involved with the buying of votes in the elections in the city of Canterbury, where it was common for the candidate’s supporters to give out coloured tickets to voters who promised to support the candidate. Those who received these tickets were known as colourmen, and after the election, when they presented their coloured tickets, they would receive a cash payment of approximately five shillings per day for the number of days the election had run. This practice continued openly until about 1820, when it became more covert, and was eventually stamped out after an investigation into political corruption in Canterbury in the mid-1850s. The second group of colormen were known more correctly as "camp colour-men." Each company of soldiers had a camp colour-man, usually drawn by lot. The colour-men were the soldiers who assisted in laying out the lines of encampment, placing the colors for their company so they could locate the area assigned to them. Camp colour-men also had the responsibility of carrying the company colors to the exercise field and ensuring they were placed in the proper position to guide their company in forming up during marching and maneuvers. Many camp colour-men also served as messengers for the commander of their company, when needed. Now that we have dispensed with those colormen who will not be discussed, let us proceed to those who will.

Up to the seventeenth century, painting was considered more craft than art, since the rather small number of artists then working had to acquire and grind their own pigments to make their paints as well as make all their other art supplies, including palettes and easels. A few of the more affluent could hire someone to do it for them, or, in larger studios, the responsibility fell to one of the younger students or apprentices. At that time, the materials from which pigments were made would have been purchased at a local apothecary shop. The selection, grinding and blending of color pigments was a complex process, requiring a great deal of skill and an understanding of both color and chemistry. Some studio apprentices produced paints of indifferent quality and color at best, they were just marking time until they could move up to be painters. But there was a small group who applied themselves to their craft and produced high-quality paints. By the mid-seventeenth century, art, particularly painting, had ceased to be the sole province of the Church, and many wealthy patrons were collecting art all across Europe. Greater interest in art provided more opportunities and support for more professional artists. But, it also meant the decline of the large studios and the apprenticeship system. And, by the second half of the seventeenth century, painting was perceived as more an art than a craft, so that many wealthy amateurs were also taking up painting. As the number of artists grew, with their growing demands for high-quality paints they did not have the time or inclination to produce themselves, a market developed for ready-made paints of a dependably high quality and consistent colors. At first, some of those who had ground pigments and blended colors in artist’s ateliers found they were very good at it, and that they did not have the talent or dedication to become a painter. These men set themselves up as purveyors of ready-made artists’ colors, and thus was born the trade of artists’ colorman.

The first colormen purchased their pigment materials in modest quantities from their local apothecary, just as had been done by the great art studios. They ground each pigment to a fine powder by hand on a stone slab using a muller. The stone slab or grinding stone might be flat, or slightly concave to contain the pigment, which was ground using a lubricant, usually water. The muller was also made of stone, and might have a half-egg shape, though some were more bell-shaped, each with a smoothly ground flat bottom. The flat side of the muller was used against the slab to grind the pigment to a fine paste in the lubricant. Water was used as a grinding lubricant if a powdered pigment was wanted, the resulting paste left to dry to a fine powder. However, if an oil-based paint was wanted, oil was often used as the lubricant for the grinding process. By the eighteenth century, the artists’ colorman was an established trade in most European cities. There were a number of colormen open for business in London, and still more who plied their trade in most of the other cities throughout the British Isles. But also during the eighteenth century, the trade of color-making forked. Initially, the colormen purchased the raw materials which they ground into pigments and then blended those finely ground pigments into the oils and other media which became the paints artists used. But by the mid-eighteenth century, there were colour-makers, who bought the raw materials in large quantities and ground the pigments, which was a back-breaking, dirty job, and there were the colourmen, who purchased the ground pigments from the color-makers and then blended them into the appropriate media to make paint for artists. The color-makers supplied pigments to house-painters and theatrical scene painters as well as colormen, but they ground those very large volumes of pigments with a horse-powered grinding wheel, while the pigments destined for the colormen were ground in a hand-mill to ensure the pigments were ground as fine as possible. The more finely ground the pigments, the better the quality of the resultant paint.    Author’s Note:   An example of a mid-eighteenth-century horse-powered pigment grinder can be seen to the right in the image at the top of the trade card of Joseph Emerton, a London colourman, which is in the collection of the British Museum. Those of you who have seen the first of the Pirates of the Caribbean movies have seen a similar mill, though powered by a donkey instead of a horse, with which Captain Jack Sparrow breaks the chain of his shackles.

In 1747, Robert Campbell published The London Tradesman, in which he provides information on the working conditions, wages, and future employment prospects of various trades in London. Campbell intended his book as a guide for young men and their parents, to help them decide in which trade they should choose to be apprenticed. In Chapter XIX, Of the Colour-Man, Campbell outlines the various tasks of the mid-eighteenth-century colorman. At that point, colormen were still grinding their pigments themselves, so the trade was not as refined as it would become by the end of the century. He stresses that it is important for any colorman’s apprentice to have a good eye for color and a sound understanding of the properties of the materials with which he will work. By this time, artists’ colormen’s shops often sold many other artists’ supplies, and Campbell lists pencils, brushes, and primed canvases as some of the art supplies available. According to Campbell, "No Man is fit to keep a Colour-Shop who has not served an Apprenticeship … " but he also notes that most colormen need only one or two apprentices, so there were not many opportunities in the trade. In fact, there were quite a number of color shops which were family enterprises, passed down from father to son, or occassionally, daughter, who did not take in any apprentices. And, without some financing to acquire initial stock, it was very difficult for a young man to set himself up as a colorman. But if he could get the financing he needed, a young colorman had very good prospects for making a steady, substantial living from his color shop. However, Campbell also notes that those colormen’s apprentices who do not apply themselves often end up as house-painters. Campbell has a particularly low opinion of house-painters. About them he wrote:

The Journeymen of this Branch [house-painters] are the dirtiest, laziest, and most debauched Set of Fellows that are of any Trade in and about London:   Therefore I think no Parent ought to be so mad as to bind his Child Apprentice for seven Years, to a Branch that may be learned almost in as many Hours, in which he cannot earn a Subsistence when he had got it, runs the Risk of breaking his Neck every Day, and in the end turns out a mere Blackguard.

For most of their first century, colormen made only oil paints. By the second half of the eighteenth century, and right through the Regency, colormen purchased ground pigments from the color-makers, then blended those pigments with various oil media, also known as binders, to make oil paints. But they did not blend those pigments with just any oil binder or they would not have remained in business for long. The majority of paint was blended with linseed oil, which was known as a drying oil, meaning that as it dried, it polymerized, essentially forming a bond with the pigment particles suspended in it, becoming a solid film of color which firmly adhered to the surface to which it had been applied. For most painting purposes, artists preferred linseed oil, because it was a fairly slow drying oil, giving them plenty of time to work with it on their canvas before it solidified. Perhaps nearly as important, it was affordable, even in large quantities. But linseed oil was not favored for light colors, particularly those to be used when painting flesh tones, as it was yellow in color and any paint made from it would yellow somewhat over time. This yellowing was almost undiscernible with dark colors, but quite obvious with light colors. Most artists at this time preferred the paints they would use to mix pale colors, especially flesh tones, to be blended with the much more expensive, but less yellowing walnut oil. It was faster drying and also much slower to polymerize, which meant any paint made with it would have to be worked quickly. Reds, like crimson lake, which were used to tint flesh tones, were blended with walnut oil when intended for that purpose. White lead was also blended with walnut oil, and was the preferred choice for use in blending flesh tones as it slowed drying time and helped to increase the polymerization of the walnut oil binder. Most colormen had standard formulas for their paints, but many were also willing to custom-blend paints for professional, or even amateur, artists who were good customers. Some artists might prefer a slightly thinner paint for a smooth brush flow and a transparent effect, while others might prefer a thicker paint, especially if they worked in an impasto style, building up very thick layers of paint on their canvas. For custom-blended paints, colormen might even re-grind the pigments they had purchased in order to reduce them to even finer particles, typically for the thinner consistency paints they blended. Many colormen kept a hand-cranked color mill, or even a slab and muller, on their premises for just such purposes. They would also blend these pigment powders into any oil or other medium the customer specified. Of course, all of this extra effort resulted in much more expensive paints, but there were those who were willing to pay the price in order to have paints which met their exact requirements.

Regardless of the formula used for the oil paints they blended, colormen packaged all oil paints for sale in the same way they had for centuries. A small amount of a single color of paint, usually about an ounce, was tied up at the top, very tightly, in a small piece of cleaned and prepared pig bladder. The finished paint packages have been described as being " … of about the bigness of walnuts … ." This packaging material was not completely air-tight and thus would not serve on its own for long-term storage. Most artists bought their colors in the amounts they estimated they would need for only a week or two, to avoid the loss of their paint investment to drying. However, a number of artists stored their paint bladders in air-tight containers to increase the life of their paints. Some even stored them immersed in water in stone or earthenware containers to keep them moist and away from the air. To release the paint from the paint bladder, the artist would pierce it with a pin or a tack and squeeze the needed amount onto their palette. The paint bladder would be closed by plugging the hole with a tack or, in some cases, a specially made bone or ivory plug. Though these paint bladders had a tendency to burst when they were subjected to too much pressure, or when they were pricked to release the paint they contained, at the time, they were the only paint containers available and were in use by artists right through the Regency. A man named James Harrington did submit a design to the Royal Society of Arts in 1822 for a metal syringe style paint container. Though his design generated much discussion, it was never put into production. The artists’ colormen firm of Winsor & Newton, founded in 1832, introduced a glass syringe container for oil paints in 1840. But the following year, with the invention the collapsible metal paint tube, Mr. Winsor soon introduced a paint tube of his own design, which quickly became popular with both professional and amateur artists.

Colormen did not being making ready-made watercolors in England until the later decades of the eighteenth century, nearly a century after they had begun to produce oil paints. Prior to that time, watercolor was not acknowledged as a unique or separate painting medium. Rather, most professional artists used it for quick sketches and initial color studies, before they rendered their subjects properly, in oil paints. Most artists were still buying pigments from the local apothecary shop, grinding and blending them with binders to make their own watercolors. But by the second half of the eighteenth century, drawing was becoming a fashionable passtime for amateur artists, and they found watercolor the perfect medium to add a little color to their drawings. But this growing group of amateurs did not have the inclination or the skill to make their own watercolor paints. Once again, the artistis’ colormen stepped in to meet the need, and, eventually, developed an iconic British export industry which survived well into the twentieth century. Watercolors were first made in London, in the late 1760s. Middleton is believed to be the first colorman to prepare and offer ready-made watercolors for sale, followed soon thereafter by Norman and Reeves. Initially, the pigments were finely ground in water, dried and blended into gum arabic, the preferred water-soluable binder. While still in a paste-like consistency, they were pressed into cleaned half shells, probably the shells of clam and mussel, and allowed to dry, producing hard, irregularly shaped lumps of color. For the next decade or so, these very hard clumps of watercolor on the half-shell would be sold by colormen across the country. Before using these watercolors, the artist would have to grate or chip the color from the hard mass and mix it with water, waiting until it softened and dissolved before it was ready for use. Though this was somewhat more convenient than having to grind and blend the paints from scratch, there was much room for improvment, and two of those major improvements were to come before the next decade ended.

William Reeves, who had originally trained as a wire-drawer, was an employee of Middleton’s, probably the most well-known colorman in London in the later decades of the eighteenth century. Middleton’s specialized in supplying paint for theatrical scene painters. Reeves was aware of how tedious the shell-shaped watercolor lumps were to use, particularly for amateur painters. Based on his understanding of the extrusion of wire, he employed the same technique with the blended watercolor pigment/binder paste. The paste was put through a die which forced it into a long strip, each strip being quickly cut up into neat little square cakes, then allowed to dry. Reeves left Middleton’s and founded his own artists’ colormen firm in 1766, opening his first color shop in Well Lane, near St. Paul’s Cathedral, in the area known as Little Britain. His older brother, Thomas, became a partner in the thriving firm in 1768. Thomas Reeves, a metal-worker who was a member of the Gold and Silversmith’s Company, made metal molds which were used to emboss the firm’s trademark on each finished watercolor cake. After the cakes were completely dry, they were wrapped for a time in a damp cloth, which softened the outer surface, and were then pressed into the mold, thereby assuming the shape of the Reeves trademark on one side. These neatly-shaped, square, embossed watercolor cakes were still very hard, but their uniform size made them much easier to use. The Reeves brothers sold their watercolor cakes individually, but they also had special wooden boxes made into which a selection of watercolor cakes was fitted. These watercolor "sets" soon became popular, particularly with amateur watercolorists. But about 1778, William Reeves made another, even more important improvement in the ready-made watercolor cakes he sold. After much experimentation and trial and error, he discovered that blending honey into the ground pigment and gum arabic paste resulted in watercolor cakes which would remain semi-moist while retaining their shape. These semi-moist cakes were significantly easier to use and the honey humectant was water-soluble, so it did not interfere with the performance of the paints. Reeves timing was impeccable, as by the 1780s, though watercolor was still not acknowledged by the Royal Academy of Arts, or most professional artists, as an important medium, its popularity with amateur artists was rapidly expanding. And these amateur artists were delighted with Reeves’ semi-moist watercolor cakes which were so easy to use. Despite the position of the Royal Academy on the standing of watercolor painting, the Royal Society of Arts did award their great silver palette to William and Thomas Reeves for their improvement in watercolors in 1781. The Reeves firm also elaborated on the boxes in which they sold their watercolor sets, adding space for brushes and pencils, a small stoppered glass bottle to hold water and a white ceramic palette on which to blend colors. Almost immediately, they had a lively and ongoing export market for these color boxes, supplying them, through the East India Company, to the many officers who were on survey duty on the Subcontinent and other far-flung areas of the growing British empire. In the first decades of the nineteenth century, these same color boxes would be favored by those officers on survey duty in Portugal and Spain during the Peninsular War.

More and more London colormen adopted the Reeves’ method of watercolor production, as the demand for these semi-moist watercolor cakes continued to increase well into the nineteenth century. One of these, the firm founded by Richard and Thomas Rowney, in 1783, began as a shop selling perfumes and wig powder. Within a few years, their business faltered and nearly failed when the Prince of Wales stopped wearing wigs and powdering his hair, and soon thereafter, Parliament levied a tax on wig powder, the combination effectively destroying the wig powder market. The Rowney brothers first tried pencil-making, but soon realized that the production and sale of artists’ colors was much more lucrative. Both the Reeves and the Rowneys still had thriving color shops open in London during the Regency. And, they, like many other colormen, continued to find ways to improve the paints they made and sold. The nascent science of chemistry was attracting many gentlemen chemists by the end of the eighteenth century, as well as some of the more enlightened colormen. Their many experiments, which continued right through the Regency, resulted in the discovery of a number of new colors, which could be applied to both oil paints and watercolors. However, most traditional oil painters preferred to use the standard palette of colors they had always used, the colors they believed had been used by the Old Masters. Therefore, the new colors were most often employed in the making of watercolors meant to attract the attention of amateur watercolorists when they visited the colormen’s shops to replenish their color boxes. In addition to stocking new colors, many of the colormen who made watercolors implemented subtle improvements of their own into their watercolor offerings, which were then adopted by other colormen, until British-made watercolors were acknowledged to be the best in the world, and were exported throughout Europe and North America, as well as India. The French, in particular, preferred English watercolors above all others. This was to become yet another inconvenience to them when the British blockade of French ports during the Napoleonic Wars cut off their supply.

By the mid-eighteenth century, most of the larger artists’ colormen’s shops offered other artists’ supplies in addition to paints. These larger color shops stocked a wide selection of brushes, drawing pencils, charcoal, pastels, color boxes, palettes, easels, drawing and watercolor paper, as well as primed and stretched canvases in a range of sizes. Many colormen also offered linseed, walnut and other oil binders, gum arabic and tempera, as well as turpentine and other solvents. Since the oils and solvents were flammable, these goods were responsible for the higher premiums which insurance companies charged the colormen. Chemists and chandlers, among others, were also charged higher insurance premiums on their commercial premises because of the flammable and/or volatile nature of some of their stores, so colormen were not singled out for higher premiums. Another range of items stocked by colormen which increased in popularity as the eighteenth century progressed were books on oil painting, and later also on drawing and watercolor. Initially, most colormen just had a printer print up one or two books written decades earlier which were no longer under copyright and sold them in their color shops. It did not take most colormen long to realize these instruction books helped to move their merchandise. By the Regency, many colormen wrote their own instructions books or hired competent artists in a given style or medium to write books for them. These books would always include lists of the colors and other supplies available at the colorman’s shop which were appropriate for use in the artistic medium addressed by the book. Some colormen even offered art instruction, or contracted with a local artist to offer art classes for their customers.

Perhaps the most well-known colorman of all, selling watercolors, instruction books and artists’ supplies in London and across Britain, is someone who is very familiar to most Regency aficionados. But most people today know him primarily for his publications, most importantly for his periodical, The Repository of Arts, Literature, Commerce, Manufactures, Fashions and Politics, known more commonly as Ackermann’s Repository. An immigrant to London from Germany, by way of Paris, Rudolph Ackermann began his career in the city as a coach-maker and designer. By the 1790s, he had acquired the premises at No. 101, The Strand, which he would occupy right through the Regency. Shortly thereafter, he was using the great room on the second floor as an art school, with himself as drawing master. He published his first art instruction book, Six Lessons for Beginners in the Fine Art, in 1796. Or perhaps one should say booklet, since it was only ten pages, but it was very popular and sold well. It was written for amateur artists who had taken up the now polite recreation of drawing. But it was not long before Ackermann perceived the growing popularity of watercolor painting, and records show he published at least twenty-five art instruction books for that medium by 1802. In addition, he opened a circulating library in his great Repository building where patrons could borrow prints and drawings of well-known and talented artists which they could take home to study and copy. In 1799, Ackermann first began making and selling his own line of watercolors, for which he had a ready market in his art students. He was also one of those colormen who was fascinated with chemistry and within only a couple of years he had added four new colors to his watercolor line. By 1803, Ackermann offered more watercolor colors than any of his competitors, having sixty-nine watercolors on his list that year. And, he went Reeves one better by having moulds made for his color cakes which had the color’s name on one side and Ackermann’s name and direction on the other. He also offered specialty paint-boxes made of mahogany, yew or satinwood which had a decorative medallion in the center of the top and were fitted up inside with small porcelain saucers, a stoppered water glass and a compact marble slab, in addition to trays for pencils, brushes and the watercolor cakes. Not one to ignore an advertising opportunity, each box had one of Ackermann’s elegant and ornate trade cards affixed to the center of the lid inside the box. He also worked on improving the paper used by watercolorists, and even developed a smooth sturdy card stock which could be used in place of ivory for miniature paintings, which were always done in watercolor. But Ackermann did not restrict the sales of his watercolors, paint-boxes, instruction books and paper to his shop in the Strand. By 1810, he had negotiated with the majority of the booksellers, print-sellers and stationers across the country to stock his art supplies. Ackermann always worked hard to promote watercolor as a legitimate and unique art medium, setting up a gallery to sell the work of the best watercolorists of the time. He also supported the Watercolour Society, which was established in London, in 1804, by some of the most talented watercolor painters in Britain. He included a print of the 1808 exhibition of the Watercolour Society in his Microcosm of London and always included notices of the exhibitions of the Watercolour Society in the issues of his Repository throughout the run of its publication.

The windows of a Regency color shop would have been very tempting to most passers-by, just as art supply shops are to many people today. Many upscale colormen would have had a selection of clear glass bottles in various shapes and sizes in their window displays, filled with colored liquids as representations of the colors they stocked within. And placed among these glowing glass gems of color would be examples of their wares, including an open paint-box or two, watercolor cakes, brushes, palettes, sets of pastels or drawing charcoal, blank sheets of ivory in different sizes and shapes, pencils and rubbers (erasers), as well as a selection of the art instruction books on offer. Inside, there would be glass display cases filled with their full range of wares, including brushes, charcoals and pastels, pencils and rubbers, not to mention their complete line of watercolor cakes. Shelves behind the counter might display the different types of paint and color boxes they sold. Some color shops had a muller and slab set up in their sales area, to provide a sense of tradition and historical ambiance which was intended to inspire confidence in their wares, particularly their colors, suggesting they had been hand-ground. However, oil paints in their bladders were not usually displayed in the sales area, for besides being rather unattractive, they would have quickly dried out in such conditions. Instead, most color shops would provide a color chart on which patches of all the oil colors they offered had been painted, while keeping the paint bladders themselves inside air-tight containers. Some shops provided multiple color charts, for both their oils and their watercolors, for the perusal of their customers. Along the walls and among the display cases would be found the larger art supplies, such as palettes and easels, stretched and primed canvases, and racks of drawing and watercolor papers. Most color shops did not display the oils and solvents they carried, customers requiring those items would have to request them. However, if the colorman blended his paints in a workroom on the same premises as his shop, the customers might catch an occasional whiff of the oils and solvents used. The smaller, less fashionable color shops did not have such large sales rooms or elaborate displays, and very often catered to professional, rather than amateur, artists, who knew exactly what they needed and had no need to browse in the shop.

During the Regency, as there had been for decades before, there was a social hierarchy to the production, sale and use of color. Most color-makers, those who ground the pigments, and perhaps made house and theatrical paint, were usually on the lowest rung of the social scale, as their work was hard and dirty, requiring more muscle than brain. However, there were a handful of color-makers during the Regency who were of a scientific bent and were constantly experimenting to improve existing colors and to find new ones. Such men often had professional relationships, and even friendships, with like-minded colormen and some of the more dedicated gentleman-chemists. Colormen were above most color-makers on the social scale, but they still were in trade and worked with their hands. Like the science-minded color-makers, they, too, might also have strong professional relationships or friendships with gentlemen-chemists interested in color. Color-makers, colormen and the gentlemen who took an interest in the chemistry of color might very well meet regularly to discuss their mutual pursuits. They might even share a meal at a coffee-house or tavern from time to time. But neither colorman nor color-maker would ever be invited to dine at those same gentlemen’s homes, or to any social event in which they might meet the man’s family and aristocratic friends. A truly dedicated gentleman-chemist might invite a colorman or color-maker to his home, perhaps to see or discuss an experiment with color in the gentleman’s private laboratory, or to review the results of such experiments in his library or book room. But at no time would they be introduced to any member of the gentleman’s family, most certainly not the ladies. And there were those who were very high in the instep among the ton who would have looked askance at the gentleman-chemist himself, feeling that such practical and utilitarian interest was not seemly or socially acceptable.

The social stigma that could be attached to the use of color was also quite curious. Most professional painters hovered on the edge of high society. The more talented and fashionable were accepted into society by all but the most snobbish, and were invited to many beau monde events and entertainments. But the more work-a-day portraitist or landscape painter would not have been so welcomed, and might only see the inside of an aristocrat’s home if they went there to paint a portrait, or if they went to a country home to paint landscape views of the house and the park. However, all of these artists, at all levels, usually had a very strong, friendly relationship with their colorman, though few of them would have had him home to dinner. Perhaps the strongest social stigma at the time was towards ladies who painted with oil paints. Oil painting was considered a male province, and those few women who did paint in oils had a very hard time of it. Oil painting was the most physically demanding form of painting at the time, as oil paintings were often large, and therefore heavy, as was the equipment needed to work with them, including palettes and easels. Even brushes used in oil painting were larger than those used in other forms of painting. And perhaps worst of all, oil painting was usually quite messy and smelly due to the paint formulas and solvents used. Ladies of the ton who painted in oils would have taken great pains to hide that fact, since they would have been thought mannish and lacking in delicacy. Watercolor or drawing were the approved art forms for ladies, and both could be practiced openly, often gaining the lady praise if she were talented and skilled, or polite compliments if she was at least competent. Watercolor supplies and equipment were much smaller and often more attractive than those available for oils, and watercolor was certainly less smelly or messy than oil painting. Because there were so many amateur watercolorists in the ranks of good society, there were a number of colormen, besides Ackermann, who sold only watercolor cakes and watercolor supplies in their attractively appointed color shops. Such shops did a good business and were very lucrative for the colormen who owned them. But these colormen did not often have relationships with professional artists, who would be less likely to patronize their shops. Many professional artists also looked down on these shops for another reason. Professional artists tended to use a limited palette, usually no more than fifteen to twenty colors, from which they would mix any additional colors or shades they needed for a painting. This limited palette had the effect of unifying the overall perception of the color of a painting, which, in most cases, strengthened the power of the finished work. Amateurs, particularly those who had not made a study of color, did not know how to mix any additional colors they might need from a limited palette, and thus usually bought many more watercolor cakes than a professional artist might buy bladders of oil paint. That was one of the reasons Ackermann offered sixty-nine different colors in his line of watercolors. The more affluent amateurs would buy most or all of those colors, even though, if they had truly understood color, they would have needed less that a third of them. One artist, Julius Caesar Ibbetson, who published his own art instruction book in the 1820s, wrote:

In my system I use very few colours; and I am convinced the simplicity of it is its greatest value or recommendation. …   Not but that I have tried everything I could possibly procure; but it was only to discover what numberless trumpery colours there are, totally useless, unless to make a figure in the windows and bills of colourmen.

Three of the most successful of the London colormen of the Regency have survived in business to this day, one only just. William and Thomas Reeves business went through a few iterations before merging with another firm. But the brand name of Reeves can still be found on a wide range of both oil and watercolor paints today. The firm founded in 1783, by Richard and Thomas Rowney provided paints and other art supplies to both John Constable and J. M. W. Turner, who was a family friend. The Rowney Company continued on its own for two hundred years, until 1983, when they were purchased by the Daler Company. The name survives today as Daler-Rowney on a wide range of oil and watercolors, as well as more modern paint formulations. The descendants of Rudolph Ackermann continued his business as an fine art dealer, and it was only this month that Arthur Ackermann, Ltd. closed its gallery in Belgravia and has put the business into "hibernation" for the next few years. We can only hope that after 228 years, the name of Ackermann will not fade completely from the London art scene.

Now that you have had a peek inside the world of the Regency colormen, dear Regency authors, might you consider inviting that world to make an appearance in an upcoming novel? Perhaps the hero is gentleman dedicated to the study of the chemistry of color, but goes under-cover as a colorman to avoid capture for a crime he did not commit, or to track a foreign spy. The hero might meet a friend, or the heroine, on his way to Reeves to replenish his old army survey color-box with the intention of surveying the estate he has recently inherited or intends to purchase. Perhaps the heroine is on an errand in which she will encounter the hero, but rather than have her go to the lending library, she might instead call in to Ackermann’s Repository in the Strand to collect a new print for use in her art studies, or to pick up some new pencils or fresh watercolor cakes. Might the hero come upon the heroine buying oil paint in a quiet, out of the way color shop? How would she explain that, particularly if she were buying them for herself? Or, perhaps her furtive demeanor as he sees her leave the color shop causes him to suspect her of something much more nefarious? A down-on-her-luck young lady might support herself providing drawing and watercolor lessons on contract to a colorman. She might also write the art instruction books he sells in his color shop. Imagine what mischief a naughty boy might get up to in a large color shop, after slipping away from his older sister or governess. The hero to the rescue! I know very few people who do not enjoy browsing the aisles of an art store today, and no doubt there were many Regency shoppers who also enjoyed a visit to their favorite color shop. Please think about sharing some of those moments with your characters and your readers, dear authors.

About Kathryn Kane

Historian with a particular interest the English Regency era.   An avid reader of novels set in that time, holding strong opinions on the historical accuracy to be found in said novels.
This entry was posted in Hobbies & Crafts and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

10 Responses to Regency Colormen

  1. That was fascinating! I confess to being more familiar with the pigment making of the Renaissance – my up and coming book does feature an artist and his apprentice after all – but many things here concerning the making and storing of oil paints were very familiar. I believe however by the regency more blues were available; in the Renaissance, if one wanted a blue that would not fade, lapis lazuli from what is now Afghanistan was required, and that too had to be ground with walnut oil to keep the colour pure. Then, too, horridly toxic cinnabar was needed for reds. Hurrah for gentlemen chemists…
    Honours for inventing water colours are divided between Albrecht Durer and Rafael who both came up with the idea at around the same time. Having said that, the Ancient Egyptians also used gum arabic to bind pigments for scribes to use so there’s nothing new under the sun.

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      I hope the artist in your story is kind to his apprentice and does not keep his nose to the grindstone churning out pigments all day. 😉 However, there are many artists as well as art historians over the years who have been of the opinion that the work of the Old Masters showed their complete mastery of their medium, as they had to find, grind and make their own paints before they could even touch brush to canvas, or more appropriately for their day, brush to wood panel. Painters of later generations who patronized colormen certainly had it much easier, but were perhaps less in control of their medium.

      As far as I can tell, both lapis lazuli and cinnabar were still in use by some artists as late as the Regency. Perhaps that has the makings of a good Regency murder mystery with an artistic twist? Someone can get knocked off by the cinnabar used for red paint or the arsenic used for green paint and the sleuth will have to figure out who among a group of artists is responsible for the foul deed.

      You are quite right, watercolor as a medium is very old, pre-historic, in fact. The paintings in the caves at both Lascaux and Altamira are essentially watercolors. But for centuries, from the Renaissance on, artists, and their patrons, were such snobs, thinking that only oil painting was a legitimate medium that it was not until the nineteenth century that watercolor as a legitimate and unique painting medium finally began to be recognized. And though gouche is technically a different medium, it got lumped in with watercolor. But then, for a long time in the last century, many artists had the same attitude toward acrylic paints, which are now acknowledged as a legitimate medium, too. I guess anything that stands the test of time will eventually be accepted.

      I wish you much success with your forthcoming book! You are welcome to post a comment here with details of the story and how to purchase it, when it is available.



  2. What a marvelously detailed and (for me) timely post. My October release, “Lady Jenny’s Christmas Portrait,” features an Regency heroine who desperately wants to paint in oils, and a handsome portraitist who risks his career–and his heart–to assist her. I am most indebted to you for assembling this information and presenting it here.

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      My pleasure! I am delighted to know of a story about a Regency painter, especially with a heroine who wishes to paint in oils. Thank you for sharing the title here so that others can read it as well.



  3. Pingback: The Painting of a Panorama | The Regency Redingote

  4. Steve Angus says:

    Hi, excellent post but I spotted one small error, The man who submitted the design to the Royal Society of Arts in 1822 for a metal syringe style paint container was James Harris (an ancestor of mine) not James Harrington (who isn’t!)

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      All of the sources which I consulted gave the name of the inventor as James Harrington. If you have sources which show otherwise, please provide them.



  5. Pingback: Quill-Work or Quilling? | The Regency Redingote

  6. Thank you for this. I too have a book with a heroine who enjoys painting (and with oils!). I was wondering if you had any information on prices. How much would a bladder of paint or a cake of pigment cost?

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      Glad I could help.

      On the oil paint price issue, that is not at all simple, as there were a number of factors that had an impact on the cost of a bladder of oil paint. The capacity and quality of the bladder itself would have to be taken into consideration. However, the actual color of paint would have the greatest impact. A large bladder of brown ochre, which was cheap and easy to find, as well as to make into paint, might cost only a few pence. On the other end of the color price spectrum, even a small bladder of ultra marine blue, made from lapis lazuli (probably the most labor-intensive and expensive pigment ever), could command as much as ten to fifteen shillings. Another factor impacting cost would be transportation, such that a colorman located near the producer could charge a lower price, while a colorman at some distance from the source would have to charge a higher price to cover the additional shipping costs. Still another factor was the maintenance of the paint bladders, which were fragile and had a limited shelf life. Newly-delivered bladders would typically cost more, while those that had been in the shop for a long time might be sold at lower prices in order to move the merchandise.

      A similar price range would apply to cakes of water color pigment. They tended to be somewhat less expensive, since they were not as fragile and therefore were cheaper to ship and store. They also had a much longer shelf life. However, again, a cake pigment like brown ocher would probably sell for a few pence, while at the other end of the price spectrum, a cake of lapis lazuli/utra marine blue would still run to at least a few shillings.

      Since there were so many factors which could affect the cost of a bladder of oil paint or a cake of water color paint, you have a lot of leeway to set the prices for your character’s paints, while maintaining historical accuracy.

      BTW – In case you do not know, I have a standing offer to any author who uses the information in any of my articles in one of their books, that they are welcome to post a link to that book when it is published in a comment to that article. So, when your book is published, you are welcome to post a link to it in a comment to this article to make it easier for visitors to find. Good Luck with your new book!



Comments are closed.