Paint Analysis Provides Clues to House History

Room by Room, through 14 to 18 Layers of Paint, Susan Buck Finds Consistent Patterns That Point to Early Woodwork, Original to the House

Top of mind soon after acquiring the Tobias Lear House was commissioning an historic paint analysis of the house. Historic paint analysis involves the use of a microscope to explore the different layers in a paint sample with a view toward revealing the history of painted surfaces and other decorative finishes and providing insight into the objects underlying them and their surroundings.

Susan Buck was an easy choice to do this work on the Tobias Lear House (TLH). She has worked on some of America’s most notable 18th-century houses, including Mount Vernon and Monticello. (See a brief description of Susan’s career below). She had also done work for me on my Wilton project in Virginia (www.wiltonhousevirginia.orgwww.vrbo.com/506059) in 2011, like the TLH, a colonial structure dating to the mid-18th century.

Our paint analysis goals at the Tobias Lear House were twofold. First, we hoped that it could tell us whether the wood trim — paneling, doors, window sash, door and window frames, ceiling moldings, etc. — were early and original to the house. There had been considerable conjecture that one or more early 20th refurbishings of the house had involved the purchase of old house parts from local antique dealers to replace original material that had been lost over the years – to damage, remodeling, and the like. This suspicion was reinforced because a lot of the woodwork, particularly the paneling, had a re-worked, re-jigged look to it. Comparing the paint layers on different wood trim elements in a given room would be one way to figure out whether extraneous wood elements had been introduced in the 19th or 20th centuries.

Because our intention is to return the interior finishes of the house to those that existed in the 1760’s, the second goal of Susan’s paint analysis was to ascertain the colors of the early paint surfaces on wood trim – assuming, of course, these elements proved to be original to the house – and, more specifically, the colors used in the 1760’s, the decade when, we believe, the 1730’s house was expanded to its current size.

In two days at the house in early August 2019, Susan took some 150 paint samples, mostly from wood trim elements and paneling. She also sampled wall surfaces to help determine which rooms during the 18th century might have been painted or lime-washed and which, if any, had been wallpapered. Back in her lab in Williamsburg, Virginia, Susan whittled down to 110 the number of samples which would undergo thorough microscopic analysis. Two months later, she produced a 115-page report, replete with charts, photos and explanatory narrative, laying out the extensive paint history at the TLH. Her report is posted on this website, and even a cursory look at it will give you an idea of the complexity involved in collecting, processing, and organizing all this data and, finally, making sense of it all.

In very broad brush, Susan’s report made clear that, allowing for various minor Dutchman repairs here and there over the course of nearly 300 years, almost all of the wood trim and paneling was both early and original to the house. In most rooms and hall spaces, for example, she found consistency in the paint layers at various points in a given room. In the best parlor, for example, the paint history on the paneling match up with that of corner posts, elements not likely to have been moved or replaced and almost certainly original. And there was also a consistency in the number of paint layers, many samples showing 14 to 18 layers, and in the predominant trim color, a red-brown, found in four of the eight rooms and in the central hallways. As best Susan could determine, there was no surviving paint from the 1730’s, the date of the original construction of the house, and the earliest paints appear to date to the 1760’s expansion of the house.

The report also helped us to establish what master carpenter John Schnitzler was finding as he began work on the house, to wit, that a lot of the re-jigged appearance of the wood paneling resulted from a re-purposing of the paneling from the 1730’s house when it was expanded — and doubled in size — in the 1760’s. The four front rooms that made up the original two-over-two 1730’s house, for example, were all re-configured when the house was expanded, the central chimney removed and two new chimney stacks built, east and west. When it came time to finish the trim, doors, and paneling in those rooms, it now appears that the joiners re-used much of the 1730’s woodwork, fitting it in to the newly configured spaces.

With these new facts in hand about the material aspects of the house, the question naturally arises as to what they what might tell us about its inhabitants. Though we don’t know yet for certain, it’s our best guess that Tobias Lear IV expanded the house in the 1760’s, a prosperous decade for Portsmouth and its merchants and mariners, like Lear. The size of the expanded house — described contemporaneously as a “mansion,” with its two chimney stacks serving fireplaces in eight rooms, its spacious central hallways upstairs and down, and its impressively steep hipped roof and third floor attic dormers — says something perhaps about Tobias IV’s social ambitions. But size isn’t everything; the modesty of the interior woodwork and other finishes suggests that Lear’s ambitions for a grand home were likely tempered by limited financial resources, his reach perhaps exceeding his grasp. Compared to its opulent neighbor, for example, the Wentworth-Gardner showplace house, built in 1760, the Tobias Lear House looks positively vernacular. Not only are the finishes markedly simpler, but they also have that makeshift, re-jigged quality. It is as though Yankee thrift had taken charge during the 1760’s build-out, but probably more by force of financial circumstance than from personal predilection.

Viewed in this light, the TLH might be characterized as an aspirational project, an expression of the spirit of upward mobility. This tension between ambition and thrift, if you will, is part of what makes the house a material object of special historical interest. As to the family spirit of upward mobility, it would live on, it seems, in the person of Tobias Lear the fifth but in a markedly different environment than that of Portsmouth’s merchant, mariners and shipbuilders as the Young Tobias sought fame and fortune at George Washington’s side at Mount Vernon, and in New York, Philadelphia, and Washington.

[ View Paint Analysis ]

Susan L. Buck, Ph. D.
Conservator and Paint Analyst

Susan Buck completed her Ph.D. in Art Conservation Research in 2003, and her dissertation “The Aiken-Rhett House: A Comparative Architectural Paint Study” won the University of Delaware Wilbur Owen Sypherd Prize for the outstanding doctoral dissertation in the Humanities.  She has a BA with a concentration in Studio Art from Williams College, an MBA from Boston University, and an MS from the Winterthur/University of Delaware Graduate Program in Art Conservation (WUDPAC), where she co-teaches a course in cross-section microscopy analysis for decorative and architectural surfaces.  She worked as a furniture conservator for the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities (now Historic New England) with a specialty in painted furniture, before she began her Ph.D. studies in architectural paint analysis. Her private conservation work now includes art and architectural paint and finish analysis projects for institutions including Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, MESDA, The Chipstone Foundation, Historic Deerfield, Mount Vernon, Monticello, Montpelier, Stratford Hall, The Telfair Museums, Historic Charleston Foundation, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Drayton Hall and the World Monuments Fund Qianlong Garden Conservation Project in The Forbidden City in Beijing.  She also teaches optical microscopy analysis techniques to students enrolled in the new World Monuments Fund–Palace Museum–Tsinghua University Conservation Resources for Architectural Interiors/Furniture and Training (CRAFT) graduate program in Beijing.

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