March 7 2016
Green is the true colour of winter. The green of plane tree bark, of lichens, and of the grass which has survived in the slogged-out, studded mud of football pitches.
And we have a surprise: the black 18th-century garden gate which stands in the porch of the Museum should, in fact, be a deep green.
I am reading a report by Patrick Baty, who thirty years ago took over Papers and Paints, his father’s much-loved shop in Chelsea. At the same time he became curious about the true colours of historic buildings. Today he is one of the world’s leading experts in the recovery of authentic brightness below modern grunge / bling / institutional grey.
I met Patrick over twenty years ago, when I was working in a first job in architectural conservation. You haven’t aged a day, you think, before remembering that this is the optical illusion called ‘Parallax’: that is, we do not see old friends from fixed vantage points but, rather, as if travelling on two separate train tracks, which curve towards, or away from each other, according to the events of life. Nevertheless, he is still the only man I know who can wear red trousers with dash. That’s because he was a soldier: a Parachutist, then a Captain in the Lancers, then a Captain in The Artists’ Rifles. There’s a sense of something brave and unspoken when he deflects questions about his active service; an easier subject is ‘what was it like to appear with Eddie Redmayne in that documentary on the Artists’ Rifles Regiment?’
Today he pulls out a boiler suit, and a hammer and chisel, to examine the 18th-century gate which has been dismantled on the floor of the closed Museum. Very few visitors will ever have noticed this gate, which stood tall and black in the unlit porch.
It was acquired as it was thought to have been the gate to Tradescant’s garden in Lambeth. In fact, it was the gate to Turret House, the next door house into which Elias Ashmole moved in Hesther’s widowhood, and is visible in an artist’s view of 1798. And it was made long after Ashmole and Tradescant died: the style is that of the 1750s.
Its handsomeness was first noticed by Ella Denny, a friend of the Museum. She and her brother Chris Huhne volunteered to ‘adopt’ the gate in memory of their mother, Ann Gladstone Murray; the fountain in the garden was, dedicated by her mother, in turn, to her parents. Ella’s husband Piers Denny also specialises in conservation: his company, Carrek, worked at the Tower of London, and Hampton Court. It’s talking with Piers about conservation that reminds me that the gate had a past.
The Ark and Turret House were knocked down for residential development, as a London newspaper reported:
‘Sat Nov 20th 1880: The railway traveller, hurrying from Clapham to Vauxhall Station, cannot fail to notice in South Lambeth a quaint, old fashioned house, with hammered iron gates standing apart from the noisy street as if conscious that it embodies in its bricks and mortar and narrow windows the well-to-do gentility which is vanishing from around it. Close by is a fine old park with fine old yew trees and great shady elms, which seem strangely out of place in a neighbourhood where every rood of ground is worth a poor man’s ransom. This was the house of the Tradescants…’
A Mr William Young bought the iron gate from the builders as a memento of Tradescant, and re-erected it at Stanhill Court, his country house in Sussex. It became known as ‘The Rose Gate’. The Young family put Stanhill Court on the market in 1991 but offered to sell the gate to the
Tradescant Trust. But how do we bring this old metal back to life? Enter, Patrick.
In his boiler suit Patrick is looking for lumps of layered paint that he can take back to his lab. It’s proving difficult: the gate appears to have been stripped to the bare metal with the typical thoroughness of Mrs Nicholson’s volunteers, painted matt black and – with a flourish equally typical of our founder - its finials painted the colour of gold. Patrick chisels off eleven chips of paint from various pieces of the gate and under the microscope just two of these - each the size and thickness of a stubby toe-nail – show a sliver of the older paint.
What’s enjoyable to witness in Patrick’s work is the connection of two expertises. One is the forensic analysis of a cross-section which under the microscope appears (to me) like the ridges of a dark Martian landscape. The other is his knowledge of the effects intended by the designers of the past. His restoration of the magnificent 18th-century rooms at Stowe House, for example, fuse thousands of samples with an understanding of the vivid splendour of neo-classical design.
The gilding on our gate is 1980s, he explains, and the black paint is modern too. In fact, a black paint which dried quickly enough for maintenance purposes was only formulated in the 20th-century. It’s a myth, too, that park railings were painted black in mourning at the death of Prince Albert. What is called ‘Bronze Green’ became fashionable in the Regency period – a prominent example is the balcony of Sir John Soane’s Museum in Lincoln’s Inn Fields – and by the 1850s was de rigeur for every handsome public building. In 1888 Hammersmith Bridge was to be painted in three coats of ‘Flat Bronze Green’. And – Patrick adds with a twinkle – it became a favourite colour for military hardware. The quickest way to picture Bronze Green is to google pre-1970s Army Land Rovers.
Thanks to Ella and Chris, the gate will be repainted green and be re-erected in the new garden to be designed by Dan Pearson, standing as the entrance to a corner set aside for children’s play. For there has been another discovery. The artist Arthur Rackham, born in 1867, grew up opposite Turret House and as a child explored the trees and plants which were the last and tangled trace of the Tradescants’ garden in that final decade before its demolition by property developers. Everyone remembers how spell-binding a vast abandoned garden is to children, and whenever I see the gate I will imagine Arthur Rackham’s childish and adventurous hand on the latch. What was just a gate has become the portal to a mysterious green world.
To read about Patrick's work see patrickbaty.co.uk