23/07/2024

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Artists’ Colourmen – That’s Where All That Paint Comes From

Artists’ Colourmen – That’s Where All That Paint Comes From

I spotted a painting in the auction and got the urge to make it my own. It was a seascape – a beach scene with a boat pulled up past the waterline on the shingle and gentle waves lapping the shore. But it was the sky that caught my eye.

Rolling in from the ocean was what looked set to be the mother and father of storms, portended by ominous black and grey clouds highlighted in gold from the dying light of a setting sun. Sublime, glorious and at £1,500-2,000, worth a punt, I thought.

The fact that it was in a sale down South wasn’t a problem. Internet bidding now makes the geographic location of an auction meaningless. No, the problem was that my painting had caught the eye of folk with deeper pockets than my own. Come the bidding and the price – like a tsunami – surged further and further away from my reach. It sold for £10,200 and was purchased by a London gallery. I shudder to imagine what they will retail it at.

But like the storm clouds, there is a silver lining to the tale. The oil on canvas was by the London artist Algernon Newton (1880-1967) and I resolved to learn more about him. He specialised in sombre naturalistic views and apparently his studies of inland waterways earned him the nickname “the Canaletto of the canals”. But the story is even more fascinating: Algernon was the grandson of one of the founders of Winsor and Newton, a firm of artists’ colourmen, founded in 1832 and still going strong. I’d never heard the phrase before, much less given a thought to where the paint comes from for all the millions of pictures in the world, but now I know.

Painting was started by prehistoric cavemen and they mixed their own colours from the basic materials around them: yellow and red earth (Ochre); white chalk and soot from their fires.

The Dutch Old Masters did the same, but by the 1650s, they needed the skills of a physician and a chemical engineer to meet their exacting requirements. Both professions used the same materials: mercury, oils ivory and so on, purchased from apothecary shops and mixed by the artist, or his apprentices, in his studio before he could start to paint.

In 1704, a German colour maker named Diesbach was manufacturing red pigments, which required the use of potash as an alkali. He ran out of his supply and used some which was contaminated with animal oil. Instead of getting red, he got purple and then blue, the first chemically synthesised colour, Prussian Blue, had been made. Prussian Blue remains popular to this day and is also known for its novel ability to fade in daylight yet recover in darkness.

By then oil paints became so complex that professional paint mixers – colour men – established a niche market for themselves which allowed artists to get on with what they were best at, that is painting masterpieces. Pre-mixed paints were supplied first in pig’s bladders and later in syringes, like grease-guns. Oil paint in metal tubes first appeared in about 1800. Water colours, meanwhile, came in oblong cakes that had to be rubbed down with water on a surface such as ground glass before the colour could be used.

William Winsor and Henry Newton built their business on this marriage of art and science and were able to offer artists the widest choice of colours with the greatest permanence. In 1832, both men were in their late twenties and they shared an interest in painting. Newton was the more artistically gifted of the two, whereas Winsor, who also painted, contributed the scientific knowledge that was to be so important.

They established the firm at 38 Rathbone Place, London, Newton’s home, which was then part of an artists’ quarter. A number of eminent painters, including Constable, had studios there, and other colourmen were already established.

A number of new pigments had been introduced in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, making a wide selection available. Competition among the colourmen was fierce, but the two men were among the first to use the moisture-retaining properties of a recently discovered material, glycerine, to manufacture liquid water colours that quickly gained popularity.

Their next innovation was the introduction in 1837 of Chinese White, a particularly opaque and durable form of zinc white which until then had been lacking. Next, Winsor’s inventiveness led him to patent glass syringes for oil colours but with the invention of collapsible metal tubes by James Goff Rand for artists’ colours in 1841, Winsor embarked on perfecting tubes to his own design. His tin tubes were quickly accepted as containers for oil colours and a few years later Winsor and Newton were able to uniquely offer moist water colours in tubes.

The firm moved to larger premises at Blackfriars and then King’s Cross, but in 1844, they opened a specially built, steam-powered factory in Kentish Town known as the North London Colour Works. By then the firm had been appointed artists’ colourmen to Queen Victoria and at the Great Exhibition of 1851 Winsor and Newton won the only prize medal awarded to competitors for artists’ colours.

William Winsor died 1865 and his share of the firm was inherited by his son Benyon on whose death in 1879 Henry Newton purchased his late partner’s share. A few months before his own death in 1882, Newton sold the business to the newly incorporated firm of Winsor & Newton Ltd., which included members of both families among the shareholders, with Newtons employed until the late 1970s.

The firm was acquired subsequently by Reckitt & Colman who had recently bought the firms of Reeves and Dryad and in 1990, ownership of Winsor & Newton passed to A. B. Wilhelm Becker with an artists’ materials division which now includes Contè, Lefranc & Bourgeois and Liquitex. Today they are brand leaders in both the UK and USA and in fine art colours, they supply almost a quarter of the world’s needs.

See an image of the Newton seascape here.