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Color of Country Houses
Downing, Andrew Jackson The Architecture of Country Houses,
Including Designs for Cottages, and Farm-Houses, and Villas, with
Remarks on Interiors, Furniture, and the best Modes of Warming and
Ventilating, New York: D. Appleton & Co., 1850, pages 198-206
[Including the "Hints," above].
color of the outside of a house in the country is of more importance
than is usually supposed, since, next to the form itself, the
color is the first impression which the eye receives in approaching
it; and, in some cases, the color makes its impression, even
before we fully comprehend the form of the building.
The greater number of all country houses in the
United States have been hitherto painted white -- partly because
white-lead is supposed to be a better preservative than other
colors (though the white paint generally used is one of the
worst in this respect), and partly from its giving an appearance
of especial newness to a house, which, with many persons,
is in itself a recommendation.
Church, Charlotte, Vermont (1980)
No person of taste,
who gives the subject the least consideration, is, however,
guilty of the mistake of painting or coloring country houses
white. And yet there are so many who have never given the subject
a moment's thought, that we must urge upon them a few arguments
against so great a breach of good taste.*
Our first objection to white is, that
it is too glaring and conspicuous. We scarcely know any thing
more uncomfortable to the eye, than to approach the sunny side
of a house in one of our brilliant midsummer days, when it revels
in the fashionable purity of its color. It is absolutely painful.
Nature, full of kindness for man, has covered most of the surfuce
that meets his eye in the country, with a soft green hue --
at once the most refreshing and most grateful to the eye. Many
of our country houses appear to be colored on the very opposite
principle, and one needs, in broad sunshine, to turn his eyes
away from them, to relieve them by a glimpse of the soft and
refreshing shades that everywhere pervade the trees,
the grass and the surface of the earth.
Our second objection to white is, that it does
not harmonize with the country, and thereby mars the effect
of rural landscapes. Much of the beauty of landscapes depends
on what painters call breadth of tone -- which is caused
by broad masses of colors that harmonize and blend agreeably
together. Nothing tends to destroy breadth of tone so much as
any object of considerable size, and of a brilliant white. It
stands harshly apart from all the soft shades of the scene.
Hence, landscape painters always studiously avoid the introduction
of white in their buildings, and give them, instead, some neutral
tint -- a tint which unites or contrasts agreeably with the
color of trees and grass, and which seems to blend into other
parts of natural landscape, instead of being a discordant note
in the general harmony.
There is always,
perhaps, something not quite agreeable in objects of a dazzling
whiteness, when brought into contrast with other colors. Mr.
Price, in his Essays on the Beautiful and Picturesque, conceived
that very white teeth gave a silly expression to the countenance
-- and brings forward in illustration of it, the well known
sobriquet which Horace Walpole bestowed on one of his
acquaintances -- "the gentleman with the foolish teeth."
Uvedale Price: no white teeth here.
A landowner and author, best known for his Essays on the
Picturesque (1794-1801) which were influential throughout
the nineteenth century. Price stated that 'Picturesqueness,
therefore, appears to to hold a station between beauty
and sublimity'. Price's views on estate layout were summarised
by Blomfield: 'Price advocated a threefold division —
the garden immediately round the house was to be formal,
the garden beyond to be in the landscape style, and the
park to be left to itself.'" Source: gardenvisit.com
Essay on the Picturesque
Although Sir Uvedale Price (1747–1829) cannot be
described as a writer of gardening manuals, his theoretical
contributions to the debate over what constituted a ‘picturesque’
landscape greatly influenced practising landscape gardeners.
His Essays on the Picturesque (1796) were a reaction to
the transformations by ‘Capability’ Brown
and his imitators of many country estates into smooth
undulating stretches of grass, belts of trees and serpentine
lakes. Price considered these impoverished and disfigured
and set about defining ‘picturesque’ as distinct
from Burke’s categories of the ‘beautiful’
and the ‘sublime’. Source: The
picturesque style, University of Otago.
No one is successful in rural improvements, who
does not study nature, and take her for the basis of his practice.
Now, in natural landscape, any thing like strong and bright
colors is seldom seen, except in very minute portions, and least
pure white — chiefly appearing in small objects like flowers.
The practical rule which should be deduced from this is, to
avoid all those colors which nature avoids. In buildings, we
should copy those that she offers chiefly to the eyesuch
as those of the soil, rocks, wood, and the bark of trees, —
the materials of which houses are built. These materials offer
us the best and most natural study from which harmonious colors
for the houses themselves should be taken.
Wordsworth, in a little volume on the Scenery of
the Lakes, remarks that the objections to white as a color,
in large spots or masses, in landscapes, are insurmountable.
He says it destroys the gradations of distances, haunts
the eye, and disturbs the repose of nature. To leave some little
consolation to the lovers of white-lead, we will add that there
is one position in which their favorite color may not only be
tolerated, but often has a happy effect. We mean in the case
of a country house or cottage, deeply embowered in trees. Surrounded
by such a mass of foliage as Spenser describes,
In whose inclosed
shadow there was set.
A fair pavilion, scarcely to be seen,
a white building
often has a magical effect. But a landscape painter would quickly
answer, if he were asked the reason of this exception to the
rule, "it is because the building does not appear white." In
other words, in the shadow of the foliage
by which it is half concealed, it loses all the harshness and
offensiveness of a white house in an open site. We have, indeed,
often felt, in looking at examples of the latter, set upon a
bald hill, that the building itself would, if possible, cry
Hide me from
day's garish eye."
may also add, that while few objects are more disagreeable than
bare and tame villages — so there are, on the other
hand, few which give more pleasure to the eye than the contrast
of a few white cottages surrounded by foliage, and set in a
wide landscape, where only the universal green ofwoods and meadows
is to be seen.
Having entered our protest against the general
use of white in country edifices, we are bound to point out
what we consider suitable shades of color.
We have said that one should look to nature for
hints in color. This gives us, apparently, a wide choice of
shades; but as we ought properly to employ modified shades,
taken from the colors of the materials of which houses are constructed,
the number of objects is brought within a moderate compass.
Houses are not built of grass or leaves, and there is therefore,
not much propriety in painting a dwelling green. Earth, stone,
bricks, and wood, are the substances that enter mostly into
the structure of our houses, and from these we would accordingly
take suggestions for painting them. Sir Joshua Reynolds, who
was full of artistic feeling for the union of a house with its
surrounding scenery, once said, "If you would fix upon the best
color for your house, turn up a stone, or pluck up a handful
of grass by the roots, and see what is the color of the soil
where the house is to stand, and
let that be your choice." This rule was not probably intendedto
be exactly carried into general practice, but the feeling that
prompted it was the same that we are endeavoring to illustrate
— the necessity of a unity of color in the house and the
country about it.
We think, in the beginning, that the color of all
buildings in the country, should be of those soft and quiet
shades called neutral tints, such as fawn, drab, gray, brown,
etc., and that all positive colors, such as white, yellow, red,
blue, black, etc., should always be avoided; neutral tints being
those drawn from nature, and harmonizing best with her, and
positive colors being most discordant when introduced into rural
II Symmetrical Bracketed Cottage, Fig. 13
In the second place,
we would adapt the shade of color, as far as possible, to the
expression, style, or character of the house itself.
a large mansion may very properly receive a somewhat sober hue,
expressive of dignity; while a country house of moderate size
demands a lighter and more pleasant but still quiet tone; and
a small cottage should, we think, always have a cheerful and
lively tint. Country houses, thickly surrounded by trees, should
always be painted of a lighter shade than those standing exposed.
And a new house, entirely unrelieved by foliage, as it is rendered
conspicuous by the very nakedness of its position, should be
painted several shades darker than the same building, if placed
in a well-wooded site. In proportion as a house is exposed
to view, let its hue be darker, and where it is much concealed
by foliage, a very light shade of color is to be preferred.
Wordsworth remarks, in speaking of houses in the
Lake country, that many persons who have heard white condemned
have erred by adopting a cold slaty color. The dulness
and dimness of hue in some dark stones produces an effect quite
at variance with the cheerful expression which small houses
should wear. úThe flaring yellow,î he adds, úruns into the opposite
extreme, and is still more censurable. Upon the whole, the safest
color, for general use, is something between a cream and a dust
This color, which Wordsworth recommends for general
use, is the hue of the English freestone, called Portland
stone -- a quiet fawn color, to which we are strongly partial,
and which harmonizes perhaps more completely with all situations
in the country than any other that can be named. Next to this,
we like warm gray, that is, a gray mixed with a very
little red, and some yellow. Browns and dark grays
are suitable for barns, stables and outbuildings, which it is
desirable to render inconspicuous — but for dwellings
unless very light shades of these latter colors are used, they
are apt to give a dull and heavy effect in the country.*
following hints for mixing shades for outside painting, may
be of service to persons in the country who have to depend
on their own wits. The colors are supposed to be first finely
ground in oil, and then mixed in small quantities with white-lead
and boiled linseed oil. A few trials will enable the novice
to mix agreeable neutral shades - especially if he will be
content to add a very little of the darker shades at
at time, and try the effect with the brush. After the proper
shade is obtained, enough should be mixed at once to go over
the whole surface.
White, yellow ochre, and Spanish brown.
Drab. White, Venetian red, burnt umber, with a little
Gray stone. White, lampblack, and a little Venetian
Brownstone. Spanish brown, chrome yellow, with a
little white and lampblack.
French gray. White, ivory black, with a little Indian
red and Chinese blue.
Slate color. White, lampblack, and a little Indian
Sage color. White, raw umber, Prussian blue, and
Straw color. White, yellow ochre, and orange chrome.
Chocolate. Spanish brown and black - or, for a lighter
shade, Venetian red and black
very slight admixture of a darker color is sufficient to remove
the objection to white paint, by destroying the glare of
white, the only color which reflects all the sun¯s
rays. We would advise the use of soft shades, not much removed
from white, for small cottages, which should not be painted
of too dark a shade, since that would give them an aspect of
gloom, rather worse than glare. It is the more
necessary to make this suggestion, since we have lately observed
that some persons newly awakened to the bad effects of white,
have rushed into the opposite extreme, and colored their country
houses of such a somber hue, that they give a melancholy character
to the whole neighborhood around them.
A species of monotony is also produced by using
the same neutral tint for every part of the exterior of a country
house. Now there are features, such as window facings, blinds,
cornices, etc., which confer the same kind of expression on
a house that the eyes, eyebrows, lips, etc., of a face, do upon
the human countenance. To paint the whole house plain drab,
fives it very much the same dull an d insipid effect that colorless
features (white hair, pale eye-brows, lips, etc., etc.) do the
face. A certain sprightliness is therefore always bestowed on
a dwelling in a neutral tint, by painting the bolder projecting
features of a different shade. The simplest practical rule that
we can suggest for effecting this, in the most satisfactory
and agreeable manner, is the following: Choose paint of some
neutral tint that is quite satisfactory, and, if the tint is
a light one, let the facings of the windows, cornices,
etc., be painted several shades darker, of the same color.
The blinds may either be a still darker shade than the facings,
or else the darkest green.* This variety of shades will give
a building a cheerful effect, when, if but one of the shades
were employed, there would be a dulness and heaviness in the
appearance of its exterior.
* Thus, if the
color of the house be that of Portland stone (a fawn shade),
let the window casings, cornices, etc., be painted a light
brown, the color of our common red freestone — and make
the latter shade by mixing the requisite quantity of Spanish
brown with the color used in the body of the house. Very dark
green is quite unobjectionable as a color fo the Venetian
blinds, so much used in our country, as it is quite unobtrusive.
Bright green is offensive to the eye, and vulgar and flashy
on the other hand, the tint chosen is a dark one, then let the
window dressings, etc., be painted of a much lighter shade of
the same color.
Any one who will follow the principles we have
suggested cannot, at least, fail to avoid the gross blunders
in taste which we have so long been in the habit of committing
in the practice of painting country house.
Uvedale Price justly remarked, that many people
have a sort of callus over their organs of sight, as
others over those of hearing; and as the callous hearers feel
nothing in music but kettle-drums and trombones, so the callous
seers can only be moved by strong opposition of black and white,
or by fiery reds. There are, we may add, some few house painters
who appear to be equally benumbed to any delicate sensations
in shades of color. They judge the beauty of colors upon
houses as they do in the raw pigment, and, we verily believe,
would be more gratified to paint every thing chrome yellow,
indigo blue, pure white, vermillion red, and the like, than
with the most fitting and delicate mingling of shades to be
found under the wide canopy of heaven. Fortunately fashion,
a more powerful teacher of the multitude than the press or the
schools, is now setting in the right direction. A few men of
taste and judgment, in city and country, have set the example
by casting off all connection with harsh colors. What a few
will do at the first, from a mice sense of harmony in colors,
the many will do afterwards, when they see the superior beauty
of neutral tints supported and enforced by the example of those
who build and inhabit the most attractive and agreeable houses;
and we trust, at no very distant time, one may have the pleasure
of traveling over our whole country, without meeting with a
single habitation of glaring and offensive color, but see everywhere
something of harmony and beauty.
* We have
already published some of the following remarks in the Horticulturist.