Ancient Art and Modern Alchemy

ANCIENT ART AND MODERN ALCHEMY

12.2017

Pedro da Costa is on a mission to raise awareness and appreciation of historic pigments and painstaking lacquer and paint application techniques.

Momentarily lost for words, Pedro da Costa Felgueiras chuckles at the notion of International Klein Blue. The French artist Yves Klein’s late-1950s creation of a striking, deep blue hue was ‘a marketing thing’, he’s convinced, a pale imitation that has little to do with the true, vibrant blues that were venerated centuries ago for their mineral intensity and pure rarity. ‘Modern blues have a synthetic, acidic feel to them,’ he says. ‘The first blues were made from semi-precious stone – ground lapis lazuli from Afghan mines. Blue was such a special colour, it was used to paint the Virgin Mary’s clothes.’

The comment – part historical reference, part modern-day alchemist – is typical of da Costa Felgueiras, founder of east London colour and interiors consultancy Lacquer Studios. From studying Renaissance paint recipes written in verse to taking on high-profile restorations of England’s historic houses and structures, including Horace Walpole’s Strawberry Hill and the Great Pagoda of Kew, the paint and lacquer specialist demonstrates a deep, ultimately visceral, understanding of colour and its place in contemporary culture.

He credits this to his upbringing in Portugal; when he was a child, the days seemed steeped in living history. ‘Old stuff is in my DNA,’ he says. ‘I grew up exposed to beautiful old things. My college was in an old villa, my mother’s work was in an old palace, and I remember my father going to the main square to get milk from the cows – this was Lisbon in the 1970s!’

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In a neighbourhood once associated with furniture makers, feather dyers, coach builders and chandlers, da Costa Felgueiras cooks up historical pigments and paint finishes for restoration projects, creates original furnishings and objets d’art using centuries-old artisanal paint traditions. In a world of fast, easy, foolproof techniques, he’s on a personal mission to raise awareness and appreciation of historic pigments and painstaking lacquer and paint application techniques.

‘You get better colours – colours that are more alive – with historical pigments,’ he says. ‘The perception is that Georgian colours, for instance, were drab, but the era was so much about theatricality and fun and pleasure, and people used such bright colours – reds, yellows, greens. I look in my reference of historical colours and find shades you just can’t copy with modern materials. Plus, the old pigments are mineral, so when you apply them on a wall, you’re creating a piece of jewellery, almost – look at the way the colour shimmers, the way it reflects the light. There’s no comparison with chemically produced modern paints, which are essentially plastic.’

Just as dazzling as the captivating shimmer and sheen of the paints is the story and process behind the creation of their historical pigments. ‘I believe things should be done with soul and heart,’ da Costa Felgueiras says. ‘Those difficult old techniques, those beautiful old crafts – those have meaning. Those are the ones that give pleasure.’

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As he grinds powdered pigments and linseed oil in a pestle and mortar, da Costa Felgueiras reveals the craft and skill that generations of traditional paint makers shared. ‘Because of limitations in technology, people couldn’t achieve the endless colour tones that you can get nowadays. No one went to the shop to buy a tin of paint. You had to have the skills to create the colours yourself,’ he says. ‘And because the craftspeople made everything themselves, there wasn’t one standard shade of paint. Many colours were achieved by building up different layers of colours, starting with a solid colour and then putting on a transparent glaze. Green, for instance, was very difficult to make. They’d start with blue, then put a yellow glaze on top. Or they’d use a copper verdigris glaze. It was complicated, but that, for me, is what makes it interesting.’

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Historic glazes and pigment require unusual ingredients, such as rabbit skin granules for glue, or purple caput mortuum, once made from ground-up Egyptian mummies. Da Costa Felgueiras’s favourite story concerns the making of blue verditer, the first attempt an imitation of lapis lazuli. ‘There’s just one old Englishman left in the world making it,’ he explains. ‘He’s a complete eccentric, who only works on it when there’s a very cold winter because he has to bury the pigment in his garden when the soil is frozen, and he has to stir it every hour for three weeks. Think of the story behind that beautiful blue, and of the integrity of the person behind it – and then think of that versus a tin of one-common-denominator paint that you can buy in a shop.’

Da Costa Felgueiras rues the modern attitude towards paints and pigments, which he says are designed for durability and simplicity of use, not for any deeper significance. ‘Colours meant something in the 18th century,’ he says. ‘Black and gold were the colours of antiquity. Ecclesiastical purple was so called because of its connection to the church. Green signified an association with China.’ Stripped of meaning today, paints used in interior decoration have just one overriding requirement: endurance, which da Costa Felgueiras says is a misplaced ideal. ‘Everything these days has to be guaranteed to last, but the only way to guarantee things is by going down the plastic route,’ he says. ‘Natural paints and historic pigments might be more delicate, but if you know how to take care of them, you can make them last longer. You have to accept that they might change a bit, visually – but I find that’s part of the charm.’

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Fortunately, people are gradually rethinking their approach to contemporary interiors, he says, and we’re seeing a resurgence of interest in the use of linseed oil paints, lime washes and distempers, which fell out of fashion as acrylic paints grew in popularity. ‘Aware of how disconnected we are with the things we consume, a small number of people has become aware of a different way of doing things. They’re moving away from that which is industrialised, commercialised and homogenised. They want to bring humanity – some human skill – to a decorative scheme or a piece of furniture.’

Lest he faces accusations of gazing dreamily at the past through rose-tinted glasses, da Costa Felgueiras is quick to underline the rich relationship between traditional skills and more modern notions. ‘Whether I’m making something new or restoring something old, the principle, for me, is the same: it’s about a good piece of design. What stands out is the quality that joins them together: the quality of the design, the quality of the materials used, the humanity behind it all. And the 18th century is the century of light, of enlightenment – how much more modern can you get?’

Words → M Astella Saw

Photography → Camilla Greenwell, Elena Heatherwick, Peter Mackenzie, Chloe Winstanley