Mount Pleasant: Discovery of 18th-Century Painted Wood Graining
OverviewIn 2011, the Museum’s Furniture and Woodwork conservators made an exciting discovery at Mount Pleasant. Their research revealed that the original finish on the wainscot and wood trim in the first floor stair hall was wood graining. Popular in the 18th century, wood graining is a decorative technique in which paints and glazes are used to imitate the appearance of wood. Typically, artisans would apply a light-colored paint layer and then use specialized brushes and combs to add pigmented glazes that mimicked wood grain patterns. Although some decorative graining can be very realistic, many early American examples are highly spirited and imaginative. Wood graining has been identified at other historic houses in Philadelphia such as Cliveden and Woodford Mansion, and George Washington’s Mount Vernon in Virginia features wood graining in its central passage.
The research at Mount Pleasant involved collecting small paint samples that contained the entire paint history. Upon examination under a microscope, more than 20 layers of paint were observed in some samples. The earliest finish appeared to contain layers of paint and varnish that are typically observed in wood graining. Given this information, two “reveals” of the original surface were completed on the wainscot and baseboard: the upper paint layers were removed using a combination of specially formulated solvent gels and mechanical scraping with a surgical scalpel. This process uncovered bright orange-brown graining on the wainscot, while the baseboard graining is a dark brown color. In addition, the direction of the painted grain was found to follow the actual grain of the wood beneath, mimicking the construction of the wainscot panels. Selected samples were analyzed in the Museum’s scientific laboratory to determine the paint materials. Red lead and lead white pigments in an oil binder were identified as the main components in these early finish layers. Given the orange-brown color of the graining, it is possible that it was intended to appear like mahogany, an expensive imported wood. This idea is supported by references to the use of red lead in period recipes for mahogany graining. The discovery of wood graining at Mount Pleasant has led to a new understanding of how the stair hall may have appeared shortly after the house was constructed.
Stephanie Oman, Furniture and Woodwork Conservation Graduate Intern, examining the stair hall with a hand-held microscope to determine the sample locations.