Synthetic yellow pigments at the Royal Pavilion, Brighton, 1800 to 1822

Conference poster for: "Art and Chemistry: Colour",
Société de Chimie Industrielle, 16-18 September 1998, Paris

Janet Brough, Royal Pavilion, Libraries and Museums, Brighton, UK
tel: +44 (0) 1273 292747    fax: +44 (0) 1273 292871


Rich colours were an important feature in late 18th and early 19th century European aristocratic interiors. Many of these schemes have been subsequently lost. The Royal Pavilion in Brighton, created between 1785 and 1823 for the son of King George III, is one of the surviving buildings. The exotic interiors, although somewhat fragmented, have also survived, and in recent years analytical studies have been made of the actual pigments used for the decorations. The Prince Regent (later King George IV) and his designers made full use of new yellow colours made available by recent rapid advances in chemistry.


       1: Rapid use of new synthetic pigments
       2: Theories of harmony
       3: Matching antique colours
       4: Chinese use of colour
       5: Differing uses of lead oxychloride & chrome yellow in the Royal Pavilion
       6: References to patent yellow & chrome yellow in contempary accounts of the Royal Pavilion
       7: Identifications of yellow pigments used in the Royal Pavilion

1: Rapid use of new synthetic pigments

Rapid increases in chemical understanding during the 18th century led to the discovery and production of many new pigments. Knowledge of these discoveries spread rapidly within the European scientific community of the period, irrespective of the country of origin. Dissemination of these ideas must have been assisted by language skills shared across frontiers. Latin, Greek and French were all at this time part of a pan-European tradition of elite education. Sir Humphrey Davy, in his paper of 1815 on ancient pigments [1], was able to refer not only to specific Latin and Greek texts, but also to recent papers published by J.A.C. Chaptal in the 'Annales de Chimie'. Production of new colours in various locations throughout Europe rapidly followed this new scientific understanding.

Rival nations anticipated these new colours would play a commercial role in the burgeoning industrial production of consumer trade goods. In 1809, Louis Nicolas Vauquelin wrote that only twelve years after his successful isolation of the metal chrome, the new pigment, oxide of chromium was already in use at porcelain factories in Sevres and Limoges [2].

Although the most important market for pigments was perceived to be an industrial one, interior decorators were also surprisingly quick to utilise colours that allowed new aesthetic possibilities. Lead oxychloride (or Turner's Patent Yellow, as Carl Wilhelm Scheele's new pigment of ~1770 became known in England) and Chrome Yellow (first produced between 1797 and 1809) were both used by decorators and wallpaper manufacturers working on the Royal Pavilion soon after their invention. These artists and designers had reason to welcome the availability of two new bright clear yellow pigments.

Figure 1: The Yellow Drawing Room, circa 1818, as shown in Nash's views of the Royal Pavilion

2: Theories of harmony

According to aesthetic and pseudo scientific theories of the early 19th century, strong yellows were important in the production of harmonious effects (in combination with other strong primary colours). It was even hoped that universal laws of colouring could be discovered analogous to laws of music, language or science; the decorator David Ramsay Hay wrote [3]:
  The harmonic ratios operate upon them (colours) ... as distinctly as they do upon the notes in the scale of the musician; and if these ratios were properly studied, it would enable the student in art to impart, with perfect certainty, harmony to his works.   
Strong bright reds and blues were already commercially obtainable in practical quantities, but until the advent of Patent and Chrome Yellow, a sufficiently intense yellow to balance the use of these was not available. Those known in the middle of the 18th century were either not bright enough, not available in sufficient quantities, were toxic, faded, or were not useful in both oil or water-based paint.

3: Matching antique colours

At this time there was also a revival of interest in the use of strong polychromy due to the continued discovery of the remains of brilliant colouring on many revered classical monuments. Davy, for example, wrote in 1815 on the colouring in the Baths of Titus in Rome [1]:
  The decorations of the baths were intended to be seen by torchlight, and many of them were at a great elevation, so that the colours were brilliant and the contrast strong.   
Figure 2: Detail of Roman wall painting, Pompeii

The new brilliant yellows answered a real need, offering an opportunity to match the colour systems of antiquity; Davy himself regarded their qualities as superior to those of the classical times they were intended to emulate:
of the colours, the discovery of which is owing to improvements in modern chemistry, the patent yellow is much more durable than any ancient yellow of the same brilliancy; and the chromate of lead ... is a much more beautiful yellow than any possessed by the ancients, and there is every reason to suppose, is quite unalterable,   
This interest both in classical colouring and theories of harmony contributed to the early 19th century fashion for intensely coloured rich interiors [4], of which the Royal Pavilion at Brighton is a fine example.

4: Chinese use of colour

The interest of George IV in the art of China provided other reasons for the use of yellow. If any universal laws of colour harmony did indeed exist, all polychromatic traditions, not just those of classical antiquity would need to be included in such theories. Colour systems used in non-European cultures were at that time also a source of inspiration, and considered worthy of study. Gottfried Semper wrote [5] that in China:
a polychromy rich and brilliant prevails, which had not been considered with that attention it deserves in relation with the ancient style of polychromy.   
Writers who had visited China commented on their use of bright yellow in colour schemes; William Alexander, in a description of 1804 [6], writes of a pagoda with:
a projecting roof, covered with tiles of a rich yellow colour, highly glazed, which receive from the sun a splendour equal to burnished gold.   
Figure 3: Peking (Collection Royal Pavilion, no 000736)

Bright yellows were therefore an important part of the polychromatic tradition of China, and any building influenced by the Orient would have to include them. Symbolic use of colour within Chinese cosmology also gave yellow special prominence as the synthesis of the principles of Yin and Yang, representing balance, adulthood and reason, with brilliant, clear yellow designated as the colour for the Emperor. This must have been known to George IV's first decorator in Brighton, John Crace, who owned 14 books on China, including recent information from Lord Macartney's mission of 1792 [7].

Figure 4: Fragment of handpainted Chinese export wallpaper with yellow background, Royal Pavilion

Such significance attached to yellow would also have echoed the beliefs of George IV concerning the status of royalty. The type of yellow used in parts of the Royal Pavilion is even described in the accounts of the artist Robert Jones as a 'rich chinese imperial yellow' [8].

The new yellows were therefore quickly utilised by the decorators at the Royal Pavilion in accord with contemporary aesthetics and royal taste. The final rich and brilliant form of the building would not however have been possible without the contributions of the 18th century chemists to the palette available.

5: Differing use of lead oxychloride & chrome yellow in the Royal Pavilion

It is noticeable that bright yellow only becomes a major element within room schemes in the last decorative phase at the Royal Pavilion, by which time chrome yellow had become available [9]. Patent yellow seems to have been used earlier, but only in details, brilliant though these are. The earliest sample of Patent yellow found to date dates from a scheme of 1815, although there are references to it in written accounts for 1802.
Figure 5: Kylin figure
Figure 6: detail of scales painted in patent yellow on Kylin figure
Figure 7: Dispersed yellow pigment from Kylin figure in transmitted light (x200)

Chrome yellow is mentioned in painting accounts for 1818, and in the paper hangers accounts ~1821, and samples have been found from the period 1820-22.

Figure 8: Chrome yellow in paint fragment from window frame of Bow Rooms
Figure 9: Dispersed chrome yellow pigment, viewed in polarised light

6: References to patent yellow & chrome yellow in contemporary accounts of the Royal Pavilion

6.1: Crace Accounts (decorators) [10]

1802: 'pattent yellow and other expensive colours' (location not specified), page 6
1818: 'chrome yellow and other expensive colours' (location not specified), page 9
1819: 'light chrome yellow' (yellow drawing room), page 106

6.2: Robson and Hale (paperhangers) [11]

1821?: 'fine yellow chrome' (Bow Rooms wallpapers)
1821?: 'crome on satin green', 'crome yellow dado' (King's apartments dado papers)
Figure 10: Block-printed wallpaper (Robson & Hale); Bow Rooms, upper wall
Figure 11: Dado paper (Robson & Hale); King's apartment, lower wall

6.3: Extracts of Accounts (Robert Jones, decorator) [12]

1822: green mineral and yellow chrome tints, highly varnished (for woodwork in the King's apartments)

7: Identification of yellow pigments used in the Royal Pavilion

7.1: Patent Yellow

South Galleries, Kylins (1815, executed by Frederick Crace). Identified by polarised light microscopy, confirmed by electron beam microanalysis (X-ray fluorescence) and X-ray diffraction analysis.

North Galleries, canvas Upstands (1815, executed by Frederick Crace). Identified by polarised light microscopy.

7.2: Chrome Yellow

Bow Rooms wallpapers (Robson and Hale, paperhangers, hung ~1822). Bow Rooms window frame (Robert Jones, decorator, ~1822). Identified by polarised light microscopy, confirmed by electron beam analysis (X-ray fluorescence).


The author is grateful to the following, for their assistance in analysis of pigments:


[1] Davy, Sir Humphrey, 'Experiments and Observations on the Colours used in Paintings by the Ancients', Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society vol 105 p97, Written in Rome Jan. 14, 1815, read Feb 23. 

[2] Harley, Rosamond, Artists' Pigments c. 1600-1835, Butterworths, pp85-, 2nd ed. 1982.

[3] Hay, David Ramsay, The Laws of Harmonious Colouring Adapted to Interior Decoration, Manufacture and Other Useful Purposes, 6th edition, 1847. 

[4] Gage, John, Colour and Culture, Chap 1, Thames and Hudson, 1993.

[5] Semper, Gottfried, 'A Fragment on the Origin of Polychromy' (bound with an extract from the report of the committee appointed to examine the Elgin Marbles in 1836, Transactions of the RIBA): RIBA Library.

[6] Alexander, W, The Costume of China, W. Miller, 1804. 

[7] Aldrich, Megan (ed), The Craces: Royal Decorators 1768-1899, p14, Royal Pavilion, Art Gallery and Museums, Brighton, 1990. 

[8] Accounts for the Royal Pavilion, quarter ending 5 Jan 1822, Public Records Office, LC11/34. 

[9] Bristow, Ian, Architectural Colour in British Interiors 1650-1840, and Interior House Painting; Colours and Technology 1615-1840, pub. Paul Mellon and Yale University Press, 1996. 

[10] Typescript of ledger Entries from the Books of Messrs Crace and Sons, Collection of Royal Pavilion. 

[11] Accounts for the Royal Pavilion, Public Records Office, pp39-40, LC11/34-LC11/31. 

[12] Abstract of Accounts for the Royal Pavilion, p73, 10th October 1822.


Janet Brough,
Royal Pavilion,
Libraries and Museums,
Brighton, UK
tel: +44 (0) 1273 292747
fax: +44 (0) 1273 292871
Images in this paper are copyright 
Brighton & Hove Libraries and Museums