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Discover Charleston

Architectural Archeology: Paint Analysis at the Nathaniel Russell House


Blog-paint-analysis-of-historic-nathan-russell-house.jpgBy Susan Buck, PhD, Art Conservator and Paint Analyst

There is a certain delight that comes with being asked to write about my work as a Paint Analyst and Art Conservator for the Historic Charleston Foundation. This is the perfect clear, cool week to be in Charleston studying the surviving paint and original construction evidence at the 1808 Nathaniel Russell House Kitchen building.  My husband Ed Chappell and I are staying at 95 Broad Street, in a stunning small apartment with a glorious view of the City, and just around the block from the Russell House on Meeting Street. Ed is an architectural historian studying the evolution of this service building, and I am studying the paints remaining on the woodwork and walls, and retrieving trapped fragments of textiles, printed papers, bones, marbles, and plaster for further analysis and identification.

There is a remarkable amount of original paint evidence still remaining in the Kitchen Building of the Nathaniel Russell House, despite its use as apartments in the 20th century, as well as having undergone several major renovations.  There are thick accumulations of paints in the interstices of the joinery, at the edges of architraves and  trapped below later plaster on both the first-floor former laundry and kitchen rooms, and in the second-floor chambers.  The second-floor east chamber is surprisingly intact, with evidence that it had a chair rail (now missing), limewashed walls, a beadboard door and finely trimmed windows.  There will definitely be enough physical evidence to feel confident about how to interpret this space as a bedchamber for enslaved people in the Russell family household before the Civil War.

Equally exciting is the evidence we have uncovered in the first-floor laundry space which was revealed yesterday when we had some help opening up holes in the modern wall plaster.  The original painted plaster and baseboard is trapped below 20th-century surfaces. I am taking tiny samples of wood and plaster with attached paint layers, and I will take these samples back to my lab in Williamsburg, VA for analysis.  The best representative samples will be cast into small cubes of polyester resin and polished to reveal the paint stratigraphies. These cross-sections will be photographed in reflected visible and UV light to establish the paint chronologies and to make it possible to compare paint sequences on original elements with those from later replacements.  It is essentially archaeology under the microscope to identify the timing for alterations, and some of the coatings can also be relatively dated based on their pigment composition. For example, some pigments, like zinc white, were not in use in architectural paints until after about 1845. This type of analysis of architectural coatings is adapted from the field of art conservation, initially in use to study the paints and varnishes on easel painting.  All this evidence found on the micro and macro scale will be important for understanding this building and explaining it in more depth to visitors to the site.

Other sites in Charleston where paint analysis has contributed to a better understanding of their evolution are the Aiken-Rhett House, the Manigault House, Drayton Hall, the Missroon House, the Chancognie House, the Pineapple Gates House, and the Sword Gates House.  And there is so much more to learn from the rich collection of historic buildings in this area.

Note: Our interest lies in historic restoration, which was a large part of our desire to own and restore the Major Peter Bocquet House at 95 Broad Street. Therefore, we value the skill and intellect it takes for experts to master their work in historic forensics, as a way to maintain the authenticity of our historic city. Have a look at the renovation we undertook when we converted a historic home to our everyday office...

95 Broad Street historic Charleston SC renovation Major Peter Bocquet house