Digital Tour – Vivid View: The Art and Science of Paint Analysis

Desk and Ledger, Mount Vernon

Image of the paint history of a desk and ledger in the collection of Mount Vernon

Photo by Dr. Susan Buck. Courtesy of The Mount Vernon Ladies Association of the Union

This multi-colored cross-section came from the exterior of a circa 1750 desk and ledger case that stands nearly eight feet tall in the collection of Mount Vernon. Made by cabinetmaker Robert Walker (1710-1775), likely for merchant Thomas Jett (d. 1785), and now owned by the Mount Vernon Ladies Association, this desk and ledger case was originally painted medium blue on a medium gray primer. Completely stripped of its paint by an early- twentieth-century restoration, Susan Buck’s examination uncovered its colorful past.

The first generation of paint was made with a mixture of Prussian blue, white lead, and calcium carbonate. The lumpy consistency evident in the original paint are typical of hand-ground pigments containing Prussian blue, which tended to clump, causing uneven dispersal. It is also evident from the cross-section that the surface of the paint became blanched and dirty. This type of surface discoloration is typical of Prussian blue-based paints, which can bleach out when exposed to direct sun, become discolored when washed with caustic materials, and yellow over time due to being mixed with the traditional binder, linseed oil. 

Image of c.1750 desk from Mount Vernon from which corresponding paint sample was taken

Photo courtesy of Mount Vernon

The evidence of frequent repainting found in this sample from the desk and ledger case – at least ten generations of paint – suggests that this important piece was freshened with new paint on a regular basis. This may have occurred when the room it occupied was repainted to ensure matching colorways, or perhaps it was repainted when it was moved to a different space or acquired by a new owner. The surprising discovery of such a rich and varied paint history on this object tells us that the object was generally well-cared for and continued to be valued during different periods of use.


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