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

Dining Room, Stratford Hall

Photo by Dr. Susan Buck. Courtesy of Stratford Hall, Robert E. Lee Memorial Association

This cross-section from Stratford Hall’s 1738 dining room documents the paint history of the interior from 1795 to 1937, suggesting with each layer of color the changing tastes that occurred with the passage of time. Visually displayed here is the evidence from two families whose multiple generations occupied Stratford into the twentieth century. It also records the site’s earliest restoration campaign.

In 1795, “Light Horse” Harry Lee and his wife, Anne Carter Lee (the parents of Robert E. Lee), enlarged and updated the dining room of Stratford Hall in a more neoclassical style. This cross-section records the six generations of paint. The final layer dates to before 1937 when a major restoration under the direction of preservation architect, Fiske Kimball, required that the wainscoting be removed. The wainscoting was originally painted a cream color with a thin resinous glaze (the bottom layer in this sample). This is followed by generation two: a gray primer and a green finish coating; and generation three: another bright green paint. This change from the initial cream color to the bright glossy green reflects a change in taste; the same color decorated the dining room at George Washington’s Mount Vernon.

The coarsely ground green paints in the second and third generations were made with the copper-based pigment verdigris in combination with yellow ochre and calcium carbonate. Though a brilliant emerald green color when first applied, verdigris will darken to almost black over time, especially when mixed with linseed oil. This darkening can be seen at the top surfaces of the two green layers where the paint was exposed to air the longest.

Following the departure of the Lee family, Stratford Hall was occupied by the Stuart family. Their arrival coincides with generation four of the cross-section, a uniformly applied tan paint. This was followed in generation five by a deep yellow containing zinc white, which we know must have been applied after 1845, when zinc white became commercially available. The final painting campaign dates to the late-nineteenth century when the wainscoting was painted with faux graining to look like oak.

Stratford Hall is now currently restoring the dining room to its early nineteenth-century appearance, reinvigorating the room with the green wainscoting revealed by the paint studies to date to the Federal period.

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