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History in full colour

March 26, 2017

When we think of history, we often think of it in monchrome. Not just the black and white photographs of the last hundred years, but also the statues in striking white stone which decorated both ancient and more modern houses across Europe. Unfortunately, this could not be further from the truth.


We are so used to seeing sculptures in plain white stone that we don't even question it. It rarely occurs to us that painted decoration may have been worn away by the weather, and few people would guess that the colour scheme was anything more than sombre pastels. However, these heraldic animals at the entrance to Henry VIII's Tudor palace at Hampton Court were once garishly painted in bright colours.


Historic paint expert Patrick Baty took samples from representative points on each animal, revealing that the dragon of Wales was bright red, the lion of England was gold with blue inside his mouth and ears, and the panther was white with red and blue spots! The beasts at the front entrance have been left bare, although you can see full colour replicas in the Tudor Garden.


Patrick Baty, 2009

It was not just the Tudors who liked their sculpture brightly coloured, and paint analysis on ancient sculptures has revealed traces of bright pigments. The statue of the Emperor Augustus found at Prima Porta for example now a white marble masterpiece in the Vatican Museums would have looked very different to the Ancient Romans.



Augustus of Prima Porta, via Wikimedia; Cast of the Augustus of Prima Porta with polychromy, via Digital Sculpture Project

A lot of historic scuplture lost its colours over years of weathering or damage while buried in soil, but other sculptures were deliberately cleaned to a gleaming white to meet modern expectations. The Parthenon Marbles for example were vigourously cleaned in the 1930s at the request of Lord Duveen, the famous art collector who financed the gallery in which the Marbles still hang. The staff who cleaned the Marbles found traces of paint where the high relief had protected it from weathering, and more traces can be found on the scuptures still attached to the Parthenon in Athens. However, a brightly coloured Parthenon did not fit with Lord Duveen's vision of the past.


This is an important lesson to remember when imagining, understanding, and recreating the past. We should not assume that people in the past had the same tastes and aesthetics as us, and we should always remember that history happened in full colour.


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