Friday, 26 July 2019

Decorative Finishes at Brain Watkins House


There are two types of decorative finishes in the Brain Watkins House in Tauranga that were particularly popular in Victorian time, from which the house dates. They are graining and marbling. According to Practical Graining & Marbling by Paul M Hasluck, a book for tradesmen published in 1902 “the imitation of the grain of expensive and high class woods is a favourite method of embellishing woodwork that is subject to hard wear ... no kind of plain painting wears so well or lasts so long.”

The tools used included steel combs, leather combs, overgrainers, mottlers and overcombing rollers. Decorative finishes in this style used to be part of the apprenticeship training of a painter and decorator. Until recent years painters would grind their own colours using varying amounts of white lead paint and stainers with the old names of burnt sienna, Prussian blue, yellow umber etc. The steel combs used at Brain Watkins are displayed in one of the wooden chests in the History Room of the house.


The art of graining consists of applying a second coat of a different shade on a prepared ground of the basic colour of the wood. It is this second coat that provides the imitation of the desired grain. At Brain Watkins House the intention was to grain some of the kauri doors, architraves and the kitchen sarking to look like oak. A coat of varnish completes the job. On the south wall of the kitchen the name Elva and 1900 have been finger drawn in the paint. Elva Brain would have been nine years old when this occurred and this date is regarded as about the time the rear additions to the house were made.


The object of marbling, like graining, is to faithfully imitate a natural product. While the grainer had the use of tools the marbler depended on his skill in manipulating paint brushes. The marbler’s tools included camel hair brushes, hog hair fitches, goose wing feathers, sponges and a stippling brush. Like varieties of timber grains there are different types of marble with different colours, and a different depth of colour and marks.  It was the practise to copy actual marble. The two examples of marbling at Brain Watkins appear to be of a poorer quality than the graining of the timber in the house. The fireplace in the parlour is good enough to deceive some visitors until the cartoon faces which detract from the whole effect are recognised, but the example in the lounge is very amateurish. There are only two shades used, a grey/black for the lines on a white background.  Once again the final coat should be a clear varnish.

Reference: Hasluck, Paul M, Practical Graining & Marbling, Cassell & Co London, 1902

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