How One Man Is Recreating Lost Colors

By Nancy Hass

Notes on the Culture

In an East London studio, Pedro da Costa Felgueiras spends his time stirring up ancient hues that are now too costly (or dangerous) to make.

The renowned paint specialist Pedro da Costa Felgueiras with his dog, Rita, at his studio in London.CreditCreditLaura Hynd

SOMETIMES LATE AT NIGHT in his workspace in London’s Shoreditch neighborhood, mortar and pestle in hand, the smell of fresh linseed oil perfuming the air, Pedro da Costa Felgueiras gets lost in a favorite fantasy: He has been commissioned to restore history’s most famous lost colors — those that originally adorned the marble statuary of ancient Greece.

“Historians now know they were all painted in color, but on the 3-D printed replicas, the hues are very garish,” he says, in a mellifluous accent that reflects both his Portuguese childhood and his nearly three decades in England, where he is now one of the most sought-after authorities on historic pigments and paints. “I dream of recreating them as they once were, thousands of years ago. Can you imagine the intensity, the truth?”

While most people think of paint as acrylic goop ready to pour out of cans and roll onto drywall, Felgueiras seeks out esoteric, difficult-to-handle alchemical ingredients — often derived from ancient recipes — and hand-blends them into compelling, long-forgotten shades for his London company, Lacquer Studios. His studio is a conjurer’s den: shelves of cloudy handblown bottles filled with powdered pigments, each tone subtly different and marked with a yellowed label; racks of wooden-handled brushes with bristles made from rat’s tail fur and the hair of pearl divers.

Felgueiras works on both public architectural restorations and private house commissions. To restore the decorative surfaces of buildings such as Strawberry Hill House, the English Gothic Revival villa in Twickenham built by Horace Walpole in the mid-1700s, or an 18th-century townhouse for the artists Gilbert and George in Spitalfields, London, he employs obscure hues like blue verditer, first concocted in the 17th century. He sources it from an elderly man in Nottingham who brews small batches from copper sulfate in the traditional manner: leaving it outside in midwinter and stirring it constantly for two to three weeks to prevent it from “going green.” “He works in a bird sanctuary, this man, so he can watch the birds all night and keep stirring,” says Felgueiras. “I don’t know what I will do when he can no longer do it.”

Vermilion red, made with mercury sulfide, king’s yellow, with arsenic, and ecclesiastical purple, made from blue verditer and cochineal mixed with rabbit-skin glue.CreditLaura Hynd

Though modern house paint is usually a benign mix of synthetic pigment, acrylic, water and fillers like clay or zinc oxide, in earlier eras, creating paint was a dangerous business. While some colors came from harmless organic sources — curdled milk, charcoal, mild mineral ores — others were toxic or unstable. Modern safety regulations have made scarce or extinct some of the shades that made historic structures and great paintings so vibrant: the lead-derived white that Vermeer used to depict sunlight; turbith mineral, or “queen’s yellow,” made from a mercury-based concoction; the arsenic-derived hues of the wallpaper that papered Napoleon’s prison home on the remote island of St. Helena (which some historians believe may have contributed to his death).

Much of Felgueiras’s time is spent tracking down the dwindling supplies of arcane ingredients to recreate these historical hues. There is ivory black, made from charred antique elephant tusks; cochineal, a lush scarlet pigment derived from crushed South American beetles, and vermilion red made from mercury, which is both poisonous and relatively volatile.

Still, some colors remain tantalizingly out of reach, including Arrabida red, which was sourced from a special limestone only found in a defunct Portuguese mine. “Mixed with white pigment, it explodes into incredible pinks,” Felgueiras says. “But for some reason, the elderly woman who owns the mine doesn’t want to reopen it again just for me.” Lost forever, as well, is Indian yellow, a transparent fluorescent glaze made from the urine of cows in rural India that had been fed exclusively on mango leaves. The color, which Felgueiras describes as “heartbreaking,” disappeared because the cows were undernourished by the leaves, which contain urushiol, the noxious ingredient in poison ivy. But Felgueiras never gives up hope that someone is hoarding a vial or two.

At any time, Felgueiras is working on just a handful of colors; generally, he can only complete one a day. The mixing process is arduous: Hand-grinding pigment can take hours, and the linseed oil, which binds the pigment, must be added carefully. Once applied, Felgueiras’s oil-based mixtures can take up to a week to dry entirely. Ancient finishes such as copper verdigris glaze, a metallic green, which was born in the Roman era and later revived during the chinoiserie craze of the 1750s, can require several coats to achieve the desired effect. And unlike today’s paints, which are designed for easy application and longevity (“Basically plastic,” Felgueiras says, with revulsion), some of these hues are, by nature, unstable. Van Gogh once wrote that “paintings fade like flowers”; today, art conservators have an evocative descriptor for the chameleon nature of such paint colors: fugitive. “They don’t just fade, they actually change,” Felgueiras says. “Which is part of their beauty.”

FELGUEIRAS’S OBSESSION WITH ancient shades began during his Lisbon childhood. The decorative hues of the city’s historic buildings — Palácio Pombal in Rua de O Século, which now houses a contemporary arts center, and Casa do Alentejo, a late 17th-century palace transformed into a Moorish fantasia around 1920 — and the incomparable light that illuminates them heightened his senses. He left Portugal at age 19 and eventually pursued conservation studies in London, finding a mentor in Margaret Ballardie, a revered English eccentric and specialist in japanning, a 17th-century Western European form of Asian lacquerwork.

Recently, Felgueiras, who also crafts craggy Portuguese cork vessels that he paints exotic shades — ecclesiastical purple, Oxford yellow, ultramarine green — and sells at the New Craftsmen gallery in London, has taken on one of his most quixotic projects yet. He has been contracted by Kew Gardens to recreate the iridescent winged dragons that were once affixed to the exterior of the 10-story octagonal Great Pagoda there, commissioned in the mid-18th century by Princess Augusta, mother of King George III. It’s been a particularly difficult task: There are no detailed renderings of the 80 lavishly painted wooden beasts, which quickly decayed after installation and later disappeared from the pagoda entirely (among his few references was an 18th-century poem by Erasmus Darwin, grandfather of Charles). And, as the newly restored pagoda has been judged too weak to support freshly carved timber versions, most of the new dragons will be 3-D printed from a lightweight thermoplastic often used for race cars.

Felgueiras, however, is undaunted. He is already figuring out how to mix colors that are as close as possible to what might have been used 250 years ago. And he has been assured that the dragons on the first floor of the pagoda will be carved anew from wood. On those he will lavish hours of labor. “You travel back in time to when safety, ease and money weren’t even given a thought,” he says. “All that mattered was how beautiful the effect was, what the color meant in a spiritual sense and how it made people feel, deep inside.”

Nancy Hass is the writer at large for T Magazine.