Brilliancy, beauty and intensity: Chrome Yellow in the Royal Pavilion

George IV’s eccentric tastes and careless spending habits explain the particularly exuberant colours in the Royal Pavilion. Pigments found in the palace tend to be of high quality and George embraced the use of new pigments to complement the exotic interiors. One of them was Chrome Yellow.

In an earlier blog post we introduced the blues; this month is all about the use of yellow, a colour associated with the Emperor of China, which George would surely have been aware of. However, Chinese colour symbolism appears not to have been one of his major concerns, since yellow is not used in the rooms most associated with the King. It is more likely that George simply liked the intensity of colours, pigments and surface finishes in general.

The two yellows identified in the Royal Pavilion are Turner’s Patent Yellow (in small quantities) and Chrome Yellow (in large quantities). Both are inorganic yellows that had only recently been invented and thus reflect the inventive and experimental tastes of George and his designers. The former has nothing to do with the painter J.M.W. Turner. It was a pigment patented by London colourman James Turner (d.1808) in 1781. He marketed it in 1787 as his ‘Patent Mineral Yellow’ and a good example of this colour in historic interiors is the Yellow Drawing Room in Sir John Soane’s Museum in London. In the Royal Pavilion patent yellow was found under blue bamboo borders in painted canvas decorations from c.1815 in the North Galleries, as well as on carved ornaments.

While yellow was a popular colour in fashion and, to an extent, in upholstery and interior decoration, it was unusual and controversial to choose highly saturated yellows that tended towards orange as dominant colours for interiors until well into the 1830s. This, of course, did not deter George from embracing the new, intense pigment Chrome Yellow, using it for entire suites of rooms in Carlton House (his London palace) and the Royal Pavilion. Chrome Yellow, or lead chromate, had been discovered in 1797 by the French chemist L.N. Vauquelin and was first made available commercially in Britain by the German Dr Bollman between 1814 and 1820. Its merit lay not just in its brilliance and stability, but in its usefulness in producing a range of greens when mixed with Prussian Blue.

Colour. Royal Pavilion Collection, Brighton
A fragment of the original ‘dragon wallpaper’ in Chrome Yellow, c.1821

In 1829 the colourman T. H. Vanherman commented: ‘chrome yellow surpasses every other yellow, for brilliancy, beauty, and intensity of colour, either as a full, or in its gradations when lowered with white. There are two sorts manufactured, the orange and the lemon: the first is a rich warm tint, the latter is cool, and elegantly delicate.’ Given the overall warm appearance of the chrome yellow used in the Bow Rooms it is likely that the former was used here. In 1845 the interior decorator and colour theorist David Ramsay Hay included chrome yellow in his Nomenclature of Colours and referred to it as ‘the purest’ of yellows.

Royal Pavilion Yellow Bow Rooms
The Yellow Bow Rooms in the Royal Pavilion as they look today

Chrome yellow was used extensively on upper floor of the Royal Pavilion, in the suite of Bow Rooms at the north-east end of the upper floor, almost as soon as it had become available commercially in Britain, and was possibly also used to create some greens, by mixing it with blue pigment (most likely Prussian blue). It is a good example of how George embraced new technologies and fashions, with little concern for the costs involved. By April 1821 the wallpaper hangers Robson and Hale had cut printing blocks in pear wood of the hand-painted ‘dragon paper’ design in the Red Drawing Room on the ground floor. The paper was printed on a chrome yellow ground in two shades for the Bow Rooms. The pigment was also identified on the window frames, which may slightly pre-date the wallpaper. While fragments of the original wallpaper survive, the paper that visitors see today was recreated in the late 1980s by John Perry Wallpapers (part of Cole & Son), using the same technology as in 1821.

Making the wallpaper in 1989

Image under consideration for Royal Pavilion multimedia tour 26 Sep 2012.
The making and replacing of the yellow dragon wallpaper in the Bow Rooms in 1989

A decorative scheme pre-dating the one from before 1821 also shows the Music Room Gallery (then known as the Yellow Drawing Room) painted in a vibrant yellow. Since no fragments of the decorations from that phase survive we cannot carry out pigment analysis, but the account books compiled by the Crace firm of decorators list charges for  ‘picking in the ground of the ornamental painting to walls light Chrome yellow’ in 1819.

puginbrighton
The ‘Yellow Drawing Room’ (later the Music Room Gallery), aquatint after Augustus Pugin, before 1821.

 

Alexandra Loske, Art Historian and Curator, The Royal Pavilion

Pavilion Tales: Alexandra Loske will give a talk about colour in the Royal Pavilion on 3 March 2016 at 12:00 pm. the Location: Music Room, Royal Pavilion. Free with admission. For more information go to http://brightonmuseums.org.uk/discover/events/event/pavilion-tales-2/