The initial results…

Below are excerpts from Dr Bucklow’s report on the 19 paint samples taken from the Breakfast Room and associated areas in May this year:

Report on paint samples from Osterley House, Breakfast Room.

  • The samples ranged from about half the size of a pin-head up to approximately two millimetres across.
  • The samples were mounted in polyester resin, ground and polished to reveal the paint stratigraphy and examined using optical microscopy. Selected samples were also examined with a scanning electron microscope in an initial attempt to identify some of the pigments.


It is difficult to state with confidence whether any of the 19 samples contains the original paint layers. Sample 1 is most likely to contain very early or original paint layers and the area from which it was taken (East wall window pier) could be explored further.

Sample 1.  Paint revealed by peeling back the lining on the east wall.

All samples with later paint layers suggest that the room’s relatively simple overall scheme of yellow and blue against a white ground was maintained, although some individual features that were blue in an earlier scheme changed to yellow in later schemes. The overall continuity of colours – blue, yellow and white – was achieved with a variety of paint media. Analysis has not been undertaken but the appearance of paint layers in cross section, when viewed in Ultra Violet light, suggests that distemper, oil and emulsion were all used at different times. 

Sample 10.  Suggesting a change in the colour of the dado field from blue to yellow.

The earliest yellows detected by Energy Dispersive X-ray (EDX) in these samples were earths and lead antimonate, a pigment that comes in both natural and synthetic forms, available from the seventeenth century and known in English from the eighteenth century as Naples Yellow, after the source of the natural version. This pigment continued in use into the twentieth century but the yellows found in later layers included a synthetic chrome compound. No original blues were found. The later blues are probably Prussian blue and possibly also synthetic organic dyestuffs. The discovery of titanium white in most of the later layers analysed by EDX indicates that they post-date circa 1920.

Bookcases in the ‘Secret’ Library Passage – possibly housed in the Breakfast Room as part of an earlier scheme:

Sample 17.  Bookcase skirting indicating the use of graining techniques.

Two layers of graining [present in this sample] appear to be based on earth pigments. The lower layer is more opaque and the upper layer is a medium-rich glaze […] They lie on a warm white priming that is probably lead-based and is intimately embedded in the wood grain. Two later white paint layers can be seen.

Dr. Spike Bucklow, June 2012


  • Research will continue into the relationship between the Library Passage and the Breakfast Room.  In the late 18th and 19th centuries graining was a popular technique used to simulate the grain of expensive, hard woods and its presence changes the way we view the, now stark white, bookcases in the Library Passage.
  • The paintings will be removed from the Breakfast Room walls and the room entirely stripped of it’s lining – this may present further opportunities for paint analysis and provide evidence of a door which once lead from the Breakfast Room to the Library Passage!

Thursday 17th May: Preparing for Paint Analysis

This week paint scrapes were taken from 19 locations in the Breakfast Room and associated areas. 

The samples were taken by Dr Spike Bucklow, Senior Research Scientist at the Hamilton Kerr Institute at the University of Cambridge.  The scrapes were taken in front of visitors who were able to ask questions as work progressed.

The first sample was taken from one of the recently revealed wooden battens which frame the plaster of the pier on the east (window) wall.   Excitingly this appears to be an early yellow paint but we will have to wait for the results of the analysis!

Samples were also taken from the cornices, skirting, dado field, ceiling and window architrave.  A further 2 samples were taken from one of the bookcases in the Library’s ‘secret passage’ – bookcases which may once have lined the walls in the Breakfast Room.

Friday 20 April 2012: The search begins…

Work to uncover the original 18th century colour scheme for the Breakfast Room began in earnest this week.  James Finlay, NT Advisor on Historic Interior Decoration and Ian Bristow, the advisor who worked on the Victoria and Albert Museum’s 1980s scheme, joined Lucy Porten (NT Regional Curator) and property staff to carry out an initial exploration of what lies beneath the existing paintwork.


  • The imitation of what was believed to be the 18th century fillet is removed from above the dado rail to allow the existing decorative material to be lifted from the wall.  Notice the blue paint work on the underside – this formed part of the colour scheme until mid-2011.


  • The existing decorative material is lifted from the wall in a single sheet.  This image shows the layers of paint and plaster that have been applied to the wall between 1949 and 2011.  It includes a shade of green originally applied to the walls by the V&A in the 1950s.


  • Under the sheet of decorative material, there is a Hessian covering – applied by the V&A in the 1950’s.  Beneath this is plaster set within a solid timber frame.  The timber frame contains nails which might have been used for attaching silk coverings to the wall at some point.

The next task will be paint analysis of the uncovered areas! 

The project…

In 2012 the National Trust at Osterley began a new project to redisplay one of the show rooms.

Revealing its true colours                                                                   

In 2011, the Breakfast Room was used as a film set and painted grey.  Using money raised from the filming, we will be restoring the original colour scheme and re-displaying the room as closely as possible to its 18th century appearance.

Unlocking the past

Finding out what the Yellow Breakfast Room used to look like is a painstaking process. 

We will use a variety of sources;

  • paint scrapes will reveal what paint and paper was applied in the past
  • 18th century buildings like Nostell Priory may give us some clues
  • original receipts, architectural drawings and descriptions from 18th century visitors  

How yellow is a lemon?

In 1772, Agneta Yorke visited the House and described the Breakfast Room as “a lemon colour with blew ornaments”. 

The famous 18th century architect, Robert Adam designed much of Osterley’s decoration. The decoration of this room may pre-date him but yellow and blue were colours he regularly used. 

Adam used wall colour to off-set design features and as a backdrop for paintings.  He also linked the colours of walls, curtains and soft furnishings to tie his designs together. 

This research will help us understand more about the level of Adam’s involvement in the original design.


Profiling the experts

Here is an idea of what some of the experts working behind the scenes do;

  • NT adviser on historic interior decoration: researches historic interiors and mixes paint colours to recreate lost colour schemes
  • Senior research scientist: analyses paint samples and carries out theoretical and practical research into paint pigment recipes
  • NT curator: researches and advises on the display of objects, rooms and buildings

Updates will appear on this blog as the project progresses so keep in touch!