Across the Colour Spectrum: Decorating in White

Detail of a George II Carved White Painted Mirror in the manner of John Vardy Mackinnon Fine Furniture Collection

Detail of a George II Carved White Painted Mirror in the manner of John Vardy
Mackinnon Fine Furniture Collection

Our next stop on the decorating colour spectrum is white.  Before we get started, it is worth defining what ‘white’ actually is as there is a debate as to whether white is a colour or not.  According to the additive colour theory white is, technically, a colour as it is the blending of all colours (although black is not: it is absence of colour).

Leaving the science behind, let’s look at the history of the colour white in art and decoration.  Given Leonardo da Vinci’s ever growing popularity (thank you, Salvator Mundi), we can turn to one of his oft repeated quotes: ‘For those colours which you wish to be beautiful, always first prepare a pure white ground.’  White has always been a fundamental colour in the history of art, starting with the white chalk drawings of the Lascaux Cave in France by paleolithic artists between 18,000 and 17,000 years ago.  In ancient Rome, the plain white toga was the traditional garment at all ceremonial occasions, and the early Christian church adopted the colour white as the colour worn by priests and the pope.

White Palladian Ceiling

Design for a Palladian ceiling, 18th century 
Metropolitan Museum of Art

When it comes to interiors, Georgian design offers a plethora of impressive and enviable designs.  Palladian architects, such as William Kent and his contemporaries, associated white with the very antiquity they sought to revive.  This design for a ceiling from the time shows a variety of classical motifs that would have been executed in white plaster.

cropped to image, recto, unframed

Arthur Devis, Mr and Mrs Hill 
Yale Center for British Art Collection

The painting Mr and Mrs Hill by Arthur Devis shows the pair sitting in a white interior with an Italianate landscape hanging above the chimneypiece and framed by an elaborate carved frame, also done in white to match the mantlepiece.

A 0077

Louis XV Room attributed to Jean François Roumier 
Metropolitan Museum of Art

These white interiors were not only reserved for English interiors: French and Italian design schemes of the 18th century often revolved around the colour white.  The Louis XV room attributed to Jean-François Roumier shows white panelling accented by gilded decoration.  The French writer Jean-Félix Watin wrote a design manual entitled L’Art de faire et d’employer le vernis and suggested, ‘blanc de Roi [a white distemper] is the friend of gold; that is to say, it makes the gold sparkle and stand out more because of its beautiful matte surface.’

French white table Met

French console table, circa 1780-90 
Metropolitan Museum of Art

To echo the white interiors, cabinetmakers often painted furniture white in the imitation of marble and plaster.  The above console table is made of carved oak that has been painted white to imitate marble, and it has been topped with a marble slab.

A George II Carved White Painted Mirror in the manner of John Vardy Mackinnon Fine Furniture Collection

A George II Carved White Painted Mirror in the manner of John Vardy
Mackinnon Fine Furniture Collection

We recently acquired this exceptional George II white carved mirror attributed to John Vardy.   It would have likely originally hung in a room with white marble and plaster decoration with similar Palladian and rococo themes.


A Pair of Louis XVI White Painted Armchairs 
Mackinnon Fine Furniture Archive

This exceptional pair of Louis XVI white painted chairs was likely part of a suite of furniture supplied to the château de St. Cloud in 1785.  The château de St. Cloud was built during the second half of the 17th century by the Duke Philippe of Orléans, King Louis XIV’s only brother.  The suite was destined for the Salone de Diane, one of the salons in the King’s apartments.

Dewing White

Thomas Wilmer Dewing, The Lettercirca 1895-1900 
Metropolitan Museum of Art

The white interior did not disappear at the end of the 18th century–it has continued to be a popular choice for all different types of rooms across many cultures.  Thoms Wilmer Dewing’s painting of The Letter demonstrates how powerful and evocative the simple white wall can be as a backdrop to a scene.  Today, the white interior is associated with the ‘White Cube’ popularised by contemporary art galleries.  But let’s not forget the rich history of the colour white and its role in both architecture and furniture in the decoration of interiors.

One thought on “Across the Colour Spectrum: Decorating in White

  1. Pingback: Happy Birthday to… Us! One Year of Blogging | The Source

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