Two hundred years in 40 layers of paint


Refurbishment work on 45 Grafton Street located in an Architectural Conservation Area and in Dublin’s primary retail thoroughfare, has provided an opportunity to reflect on the building’s 200 years of history and the importance of preserving our architectural heritage.  The work was carried out for Adecco by the specialist Building Pathology department of Watts, a leading European practice of international property and construction consultants.


Stephen Scott in Watts’ Dublin office said: “Period buildings can reveal a wealth of information about their settings and the fashions and tastes that moulded them.   The buildings that line Grafton Street have seen their fare share of events that helped to shape the history of the city, and indeed the country, over two centuries.”


Amongst its many requirements for repair, No 45 had a failed paint finish to the brick exterior.  Upon closer inspection, Watts noticed what appeared to be a hard cementitious layer of material stuck to the original brickwork, grey in colour and debonding from the base material.  Following Best Practice, a paint analyst was engaged to establish the composition of this material prior to redecoration to ensure that the new decorative materials would be compatible.


Paint samples were taken, set in resin, polished and put under the microscope to expose a cross section of forty odd layers of paint.  Further micro-chemical tests then helped identify the different pigments used over the years from the early traditional lead whites to the modern titanium white.

“Like the rings in a tree, the layers of paint were instrumental in dating the building.  With the knowledge of the paint types used and when they were first introduced, we can accurately date this building from the late 18th century”, says Stephen.  “This building has stood witness to the changing face and fortunes of the city and some of the more significant events in the city’s past.”


In the course of the 18th century, the narrow medieval streets of Dublin, capital of the English-run Kingdom of Ireland, were being replaced by the large Georgian streetscapes.  During this time Dublin grew to become the second largest city, after London, in the British Empire!


Whilst Grafton Street and the area around it survived with its medieval street pattern intact, the original buildings gave way to Georgian replacements in a mixture of commercial and residential use.  It was in this era of prosperity that the owners of No 45, commissioned the painting of the newly completed structure.


The first coat was based on white lead, which consisted typically of 80% white lead powder, produced by the Dutch or stack process and ground together with a balance of linseed oil binder and turpentine solvent.   The addition of more oil produced a glossy weather resistant paint for use outside and more turpentine gave a matt finish more suitable for use inside.


“However,” says Stephen, “the street was hardly completed when the city, with its Protestant Ascendancy, was reeling from the shock of the 1798 rebellion as the native Irish demanded an independent democratic republic.  State response was swift and before the second layer of paint had dried on No 45, the 1801 Act of Union was introduced, dissolving the Irish parliament and creating the Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, ruled from London.”


The effect on Dublin was significant.   Hundreds of English peers and Members of Parliament and their retinue of servants, who had regularly arrived in the capital to attend the sessions of Parliament and take part in the social season, sold up their Dublin homes and returned to London.   The city declined in wealth and importance and many of its once elegant Georgian neighbourhoods rapidly became slums.


Throughout the 19th century, the population of the city continued to grow due to rural migration and by 1900 it was over 400,000.   But as it grew so too did the level of poverty and the number of tenements.  The period was also marked by continued political unrest and sporadic outbreaks of violence.  By the mid-Victorian period, Grafton Street was becoming a street of shops which according the Dublin Builder of 1862, ‘abounds in old premises in need of doctoring up’.


“However, in spite of these hard times, paint analysis shows that No 45 Grafton Street was redecorated on a regular basis.   There is no doubt that the continual upkeep of the protective paint finish contributed to the preservation of the building over the years.”  The Guinness brewery, the Jameson whiskey distillery and Jacob’s biscuit factory were regular employers and then when World War l started in 1914, thousands of working class Dubliners joined the British Army.


1916 was marked by the Easter Rising when much of the city centre was destroyed by shellfire in a weeklong battle between Irish rebels and British troops.   The shops on Grafton Street were likely to have been amongst those that were looted and ransacked by opportunists.  The streets of Dublin continued to erupt with violence during the War of Independence from Britain and the civil war which followed, before the establishment of the Irish Free State.  Soon after, Europe was at war again.


“As if to reflect the mood of the first half of the 20th century, the house on Grafton Street was painted in a series of greys,” says stephen.  “Only the first few layers of grey were lead based.   With improving technology, and because of the health risk associated with metal-based pigments, safer modern synthetic equivalents were introduced.”


From the 1950s onwards, Georgian Dublin came under sustained attack of a different kind.  The Government of the day developed policies and combined forces with eager speculators to demolish large numbers of Georgian houses, replacing them with utilitarian office blocks or pastiche schemes.  Nearby St Stephen’s Green was a casualty to this so called ‘progress’ but the buildings on Grafton Street survived largely intact.


The two most recent layers of paint on the building are based on titanium dioxide white which became available in commercial quantities in the mid 20th century, replacing lead white.  The scarcity   of modern paint layers suggests either that previous paint schemes were scraped off prior to redecoration or that there have been only two decorations in the last few decades.


The 1990s brought much needed conservation legislation and preservation orders were put on most of Dublin’s Georgian neighbourhoods, including Grafton Street.   The purpose of this was to protect the city’s architectural heritage through sympathetic maintenance, adaptation and re-use, whilst retaining the character and special interest of the buildings.


“It was with these principles in mind, that the preparation and redecoration of the façade of No 45 was undertaken”, reports Watts. Analysis had shown that there was no evidence of any cement based masonry coatings or general incompatibility between the many coats within the samples taken.  Any problems with adhesion had occurred at the interface of the earliest paint layer and the surface it was applied to. 


“So all loose, flaking and defective paint was painstakingly removed,” says Stephen, “to give a firm and stable edge, using hand tools like decorators’ filling knives, scrapers and stiff bristle brushes.  Following this treatment, the surface was de-dusted and wet-cleaned by hand with a sponge and sugar soap mix.  Repairs to cracks and fissures were then carried out to prevent water ingress and when the surface was finally prepared and dry, breathable, water-based masonry paint was applied to ensure a satisfactory level of protection was achieved that would not require excessive maintenance.”

Stephen concludes.


In refurbishments of old buildings, the paint layers are often stripped and the valuable forensic information they contain is lost.   Building surveyors are aware of the importance of paint analysis in order to identify and preserve any original or early decorative schemes of interest, whilst at the same time understanding the need for continued careful maintenance, so that existing structures such as 45 Grafton Street survive into the future.


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