Polychromy is the art of using many colors in decoration or architecture.
polychromatic wall

Burnished woodwork grounds polychromatic wall and ceiling papers illuminated by antique gaslight sconces.

The harmonious, daring, and historical use of color. It’s not new—the Parthenon, as you may know, was not always white, but was originally painted in many colors. Greek statues once were painted! And American Colonial interiors were not a sea of whitewash, after all. Washington used strong Prussian blue and verde green at Mount Vernon, and Jefferson chose chromium yellow for the dining room at Monticello.

For sheer complexity, however, nothing comes close to the polychromy of 19th-century Victorian interiors.

In the 18th century, using colors signified luxury and social status, as it was still laborious and expensive to produce stable colors from natural elements and pigments. The heyday of polychrome objects and rooms began in the mid-19th century, owing to the creation of synthetic aniline dyes. Strong, vivid colors were now available at reasonable cost. The so-called Mauve Decades produced not only that new hue, but also Saffranine Pink, electric Nicholson’s Blue, and the bright and beautiful Scheele’s Green, a deadly color made with arsenic, which eventually was banned in manufacture.

By the second half of the 19th century, homeowners could decorate in any color they chose. Lit by gas and kerosene lamps, interiors remained dim, so intense colors that could be appreciated in the gloom (but not so much under high-wattage electric bulbs) were favored: tertiary and forest greens, Indian red, royal blue. Tastemakers encouraged colorful, “artistic” interiors, calling them morally uplifting and promising they would lead to more fulfillment in life.

 A ceiling rosette by English designer Christopher Dresser, reproduced by Mason & Wolf Wallpapers, has Aesthetic colors with metallic accents.

A ceiling rosette by English designer Christopher Dresser, reproduced by Mason & Wolf Wallpapers, has Aesthetic colors with metallic accents.

Owen Jones’s spectacular Grammar of Ornament, published in 1856—an oversize, highly colored catalog of the polychromed ornament of cultures from Assyrian to tribal—exerted a major influence on color and design. Jones wrote: “Form without color is like a body without soul.”

Proper Victorian Polychromy By the 1850s there were virtually no restrictions on where to use color. Nevertheless, some rules apply if color and combinations are to be used successfully. Much of the advice that follows comes from color historian Dr. Kelly Wright.

The hues Early-19th-century interiors featured bright chromatic colors of red, green, yellow, and blue along with their lighter tints. By the mid-Victorian period, the two most prominent interior colors were green and red, in varying tone, shade, and saturation. The Late Victorians preferred large fields of deep, tertiary hues, perhaps softened with grey or cream grounds. These colors include rich walnut and mahogany browns, strong Indian reds, midnight blue, and black, complemented with secondary colors such as teal, plum, mustard-yellow and gold, burgundy, green (usually sage or olive), and such dusty hues as ashes-of-rose and mauve, the subdued purple prepared from an aniline dye dating to 1856.

pocket door with art glass, Victorian polychromy

Victorian polychromy in Seattle: Tertiary tones and repetition bring together the custom paper, stenciling, cranberry glass, and geometric tile in the conservatory beyond.

Paints were often “bronzed” with metallic powders to sparkle in the lamplight. A palette of brighter colors was always available; however, these were more likely used on surfaces in private rooms and to articulate exterior details.

the accents An important application of polychroming was on individual architectural or ornamental elements as a way to bring attention to their details. Interior mouldings and trim, chair rails, fireplace mantels, and even such ironwork as hall trees and stair railings had elements “picked out” in color. It’s an art to do this without creating visual clutter that spoils the integrity of the assemblage. Paneled doors were polychrome-painted to enhance the room. (The back was often different from the front.)

the models For inspiration today, Dr. Wright suggests a trip to the library, to look at period books that often contained color plates. (Dr. Wright frequents the Smithsonian National Museum of American History and the Athenaeum in Philadelphia.) Also, look for vintage, chromolithographed trade cards—you’ll find plenty on eBay. On an old card, one advertiser most helpfully suggested this scheme for a porte-coche`re: the soffit in blue to mimic the sky; pediment details in carnation pink; porch columns in grass green.

Advice from the past is a place to start, but an understanding of color makes it work.

Bradbury’s ‘Metford Frieze’ wallpaper

See how much brighter are the colors in Bradbury’s ‘Metford Frieze’ than in the ‘Jeffrey’ wall fill. Picking out a frieze color to use as wall paint would look jarring.

A Polychromatic Tapestry

Historically used to cover all four walls, and often the ceiling, wallpaper often has the most powerful impact in the decoration of a room. The rug, upholstery, a stencil, and even drapery does not equal the volume of wallpaper in what the eye takes in.

“Generally speaking, our palettes were inspired by tertiary wall colors popular in the late-19th century,” says Steve Bauer, owner of Bradbury & Bradbury Art Wallpapers. “Several of these were specified, when our company was founded, as wallpaper ground colors, and we continue to use the basic grounds as starting points for color compositions. Of course we have added to the handful of original ground colors over the years.

“From there, it’s a matter of choosing ink colors that lay restfully on the ground color. We used to muse that a good color composition, in the end, looked as though it were covered by a sheet of frosted Mylar—that is to say, blended. It’s in part due to the use of white to control the values and to settle the colors together. Greying a color by adding its complement is also a key to bringing a whole composition into balance and controlling the ‘chroma’ or intensity of a color.

“Another rule of thumb we use when putting colorings together is that color used over a wider area should (usually) be much softer than one used in a more focused area. Imagine the intense colors of wildflowers sprinkled over a soft green meadow. Thus, taking a bright color from a small element in a rug or a wallpaper, and painting the wall expanse with it, usually is not a good idea. That color will really assert itself.

1882 Queen Anne dining room

In an 1882 Queen Anne, the original wall decoration was re-created, setting an Anglo–Japanese theme. 

“One other tip: Unless the colors of the room are very, very light, don’t leave the mouldings white! White or too-light mouldings sandwiched between medium- or dark-value papers demand too much attention; to me, they look as though they are still wearing primer.

Should wallpaper be used to set a palette for the rest of the room? Because of its overwhelming impact, I don’t know why you wouldn’t play off it. Again, though, I wouldn’t recommend exactly matching any of the wallpaper colors for paint or the rug. If the overall effect of the wallpaper is blue, for example, you would get a very rich effect by complementing it with warmer tones, like oranges and golds. Complementary rather than matching colors enhance one another rather than compete.

This principle was used extensively by the Victorians, who reveled in complex harmonies. Our more modern tendency it to make sure everything matches. That’s not a scheme normally found in nature—which is a rich, polychromatic tapestry.” 

antique tasseled greeting card

An antique, tassled greeting card has a bright palette against grey and beige background colors.

OBJETS of many colors 

Polychromy isn’t just for walls and ceilings. A favorite application was on transferware china, developed in Staffordshire, England, in 1756, as an alternative to expensive, hand-painted imported chinaware. A printed pattern would be transferred onto a copper plate and then onto the pottery. Thousands of patterns were produced in brown and white, blue and white, green and white, or multiple colors. A guest might dine off a plate with
a scene of Yosemite in blue, green, and red . . . or with a tranquil japonesque landscape done in soft pastels. Collectors today often mix and match colors and patterns. See transcollectorsclub.org

Then Came Arts & Crafts

The Arts & Crafts Movement (roughly 1860-–1900 in England, 1890-–1925 in the U.S.) was famously a reaction against Victorian excess—of clutter and even in pigments. The Craftsman palette was inspired by nature, softer and earthier, never too bright or vibrant, meant to complement or embrace, never to compete, with furnishings. The period’s fumed oak furniture and green and amber pottery set the tone. Brass and copper, burlap and linen provided calm accents.

But don’t make the mistake of thinking that bungalow-era interiors were dull. Nature’s colors can be strong or saturated, including the era’s popular aubergine (dark eggplant purple), Hubbard squash (yellow-orange), and zucchini (unapologetic green). Soothing natural colors were used over the broadest expanses. Think of the colors of feldspar, slate, river rock, wheat and straw, of terra cotta and the vibrant yet dusky hues of fallen leaves in autumn. Dark colors and tones were reserved for woodwork, most often finished in clear oil or varnish and thus the color of the wood: Douglas fir, oak, chestnut. Light-painted trim was common in bedrooms and service areas.

bungalow polychromy

In a 1906 bungalow, colors were taken from majolica.

Stronger colors were used as accents, whether a pillow with embroidered poppies or a pattern stenciled in the frieze or on ceiling beams. Decoration was varied and included stylized landscapes, Art Nouveau thistles, Mackintosh roses, and even inspiring words hand-painted on walls. Stencil colors included sealing-wax red, Indian yellow, and indigo blue (all used in moderation).

By now, rooms were better lit and corners had been decluttered. Heavy drapery was replaced by muslin curtains and roller shades. The palette evolved for interiors now bathed in steady electric light, albeit at much lower wattage than we’re used to today. Wall paints were soft and chalky, never shiny or glossy.

A common decorating tip is to “start with the carpet” when selecting colors. Bungalows and Craftsman houses generally had finished wood floors softened with area rugs, not the wall-to-wall carpeting used in finer Victorian parlors. Rugs ranged from traditional Turkish, Persian, and oriental designs to Morris’s hand-woven wool Hammersmith and Donegal carpets, and to Native American rugs. It’s not necessary (or even advisable) to exactly match a color in the rug. Rather look for a complementary tone that, when seen against the rug, is harmonious.

Serious Color

Dr. Kelly Wright, who teaches American history at the University of Cincinnati, specializes in the social and historical significance of color in 19th-century decorative arts. She’s an old-house aficionado: “My father was an architect involved in local preservation, and as a kid I really wanted to live in a haunted house!” she says. “People who salvage old buildings give them a way to survive for posterity.” Dr. Wright explains that polychroming in the early 19th century arose from a fascination with and celebration of the human imagination, expressed through material objects and architectural details. wrightky@ucmail.uc.edu

Look up to Color

Ornate ceiling

Not all late-Victorian schemes were done in tertiary colors. This ceiling and frieze treatment in an 1892 Renaissance Revival Manhattan brownstone by architects Neville & Bagge exemplifies Victorian Neoclassicism.

The ceiling—an unbroken “fifth wall”—is important to a properly polychromatic period room. Elaborately painted, wallpapered, and stenciled patterns were all the rage during the Victorian Aesthetic Movement era (roughly 1872–1890). Between the wall and ceiling, embossed Lincrusta–Walton and Anaglypta friezes were embellished with glazes or metallic paints, faux-finished to mimic leather, or their designs picked out in polychrome. More classical treatments incorporated plaster ornament and pastels, or a hand-painted ceiling mural with allusions to the Renaissance.

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