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Ribbon Mahogany
Modern graining samples showing the sequential layering of the ground, grain design, and varnishes.
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Wood Graining

Although the decorative finish at Mount Pleasant likely dates to the 18th century, faux finishes have been documented as early as the 13th century in England.2 The technique at Mount Pleasant imitates the appearance of wood, but similar methods can be used to mimic marble, tortoise shell, lapis lazuli, and other precious materials. Although one might assume that it is merely an inexpensive alternative to the real material, decorative faux finishes were highly regarded and have graced the halls of palaces and great estates all over the world.

Graining has enjoyed great periods of popularity over the last two hundred fifty years since Mount Pleasant was constructed, and the methods for creating the finishes have evolved. The graining at Mount Pleasant consists of two orange-brown layers of oil paint with bright red pigments on top. These red pigments were applied in oil, and the artisan likely used a fine brush or “pencil” to imitate the grain pattern. Later graining techniques in the 19th century often called for spirit (natural resin) glazes and varnishes, and the graining layers were applied in distemper (waterborne) binders, rather than oil binders. In addition, later techniques utilized specialized combs and brushes to achieve the designs, many of which are still used today. Painter’s manuals document these various methods and are a great resource for replicating historic finishes. Hezekiah Reynolds wrote one such guide in 1812 that describes a variety of painting techniques including faux finishing. In his description of “mahogany color” he writes, “For shading use a graining or flat brush, and lay the paint in imitation of Mahogany wood, of which have a sample handsomely polished before you.”3 He also describes a layering technique similar to that which is observed in the graining at Mount Pleasant, and he recommends the use of an oil binder rather than distemper. One of Reynolds’ contemporaries in England suggested that such methods were antiquated, indicating that his description could be more representative of the earlier techniques that were used in the 18th century rather than the 19th century.4

Side Chair: Decorated by John Philip Fondé, American, 1794 - 1831, working in Philadelphia 1816 – 1817 (upholstery removed)
Side chair, decorated by John Philip Fondé.
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In addition to graining architectural features, artisans would also decorate furniture with these faux finishes. The Philadelphia Museum of Art is fortunate to have some wonderful examples of grain-painted furniture, including a chair that was painted by John Philip Fondé in the first quarter of the 19th century. The body of the chair is painted with a light maple grain, and there are nine other chairs with the same decoration at various museums throughout the country. When the modern upholstery on the PMA’s chair was removed, rosewood graining was discovered on the crest rail. Further examination revealed that the entire surface of the chair was originally rosewood grained, although the design was rejected in favor of the lighter maple grain that is currently visible. Fondé’s signature was also discovered underneath the front seat rail, making it one of a handful of known examples of painted furniture that were signed by the decorator.5 Although the names of few decorative painters are actually known, their work is a joy to see. Be sure to look for the graining at Mount Pleasant and for more examples of grained finishes on your next visit to the Museum!

2. Bristow, I. 1998. The imitation of natural materials in architectural interiors. In Painted wood: history and conservation, eds. V. Dorge and F. C. Howlett. Los Angeles, California: The Getty Conservation Institute. p. 110.

3.Reynolds, H. [1812] 1978. Directions for House and Ship Painting: Shewing in a plain and concise manner, The Best Method of Preparing, Mixing, and Laying the Various Colours Now In Use. Designed for the Use of Learners. Facsimile reprint, with an introduction by Richard Candee. Worcester, Massachusetts: American Antiquarian Society. p. 19.

4. Whittock, N. 1828. The Decorative Painters’ and Glaziers’ Guide. London: Isaac Taylor Hinton. p. 37

5. See Kirtley, A. A. 2006. The painted furniture of Philadelphia: a reappraisal. The Magazine Antiques 169(5): 134-145.