Analysis of Red Washes in the Montpelier Region

Investigation Summary


In her analysis of red washes in the region surrounding Montpelier (click here for Dr. Bucks initial investigation introduction), Dr. Susan Buck collected a total of seven samples from four buildings. The buildings included Somerset (Orange County, circa 1800), Birdwood (Albemarle County, circa 1819) and University of Virginia’s Pavilions I (Albemarle County, 1819-1822) and VIII (Albemarle County, 1822). Somerset was sampled because of its proximity to Montpelier, its association with James Madison’s sister and its circa 1800 construction date. Birdwood and the Pavilions were selected because they were built by Jefferson-related craftsmen and maintain a high-level of exterior integrity. The sample locations from the Pavilions were also selected with the help of Dr. Gerald Lynch, who attempted to select areas where he saw possible traces of a surviving glue-based color wash.

The best samples of red wash from the study came from behind shutters at Somerset and Birdwood as well as the first sample taken from Pavilion VIII. A red colored wash was also found on Pavilion VIII sample II, but a strong positive reaction for proteins in the sample’s substrate suggested a glue based color wash instead of a lime wash. Because this was the only sample that possibly showed a glue-based wash, the sample was further analyzed by Winterthur’s SRAL. SRAL used SEM-EDS (scanning electron microscopy analysis with energy Dispersive X-ray Spectroscopy) testing to determine the samples elemental components. The SEM-EDS confirmed that the top wash layer was most likely a lime-based red wash (calcium, iron and lead (from red lead) were all recorded), and no aluminum or potassium (the main ingredients in alum) was identified in the wash itself. Dr. Buck hypothesizes that the proteins found in the brick substrate could have resulted from milk or glue being added the lime wash, although it is also possible that a dilute glue-based color wash was initially applied to the brickwork. Even if the exact composition of the original wash for the sample is not known, the analysis still demonstrates that traces of a protein based wash can be identified using Dr. Buck’s procedures. Because historic proteins in the brick substrate can be observed in the tests, other glue-based washes would have been identified in the Montpelier samples analyzed by Dr. Buck.

No red wash was found for Pavilion VIII sample III (although a grayish lime was found) and no washes of any type were found on the single sample from Pavilion I (only traces of oil in the brick substrate were found, indicating that they are possibly oil struck bricks).


Inventory of Samples


  • One Sample was taken from behind a shutter on the south elevation to the east of the front door.
    • A series of three washes were found (with a paint layer capping the series). Only the bottom layer was a red pigmented wash (the second paint layer was dark-tan while the third layer was grayish-white).
    • The red wash layer was very degraded, but cross-section analysis confirms that it is composed of red ocher and calcium carbonate.


  • Two Samples Taken
    • Sample 1 is from a protected area behind a shutter
    • Sample 2 is from an exposed area near the first sample
  • Susan found one layer of a “relatively thick” red wash in the protected area
  • Pigments were almost completely composed of red ocher with some burnt sienna and calcium carbonate (identified with polarized light microscopy).

University of Virginia Lawn

    • Taken from an area identified by Dr. Gerald Lynch as being a traditional red color wash
    • One thin, uneven layer with a weak protein reaction
    • Most likely a lime based red wash due to calcium carbonate particles distributed throughout the sample
    • The wash is similar in appearance to a sample found by Ray Cannetti between the 1809 and circa 1850 reglets on the south elevation of Montpelier
    • Again taken from an area identified by Dr. Lynch as having a surviving red color wash
    • One thin layer was found that is comparable to Wayne’s color wash mock up in cross-section
    • Strong positive reaction for proteins in brick substrate
    • Pigment analysis (polarized light) identifies the pigments as iron oxide, calcium carbonate and red lead
    • Susan identifies this coating as a lime wash, but it might be a color wash that was later coated with a lime wash (strong reaction for protein). Click here for an elemental analysis of the sample.
    • Taken from an area identified by Dr. Lynch as being representative of a later red lime wash campaign used to disguise whitish/gray paint drips
    • Gray paint is probably a pigmented lime wash and red paint that overlays it is actually an oil based paint
    • Traces of oil were found in the brick substrate, possibly identifying oil struck bricks
    • Sample taken from a group of bricks that are “darker and glossier” than most of the bricks
    • No evidence of a lime wash, color wash or any sort of coating
    • Strong reaction for oil in brick substrate, possibly indicating that they are oil struck bricks.

3 Responses to Analysis of Red Washes in the Montpelier Region

  1. Peter says:

    Hi, do you think that these washes were used in conjunction with Tuck Pointing or Pencilling (using a lime distemper on the mortar joints)? Any idea if tuck pointing was even carried out at this time in the local area?

    • Hi Peter,
      When we started the restoration, we thought there might be penciling. However, analysis of the residue proved it to be metallic, so what we thought might be penciling was tool-marks. At this point we do not believe there was any penciling on the mansion.

      Thanks for reading!

  2. Sam Elswick says:

    There is some evidence that our house, which dates to around 1830 in nearby Orange, also had a red wash, so I read this entry with interest.

    I’d like to read more about it, because what you discover about Montpelier can greatly inform my own research into my own house’s history!

    I do know that in the 1980s, our house had red paint on it, which a previous owner subsequently stripped in 1989. There is also some evidence of the red brick having once been painted white, prior to being painted red. However, even after stripping, some of the bricks still have some red on them, which may or may not be the result of an earlier red wash.

    As you discover more about the red wash, please keep us informed!

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