PEDRO DA COSTA FELGUEIRAS - HISTORIC PAINT AND LACQUER SPECIALIST
"I think people are generally becoming more interested in the human touch involved in making things. It is a natural reaction to the world we live in. We hanker for things that feel human."
PEDRO DA COSTA FELGUEIRAS
Originally from Portugal, Pedro Da Costa Felgueiras is a historic paint and lacquer specialist based in London. As a young boy growing up in Lisbon, Pedro was surrounded by old buildings and materials, however it was not until he moved to Britain that he became conscious of his fascination with them. After completing a course in conservation and restoration, Pedro opened a studio, which specialises in Oriental and European historic paint and lacquer techniques. Using workshop manuals and treatises from the past, he revives lost paint and lacquer methods. He also has recently turned his hand to creating bespoke pieces of furniture inspired by historic materials and methods. Heavily influenced by nature and the countryside, Pedro dreams of one day owning an old farmhouse in his native country, tending the land. For now, he lives in a Georgian terrace house in London, which he lovingly restored himself. Pedro has become a renowned expert in his field and has created paints for iconic buildings such as Strawberry Hill House. I spoke to him about how his upbringing in Portugal has influenced his work, the exotic ingredients he keeps in his workshop, some of his recent projects, his furniture designs and his experience at Burberry Makers House.
How did your upbringing in Portugal influence your interest in traditional materials?
I come from a family of craftsmen; my father was a carpenter who spent his time making furniture and wooden toys while my mother was a dress maker. My father also used to paint and I remember him filtering paints which is what I do now really. Sometimes I feel like I was born a couple of 100 years ago because all the buildings that I interacted with as a child were very old - my school, my mum’s office, the church. It was only when I arrived in Britain that I started to really appreciate and become fascinated with the buildings I had taken for granted growing up. I often go back to Portugal and find inspiration from looking at the old materials and buildings.
Is it fair to say that you are heavily inspired by nature and the countryside?
My grandparents lived in an old farmhouse in the countryside and I have fond memories spending time there when I was young. My grandmother had a magnificent garden, kept pigs, worked the land and made wine. I remember collecting the grapes and putting them in a large granite vat, which was big enough for 20 men to tread them. I have a very strong connection with nature and crave to spend time in the countryside, however it is not always easy as I am so busy. Some of the products that I sell through The New Craftsmen are inspired by trips to the Portuguese countryside.
What brought you to London?
I was working in Lisbon in the fashion industry but often travelled to Paris, Berlin and London. I eventually chose to stay in London because I thought it offered me a lot of opportunity. At the time, it was easy to find a job and I loved going to all the big London markets. I would often go to Brick Lane and buy loads of fascinating things for ten pounds. On the way home I would think about how I could restore and clean up the items I had just bought. I really wanted to find out more about the pieces I was buying at flea markets. I think so much can be learnt from the past and presented in a different modern way. After a few years of living in London I decided to do a Conservation and Restoration course at The Cass. After finishing the course I had a studio at Hackney City Farm; there was something idyllic about being in the middle of the city but also next to greenery and farm animals.
What is the difference between traditional mixed paints and plastic paints?
Modern petroleum based or acrylic paints have nothing whatsoever to do with historical paints. When I make my historical paints for a specific job I only use the materials and techniques that were originally used. I always use historical pigments in linseed oil and natural resins or water based medium proteins such as rabbit skin glue distemper. The texture, colour and reflective quality is completely different. Modern paints are a mere imitation. Also, an 18th century craftsman did not go a shop to buy a tin of paint. Everything was mixed onsite as needed. They had to be skilled and know how to manipulate their materials very well in order to achieve a good result. Very often, a particular colour was achieved, firstly by applying a coat of opaque under layer, followed by many transparent glazes.
Who has been the biggest inspiration in your career?
I met a very inspiring teacher while I was studying at The Cass called Margaret Ballardie; she came specially to teach japanning which is the English term for European lacquer and had lots of amazing workshop manuals from the 17th century. We often got them out to try different recipes together. She had read lots of books but had never found someone to try out recipes with so it was a great combination. It was an amazing experience - these old recipe books are not clear like a recipe these days. They are very lyrical and poetic so you stumble across the ingredients in the text. Some of the names have changed because lots of the materials came from the period when colonies were being created and the name depended on who was buying it and the country they were bringing it to. Things were not standardized back then like they are now.
What have been your most enjoyable recent projects?
So far, I have been lucky, I have found a niche clientele and they know what they want. Gilbert & George commissioned me to mix colours for their house and I recently restored Stawberry Hill House in Twickenham, an 18th century building that was completely lost. It had become a cottage and all the original work had been painted over. Through research we could ascertain and imitate what had been there. I then commissioned the same pigments that were originally used for the building. I was offered the project after I showed a former lecturer my own house. When I bought it, it was completely derelict, there was nothing apart from the walls. I have a special enjoyment of creating environments. I am currently doing a top-secret project which involves putting back details which date back to George III and all we have is letters and poetry to go on. It is a challenge but it is exciting.
What was your experience at Burberry Makers House like?
The interest of people in my work at Burberry Makers House was great; I remember gilding and losing track of where I was but when I looked up I was surrounded by people observing me. When I work, it is like a meditation. People often ask me what I am doing and it is difficult for me to explain because I am lost in concentration. I think people are generally becoming more interested in the human touch involved in making things. It is a natural reaction to the world we live in. We hanker for things that feel human. Things coming out of machine feel dead to me, there is no spirit. A big institution needs to make a point of moving away from modern plastic paints and promoting the survival of historical materials.
Is there a manual that you have a particular fondness for?
I very much love Stalker & Parker's 'A Treatise in Japanning and Varnishing', 1668. I love its poetic language and sweetness.
Please can you describe some of the exotic ingredients in your workshop that you use to mix paints?
Some of the materials I use in my work are very natural mined pigments, such as cochineal, rabiosque skin glue, and gold. Some, however, are highly toxic, such as arsenic that makes the most beautiful yellow, which was known in the 18th century as King's yellow. There is also mercury that makes bright Vermillion. But I have only used these once or twice in my career.
Please can you explain your love of Ecclesiastical Purple and why was it the perfect colour for the courtesan bed you designed?
The first time I used Ecclesiastical Purple was at the Holbein Chamber in Strawberry Hill House. It is a mixture of two of my favourite pigments: Cochineal and Blue Verditer. I know of only one man in Britain that is still making Blue Verditer. However, the Cochineal is used as a food dye, so it is relatively easy to obtain. In the 18th century, colours had special meanings and attributes. Ecclesiastical purple was associated with antiquity. With Strawberry Hill House, Horace Walpole was trying to create a highly theatrical ancestral castle. I also believe he coined this term in a very tongue & cheek manner, because of its association with the clergy and royalty. I thought it was a very appropriate colour to paint a bed which was inspired by the courtesan Harriet Wilson. She was known to have mingled with Kings, Dukes and even Bishops. She became quite famous when she decided to write a memoir and name her clients.
Is it fair to say that you are particularly passionate about chairs?
I do tend to make chairs, but I have also designed quite a few beds, which rarely get seen as they go straight into clients’ private rooms. I have also designed several tables, mirror frames and cork vessels. The pilgrim chairs I have made are quite striking and the connection to the Canterbury Tales characters seems to have caught people's imagination. There are many more pieces I want to create, I just have not had the time to do so yet.
Please explain your passion for cork?
Cork is a great material. It is extremely ecological, easy to work with and it comes from one of my favourite regions in the world, Alentejo, in Portugal. The cork vessels are very much inspired by this region and it's culture. This is where I would love to end my days in a big farmhouse, tending the land.