Edward Bulmer of Edward Bulmer Natural Paints speaks to Kathryn Singer of the BADA about his paints and how to use them in interiors filled with antiques and art, his hopes for the wider eco goals of the industry and the collaborative process of designing the new logo for the inaugural BADA Week 2021.
K: Some of our readership won’t be aware of the Edward Bulmer brand, so tell us a bit about your history with antiques, your involvement with the industry, and how it all started. How did you get into this?
E: I grew up in a house full of antiques. And that was because it was bought as an empty house by my parents and using antiques was really the most suitable way to furnish it because it was a big old Georgian rectory. In those days, there’d be good provincial dealers everywhere. My father had started buying in Cambridge, but he would go down to the lovely Phillips of Hitchin. They used to have the best book lists of any book dealer around.
K: So, do you collect books now because of your father’s interest?
E: I collect books in the sense of books I think I need. I don’t knowingly collect antiquarian books, but I used to spend weekends in the house I grew up in going off to antiques dealers to buy books and furniture. I worked briefly in non-arty jobs, and my grandmother had a flat in London that she wasn’t using anymore, and I took it on. There came a moment where it was right to sell it, and with the money I spent pretty much the whole lot on furniture and pictures.
K: Oh wow, what a dream! And how did that investment turn out in the long run?
E: Well, we were here for about three years and we took that time to work out what we wanted to do to make it into a family house. When we were ready to, in order to raise the money, I sold half of what I had bought. I certainly got more than my money back. The other half, or a good slug of it, I’ve sort of gradually weeded out. Sold most of my pictures, which is kind of odd in a way, because pictures are the thing I’m really interested in.
It’s all pretty much gone now. Now, we’ve had fun commissioning people to do newer things. But still, you can’t really go into a room in this house and not see antiques, or pictures, or traditional notions of decorating and detailing.
K: It’s interesting to hear that this is something that you naturally fell into. It’s also how I got into antiques and subsequently working for the BADA, I bought an old farmhouse in Herefordshire that was big and empty and I was coming from London and needed to fill it, and the furniture I was bringing wasn’t going to work in a place like that.
If you think about a wonderful piece of antique furniture, most people will enquire about how it should be looked after. If you’ve bought a lovely old house, isn’t it the same thing?
E: Yes, and my father bought very well, circumstances allowed him to. I felt emboldened to walk through the door of some of those dealers because of him. They had such knowledge, such knowledge. What you learn is so valuable, you get tours of amazing museum-quality pieces in the shops. Even when you think you’ve seen every George III commode, there’s always another one, there’s such inventiveness and joy in materials and craftsmanship. I’ve never seen antiques anywhere else in the world that have satisfied me, honestly, like British antiques do. Even if you buy a run-of-the-mill country piece, there will be character, and it will be made of good wood, and there’ll be a sense of lots of people having found it useful over the centuries. I don’t think you can really beat that.
K: So, your interests obviously very much started in antiques, and interiors, and inside the home. How did that then lead you onto starting the paint company?
E: I was bought up in an old farm house and those notions of everything ultimately having an honest provenance got instilled in me early. Before my parents sold the farm, I was thinking, “let’s take this on, we’ll turn it organic,” and at that point, in my mid-20s, the penny dropped. That economies didn’t run the world, ecology ran the world. We completely lost sight of that, in all walks of life. I met an amazing man called Alec Cobbe, who’s own practice was principally picture restoration. He got involved in a lot of design projects and picture hanging, and we basically covered the country. I became very confident in that field, of the country house still lived in. We did a bit of National Trust work but mainly we were working for private families. After six years, my wife and I set up on our own. We got a few early country house commissions, and Goodwood was one of them. They were building onto the house, and I was asked to decorate it.
K: That must have been a very exciting commission at the time!
E: They were incredibly warm, inspiring, impressive people. Janet said to me, “you will make sure everything you use is healthy and environmentally responsable.” She was the first client who ever asked me to do that. It felt amazing, so I took on the brief head-on. I use wood, stone, marble, leather, cotton, silk, natural material. They’re basically harmless and environmentally responsible. Of course, the big part of any room scheme is likely to be paint, and that’s where I realized there wasn’t an option.
K: So, you noticed a hole in the industry that wasn’t being filled and decided to do something about it?
E: Actually, it was a completely opaque industry full-stop. Look at the adverts for paint, there were old English sheep dogs…you know, what’s that got to do with paint? So, it gave me license to find out. I really had to dig. All the paint suppliers I spoke to didn’t know or didn’t want to tell me. So, I dug around. That’s when I realized that the back-catalogue of the industrial paint industry is a horror story. It’s literally killing people, and started a long time ago, you know, with lead poisoning. In more modern times, the industry regulated itself but effectively the craft of paint-making died, and the new industry of chemical paint-making took its place. It’s next to the oil refineries, it’s a connection we don’t make because it says eco-friendly on the tin.
I had brilliant painters, and Charles Hesp was able to come to my rescue, he knew an importer of natural paints, and he could handle it. So, we mixed up a colour and put it up, and job done. But then, like with an old piece of furniture, you start to look at all the things that speak to you, like the patina on an old commode.
K: So in some ways it’s the imperfections in finish that make it have more character, or personality, right?
E: Yes, with some natural paints, it’s not possible to get it on like a uniform, careful film, so it’s got lots of life, it’s really beautiful. That got me thinking, maybe there’s more to this. We were using pigments, plant oil binders, water, and where it was solvents it was natural solvents like orange peel oil.. If you think about a wonderful piece of antique furniture, most people will enquire about how it would be looked after. If you’ve bought a lovely old house, isn’t it the same thing? Why would you put rubbish paint on it? Why would you ignore the fact that the mainstream products for painting are not embodying any of the characteristics that an old building needs, primarily: breathability? You’ll know this, because you’ve lived in a drafty old house…
K: I have lived in a drafty old house! It’s one of those things where I discovered your paint myself because I was looking for breathable paint brands. The previous owners had mixed their own paints, and I had to learn how to touch it up or put a new colour up. I had to learn a lot of information really quickly, because as you were saying, I was only familiar with these mainstream paints.
But, rooms that are intriguing, like when the curves of a piece of antique furniture speak to something else, and those elements are what leave you chattering away once you’ve left it.
E: Yes, breathability is so important. Modern acrylic paints just don’t have the chemical structure that allow that micro-porosity, and on the whole, natural materials do. It’s a bit like, you know, if you make your own soup, it’ll have a few bits in, but if it’s in a factory it will become so homogenized it becomes impermeable.
K: I saw that you decorated a space in the House & Garden Festival in 2018, so we’re going back a few years here, but I was excited because you included several BADA Members’ stock in your design. What’s your ethos or inspiration when it comes to mixing the old and new?
E: It’s become today’s thing. I call it the Chatsworth effect - It’s not hard if you’ve got a Lucien Freud and a Gainsborough. Of course, but in that lies the answer, really. If pieces are on an equal level quality-wise they will usually be happy together
K: So, quality works well with quality, then.
E: I think so, because design intent has no boundaries, really. But, if you design well, then it should stand the test of time. You might have a 17th century coffer, and hang a regency mirror over the top, and no one would think you were doing anything odd. And yet, there’s 200 years between them.
K: Yes, and I think sometimes that ultra-modern spaces actually complement antiques quite well, particularly ones going further away from modern times.
E: I agree, and I think that what’s exciting in a room is if the things in it, like objects, have dialogue with each other. Modern furniture isn’t really aiming for that, and it leaves me cold if I’m honest. But rooms that are intriguing, like when the curves of a piece of antique furniture speak to something else, and those elements are what are chattering away once you’ve left it.
K: So, if someone is new to choosing colours to accent the art and antiques in their home, what tips would you have for them? Like, if someone can’t get away from using magnolias, or whites, or off-whites, if they want to go bolder, what would be some tips for that?
E: I would just ask them to reflect on that everything they own has got some colour. If it is a piece made of wood, that wood has got the colour it’s got because the tree brought up minerals from the soil, grew, and so its pigmentation is from the Earth. Before modern chemistry, essentially that’s where all paint materials had to come from as well. What I think you need to combine this harmoniously is that common language, which I call tonality. In every colour, even our stronger colours there are earth pigments. Earth pigments are like seasoning in cooking, like salt and pepper, and every dish needs a bit of seasoning. The one colour that never existed in the past is Brilliant White.
K: Basically the most unnatural of all colours, Brilliant White.
E: Exactly. So, if you want to fail in my opinion, just go and get that.
K: Anything with Earth pigments in it, then.
E: Yes, you haven’t bought your furniture or your paintings to be in a frigid space, nor have you bought them because you want yourself to be uncomfortable with them, and I never felt that comfortable in rooms like that. You can decorate in quite an over-clinical way if you’re too focused on precious objects.
K: Yes, so things look best when they’re lived in?
E: I think so, and they shouldn’t be abused, you should be careful, but they are liveable. When you buy old things, it is important to build up a rapport and trust with the seller, and I think that the internet has kind of not helped us there.
K: Yes, it’s good to build up a relationship with your furniture, your picture, your book, your art dealer. It’s something that we at the BADA have long supported and always look to support, the information and knowledge of our members - the internet has in some ways detracted from that personal relationship.
E: Nevertheless, if a good dealer is selling online, you should be getting a good, honest product still. I think it’s a pity that there isn’t an antique shop on every high street. If you look at antiques, and if you talk to dealers, you learn about the construction of furniture, as well.
K: That’s something that we find at the BADA, is that the difference between being in an antique shop and being in the British Museum, for example, is that a dealer can show you. They can turn items upside down and explain things to you. They’re so excited about what they sell and want to tell you about it; our members are deeply passionate people.
E: And also, if you’re interested in old architecture, you can’t fail but be interested in the furniture that furnished those places, too.
K: Exactly. Historic architecture and art and antiques go hand in hand! What’s your favourite of the paints you’ve created?
E: Evie and Luca are part of the nursery range that were so popular we added them to the main colour chart –I really like them. The colours we’ve had on Masterpiece, Edward Hurst used London Brown to great effect, I would say that most of our colours look pretty damn good with antiques.
We’ve gone for Invisible Green for the BADA Week 2021 logo. Invisible Green really is our colour of the moment, the reason that it was called Invisible Green is that if you painted a fence outside, it would disappear into the landscape. All our paints are really aimed at interiors, so in a kind of subversive way I’ve decided to call it Invisible Green, as though it’s supposed to be exterior. It literally brings the outside, in. It seemed quite suitable.
K: Could you touch a bit on the eco nature of your paints, and in relation to antiques? Do you think this should be discussed more in the wider trade? You obviously have a firm background in antiques and know that some parts of the trade are not as focused on this as others.
E: Well, big question. I think you’ve got to literally hate your fellow man to not be concerned about the pressures that we are putting on the planet. We should nourish it and look after it. The idea that you just extract resource from the Earth, scar it, and then just do with that stuff what we do in the polluting way we do it, so that it then gets transferred from its harmless state into gaseous stuff that is literally warming the planet, really there is no discussion to be had. If you know that’s happening, you must want to change it. Everybody who is lucky enough to do anything to do with wood, or to be in the antiques trade, where you’re not making much new but you are repurposing resources, I think that you might say, “fine, I can tick a box, I’m clean and green”, but we could look further than that. Perhaps, the next time I send something to a client, I’ll think more about the transport, how it’s wrapped, and so on. Frankly, in marketing terms, the trade is missing a trick.
K: And there’s such an appetite for it from the buyer’s side, people are more educated about this than they were, you know, five years ago. People are now coming with those questions and are aware of how it affects their future.
E: Yes, and I think the one thing we’ve learnt selling paint is: by being honest, we can’t lose, really. I think that we can all just be a little bit more conscious of that.
K: Well, Edward, thank you so much for speaking with me. I’ve really enjoyed learning more about your natural paints and your perspective on the art antiques industry. It’s really inspiring to hear your thoughts on the way we should be thinking about the environment and the planet as people in the art and antiques sector. It’s been great to collaborate with you on our logo for BADA Week 2021. Just to remind readers, BADA Week will run from the 11th to the 17th of October. It’s a nation-wide, gallery-based and online series of events to celebrate the diverse and outstanding community the BADA represents. We want to highlight the benefit of visiting our members’ galleries, exhibition spaces, collections and specialities in person with an exciting offering of events both in person and online. A dedicated BADA Week 2021 website is in construction now, which will feature all participating dealers and contain a full programme for the week. You can find information as it comes out on our website here.