This refers to the ‘washing’ or painting of the walls of buildings with plastered or rendered surfaces with coloured paint. Today this is done with modern masonry paints in a variety of colours, but in the past distemper or limewash were used. Distemper consists of whiting (ground chalk) mixed with size (weak glue) and water, while limewash consists of slaked lime and water. Both could be used uncoloured as ‘whitewash’ or coloured with pigments. Earth pigments such as red or yellow ochre were most common, giving a range of colour from cream through pink to red. Tales of the use of animal blood in colour washes are probably apocryphal, but sloe juice may have been used.
Documentary evidence suggests that, up to about 1900, most house walls were either left a raw ‘plaster white’ or given a coat of whitewash. There was then a gradual increase in the use of colours – firstly creams and pinks, with brighter colours such as lavender, orange and red being mentioned by the 1930s. By the 1970s there were authoritative statements about a traditional ‘Suffolk pink’ house colour. In part this might be confusion with ‘pinking’, a technique of decorating exterior plasterwork with lightly incised marks that is mentioned as being prevalent in north Suffolk in the 1920s. The commercial marketing of ‘Suffolk Pink’ as a colour has also undoubtedly been a factor in its perception as a long-established tradition.
A preservative brown staining used on weather-boarded barns and farm buildings is mentioned in 1783 and red-painted timber barns can be seen in John Constable’s pictures, such as his 1815 view of Golding Constable’s flower garden in East Bergholt. A red barn also features in the infamous murder of Maria Marten at Polstead in 1827. It is probable that these timber stains and paints were oil-based rather than washes. By the 1830s, it was an established practice to give timber-clad barns a preservative coating of tar and by the end of the 19th century black-tarred farm buildings of timber, clay-lump or clunch were a common sight in the landscape.