Rita Meets…Edward Bulmer

I am a big fan of Edward Bulmer’s natural paints (I particularly love Cuisse de Nymph Emue which is a pink with just enough ‘dirt’ in it to stop it being sugary).  Edward has supplied paint for lots of my projects and I always like knowing that I’m using something that’s free from chemical nasties and safe for both the building and its inhabitants.  As well as running his paint company, Edward is an architectural historian and interior designer who’s helped to restore some of England’s greatest country houses. I caught up with him to ask him a bit more about his home, his paint company and his decorating advice….

What led you to a career as an architectural historian and interior designer? Have you always have an affinity for old buildings?

“I was brought up in old Georgian house which my parents had endured some discomfort to lovingly restore. It took them 20 years and by the time it was finished it had David Mlinaric interiors and good pictures but was notoriously cold. Maybe this is why to this day I set great store by works of art being well displayed but am most concerned that a house is comfortable, practical and manageable! I read History of Art at uni and a year after graduating found myself working for David Mlinaric, working on Spencer House with Tom Helme (before he put Farrow & Ball on the map).”

How do you strike the right balance between preserving the history of a building but still making it relevant to today? Do you aim for complete historical accuracy?

“The history of a building is the history of people and while many things change over centuries people don’t in the sense of needing comfort and practicality; so I attend to the functioning of the house first to ensure that it suits the way one’s clients live. After that come the questions of taste and it is often true that restoration makes sense to the modern eye as well as the conservative. Modernity can be accommodated in a range of ways, from new uses for rooms to using modern furnishings, but either way can be well served by preserving the original architectural intent.”

I’m finding myself drawn to shades of tobacco and brown at the moment. What colours are most inspiring you?

“I enjoyed mixing tobacco colours for your recent project and feel that browns generally, are much under rated. They were well used in the past, long before David Hicks used them in his glamourous interiors! I use a lot of pinks, blues and greens but seldom get too hung up on colour – it is such a personal thing. What I do feel very strongly about is tonality and balance. To ensure the right tonality I ‘season’ my colours with earth pigments – this grounds them and makes them really reliable with natural materials like floorboards and with furnishings that have some age to them (from vintage backwards). I tend to think that strong colour is more successfully introduced in fabrics and furnishings and I do take the guidance of the colour wheel for combining opposite hues harmoniously.”

I’ve heard you been described as a ‘modern colourman’ – can you explain what that means?

“It means that I mix colours with an informed eye and that I am a purveyor of house paint, but I don’t see myself as some great creative guru! I think of it in the sense of the ‘Artist’s Colourman’ as found in the pre petrochemical paint era. These people would source and stock pigments for the artist and the house painter as well as devising their own recipes for shades and hues that they would market for their ‘beauty and utility’.”

Can you tell us a bit about the process involved in bringing a paint to market – what is your starting point?

“My starting point is always to ask ‘what would be a useful colour?’ My first range was basically made up of colours that I had been using in 30 years of interior design. They were good backdrops for fabrics and furnishings and made sense of a room’s architectural details. When I mix colours I have a time honoured palette of earth and mineral pigments which I mix into our natural white base paint. I will typically spend a week or two just mixing variations on shades and then selecting the ones that work best when I consider the samples in action – usually in the rooms of our house. I don’t need to repaint but I do consider large painted samples next to a doorcase or behind a picture and on walls with different light conditions. By the time we supply the paint to the colour chart printer I have resurrected an old name form a Colourman’s catalogue or historic record and established a narrative  around the colour and its relevance.”

Why is it important to use natural paint and what does that really mean?

“By natural we mean, made with naturally occurring ingredients. These ingredients are processed using simple chemistry so  that their essential chemical makeup is not significantly altered. This is because the ingredients are chosen for their useful properties (like opacity or drying) – many of which have been known about for millennia. What it means is that their effects are well understood, as is their role in the history of decorating. Paint should be protective first and foremost (for me looking beautiful comes a close second of course!) – what is meant by this? Paint should protect what it’s put on, it should protect the inhabitants of a building and it should protect the source of its ingredients. Simple stuff, but almost entirely disregarded by the modern paint industry, in my opinion. The really interesting thing is that from ‘traditional’ to ‘eco-friendly’ need only be a short step. Plant oils are far more environmentally friendly than oils and polymers derived from crude oil, for obvious reasons. Using less energy to process materials is less polluting. Avoiding toxic chemicals will decrease health hazards. Using breathable polymers will help building health and help regulate interior air quality…..I could go on!”

I find people can get themselves in a real a pickle when it comes to choosing paint colours for their home. Do you have any tips or guiding principles that might help?

“Yes, begin with what is already decided or what you can’t change – it might be a wood floor or an old fireplace, for example. Then base your tonal choices on the colour of these elements – effectively, warm or cool. If you get the tonality right first you will then have a wide variety of colours that will work and so choice comes down to personal preference or other elements of your scheme – like fabrics. A further consideration that can help is the weight of the colour. One can get a sense of the weight of elements in the room visually and it helps to try and balance them, for instance an old oak dresser will look better with a mid, rather than a light, tone.”

I’ve seen images of your gorgeous Queen Anne home in Herefordshire – how long did that restoration take? When was it completed and the builders finally left, did you have an absolute sense of completion and of not wanting to change a thing, or have things continued to evolve?

“We have worked on the house in phases. We lived in it for three years before we finalised our plans and put them in for Listed Building Consent. We did the main work then to establish the shape of most of the rooms and we sorted out all the services so that we had a practical house for family life. All the rooms just evolved after that, sometimes just with a new picture hang, sometimes with further remodelling. The house feels finished now but actually it is still a work in progress and we make changes all the time. We still have opportunities to improve it, reduce its carbon emissions and restore architectural features. It also makes a great proving ground for our colours so that we can photograph them in use and inspire our growing customer base!”

Did the project throw up any surprises – welcome or otherwise?!

“There was a local scheme for grants aiding the restoration of historic gardens and it turned out that we had the remains of a rare water garden laid out around the house in about 1700. It was an amazing project and when complete, looked beautiful, but as my wife pointed out, we had running water in the garden before we had it in the kitchen (which was then served by an old sink in an adjacent scullery)! We have been very lucky doing the work with abundant local craftsmen and the ability to design in-house as we have gone along, having secured Listed Building Consent.”

What is your favourite interiors destination or shop?

“How hard a question is this! I have favourites, but in so many areas – from architectural salvage to Chinese wallpaper! I particularly like places where you know you will learn something because the proprietor is passionate about their subject – I think of Helen Cormack at Tissus d’helene, or Christopher Howe in Pimlico Road, Rupert Bevan or Allyson McDermott (now in Bath). If you visit these guys the great thing is you will be in an area where there is much else to see – for sourcing and inspiration. My local town Ludlow, used to be a great antiques destination – now it would have to be Tetbury for the extensive offering from Lorfords or the intelligently whimsical eye of Jorge Perez Martin at Brownrigg.”

What advice would you give to someone whose about to take on an interiors project of their own?

“Do take your time if you can and work out how to pace yourself. You need to start with the practicalities – if you don’t sort out your services first you will have the builders breathing down your neck! However, getting the lighting plan work to inform the electrical plan will actually concentrate the mind about where the furniture and pictures will go and how you will live in the rooms – which is invaluable as it means your stunning looking interiors will also be practical and convenient. Ultimately though most people need to see what they like to know what they like and I would urge people to look at as much as they can through magazines, books, visits and Instagram (I might be odd but I don’t really use Pinterest!)”

I agree that getting the room layout right is so important – and I do use Pinterest! Tricky one now…what item in your home is most precious to you and why?

“I have to admit to a home full of stuff and it varies from inherited old art to pictures done by my daughters. Actually all of it has some meaning for me and so I don’t really have a favourite. However, I do choose pictures as the focus of schemes and often one large one per room so I guess I would miss them – that said I have got to the stage where I am ready to sell pieces I bought before marriage in order to start again, selecting new pieces together with my wife, Emma.”

What is your workspace like?

Our studio is in a converted C19th cattle byre and our paint factory is in a large brick fodder barn. They are part of a wonderful group of farm buildings adjacent to our house, so my commute is pretty undemanding (except when we get flooded!)

Hmmm, yes that does beat rush hour traffic. Although I don’t think I’ve ever needed wellington boots to get to my studio. What’s your average working day like?

“There is not one! Emma and I work together and all of our business (and charity) interests are run from the same office. We have a farm, the interior design practice and the paint factory as well as Emma’s infrastructure consultancy job. Last week I initiated the dredging of one of our C18th fish pools, went to a site visit on a project to redecorate a fabled Tudor house, mixed up the last of our new colours scheduled for launch early next year and chaired a local charity meeting to help Herefordshire causes.”

Thank you so much Edward for talking to us.


You can follow @edward_bulmer on instagram for an insight into his journey #onthepaintroad in some of this country’s most spectacular buildings and houses. For paint colour inspiration follow @eb_naturalpaint