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Researching the Fortress of Louisbourg National Historic Site of Canada
  Recherche sur la Forteresse-de-Louisbourg Lieu historique national du Canada



by Christian Pouyez,

In Historians, 
Preliminary Architectural Studies,
Volume 03, Unpublished Report HG 02
(Fortress of Louisbourg, 1972,
Report Number HG 02 03 02 E)

This preliminary report will study, as far as the present state of documentation will permit, three problems concerning painting: the frequency with which paint was used, both indoors and out, on public and private buildings; the types of paints used; and finally, the range of colours used at Louisbourg.



What information we have suggests that the interiors of buildings as well as the exteriors were painted.

On the outside, wood which was exposed to the weather was painted. Hence when the Duhaget house was rented to Daniel Augier, the parties agreed

that they will paint the said house at common expense. That is, the said Sieur Duhaget will give the first coat this year on the outside of the house and the said Sieur Augier, the second coat next year [NOTE 1].

In 1739 Sabatier, the commis des fortifications, recommended painting all the exposed wood on the king's properties, including "doors, shutters, gates, guardhouses, sentry-boxes" and even, the cannon themselves, to prevent rust [NOTE 2]. In 1740 Bourville and Bigot recommended that the Louisbourg batteries be painted "rough red" rather than tarred,

[PAGE 3:]

since experience has shown that wood lasts better when painted than when tarred, for the tar falls off in flakes [NOTE 3].

These various recommendations were followed, if we may judge by the many references to linseed oil, nut oil and colours in the inventories of the victuals storehouse [NOTE 4]. In fact it seems that after 1740 paint was used regularly as a covering for exposed wood. That is what is suggested by a letter Bigot sent to Maurepas, from which the following extract is taken:

the oil which I ordered for painting the gun- carriages on the batteries has almost entirely run out. It is annoying that they do not take precautions at Rochefort to avoid these accidents. The only way to preserve wood exposed to the air in this country is to give it regularly every year a coat of paint. Next year we will not be able to do so [NOTE 5].

Indoor paints, on the other hand, were more commonly used for decoration than for protection. In the only two cases we know, the paint, which was actually whitewash, was applied on a layer of mortar. For example, the second floor of the house of Sieur Pierre Aurieu, tavern-keeper, was,

"bien listellé [Translatorts note: it is difficult to discover the precise meaning of "listellé", even in French. It evidently refers to some aspect of the finishing] and rough-cast with lime and clayey earth. Whitewashed" [NOTE 6].

[PAGE 4:]

Similarly, for the house built by Dubenca for M. Beaubassin, it was planned that the wall around the kitchen would be

filled with squared pickets roughcast first with clayey earth, above that with mortar, and whitewashed.

It was planned that the second floor would be

also picketed like the ground floor, coated with clayey earth, rough-cast with mortar and whitewashed [NOTE 7].

However one must not conclude from these few examples that the use of paint was the rule at Louisbourg. In fact there is surprisingly little information about painting, nor even frequent mention of it. Apart from documentation on public buildings, only four more or less explicit references to painting have been found so far, though the documentation now filed covers more than a hundred houses. Does this scarcity of references arise from the nature of the sources? That is doubtful, for on the whole, inventories after deaths and construction specifications are precise, detailed documents. It is likely that if paint was widely used, it would receive much more frequent mention, whether direct or indirect. The situation was evidently different for the king's buildings, as has been noted above.



Both water paints and oil paints were used at Louisbourg. In the case of water paints, a clear distinction must be made between public [PAGE 5:] buildings and private houses. In the former, distemper paint was often used. Distemper paint is a water paint with a base of whiting mixed with paste or another adhesive substance to make it hold to the walls. The inventories of the victuals storehouse for 1738 and 1739 include two articles on whiting: they show a stock weighing 217 pounds in 1738 and a stock of 25 pounds in 1739 [NOTE 8]. For private houses, the paint appears to have been whitewash, which is less costly and more simple to use. But it is hard to generalize, for the houses mentioned above, those of Sieur Pierre Aurieu and M. Beaubassin are the only two examples we know at present.

Oil paint was used chiefly for exteriors, but also for various pieces of military equipment - the drums of the Compagnies Franches, for example and for iron fittings. There is no specific document which discusses the painting of ironwork, but lamp-black [NOTE 9], a colour principally used for painting interior and exterior ironwork [NOTE 10], is mentioned several times. One can surely infer from this that at least some of the ironwork was painted.

Oil paints were prepared nut oil or linseed oil, which was boiled with litharge to increase its drying qualities [NOTE 11]. Next white lead was added, producing the base of the paint. Curiously, we have found no documentary reference to turpentine, though it must have been indispensable for thinning the paint. It seems unlikely that pure paint would always have been used: Turpentine had to be mixed into the first coat, so that the paint would soak into the wood.

[PAGE 6:]



The range of colours was fairly wide. A list of the colours mentioned in the documents used for this study will be found below. Most of the references are taken from the inventory of Charles-Yves Duval, a joiner, and the inventories of the victuals storehouse. Total quantities of each type are given, preceded by the sign "+" when the quantities are not entirely known.


(1) Whiting: 257 pounds

(2) Lime: n.a.


(1) Blanc d'azur [NOTE: Literally "azure white"]: +487 pounds

(2) Cendre bleue: [NOTE: Literally "blue ash"]: n/a

(3) Yellow ochre: 20 pounds

(4) Red ochre: +113 pounds

(5) Yellow and red ochre: 209 pounds

(6) Red ochre (diluted with oil): 929 pounds

(7) Red graphite: 6 pounds

(8) Green: 6 pounds

(9) Lamp-black (powder): 4 barrels

(10) Lamp-black (diluted with oil): 11 pounds

If we might draw conclusions from these few indications, it would seem that yellow and red were the most frequently used colours, both for public and private buildings: the Duval inventory shows more red and yellow ochre than all other colours. The great quantities of white lead [PAGE 7:] "blanc de ceruse" give no indication of colour, for white was only the colour of the base of the paint.

Let us close by hoping that before too long, we will be able to complete this study by an analysis of coloured plans and views of 18th century Louisbourg.

The appendices contain:

(1) a glossary explaining, some technical terms used in this report

(2) the inventory after the death of Charles-Yves Duval.



(01) CENDRE BLEUE (bleu ash)

Colour obtained by precipitating with potassium the (blue ash) oxide contained in a solution of copper nitrate and crushing the remainder with lime (CHABAT, DICTIONNAIRE DES TERMES EMPLOYÉS DANS LA CONSTRUCTION, T. I. ARTICLE "CENDRE")

(02) CÉRUSE (BLANC DE)(white lead)

Carbonate of lead obtained by exposing small pieces of lead to fumes of vinegar. It becomes a powder which is employed as a white coloured base for oil paints (DIDEROT ENCYCLOPÉDIE, VOL. II, ARTICLE "BLANC DE PLOMB", VOL. III ARTICLE "CERUSE" - CHABAT DICTIONNAIRE T. I. ARTICLE "CERUSE"

(03) HUILE GRASSE (rich or thick oil)

The oil which painters mix into their colours to make them dry. Huile grasse is made of nut oil or linseed oil boiled with litharge. The litharge sinks to the bottom: what floats on top is huile grasse.

(04) LAIT DE CHAUX (whitewash)

Paint obtained by dissolving lime in a large amount of water. (CHABAT, DICTIONNAIRE T. I ARTICLE, CHAUX)


Synonym for lait de chaux, whitewash.


Oxide of lead which dries the oils with which colours are mixed [NOTE 12]. [PAGE 10:]

(07) NOIR DE FUMÉE (lamp-black)

One of the three kinds of blacking (vegetable black, bone black, and lamp-black). A substance obtained by the burning of the residues of resins. Lamp-black has the appearance of soot. It mixes perfectly with oil paints, and is most often used to paint indoor iron fittings. Lamp- black is sold in wooden barrels. (CHABAT DICTIONNAIRE T. II ARTICLE NOIR - DIDEROT ENCYCLOPEDIE, VOL. XI ARTICLE NOIR DE FUMEE)

(08) OCRE (ochre)

A clayey substance coloured yellow, red or brown by different iron oxides which it contains in varying qualities. (DIDEROT ENCYCLOPÉDIE, VOL. XI, ARTICLE OCHRES)

(09) PLOMB (Mine de) (graphite)

Strictly speaking, mine de plomb is simply graphite, a black mineral used, according to Blondel, to paint fire-backs. However, the document - there is only one, unfortunately - where mine de plomb is mentioned, specifies red mine de plomb. Hence one may wonder if it is not actually minium (red lead). This seems more likely. Minium is a red-orange oxide of lead, used as a first coat to protect ironwork from rust. Minium is obtained by the calcination in air of massicot (a monoxide of lead which also provides, when heated red, litharge). (BLONDEL, COURS D'ARCHITECTURE T. 6, p. 444-445 - CHABAT DICTIONNAIRE T. II ARTICLE MINIUM).


[NOTE 1:] Bail à loyer: Robert Duhaget à Daniel Augier. Louisbourg, 20 juillet 1753. A.N., Section Outre-Mer, G3, carton 2041 suite, no. 41. [NOTE 2:] Lettre de Sabatier à Maurepas. Louisbourg, 12 novembre 1739. A.N.., Col., C11B, vol. 21, fol. 179v. [NOTE 3:] Lettre de Bourville et Bigot à Maurepas. Louisbourg, 20 octobre 1740. A.N., Col., C11B, fol. 43v. [NOTE 4:] Voir le memo rédigé par Blaine Adams le 30 mai 1969. [NOTE 5:] Lettre de Bigot à Maurepas. Louisbourg, 21 novembre 1743. A.N., Col., C11B, vol. 25, fol. 150. [NOTE 6:] Devis d'une maison. Louisbourg, 26 juillet 1754. A.N., Section Outre-Mer, G3, carton 2042, no. 69. [NOTE 7:] Marché entre Mr Beaubassin et Dubenca. Louisbourg, 30 mai 1756. A.N., Section Outre-Mer, G3, carton 2044, no. 53. [NOTE 8:] Blaine Adams, Memo Sur la peinture, p. 4. [NOTE 9:] (i) Succession de feu Charles-Yves Duval, menuisier. Louisbourg, 19 mai 1733. A.N., Section Outre-Mer, G2, vol. 182, f. 730. (ii) "Balance de la recette et consommation faites dans les magasins du Roy a l'Isle Royalle pendant l'année 1738." Louisbourg, 2 novembre 1739. A.N., Col., C11B, vol. 21, fol. 196. (iii) "Balance ... pendant l'année 1739." Louisbourg, 1 er janvier 1740. A.N., Col., C11B, vol. 21, fol. 246. [PAGE 13:] [NOTE 10:] J.F. Blondel, Cours d'architecture (Paris, V ve Desaint, 1777), Tome 6, p. 445. Chabat, Dictionnaire des termes employés dans la construction (Paris, Morel, 1875), Tome 2, Article "NOIR". [NOTE:11] On trouve mention d'huile de lin et de litharge dans l'inventaire des effets de feu Charles-Yves Duval (A.N., Section Outre-Mer, G2 vol. 182, fol. 730); on a une mention d'huile de noix dans un seul document: Compte avec Madame Demaret, Louisbourg, a.d. Archives de la Marine, C7, 184, Dossier Levasseur. L'huile d'oeillette était peut-être utilisée également, mais nous n'en avons pas trouvé de mention. Pour les bâtiments du Roi, les peintures étaient presque toujours à base d'huile de lin (Balance de la recette ... pour 1724 à 1730, Louisbourg, 30 avril 1731. A.N., Col., C11B, vol. II, fol. 205v. Balance ... pendant l'année 1738. Louisbourg, 2 novembre 1739. A.N., Col., C11B, vol. 21, fol. 196. Pratiquement toutes les "Balances" mentionnent degrandes quantités d'huile de lin. Trés peu d'huile de noix). [NOTE 12:] En 1756, le sieur Fizel reçut 36 livres pour vingt deux livres et demie de litharge qu'il a fourni pour mettre dans les "peintures qui ont été employées dans les maisons de sa majesté en ce port...." A.N., Col., C11B, vol. 36, fol. 212.


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