Analysing paint from another continent is not all that rare, except when that continent is Antarctica. In one of the harshest climates on earth, paint has to work extra hard to fulfil its role as a protective finish. However, research suggested that the aesthetics of the paint is just as important – creating a semblance of home over 10,000 miles away.
Lincoln Conservation was commissioned by the UK Antarctic Heritage Trust (UKAHT) to undertake architectural paint research on the buildings and structures at Horseshoe Island, Base Y, in order to record and understand their decorative history. UKAHT identified 16 samples to be analysed. Lincoln Conservation trained the conservators working to preserve and record historic British outposts in the Antarctic to remove paint samples, ready to be analysed back at our, slightly warmer, laboratory at the University of Lincoln.
Horseshoe Island, HSM no. 63, Base Y, Marguerite Bay (67°48'S, 67°18'W) was established as a scientific base on 11th March 1955, where it carried out research including geology, meteorology and topographic survey. This was part of the push to increase UK scientific activity ahead of 1957-58 ‘International Geophysical Year’. The base was closed on 21st August 1960. It was briefly re-occupied in 7 March 1969 – 11 July 1969 in order for personal to complete local survey work. The site was designated as Historic Site No. 63 under the Antarctic Treaty, 19 May 1995. Although minor clearing work occurred in 1995, official building conservation work commenced in Mar 1997. An inspection by a conservation architect was carried out in 2007, on behalf of BAS. It has been managed by UKAHT since Oct 2014 under a Memorandum of Understanding with BAS.1
An ‘historic’ colour image of Base Y, Horseshoe Island, appeared on a stamp, issued 8th December 2003, shows the main hut as blue with white windows. Although the canceller postmark that appears as part of the stamp design dates to 1957, it is unclear as to the source of the original image for the stamp. Nonetheless, a greyscale photograph showing the main hut in 1956 shows light toned windows and mid-toned walls which correlate with the blue and white scheme shown in the stamp image.
Notes from the diary entries of the team members from the 1950s’ occupancy, indicates that painting was undertaken at an ad hoc rate; when weather and time permitted. For instance, Derek Searle wrote on 27th February 1956 "Fitted in some painting between my gash-handling duties”, and the base journal entry for 15th February 1959 states that “Light snow most of the day prevented outdoor painting.”2 As such, it may be that an initial layer of base coat paint was applied, but more decorative picking out - for instance the coloured interior window frames, may have been undertaken a few weeks or months apart. The paint was in a poor condition on the exterior, due to the extreme weathering effects of the Antarctic climate, however the interior seems predominately to be in much better condition.
As was likely to be expected, there have been few decorative schemes applied to the huts of the five-year period that it was occupied.
The interior has been decorated approximately two to three times – initially in whites and off whites and then later with more colour. It is likely that the first decorative scheme was applied as an initial protective coat of paint, and the second scheme applied as more of a decorative finish. The exception to this was the multiple applications of paint to the generator room. It is possible that the higher frequency of re-decoration in this room was due to the poor performance of the paint in an environment with a higher temperature, causing cracking. Alternatively, this could have been due to aesthetic reasons - repainting surfaces that gathered more dirt particles, although the lack of build-up of dirt between layers suggests the former reason.
Evidence from the samples taken from the exterior of the building correlates with the historic images. The first schemes show white windows, a mid-blue colour on the walls, and red doors. The second scheme exhibits white windows, grey walls and green or grey doors. After this, the colours deviate from the existing images, with red windows, red and green doors, and blue, then later black walls. The fact that there were more decorative schemes on the exterior as compared to the interior is hardly remarkable. In actuality, considering the harsh environment faced by the paint, it is surprising that the huts were painted less than once a year.
The choice of red, white and blue for the exterior colours of the hut is interesting. Constructed three years after the coronation of a new monarch, and specifically to bolster UK scientific research, it is tempting to attribute patriotic motives to the selection of this colour scheme. Nonetheless, the decorative application of colour, for instance painting internal windows bright red and blue, suggests that this was a homely and personalized environment. The paint seems to have served the duel function of protecting the huts for the harsh Antarctic environment, whilst simultaneously protecting the moral of the team.
The variance of paint colours and types is also surprising. There seem to be at least twenty-one different paints applied. These differ in both colour (as described above) and in paint systems, which range from pigment-heavy lead based oil paints, to oil-rich lead based primer paints, and zinc based oil paints. This seems extravagant for a structure in such a remote location, with limited supplies. Investigation into the criteria for selection of the paint colour and system would make for worthwhile further research.
1 BAS (2015) History of Horseshoe Island (station Y). [online] Cambridge: BAS. Available from https://www.bas.ac.uk/about/about-bas/our-history/british-research-stations-andrefuges/horseshoe-island-y/ [Accessed 28th September 2017]
2 UKAHT (2017) Horseshoe diaries. [online] Cambridge: UKAHT. Available from http://www.ukaht.org/discover/conservation/horseshoe-diaries/ [Accessed 28th September 2017]