The ancient arts of Pedro da Costa Felgueiras

The ancient arts of Pedro da Costa Felgueiras

Words Glenn Garrett

Photographs Amber Rowlands

In the very first issue of Hole & Corner, we interviewed Pedro da Costa Felgueiras about his work, which almost resembles that of an alchemist. As he has now donated an object for the Cræftiga collection, sold to raise funds for the talent search, we look back on this very first collaboration and his exquisite techniques…

Some things require old virtues of patience, repetition and graft. In his London studio, one man combines the role of artist and artisan; mixing old colours, following primaeval recipes, putting himself through tiring rituals of building and destroying in order to build again. These are antiquated skills, and there is something timeless in his approach to getting the right and true effect in creating exquisite objects and paint technique.



Japanning – a 17th-century European lacquer technique

Pedro mixes shellac varnish with lamp black pigment using a 1688 recipe from A Treatise of Japanning and Varnishing by Stalker & Parker. The mixture is applied to an object, left to dry for many hours and then rubbed down. Many layers are needed to achieve the deep finish of real lacquer, which means repeating the entire process 30 times; waiting and rubbing down between coats. There is no shortcut.



Naples yellow on the left and Kangaroo Paw flowers on the right


Naples yellow walls and caput mortuum doors in Pedro’s kitchen

Naples yellow pigment was long used in Babylon and Persia in the production of ceramic yellow glazes. Renaissance chronicler Cennino Cennini alludes to it and Rubens used it in the depiction of his lush flesh tones. For Pedro’s walls, this pigment has been patiently ground with linseed oil. Also known as ‘mummy brown’, caput mortuum was produced by grinding up mummies, both human and feline. Its use was discontinued in the 19th century when artists became aware of its ingredients. Nowadays, the mineral hematite is ground and mixed with linseed oil to achieve a similar deep and subtle purple-chocolate-brown colour.


Kangaroo Paw Flowers

Very often, especially throughout the dark winter months, Pedro’s house is filled with wintry branches covered in moss, ready to burst into bloom.



Sprinkling with gold, silver and copper is a feature of classic lacquer pieces

First, gold size is applied to a surface and left to dry for up to 24 hours before the metal specks can be applied using special little hollow sticks (funzutsu in Japanese) to the sized areas.



Gathered Hazel Twigs

Collected over the years from a farm in Wales, now well aged and covered in lichen, in storage for the winter. During the summer they can be found in Pedro’s garden as wigwams supporting runner beans and rare oriental lilies.



Applying gesso

This is the first stage in the preparation of a lacquered or gilded surface. It is an ancient process used since the time of the Egyptians and common in icon painting. Gesso is a mixture of chalk and rabbit-skin gelatine glue, which is patiently ‘cooked’ before being applied. Pedro does this with vintage handmade brushes, which are ideal. ‘A good brush is an old brush that has been repeatedly well washed over the years,’ he says. ‘They become silky when rinsed many times with olive oil, soap and hot water and are a pleasure to use.



Hellebores in Jade Blue Vase by Bordallo Pinheiro

Bordallo Pinheiro is a century-old ceramics manufacturer in Portugal, which has produced tableware using the same processes since 1884. Pedro has made it his mission to bring its whimsical, beautifully made objects to the UK.



Making blue verditer distemper

These are samples for the restoration of the Blue Bedchamber at Horace Walpole’s Strawberry Hill House. Verditer was used as a replacement for the hugely expensive lapis lazuli from medieval times until the 18th century. Legend has it that Verditer needs to be buried in frosted ground for a month to stop it turning from blue to green. The dry pigment is slaked in water overnight, ground and mixed with rabbit-skin glue. It needs to be kept warm in order to render it liquid, stirred constantly and applied to the wall very rapidly with decisive brush strokes.

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