Limewash is simply slaked lime – calcium hydroxide – mixed with water. Applied to masonry or wood it initially dries and then, over the course of a few days, cures to full strength – reacting with atmospheric carbon dioxide to become calcite, a crystallised form of calcium carbonate and the main constituent of limestone.
It’s a humble, unpretentious – and very inexpensive – paint. I’ve read that there is a saying in the USA, “Too proud to whitewash and too poor to paint”, suggesting both that its use implies poverty and that it’s somehow inferior to ‘real’ paint. This is, of course, wrong. It’s practical, easy to apply, breathable – very important on old, solid-walled buildings – and, overriding all else, beautiful.
It’s beautiful close up, where it smooths out the sharpnesses of the masonry it covers to a creamy undulation. It’s beautiful tinted with earth pigments or, as in traditional Suffolk pink, with animal blood. The pigment is never quite even and the resulting slight variations in tone produce a liveliness and subtlety that a flat, industrially-produced paint would never achieve. It’s never still, changing with the weather – darkening with damp, lightening as it dries, giving the impression of bleaching when it reflects the full sun. It restricts itself to a natural good taste too, it being impossible to make garish: too much pigment means it won’t cure.
And it’s beautiful from a distance. I’ll never forget the far view of Chefchouen, a cubist agglomeration glittering an astonishing pale blue beneath the sun on its Rif mountainside. I, a wide-eyed and dusty nineteen year old travelling Morocco on local buses, entered the alleyways of the town awestruck and delighted. Much later, I have been almost equally delighted by the pink city of Jaipur, the blue city of Jodhpur – and recently in Symi, where the houses still limewashed stand with understated dignity among those that have succumbed to bright, un-nuanced acrylic.
I found myself closely examining the limewash on the walls of neglected houses in Symi town: layers and layers of colour – whites, pinks, ochres, umbers, blues – the tree rings of human habitation stretching back a century or two or more. It took my thoughts back to my home in West Wales, two and a half thousand miles away – the very similar many layers of earth colour, applied both there and here, historically and recently, with just the same eternal, natural, humble and entirely good human intentions: protect and make beautiful.
Words by Jamie Seaton
Photography by Nick Seaton