Category Archives: Office of Works and Kew


While the list of costs for masons detailed by the Board of Works extends to over a hundred different jobs, that for painters is a bit simpler. Government rates were listed in “Contract Prices 1734—1774” (WORK 5/148). The page for painters has a number of additions and marginal notations added over the years; those are ignored here and I just reproduce the basic list of activities.

The list is interesting both for the prices the government was willing to pay for different jobs in the 1730s, but also as detailing what kinds of work they expected painters to do.  The Office of Works was in charge of the royal residences and the types of painting work that were used for a palace were not necessarily a reflection of everyday practices.

The most senior position to do with painting was the office of Sergeant Painter, held by William Hogarth from 1757 until his death in 1764. The office had a nominal salary of just £10 a year, but Hogarth himself claimed that he made more than £200 a year from it, and he had a deputy to oversee the actual work carried out.

s d
Pearl Colour three times done in Oyl per Yard 0.8
Ditto twice done per yard in Oyl 0.6
Wainscot Stone Lead & Cream Colour thrice done in Oyl per Yd 0.8
Ditto twice done per Yard 0.6
Green thrice done in Oyl per Yard 1.0
Ditto twice done Per Yard 0.9
Marble Wallnutt tree &c thrice done in Oyl per Yard 1.8
Varnishing Wainscot per Yard 0.9
Gilding per foot Superficial 4.0
Sash Treatment thrice done on one Side, Each 1.3
Sash Squares ditto on one Side, Each 0.1½
Window lights thrice done on one Side, Each 0.4
Sash Frames twice done on one Side Each 0.10
Sash Squares ditto on one Side, Each 0.1
Window Lights twice done on one Side, Each 0.3
Window Barrs Shutter Barrs &c per barr 0.1
Casements on both Sides Each 0.3½
Cleaning old Painting per Yard 0.1
Painting in Size per Yard 0.3


Cost of Paper

The Board of Works maintained detailed lists of prices for goods and services.  These were standardized and did not vary over time, although there were some exceptions in times of great hardship or inflation.  Government rates were listed in a book “Contract Prices 1734—1774” (WORK 5/148). The rates for carpentry work covered 15 pages, and for masons a full 20 pages.

No bureaucracy could run without paper, and here are the rates for different categories of paper. The prices show just how expensive paper was in the eighteenth century, although, in comparison to 1780s standards, the government was overpaying.

£ s d
Imperial paper per rheme 7.0.0
Super Royal 5.5.0
Royal 3.5.0
Medium 2.5.0
Dutch Demy 1.17.0
Fools Capp 1.0.0
Kings Arms .15.0
Thick large quarto gilt 1.0.0
Thin do .15.0
Penns Large per gross .4.6
Do small .2.6
Pencils per dozen .5.0
Ink per quart   with the Bottle .1.2
Superfine Wax per lb .7.0
Superfine Vermillion Wafers per lb .3.6
Penknives with Tortis shell handles each .2.6

For comparison, John Paine’s Papermaker’s and Stationer’s Assistant of 1784 has the more expensive form of Imperial paper at £2 11s 0d per ream, plus 12s duty.

Charles Clarke (c. 1760—1840)

William Oram‘s posthumous book, Precepts and Observations on the Art of Colouring in Landscape Painting, was published in 1810 by Charles Clarke. Who was he, and why did he wait so long to publish Oram’s Precepts and Observations?

Clarke’s background is obscure, not least because his family was (mostly) Catholic and so do not figure well in eighteenth-century English parish records. His DNB profile suggests he was “probably born in Rochester, Kent” on the strength of some antiquarian articles he published in the Gentleman’s Magazine under the pseudonym of Indagator Roffensis (native of Rochester). However, we have no certain details. He first appears in the records when he was appointed Clerk of the Ordnance office at Chatham in 1783. He was then posted to Gravesend in 1790, and to Guernsey in 1800. Rather unusually, he retired in 1807 at the age of about 47, on a nice pension of £200 p.a. He then lived on until 1840, when he was about 80.

His series of antiquarian articles, mostly on churches, span the early period from 1783 to 1794. His antiquarian papers brought him to the attention, and friendship, of Rev. Samuel Denne, himself a keen antiquarian. A number of Denne’s letters were published by Nichols in Illustrations of Literature, and in one of these letters, Denne says of Clarke that “he is, I know, a valetudinarian, and not very willing to pass an hour or two in a cold damp place, and such is a country church in a winter month” (vol. 6, 622) and later, “at times I have discovered a degree of backwardness in him that may be, however, partly owing to occasional bodily infirmities, he being, as I suspect, of what is termed the nervous class” (662). Perhaps his early retirement from the Ordnance Office was due to ill-health. Continue reading

Precepts and Observations

William Oram wrote one book, the posthumously-published Precepts and Observations on the Art of Colouring in Landscape Painting. The book was prepared and edited by Charles Clarke from Oram’s original manuscripts notes, and published in 1810. It appears that the notes were mostly compiled in the 1750s and the manuscripts was fairly complete – there are certainly places where Oram may have intended a fuller treatment, but the core chapters are well worked out.

















Quid si Naturre fas explorare sagaci

Mente vias. Vanier. Prr.ed. Rust. l. xi.



Arranged from the Author’s original MS. and published




l.ondon :








The text stays close to the topic of the title. It is principally concerned with the choices and application of colour in painting landscapes, especially the handling of skies and trees. Oram opens with a couple of short chapters giving theoretical background to why the color of sky varies around the horizon and from horizon to zenith at different times of day, and the changing colors and details of trees at different distances from the observer. These early chapters are a little perfunctory and were possibly something he might have revisited before publication. In Chapter 5 he really gets going, with the treatment of skies and how to lay in the colors of skies and clouds for different types of light. The book is a technical manual of the application of oils. Here is a sample paragraph:

Again, for a sky with a warmer horizon, representing a time nearer the evening than the former:– Let the horizon be made with light red and white, and so growing into a bluish colour, with a small mixture of Indian red in that tint between the light red horizon and the bluest part of the sky. The clouds upon the horizon should be made up with blue and white, with lake only in their shades, and terra di sienna and white with a little light ochre in their lights.

Continue reading

Hogarth and the Elephantine Arch

In 1761, George III was crowned in Westminster Hall. As Master Carpenter of the Board of Works, one of William Oram‘s tasks was to construct and decorate a triumphal arch through which the King’s Champion would ride. A print of the arch was engraved by Anthony Walker:

William Henry Pyne included an anecdote about Hogarth, Hayman and other artists teasing Oram during the construction of the arch in his rambling, entertaining, and largely fictitious work, Wine and Walnuts. It should be remembered that Pyne was not yet born when the incident related allegedly took place. However, it is the only extended anecdote involving Oram that I know, so here it is (with Pyne’s epic footnotes suppressed, but eccentric punctuation retained): Continue reading

William Oram

William Oram (d. 1777) was Master Carpenter to the Office of Works when Kirby was appointed as Clerk of the Works at Richmond and Kew. Although he was well-known in artistic circles in his time, his star has faded. Horace Walpole, in his three-volume Anecdotes of Painting, accords Oram precisely one sentence: “William Oram was bred an architect, but taking to landscape-painting, arrived at great merit in that branch; and was made master-carpenter to the board of works, by the interest of Sir Edward Walpole, who has several of his pictures and drawings” [vol II, 711]. The DNB is a little more forthcoming, mentioning his painting of the staircase in Buckingham Palace, and his earliest known published work, an etching of Datchet Bridge printed in 1745.

Very little of his original work is known to have survived. He was popular with nobles having over-door and over-mantle pieces in country houses, as well as painting staircases. Such works have presumably all disappeared, or at least lost attribution. The DNB records his death in 1777, “leaving a widow and a son, Edward” and gives a brief mention of Edward’s own artistic productions from exhibition catalogs.

Against this rather sparse record comes a startling obituary:

On Monday last was interr’d at Hendon in Middlesex, the remains of William Oram, Esq; officer of his Majesty’s Board of Works. He was an affectionate husband, a tender and best of fathers, whose great abilities were universally known; and a sincere friend to his acquaintance. He labored under the most severe affliction for many years, from a hurt in his side. His loss is irreparable to his disconsolate widow and numerous family [Morning Post and Daily Advertiser, Friday, March 28, 1777].

This suggests there may be more to William Oram’s story. Continue reading

Structure of the Board of Ordnance

The Board of Ordnance was in charge of the military’s supply of guns and ammunition, as well as fortifications. As a result, the Ordnance retained a collection of patented craftsmen, although these were not part of the formal organizational structure as they were in the Office of Works. However, there was some overlap between the two groups of tradesmen, so it is necessary to examine the Board of Ordnance a little.

In the eighteenth century the organization of the Office of Ordnance was based on a detailed plan drawn up by Lord Dartmouth and attached to a royal warrant of July 25, 1683. The system changed remarkably little until the Board was abolished in 1855. The plan was called

Instructions for the Government of Our Office of Ordnance under Our Master-General thereof; committed to five Principal Officers, viz. Our Lieutenant-General of Our Ordnance, Surveyor-General of the Ordnance, Clerk of the Ordnance, Keeper of the Stores, Clerk of Deliveries.

The Instructions go on to give detailed guidance on the duties (and pay) of each member of the Board and supporting positions such as office clerks and messengers. The entire document is reproduced in Cleaveland’s Early History of the Royal Regiment of Artillery, where it runs some 30 pages.

The position of Master-General was prestigious, and occupied by senior officers. In Kirby’s day it was Earl Ligonier until 1763, and then the Marquis of Granby. The Lieutenant-General acted as deputy to the Master-General. The remaining four members of the Board operated as a series of checks and balances against each other to assure quality of good and prevent corruption. The Surveyor-General was in charge of checking the quality of all goods purchased or works carried out by the Board; the Clerk of the Ordnance was responsible for purchasing the supplies; the Storekeeper was in charge of storage and maintenance (including large stores of gunpowder and ammunition), and the Clerk of the Deliveries was in charge of issuing supplies from storage. Any supplies that had been issued, but not used, had to be checked by the Surveyor before they could be re-entered into storage.

As mentioned above, the Instructions go into considerable detail about the responsibilities of each Board Member. Here is one sample paragraph from the section on the general duties of the Board Members:

To suffer no vagrant or suspicious person, or any foreigner or stranger (without knowledge of his quality, or some trusty person to attend them) to haunt or to have intercourse in the offices or storehouses, especially in the powder room, which, for more assurance, we will command to be kept under two locks with divers keys, whereof our Storekeeper may have one, and the rest of our Principal Officers the other, to be kept in their common chest, in the Office, whereof every one to have a key, so as there may be no access to the powder without the personal presence of two of them at least.

In later posts we will look at some of the construction and maintenance carried out by the master craftsmen associated to the Board.

For related posts, see the Office of Works and Kew category.


Cleaveland, F.D. Notes on the Early History of the Royal Regiment of Artillery. Woolwich, 1892.

Hogg, O.F.G. The Royal Arsenal. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1963.