Do you know your Elephant’s Breath from your Dead Salmon? Your Arsenic from your Vert de Terre?
With its absurd colour names, Farrow & Ball has long been the go-to paint company for yummy-mummies hoping to touch up a wall with a splash of Bancha (green) or Radicchio (red).
But while its middle-class credentials remain impeccable, the West Country firm’s recent set of accounts suddenly look a shade worrying.
The firm, known for its absurd colour names, last year reported losses of £26.6 million, an increase of almost five per cent from 2018 (file photo)
Following the closure of a number of Homebase stores, the firm last year reported losses of £26.6 million, an increase of almost five per cent from 2018. And that’s a crying shame. For Farrow & Ball, with its eclectic palette, is a veritable British institution.
If you drove a Ford car around post-war Britain, or rode a Raleigh bicycle, it’s highly likely you would have been showing off the work of John Farrow and Richard Ball.
The pair met in Dorset in 1946 when they worked in a local clay pit. Farrow, a chemist by trade who worked for a paint company in Ireland during the war, had always longed to make traditional colours with original recipes. Ball, a former engineer, shared his vision, and together they built a factory in Verwood, near Bournemouth.
With its rejection of cheaper, acrylic paints in favour of sturdier, more natural ingredients, it soon started supplying Ford and Raleigh, as well as the Admiralty and the War Office.
Over 70 years later, via a few changes of ownership, Farrow & Ball has grown into a company with annual sales of over £80 million, a third of those overseas. And while it’s now recording losses — possibly written on its balance sheet in Preference Red, a shade named after their original company, Preference Paints — the firm, still based in Dorset, continues to expand its range of colours with their unusual (some might say pretentious) names and descriptions.
Take Elephant’s Breath, for example. That may sound like an unsubtle insult used to describe somebody’s poor dental hygiene.
Many find Farrow & Ball difficult to work with, as it’s thinner than other paints and so requires more coats. Meanwhile, it’s continued to expand its range of wacky hues (file photo)
But according to Farrow & Ball, it’s an ‘uplifting mid grey’ with a ‘hint of magenta’ which can ‘become almost lilac in the cooler light of west-facing rooms’. Meanwhile the ‘cheerful’ yellow known as Babouche got its title from ‘the distinctive colour of the leather slippers worn by men in Morocco’. But of course it did.
None of these achingly stylish tones come cheap. A 2.5 litre tin of white gloss will set you back £62 — £48 more than a comparable tin of Dulux. But the extra expense does provide you with the warm and comforting knowledge that your walls are graced by the same tones as David Cameron’s. The walls of his garden shed, that is. (Sorry — ‘shepherd’s hut’.)
The £25,000 structure, where the former prime minister wrote his memoirs, was decorated by his wife in Farrow & Ball’s Mouse’s Back, a ‘quiet grey brown’ named after the ‘fawny colour of the British field mouse’.
If you want to follow his lead, but haven’t recently trousered an £800,000 deal for your autobiography, you can still enjoy the Farrow & Ball lifestyle on a Dulux income — simply buy a £4.95 tester pot of your desired shade, take it to a DIY store and let them make you up a colour-matched pot.
Your decorator might well prefer the cheaper version. Many find Farrow & Ball difficult to work with, as it’s thinner than other paints and so requires more coats.
David Cameron sitting on the steps of a cabin installed in his Cotswolds garden, which was decorated by his wife in Farrow & Ball’s Mouse’s Back, a ‘quiet grey brown’
This became even more of an issue in 2010, when the company moved to water-based rather than oil-based formulations, on the grounds of eco-friendliness.
Indeed, I once saw a painter’s shoulders slump when I told him my partner had ordered some Farrow & Ball for a job we were having done. (It was a very small room, and I’d sold a kidney.)
‘That stuff’s a nightmare,’ he said. Clearly he wasn’t alone in his reaction — in 2017 the firm had to add more pigment to its paints to improve their opacity.
Meanwhile, it’s continued to expand its range of wacky hues.
Last year, for example, it added another 16 colours in collaboration with the Natural History Museum, inspired by shades in a book used by the famous naturalist Charles Darwin. One of these is ‘Skimmed Milk White’.
Somehow you just knew Farrow & Ball wouldn’t do full fat.
Panting vole or pigeon? Take the glossy posse paint test
Can you match Farrow & Ball’s description to the real paint name?
1. ‘This cosy and nostalgic blue grey . . . is particularly suited for use in boot rooms.’
2. ‘A quiet dark stone colour . . . its muted quality makes it . . . suited to studies.’
A: Broccoli Brown
B: Arresting Aubergine
C: Pure Parsnip
3. ‘A wonderful alternative to a pure white . . . A tiny hint of yellow pigment is the secret to its warm and reflective nature.’
A: Snow White
B: White Christmas
C: Jimmy White
4. ‘A timeless grey . . . particularly effective to ground kitchen islands and when used on the walls of smaller spaces to create a fabulously sullen yet warm room.’
A: Humble Hedeghog
B: Panting Vole
C: Mole’s Breath
5. ‘This light pastel tone is fresh and uncomplicated . . . when contrasted with All White for a gently playful feel.’
A: Markle Mauve
B: Peach Eugenie
C: Middleton Pink
6. ‘A totally unique look which makes it a statement colour when contrasted with shades as strong as Tanner’s Brown.’
A: Truculent Taupe
B: Churlish Green
C: Crass Fawn
7. ‘This timeless, deep and dramatic blue . . . sits as happily outside as it does in small dark rooms.’
A: Hague Blue
B: Major Blue
C. Howard blue
ANSWERS: 1: B, Pigeon. 2: A, Broccoli Brown. 3: A, Snow White. 4: C, Mole’s Breath. 5: C, Middleton Pink. 6: B, Churlish Green. 7: A, Hague Blue.