The Winsor & Newton Story (1832-2007)


Founded in 1832 the company was started by William Winsor & Henry Newton who built their business on the marriage of art and science, determined to respond to the needs of artists and offer them the widest choice of colours with the greatest permanence.

From the very beginning, Winsor & Newton brought scientific rigour and a new spirit of enquiry to the craft of the artists’ colourman. Within a few short years, they set new standards for colour permanence and clarity. They introduced new colours and new opportunities for artists, establishing a proud tradition marked by constant improvement and continuous response to ever-changing needs.

Today, the tradition of quality and innovation continues as we actively embrace new ideas, materials and technologies. Above all, we work with and respond to the needs of artists, providing them with new opportunities to explore their creativity.

Below you will find an in-depth account of Winsor & Newton’s History. From workshop beginnings to the introduction of new factories and modern artists’ materials, Winsor & Newton has a rich history which has helped us build our reputation as manufacturers of the finest artists materials.

The workshop tradition
Until the early seventeenth century the workshop or studio tradition was strong; a painter would purchase pigments and other raw materials from an apothecary and supervise apprentices in making the paint.

During the next two centuries however, as leisure time, wealth and education increased the number of gifted amateurs multiplied. The workshop system began to decline and a need for readily available colours and brushes grew - the artists’ colour trade was born.

The first colourmen
During the late eighteenth century firms specialising in the whole range of artists’ materials were established. Water colours were in the form of oblong cakes that had to be rubbed down with water on a surface such as ground glass before the colour could be used. 

Oil colours were supplied in pigs’ bladders tightly bound at the top; artists used a tack to puncture the skin bag in order to squeeze out the colour.  Soft hair brushes were made up with the hair set in a quill into which a stick handle could be inserted, while hog brushes were made of bristle tightly bound to a wooden handle.  Canvas was primed and sold on fixed frames instead of the interchangeable stretcher pieces of modern type.

New challenges
These were some of the most obvious differences between the tools used then and now, but there was considerable room for improvement in the pigments used for making artists’ colours.  A number of new pigments were introduced in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, making a wide selection available. 

Few artists had a scientific background and it became increasingly difficult for them to judge the quality or permanence of the colours they were offered.  It was therefore left to artists’ colourmen to evaluate the pigments, usually manufactured not by themselves but by colour-makers, and to select the most suitable for artists’ colours, ensuring as far as possible that they used the most stable and permanent. 

It was awareness not only of artists’ needs but also of colourmens’ responsibilities that led William Winsor and Henry C. Newton to enter into partnership as artists’ colourmen.

The beginnings of Winsor & Newton
In 1832, both men were in their late twenties and shared an interest in painting.  Newton was the more artistically gifted of the two whereas Winsor, who also painted, contributed the scientific knowledge that was to be so important. 

They established the firm at 38 Rathbone Place, London, Henry’s home, which was then part of an artists’ quarter in which a number of eminent painters, including Constable, had studios, and other colourmen were already established.

Artists’ Water Colour and Chinese White
Success in the face of strong competition was hard earned, but it was attributable to various factors.  The improvement of artists’ water colours was the partners’ first concern. They utilised the moisture-retaining properties of a recently discovered material, glycerine, to manufacture water colours in pans that were much simpler and more convenient to use than water colour cakes. 

Moist water colours quickly earned well-deserved popularity.  Their next innovation was the introduction in 1837 of Chinese White, a particularly opaque form of zinc white, that was of considerable benefit to painters in water colours who had lacked a durable opaque white.

The collapsible tube
The partners did not limit their activities to water colours however.  Winsor’s inventiveness led him to introduce and patent glass syringes as oil colour containers to supersede skin bladders. This was in 1840 but with the invention of collapsible metal tubes by James Goff Rand for artists’ colours in 1841, Winsor embarked on perfecting tubes to his own design.  Tin tubes were very quickly accepted as containers for oil colours and a few years later Winsor and Newton were able to uniquely offer moist water colours in tubes.

Larger premises
The partners soon required larger premises at Blackfriars and at Kings Cross, but in 1844 they dispensed with these in favour of a specially built, steam-powered factory at Kentish Town known as the North London Colour Works.

The strive for permanence and George Field
Their interest and concern regarding the permanence of colours used by artists was also shared by George Field, the most eminent English colour-maker of the early nineteenth century who specialised in the manufacture of lake pigments but strove for maximum purity and permanence in all artists’ pigments. 

It is hardly surprising that Winsor & Newton who completely identified with these ideals, should by the end of the century, become the artists’ colourmen who first published the composition and permanence of their colours.

Royal appointments and the Great Exhibition
Royal recognition came quite early in the form of appointment as artists’ colourmen to Queen Victoria in 1841, the first of many such appointments.  The firm entered most successful exhibits at the Great International Exhibitions of 1851 and 1862, at the first of which Winsor and Newton were awarded the only prize medal open to competitors for artists’ colours.

William’s death and the limited company
After William Winsor’s death in 1865 his share of the firm was inherited by his son Benyon on whose death in 1879 Henry Newton purchased his late partner’s share.  A few months before his own death in 1882 Newton sold the business to the newly incorporated firm of Winsor & Newton Ltd. which included members of both families amongst the shareholders, with Newtons employed until the late 1970’s.

Overseas trade
High-quality products together with the prestige of royal appointments and awards at international exhibitions must certainly have stimulated growth of the world-wide trade that Winsor & Newton were to achieve.  During the second half of the nineteenth century there was hardly any competition in the manufacture of artists’ materials in non-European countries and this encouraged ever-increasing exports to the U.S.A. and also India and Australia. 

The first record of product selling in Melbourne Australia was in 1854 and a New York advert promoted Winsor & Newton in 1861. Benyon Winsor travelled to the United States in 1870 to establish an agent for the firm. In 1893 the firm gained three awards at the World’s Columbian Exposition, Chicago, and during the following year the firm set up an office in New York. 

The United States became the firm’s biggest overseas market and in 1915 an American subsidiary company was incorporated. During 1890, William Killik, son in law to Mr. Thrupp, an original director with William and Henry, travelled to New York on the Majestic, the predecessor to the Titanic. Whilst on deck an American asked him his business and Killik replied artists’ materials. ‘Oh,’ he said ‘if you’re going to sell artists’ colours, you may as well take the next boat back  because there is nothing sold in the United States but Winsor & Newton’.

Craft and student products and changing markets
Until the beginning of the twentieth century Winsor & Newton had concentrated entirely on products for painting and drawing.  However, by the Edwardian period the painting market was very different. Since the invention of the camera, artists were no longer in demand to the same extent and educated ladies were just as likely to have a camera as to be taught painting. The firm began to take up craft products, starting with pen painting materials in 1911, and the range was expanded over the following years.

It was fortunate that home trade was broadened in such a way, for overseas trade suffered a series of setbacks with the loss of the German market during the war years 1914-1918, with Japan after the earthquake in 1923 and the world-wide slump following the Wall Street crash in 1929.

By the 1930’s the conditions of economic depression had had a very serious effect on the volume of trade both at home and overseas, and directors of the firm decided to compensate for this by making and selling colours of students’ quality. Winsor & Newton Scholastic ranges were launched in 1933, these included all the colours required for the Ostwald colour system, (a mainstay educational teaching method at the time). 

New factories
At the turn of the 20th century, further land was purchased in Wealdstone, north west London to build canvas and woodworking factories. A further decision resulting from the depression was to increase efficiency and reduce costs through centralisation of all Winsor & Newton activities to Wealdstone. 

Colour manufacture was transferred there from the North London Colour Works in 1938 and the administrative offices were moved from Rathbone Place the following year. This was good fortune indeed as it meant our archives and business were safe when Rathbone Place was destroyed in the London blitz just a year later.

War activities
During the war years 1939-1945, manufacture of artists’ and draughtsmen’s materials continued apace despite limitations imposed by raw materials shortages.  Besides use of the company’s products for the war effort, valuable foreign exchange was secured with a minimum demand on shipping space. 

A letter to the shareholders in 1945 announces how pleased the directors were to now be free to explain the company’s wartime activities. The skills for making water colour boxes had been used instead for making canteens and whilst a limited number of colours were allowed to be made for artists, first refusal went to the RAF for their map and reconnaissance department.

Brush making at Lowestoft
In the immediate post-war years after the activity of war, brush-makers tended not to return to a sedentary occupation.  For this reason it was necessary to look for a new factory site in an area with a surplus of labour. The East Anglian fishing port of Lowestoft proved perfect, as the skills required for mending the fishing nets could be transferred to tying knots for brushes. A brush making department also continued at Wealdstone until 1982. 

Further building at Wealdstone
By the 1980’s the original woodworking factory was no longer used and a major building project ensued to build a new two tier factory to house all the colour making activities and store the 33,000 raw materials required to make Winsor & Newton colours.

New ownership
By the 1970’s there was much turmoil in British manufacturing industry. Winsor & Newton were fortunate to be approached by Reckitt & Colman who had recently bought the firms of Reeves and Dryad. The sale was agreed and slowly but surely the company enjoyed a new era of modernisation which maintained the absolute quality of the product whilst bringing the operations and commercial sides of the business up to date.

In 1990, Reckitt & Colman moved away from ‘leisure’ activities and the private ownership of Winsor & Newton passed to A. B. Wilhelm Becker with an artists’ materials division which now includes Contè, Lefranc & Bourgeois and Liquitex.

A new era of quality
Throughout the first 160 years of the company, the original ethos of William and Henry continued. Whenever there was a new, exciting or better pigment or binder available Winsor & Newton introduced it.

However, by the 1990’s there were so many new organic pigments, the company decided to embark on some far reaching reviews to ensure that artists would be able to enjoy everything from entirely new colours to greater brilliance and permanence. Almost 200 new colours were introduced over the following 15 years and this process is still continuing today.

New types of colours
During the 20th century four new types of paint were invented and Winsor & Newton determined to excel in these colours as they had always done so in water and oil colour.

In 1937 Designers Gouache was introduced, a highly pigmented opaque water colour. It became the most popular medium used by graphic designers and also allowed fine artists to use body colour in water colour without having to add white to ordinary water colour.

In 1970, Winsor & Newton introduced their first range of Artists’ Acrylics, a revolutionary water based paint, which within 40 years has become as commonly used as oil colour.

In 1976 the first alkyd colour for artists was introduced by the company. A fast drying oil colour range which enabled outdoor artists and designers to complete oil paintings in a fraction of the time required with conventional oils. It has also proved popular as an adjunct to ordinary oils for underpainting.

In 1998, Winsor & Newton revealed the results of a long research project to supply a range of both colours and mediums in oil which could be thinned and cleaned up with water. This range has allowed an enormous number of artists to enjoy oil colour without the use of hazardous solvents.

The importance of people
Like William and Henry themselves, the company is at its best when combining art and science. This we are able to continue to do by having artists amongst our staff in many departments including technical, engineering and marketing.

We believe experience is our strength and with over 20% of our employees with more than 25 years service, we all enjoy each other’s company and our everyday challenges for most of our working lives.

New canvas and colour factories
In order to meet a greater worldwide demand, at the beginning of the 21st century we established two new canvas factories in China and India to make our canvas and canvas boards. In the 1990’s we also became the first colour company to enter a joint venture in China to supply the Chinese continent with better quality colour for their artists.

The company today
In the 175 years since the company was founded the changes in society have been manifold. Household water supplies, electricity, gas, telephone, motor cars, computer technology, mobile phones and more, so much has changed our ordinary lives.

But in this same time period at Winsor & Newton, although choice and permanence of materials is better than ever before, the timescale seems short in comparison. Our founding principles remain pertinent in our everyday work, we still have a Royal Appointment to the heir apparent and the desire of artists to express the world in a unique way continues.

Winsor & Newton are the brand leaders in both the UK and USA and the largest imported brand in many of our 110 markets around the world. In fine art colours we provide 23% of the world’s needs and have every intention of continuing to provide the world’s finest colours for many years to come.


Winsor & Newton Artist Oil

Winsor & Newton Artisan Water Mixable Oil

Winsor & Newton Griffin Alkyd

Winsor & Newton Winton Oil

Winsor & Newton Oil Medium

Winsor & Newton Water Mixable Oil Medium

Winsor & Newton Galleria Acrylic

Winsor & Newton Acrylic Medium

Winsor & Newton Brush

Winsor & Newton Cotman Watercolor