A journalist friend once told me that when bored in the newsroom, colleagues would set each other random words or phrases to insert as logically as possible into the day’s articles. The game was to sneak them past the wily editor, and everyone bought the winner a beer. With no colleagues to deal me a rum hand, I idly set myself a trio. A purple tent; sheep’s dung and Ibsen’s haplotype.
As only the wily and super-smart read this blog, they will instantly smell a rat and I will not win the beer tonight.
Yesterday I received a draft paper on a set of sixteenth century tapestries at the Historic Royal Palaces – in this case, Hampton Court. During conservation work last year, dye analysis was carried out on a tapestry and orchil was found. Because tapestries were such lavish purchases, (a series might cost the equivalent of a super-yacht in today’s money), the use of such a light fugitive dye is surprising. But it’s not the first instance I know of. In the book accompanying the V&A’s 2010 exhibition of the Sistine Chapel Tapestries,* the (pitifully small) commentary on the dyes included the finding of orchil.
In the case of the Hampton Court set, further analysis was to be carried out which involved dyeing and testing wool samples. I assisted by teaching the making of an orchil vat and demonstrating how to dye with orchil. It was fascinating to be involved in such a project and when the paper is published I will say more about it. Alexander and Hephaestion were the key figures in the tapestry, standing in front of a purple tent. The tapestry is one of a series called the Battles of Alexander.
And onwards to the sheep’s dung. My initial contact with Hampton Court was through a recommendation. The natural dye / natural dye history world is very small and everyone knows each other’s particular dye obsessions. Deb Bamford is an expert natural dyer, member of the Online Guild of Weavers, Spinners and Dyers and always seen at the DHA (Dyes in History and Archaeology) conferences. She has worked and advised at Hampton Court before and was able to recommend me for my involvement with orchil. Deb will be a tutor at the Summer School of the Association of Weavers, Spinners and Dyers in August this year. I have a place on her course Turkey Red and all that Madder. One of the challenges in natural dye is in obtaining good shades on cellulose and I hope to learn a lot about the various methods and recipes for Turkey Red for which one ingredient used to be sheep’s dung.
My involvement with dyes, history and chemical analysis has increased over the past five years and it is astonishing what modern analysis can reveal about dyes, colour, and even the variety of a species used to dye a textile. I have been similarly intrigued by the strands of research and archaeological evidence that included the DNA analysis of Michael Ibsen and the identification of Richard III’s bones. One of the first novels I ever read was The Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey, which questions the ‘Shakespearian’ version of Richard III and considers how history is constructed very much in the interests of its authors.
Its title is based on a quotation from Sir Francis Bacon: Truth is the daughter of time, not of authority.
* Raphael: Cartoons and Tapestries for the Sistine Chapel; Evans, Browne and Nesselrath; V&A Publishing 2010; pp 36-37