Isabella Whitworth

probably more than natural and synthetic dyes, wax, resists, and history

A purple tent and Mr Ibsen’s haplotype


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

5 thoughts on “A purple tent and Mr Ibsen’s haplotype

  1. Great topic, Isabella, or topics, since you bring up quite a few! Thank you for sharing . The dye world is so wonderful a field, so much to learn, one does not tire of it. I especially enjoy how you write about your interests – a fine read. Looking forward to hearing more.

  2. I feel a bit of an imposter here because I know nothing about dyes except what Isabella has taught me, and yet her words are always fascinating and lead me, tangentially, onto other matters. This time it’s a twosome you’d never normally put together: Raphael and Josephine Tey.

    Sky Arts are running a series called “Hidden World of Works of Art”; previous episodes looked at Leonardo and Rembrandt, and the one I’ve just seen was on Raphael. For me it’s an uneven series that dwells too much on the assembled experts rather than on the actual works (which TV can do so well but seldon does). Dyes and pigments seem to suffer equally from the ravages of time and inexpert ‘restorers’. One concept which exercised the modern experts gathered together was whether damage could be ‘reversed’ I think was the word. It seemed to raise hackles. And I wondered whether this also troubles those involved in conserving dyed works.

    I bought Mij some J. Tey books for Christmas because I had much enjoyed reading “The Singing Sands” to my children many years ago. I haven’t read “The Daughter of Time” but must do so. I see it was the last of her books to be published in her lifetime.

    I might privately challenge you, Isabella, and give you a chance to win that beer!

    • Hi Richard,
      Thanks for the thoughtful response. I don’t know the Sky Arts series but agree that too many programmes are about presenters with silly hair, not the subjects they are there to present.

      I am sure the idea that any damage could be reversed would raise hackles in most spheres since from the little chemistry / physics I know, ‘damage’ in a textile (and I suppose other objects too) is associated with irreversible breakdown of structures or bonds. In the case of faded orchil the colour has turned to beige and so to find evidence of it, the analysis looks for what I think are called the ‘degradation materials’. As I understand it, these materials are specific to the breakdown of orchil.

      At Hampton Court they had studied the back of the tapestry where the colour has been protected from light and is therefore almost as first dyed, so they knew that what was on the front had once been purple.

      They were ‘conserving’ the tapestry to stop it actually falling apart, not ‘restoring it’ in the sense of putting back colour that had once been there. In a tapestry this would in any case be impossible as adjacent stitches might be a totally different colour / dye. I do know of a carpet workshop that ‘restores’ in the sense of re-weaving sections that have been damaged. Again, this is contentious because there are few reliable ways of knowing what the original colour was and when you re-weave a section, inserting the original colour amongst other colours that have faded becomes very noticeable etc etc.

      I expect there are similar issues with painting, although I know very little about pigments, fading, degradation etc.

  3. Sorry, it was ‘Hidden Secrets …’ not ‘Hidden Worlds…’ but I wonder if I remember correctly; maybe “reversed” wasn’t the word used. It was to do with the despoiling often by numerous coats of varnish mistakenly applied and also by the cutting and/or relining of pictures. Not problems I suspect which beset conservators of tapestries etc. The chief restorer from Louvre who presumably knows his job, was amused by the disbelievers in the non-specialist ,if expert, audience: these were experts on Raphael but not on the restorers own peculiar art.

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