Isabella Whitworth

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


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Tyrian Treasure: Part 2

woodbedford

Colophon from after 1850

Part One of this research story can be found in the previous blog, or just click here

The Bedford family of Leeds The Bedford family first started manufacturing orchil, a purple dye made from varieties of lichen, in around 1820. Orchil-making was a skilful process relying on fermentation, and dye vats could be expensively spoiled through inattention or inexperience.

Printed matter from early days of manufacturing. The name ‘Wood’ was retained after the death of Edward Wood, a sales partner from around 1850

Three successive generations of enterprising Bedfords steered the expanding manufacturing company into the 20th century, with achievements stemming from knowledge of new research and techniques, coupled with their inventive outlook. This period saw them incorporate synthetic dyes into their manufacturing, but their use of natural products for tanning and dyeing continued into the mid 20th century. The company changed names several times, but there was never a takeover. As ‘Yorkshire Chemicals’ the business finally folded in the early 2000s: by then there were no Bedfords in the company.

Charles Samuel Bedford (1865 – 1945) In 1880 – 81, Charles Samuel Bedford, grandson of founder James Bedford, attended the Yorkshire College to study chemistry. There was one other student: Arthur George Perkin, the second son of Sir William Henry Perkin whose 1865 discovery of a synthesised purple dye known as mauveine had revolutionised the dye and chemical industry. The meeting of these two young students developed to a lifelong connection when Arthur married Charles’ sister Annie. Arthur and Annie spent their lives in Leeds where Arthur worked at what became the University of Leeds. Strong social ties existed between both families.

Connections Family, scientific, and working connections of the Bedfords may explain why samples of genuine Tyrian Purple arrived in the archive. There was no commercial or industrial potential in shellfish dye so one can assume there was a purely academic interest in dyeing and retaining them.

What did the dyer of the Tyrian Purple need to know? Zvi’s photomicrographic images of the purple threads confirmed that the samples were evenly and homogeneously dyed, meaning that they were dyed, not smeared by direct application. Therefore, two key pieces of knowledge had to be in place to vat dye the cotton threads. The dyer needed to know that the shellfish pigment was an indigoid molecule, and that a reduction vat was required.

Knowledge of the hydrosulphite reduction vat was first presented in 1873 by Schützenberger and Lalande. Paul Friedländer’s work in 1909 Vienna determined that the main component of purple pigment from shellfish was an indigoid, namely dibromoindigo.

Scientific connections to the Bedfords were strong, coming from the wider Perkin family, and the Yorkshire College (later the University of Leeds) where Arthur worked. Latest research would have been quickly accessible.

tyrian

The envelope containing the two small skeins of shellfish dyed cotton: labelled in Charles Bedford’s handwriting

Dating the dyeing and the identity of the dyer The relevant part of the Leeds archive was assembled from around 1914. By considering the timeline, we arrived at a possible dyeing date of 1910 – 1913. The identity of the dyer remains unknown since no explanatory notes have been found, but the writing on the envelope containing the threads is that of Charles S. Bedford. So it’s quite possible he dyed it himself, had it dyed by a colleague well-versed in the chemistry of the time, or it was given to him by someone whose work he trusted. In Zvi’s words, this century-old Tyrian Purple sample is the most modern historic sample yet found: a true historic treasure.

Tyrian Purple, known as the ‘Purple of the Ancients’ was a well-discussed subject and appears in 19th century  literature associated, as ever, with wealth and status. The Bedford and Perkin families already represented two historic purples – orchil and mauveine – and one can imagine their curiosity about the dye chemistry of this exotic third.


 

demolition

Demolition site, Yorkshire Chemicals, Kirkstall Road, Leeds, 2008

The demise of Yorkshire Chemicals The Bedford family’s original business changed names several times over its lifetime, but there was never a takeover. It went into receivership in around 2004 styled as Yorkshire Chemicals. The factory on Kirkstall Road, first occupied by the Bedfords in 1850, was abandoned. I visited the demolition site in 2008 and felt unexpectedly emotional. Rising smoke, derelict buildings and heaps of twisted metal seemed the only legacy of a proud family’s early endeavours.

The Phoenix  But there is now an upside. The envelope of purple threads falling from hinges of an upturned rusty trunk has restored to us genuine samples of fabled Tyrian Purple. They are the first ‘modern’ dyeings known since  the 15th century, which illustrate scientific connections of the time as well as the curiosity, inventiveness, and the achievements of a Leeds family. To use Zvi’s words once more, the samples are like a ‘Phoenician rising from the rubble’, serving as a testament to past working and family lives of the Bedfords – and so many like them. They are, quite simply, Tyrian Treasure.

If you are interested in knowing more about any aspect of this research please write to me via the blog contact page.


Thanks 

Many thanks to colleague and friend Zvi Koren for his knowledge, his diligence and his support, and for his comments and additions to this pair of blogs. And for not forgetting to see the punny side of things.


Links and bibliography

Whitworth and Koren paper published in Ambix. Available from Taylor & Francis Online here.

Ancient shellfish used for purple dye vanishes from eastern Med  Guardian article , December 5th 2016


Related posts  on this blog

Testing Times 1 & 2

Getting to Blue

A Purple Pursuit

French Connections

Reasons to be Stressful

Talking Orchil

Dyes, History, and a Chilly Trip to Yorkshire


Inge Boesken Kanold artist researching and working with shellfish pigment

The Edelstein Center for the Analysis of Ancient Artifacts


John Edmonds’ book: Tyrian or Imperial Purple Dye: The Mystery of Imperial Purple Dye, Historic Dye series no. 7, Little Chalfont, 2000. Published by the author.


Smearing process of dyeing

 


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Tyrian Treasure: Part One

 

writtentyreThe Guardian: Monday 5th December 2016.

‘The shellfish that was one of the main sources of Tyrian purple – one of the most storied and valuable trading products in the ancient world – has disappeared from the eastern Mediterranean coast, amid warnings of an ongoing multi-species collapse blamed on global rises in sea temperatures.’

Historical cessation of shellfish dyeing The word ‘Tyrian’ derives from the city of Tyre on the north African coast, an area long associated with the Phoenicians and the shellfish dyeing industry. Tyrian Purple has already ‘disappeared’ once. Although an article linked from the Guardian states ‘snail-fueled purple persisted until chemists learned to make synthetic dyes,’ this is quite untrue.

It’s well known (in the dye world, at least) that shellfish dyeing largely ceased around the time of the Fall of Constantinople in 1453, after which the last dyers seemed to have disappeared. And in the eastern Mediterranean, purple dyeing ceased almost a millennium earlier as a result of the Arab conquest at the beginning of the 7th century.  Analysis of historic textiles continues to confirm this. The biochemical method of shellfish dyeing was complex, relying on processes which were not understood chemically, and were probably only passed down within families. Basically, when the dyers ‘disappeared’ they took the method with them. Any contemporaneous written records of the dye process are incomplete or ambiguous, and cannot be used to make a vat.

Recovery of the dyeing method Shellfish pigment must first be made soluble, (as with any dye), and this only occurs in alkaline conditions of around pH 8 and higher. An additional requirement for dissolution of the pigment is that it must undergo ‘reduction’. In reduction the pigment’s molecules are converted to a slightly altered, but more soluble, molecular structure. This reduction process is achieved by removing oxygen from the pigment molecules, or by adding hydrogen to them.  The vat turns a yellowy colour and fibre, threads or fabric are introduced. Colour will return to dyed items as they re-oxygenate on removal into the air. Readers who are indigo dyers will be familiar with this process.

The lost dyeing method Until the painstaking work in the 1990s of a retired engineer, the late John Edmonds, the exact method for creating a true shellfish purple reduction vat was lost. (Note that a reduction vat is entirely different from a direct application process performed by smearing the pre-pigment secretions).  Edmonds used his knowledge of woad fermentation to recreate the ancient shellfish dye method. He knew, from the early 20th century work of Paul Friedländer, that shellfish dye was an indigoid and would need a reduction process to work.  Edmonds used shellfish pigment extract for colour, and the rotting flesh of tinned cockles to start the required fermentation.  In subsequent years, chemist Zvi Koren (more about Zvi later) and artist Inge Boesken-Kanold separately explored and perfected more authentic historical procedures for dyeing and painting using shellfish purple.

The purple threads The earliest known historically accurate shellfish dyeings since the 15th century were, until recently, the initial samples produced by Edmonds. But in 2008 I discovered a small envelope containing purple cotton threads in a nineteenth / early twentieth century archive. They were labelled in as having been dyed with ‘the bodies of shellfish’. Could they be genuine?

dyedwith

bigtyre

Zvi Koren In 2011 I wandered around an exhibition in the company of Zvi Koren. Zvi is an internationally known and respected authority on shellfish purple and his lively presentations on the subject make him a unique and entertaining conference speaker. He showed interest in my presentations on orchil research, and we discovered a mutual obsession for appallingly groanworthy puns.

I tentatively mentioned the envelope of shellfish dyed threads I had found.  Zvi was clearly sceptical, as rightly befitted an analytical chemist, and was fairly certain the threads would be fake. He told me that only a scientific analysis, rather than visual inspection, would prove or disprove the claim. In his work, Zvi has analysed archaeological dyeings previously claimed by analysts to be shellfish dyed. Zvi’s precise analyses on these same artefacts showed that the ‘real purple’ was in fact an overdye produced from madder and indigo. He reminded me that prior to the work of Edmonds and others I’d have to go back nearly 600 years to find a true dyeing supported by chemical analysis. Paul Friedländer, who first identified the chemistry of shellfish purple in 1909, left no known samples.  But Zvi’s a good sport and was clearly intrigued. He suggested I send a small sample of the threads to him for analysis at the Edelstein Center for the Analysis of Ancient Artifacts, in Israel. So I did.

The research Zvi has described his astonishment when his analysis found the dyeing to be genuine shellfish purple, and he suggested we write a paper together. The work we undertook mapped a possible scenario for how the dyeing came about, why, and at what date. It involved parallel investigations based on Zvi’s scientific analysis of the threads through photomicrographic images and instrumental chromatography. We also studied classical and biblical texts; 19th century literature; the history of science and scientific connections; and the remarkable Bedford family of Leeds.  Zvi was extremely patient with my lack of chemical knowledge and I continue to be grateful for his clear explanations, and the general good humour which illuminated the science I frequently failed to grasp.

Significance of our research So is this a big deal? We definitely think so. It’s huge!  Firstly, before the Tyrian Purple dyed threads I found, no other dyeings have been confirmed since around the 15th century. That’s of considerable interest to researchers. Additionally, their very existence superbly illustrates the activities, interests and connections of an industrious Leeds family in the late 19th and early 20th century. More of that in Part Two – which will follow in the next fortnight.

If you are interested in knowing more about any aspect of this research please contact me through the blog. 


Thanks Many thanks to colleague and friend Zvi Koren for his knowledge, diligence and support, and for his comments and additions to this and the following blog. And not forgetting the puns.


Links and bibliography

Whitworth and Koren paper published in Ambix. Available from Taylor & Francis Online here.

Ancient shellfish used for purple dye vanishes from eastern Med  Guardian article , December 5th 2016


Related posts  on this blog

Testing Times 1 & 2

Getting to Blue

A Purple Pursuit

French Connections

Reasons to be Stressful

Talking Orchil

Dyes, History, and a Chilly Trip to Yorkshire


Inge Boesken Kanold artist researching and working with shellfish pigment

The Edelstein Center for the Analysis of Ancient Artifacts


John Edmonds’ book: Tyrian or Imperial Purple Dye: The Mystery of Imperial Purple Dye, Historic Dye series no. 7, Little Chalfont, 2000. Published by the author.


Smearing process of dyeing


 


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Tyrian Purple – from a Leeds archive?

In early 2008 a small hand-labelled envelope fell from the hinges of a rusty trunk. In it were two knotted twists of purple-dyed threads.

A co-authored paper I’ve written with Professor Zvi Koren about these extraordinary threads was finally published yesterday, after several years’ research. Their existence offers a fascinating insight into the scientific connections and achievements of the people of nineteenth and twentieth century Leeds. You can read the abstract of the paper here

threads_edited-1

I will write more about it in a week or so. If you can’t wait to read the paper, there is a limited number of free downloads available. If you want one, contact me through this website or on Twitter, and I can send a link.

tyrian

Until I am back with more, here are some thanks

To Ambix for publishing our work and for the exceptional quality of their editing

To Professor Koren who set out on this purple adventure with me after a chance conversation at La Rochelle during ISEND

To the owner of the Leeds archive, who allowed us to analyse the threads and the ink on the envelope

Links

Professor Zvi Koren is the Director of the Edelstein Center for the Analysis of Ancient Artifacts at the Shenkar College of Engineering, Design and Art, Ramat-Gan, Israel.

Ambix published by Taylor & Francis Online

Some background to the research already on this blog here


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Celebrating Ethel Mairet

 

submisson

Silk yarn skeins showing the results using two Mairet recipes. The lower skein was divided into three to demonstrate increments of iron added to the vat. Dried cochineal is shown at the lower left

A book of dye recipes by weaver Ethel Mairet was first published in Ditchling, Sussex, in 1916. Its title is Vegetable Dyes. Ditchling Museum of Art and Craft is undertaking a collaborative project to re-interpret and recreate Mairet’s recipes, with the help of  contemporary dyers. There is a considerably large number to complete.

However, not all Mairet’s recipes are safe by today’s standards. Some use toxic chemicals once common in historic use, such as chrome, tin, sulphuric acid, quicklime, lead and zinc and these recipes are excluded from the project, or some individual ingredients amended. Environmental considerations have changed over the years and it is no longer recommended (or permitted) to dye with certain plant material. Lichen dyes, for instance, appear in the book but are omitted from the project because they are rare in many areas and some species are protected. Lichen recipes will be dyed, but by one specialist in Scotland. I am happy with this decision: those who have read my blog for a while know my feelings about dyeing with lichens.

The project is open to natural dyers who are confident handling their materials and they can ‘apply’ for recipes as I did, through the Museum website. The Museum sends material to be dyed; the dyer supplies dyestuff.

The Book 

In Douglas Pepler’s Introduction he quotes the opening lines of the Gospel of St John (In the Beginning..) to illustrate his belief in the ‘goodness’ inherent in discoveries which mankind achieves for the first time. In tracing the subsequent destruction of quality through an urge for quantity (and one assumes, profit), he remarks that this inherent ‘goodness’ is lost. This was true, he suggests, when natural dyes were supplanted by those synthesised by chemists.

In a similar vein Ethel Mairet writes:

‘Dyeing is an art; the moment science dominates it is is an art no longer, and the craftsmen must go back to the time before science touched it, and begin all over again.’

The book is available online.

recipes

The two recipes I selected from Mairet’s book. They are for wool, but I chose the silk option offered by the project

Decisions

 I selected two cochineal recipes to dye onto silk yarn and ‘ordered’ them online from Ditchling Museum. The original recipes were for wool, but the project organisers offered the silk option and I chose it in preference to wool.  One recipe (7, above) uses iron to give a purple shade. (Note that cochineal is an insect, not a vegetable dye, but is included in Mairet’s book).

Many recipes which Mairet collected from the 17th C onwards, before science touched them, are scant on explanation and assume prior knowledge. Compare them, for example, to a contemporary book where a recipe can occupy a page of explanations and options.

So, following the two recipes wasn’t straightforward and often puzzling. I would never in normal practice add wool or silk to a boiling vat. So how should I interpret ‘Boil and enter wool while boiling, till the required colour is got.’?  And should I rinse after mordanting in recipe 4, or sling the cochineal and cream of tartar straight into the mordant as is suggested by the word ‘add? In recipe 7, what colour is considered violet? What does a 1 oz solution of iron mean? And so on. I had to make some of it up as I went along.

Happily, I had no spectators when calculating the Mairet quantities to simple percentages.

I’m including my recipe reports under the links, below. They are not of interest to everyone but indicate some quandaries faced when using historic recipes.


Links

Get involved in the dye project here

Download Ethel Mairet’s book here

Here My earlier blog about Mairet’s madder recipes

Here My blog on dyeing with lichens

Hilary Douglas Clark Pepler

Ditchling Museum of Art and Craft


 

Recipe report page 93, recipe 4: silk

PINK WITH COCHINEAL FOR WOOL

 12 gram silk skein supplied

Calculations were made at

10.4% alum

6% cochineal

12% cream of tartar

Method:

Cochineal ground finely in pestle and mortar.

Silk was washed, rinsed, and remained wetted out.

Mordanting was started cold so that the silk would not be entered at boiling point as the recipe requested (unwise for silk) but was raised to boiling over the period of an hour. It was held at boiling point for 50 minutes.

It would normally be my practice to allow the silk to cool in the mordant and rinse, but the recipe seemed specific about procedure as follows:

Then add 1lb. Cochineal and 5lbs cream of tartar

So I kept the silk in the very hot mordant liquid and added the cochineal and cream of tartar. The colour seemed to ‘take’ immediately and after half an hour the vat looked to be exhausted. The recipe suggests that items be left in the vat till the required colour is got . To obtain a lighter pink, this would have meant removing the yarn after a very short time in the vat which as far as I’m concerned isn’t very good practice. So, using this recipe, a lighter pink would be best obtained by reducing the percentage of dyestuff.

The colour in the sample therefore reflects the 6% of cochineal used.


 

Recipe report page 94, recipe 7: silk

VIOLET FOR WOOL

12 gram silk skein supplied

The following quantities used:

1.5 gr alum

.75 gr cochineal

Iron water as described below

Method:

Cochineal was ground finely in pestle and mortar. Silk was washed, rinsed, and remained wetted out.

No method was given for mordanting in the recipe. Mordanting was started cold and the vat raised to boiling over the period of an hour. It was held at boiling point for 50 minutes, as in my sample for the p. 93 recipe 4 sample. However, for this recipe I allowed the silk to cool in the mordant for several hours and then rinsed it. This is because the recipe seemed to separate the mordant and dye processes, unlike the p. 93 recipe.

Because there was no specific mention of cream of tartar in this recipe (and there was on p. 93), I did not use it in the mordant.

A clean vat was made with cold water and the cochineal added. The silk was entered into the vat and stirred: the colour ‘took’ quickly. The recipe states that the cochineal and iron should be added at the same time but I was reluctant to do this because I do not use ferrous sulphate. Instead I keep a jar of iron water, made with rusty nails, water and vinegar. This serves my dyeing purposes well but means that for this project I could not calculate what the recipe’s 1 oz solution of iron would represent in terms of iron water. I was therefore wary of adding too much too soon.

I therefore dyed the silk yarn for a full half hour, and the vat was exhausted. I added 1 ml iron water to the vat and after ten minutes there was an appreciable change in colour so I removed the yarn.

When the yarn had dried I decided it wasn’t ‘violet’ – or at least not violet enough. So I divided the skein into three equal parts, keeping the original colour as Skein 1. Skein 2 was wetted out, reintroduced into the vat with a further 1 ml iron water, and removed after ten minutes. Skein 3 was wetted out, and reintroduced into the vat with a further 2 mls iron water.

All skeins washed and rinsed to remove iron.

NOTE: The colour of the dyed silk prior to the addition of the iron was almost identical to the sample obtained for p. 93. The two sets of samples thus offer a good progression from pink through to violet and purple.

 Cochineal source The cochineal was sourced from Lanzarote.


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Patterns of Spain

almudena

The ceiling of Santa María de la Almudena, Madrid, designed and painted by José Luis Galicia. See link to an article at the bottom of the page

Selfies 

In the last few weeks visiting Spain, I discovered that I am not a fan of the selfie stick. With their backs to the magnificence of Seville’s Alcázar, Córdoba’s Mezquita and the courtyards of Granada’s Alhambra, endless troupes of tourists raised selfie-sticks towards themselves like fishermen without a pier.

Selfie-takers don’t always appear to study, or even enjoy the wonders they visit.  Their eventual aim seems to transmit images of themselves in front of the site. I’ve never seen selfie-takers at municipal dumps or eyesores so the desirability of a transmitted selfie must rely on the reputation or perhaps, newsworthiness of the backdrop: sightseeing is not essentially about looking at, or understanding, where you are. It seems to be about telling everybody what a great time you are having while you take your selfies. Each set of shots is followed by scrutiny of phone and images and it can all take a very long time, especially if you are there to see what they are in front of. We are living in a peculiarly self-obsessed world and I don’t ‘get’ the selfie thing at all: in fact, it makes me sad.

I’m getting on a bit and still like to sit and look at things. Sometimes I take photos, and nothing beats drawing as long as I’m not messing up the view for other people. Drawing ensures I’m ‘there’ – like nothing else. I’m dangerously near sounding smug, so I’ll just put up a selection of sketches and drawings from the trip. I’ve chosen ones related to pattern, or textiles and am avoiding pictures everyone knows. It’s a fairly random selection, so please excuse lack of coherence.

 

The Feast of the Immaculate Conception

The 8th December is the day of the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, which is a public holiday in Catholic Spain. Checking my Twitter feed that morning in Córdoba, I learned from the Reverend Richard Coles’ feed (@RevRichardColes) that blue liturgical vestments are permitted, by Papal decree, on 8th December in Spain. They are not worn on any other day of the year. I looked in on a Mass to see if he was right (he was), but did not take a photo. I idly wondered if the Papal decrees might be the result of lobbying by medieval woad or indigo dyers, so I checked on their dates. They were all granted in the late nineteenth century so I think it most unlikely.

Below is one of the elaborate statues of the Virgin Mary brought out for the feast day. She has a richly embroidered blue velvet robe and cloak. At the time I made no note of the lovely church where I saw her but the wonders of the internet reveal it to be the Iglesia Conventual del Santo Angél.

IMG_9469

Blue is the traditional colour for the Virgin Mary. This statue is from the Iglesia Conventual del Santo Angel, Córdoba

The Banner of Fernando III 

During my visit to Seville, I of course went to its much-fêted Cathedral. I was completely unmoved by its vastness and found the building architecturally incoherent and not at all uplifting. I am not religious, but I can still be moved by a religious building and I found this one too big, too twiddly and too opulent. The enormous tomb reputed to contain the remains of Columbus is set within the Cathedral (yes, the selfie-takers were in front of it too).

The Giralda  was more interesting. This huge tower, started in 1184,  was once the minaret of the mosque originally on the site of the Cathedral and the climb to the top comprises 35 sets of ramps, built so that a horse could be ridden to the top to the top. It is set on the edge of the extensive Cathedral courtyard, with groves of oranges trees still in fruit when I went. I found the space peaceful despite the crowds there, and more moving than the Cathedral itself.

pendón

Banner of Fernando III, raised from the minaret of the mosque on its capitulation in 1248. Cathedral of Seville

What really engaged my interest within the Cathedral was a glass-topped case at the  west end. It contains the banner of Fernando III (later canonised as San Fernando). The banner has great historical importance as not only did it symbolise the capitulation of the Moors at Seville in 1248, but also united the heraldic arms of Castile and León for the first time. The original banner was made in the first half of the thirteenth century of pieced and embroidered silks. In the 1990s it was found to be in an exceptionally poor state of repair and urgent conservation was undertaken. Information suggests that conservation rather than restoration took place,  but I’m curious about the brightness of some yellow areas because it would be normal for most yellow dyes to have faded over 700 years.bannerfIII The inset image shows a diagram of the original design of the banner but is very poor quality because it was taken through glass at a difficult angle. The original colours are listed as red, yellow, purple and silver.

The link to the Instituto Andaluz del Patrimonio suggests that some dye analysis was done during the conservation work in 1999. I have yet to find a published paper on the findings. Naturally, I am curious about the purple dye (a colour associated with high status), which was used for the appliquéd lions. It’s unlikely to be orchil, which would have faded to beige by now, but as it’s hard for a casual visitor to see  what fabric is original and what is restored, who knows? It was a little frustrating to see many textiles displayed in church or cathedral treasuries, such as the Chinese-inspired vestment seen in Ronda (see top of page) with no explanations, details, dates, provenance etc.

Spain, though, is an amazing country for its visual inspiration, its history, buildings, landscape and wildlife. I just love Spain. But I need to improve my Spanish before I go back: I’m working on it.

Links

The controversy over paintings in the Almudena Cathedral, Madrid here

The Giralda Tower, Seville here

Article in Spanish on the Banner of Fernando III here

Statement on the conservation of the banner by the Instituto Andaluz de Patrimonio Histórico here

Blue Vestments: clearly a subject of some discussion within the Catholic Church; check the comments beneath this post

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


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Getting to Blue

In my last blog A Purple Pursuit, I wrote about Browning’s Popularity, in which he referred to shellfish dye in a complex poem on inspiration, skill and genius. What I didn’t say, but others wisely pointed out, was the oddity of Browning referring to the dye as blue throughout the poem. Shellfish dye (from the ‘Tyrian shells’) is quite definitely purple and the colour, history and source of Imperial Purple were well known in Browning’s time. So, why blue?

Who has not heard how Tyrian shells
Enclosed the blue, that dye of dyes

Whereof one drop worked miracles,
And coloured like Astarte’s eyes
Raw silk the merchant sells?

I scratched around many sources but failed to find a historical reference, or image, defining Astarte’s eyes as blue. Maybe I have missed something. But the Resident Poetry Advisor says that Browning was more than capable of implying non-existent references, or even inventing them. This seems most perverse, but Browning was a poet and that’s the kind of thing poets do.

indigo

Author’s indigo-dyed wool yarn, using increasing vat strength

Putting Browning firmly aside, I happened across a reference to William Gladstone’s Studies on Homer and the Homeric Age. Gladstone (1809 – 1908) was a British Liberal politician, three times Prime Minister, living at a time when politicians digested more than soundbites.

Gladstone studied the Iliad page by page, and as he did so he recorded the occurrence of words for colour. What he noticed was rather remarkable. He came across much mention of black, some white, less red, very little yellow, tiny amounts of green…but no blue. Was Homer ‘colourblind’, or unable to perceive colours? Were all Greeks the same, and their perception of colours (and the words to describe them) inherited, building over several generations? It left me wondering whether Astarte’s eyes could have been blue if there wasn’t yet a word for it, which was a head-spinning prospect.

Lazarus Geiger (1829-1870), a philosopher and philologist, took Gladstone’s research further and studied other ancient texts (for instance, Icelandic sagas, Vedic literature, and the original Hebrew version of the Bible) finding that none of them contained a word for blue. Geiger concluded that across ancient cultures, words for colour developed in an oddly consistent order. Black was always first, followed by white, red, yellow, green. Blue came next, eventually.

If this intrigues you, I suggest you listen to the Radiolab broadcast linked below. It makes more sense of it than I can here, but still left me wondering what exactly was being said. One of the programme’s guests is linguist Guy Deutscher. Listen, particularly, to the account of his little daughter trying to name the colour of the sky.

buddhist_edited-1

Author’s watercolour from sketchbook, 1995, recording the many dyed colours and fading shades of Buddhist monks’ robes in Sikkim and North India

My head can’t get itself round the concept that without an object to attach it to, a colour didn’t ‘exist’ and didn’t acquire a name. But that’s partly what is being said and it leads me to dyeing, and the need to name colours. I was dyeing felt last week, trying to achieve a good range of reds. I used different amounts of mordant, varied the percentages of weld, cochineal and madder and overdyed in different sequences. Small variations occurred in the reds and I sought to describe these to a client in words. Colours need adjectives like ‘bright’, ‘dark’, ‘dull’ etc but one inevitably ends up with a comparison to a universally understood coloured object, such as a poppy, a pillarbox, a brick, a patch of rust, a rose. We take this for granted but it’s very sophisticated, relying on a well-established set of understandings. We often need an object when we describe colour.

In her book Tintes y Tintoreros de América, Ana Roquero records the many changes that took place in Central and South American textile practice during the Spanish colonial period. One of the imports from Spain to the New World was an entire vocabulary for textiles. As well as words for machinery, tools, technical terms and cloth and fabric, this included words for colour. These colour words are still alive in parts of Latin America amongst mestizo weavers and dyers, when their use in today’s Spain is long lost.

In this case it’s the itinerant word that has preserved the colour, and I find that fascinating.


Links

Radiolab broadcast ‘Why Isn’t the Sky Blue’ here

The Himba and the perception of colour Anthropology and the Human Condition: here

Books:

Roquero, Ana, 2006, Tintes y tintoreros de América: catálogo de materias primas y registro etnográfico de México, Centro América, Andes Centrales y Selva Amazónica, Ministerio de Cultura, España

Deutscher, Guy, 2010, Through the Language Glass, Heinemann

Comments

Please also check out the very interesting links offered in comments for this page. Many thanks to those who have written and included them

 


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A Purple Pursuit

Orchil: For a few years I have been researching a (mostly) nineteenth century archive relating to a Leeds dye manufacturer. The early fortune and later success of this Leeds company were built on the manufacturers’ skill in the making of a dye called orchil. Orchil is an ancient dye, made from lichens of several varieties, and it dyes silk and wool various shades of purple. It does not need a mordant, a fact that was valuable to the historical dyer as it omitted the expense in the mordant process, and additionally avoided any harshening which mordanting can impose on silk. Purple could normally be achieved with natural dyes only with overdyes, such as indigo over cochineal, but orchil ‘got there in one’.

In its clearest and most beautiful form, orchil dye will give a glorious fuchsia colour and the clarity of this shade is assisted by the purity of the ammonia in which dyestuff is prepared. Historically, orchil was known to impart a freshness and bloom in ‘bottoming’ other dyes – e.g. when used as a base before overdyeing. Orchil was a much used and valuable dye throughout history, although its use is sometimes an enigma. It is often found in costly tapestries, which is surprising as orchil is not at all lightfast – a fact that was well-known.

With the advent of synthetic dyes in the later nineteenth century the use of orchil began to decline. Records in the Leeds archive indicate that large sums of money were still tied up in stocks of lichen in the 1870s and in trying to comprehend the place of orchil in the nineteenth century I found the archive inextricably linked to the history of the colour purple. We will publish in due course but an extract from the abstract of my co-authored paper with Professor Zvi Koren at DHA 32 offers a clue:

One of the more astounding discoveries associated with this archive was that it included a small envelope signed by Charles Samuel Bedford declaring the content of the packet to be ‘Tyrian Purple’. But what was really inside the envelope? Was it truly Tyrian Purple…?

Shellfish dyes: Much has been written on the history of the shellfish dye Tyrian Purple (Imperial Purple, The Purple of the Ancients, murex etc) and its association with wealth and status. There is a lot of utter rubbish online about Tyrian Purple, so beware if you are researching and look for reliable sources, such as those listed in Chris Cooksey’s Tyrian Purple Bibliography, linked below.

Nucella lapillus shells, Somerset

Nucella lapillus shells, Somerset

For the purposes of this particular post, it’s important to realise that long after the method of shellfish dyeing* was lost, probably around the fifteenth century, the reputation of purple as a high status colour lived on. Purple retained a kind of status independent of its original connections to shellfish dyes. There are contemporaneous references to shellfish dyeing (e.g. in Vitruvius, and Pliny the Elder in his Natural History) and something has always been known of the preparation process, although modern interpretations of commentaries vary.

Since the mid nineteenth century chemists, scholars and dyers have researched shellfish dyes and the ancient dye process has been patiently and painstakingly rediscovered. Shellfish dyeing can again be undertaken although it is only seriously done for research purposes: you will see how small some shells can be from the image and only the tiny hypobranchial gland yields dye. In the mid nineteenth century, no-one knew the full process, which is why I found Robert Browning’s poem Popularity (1850s) so interesting when I came across it this week.  Crucially within it is a several-verse reference to Tyrian Purple and shellfish dye. As I couldn’t fathom what the whole poem was about, this reference was a puzzle. I sought out the RPA (Resident Poetry Advisor) who explained it to me, along with some literary context which includes Browning’s life and work, a knowledge of Keats and the poets that imitated him. Popularity is dense and complicated.

Popularity: As I now understand it, and in simple terms, the poem is about inspiration and skill. Browning asks himself about genius, as he did when studying, say, the paintings of Old Masters.  What is genius? Where does it come from? When some ‘poets’ recognised genius in others, as in the work of Keats, they picked up superficial, outward facets of the verse and imitated them. They basked in their hollow cleverness. Browning describes the humbleness of the shells, or conches (‘Mere conchs!’) and celebrates the ‘cunning’ of those who learned how to refine this costliest ‘dye of dyes‘. What’s the humble origin of Keats’ unique genius, he wonders wittily in his last line:

What porridge had John Keats?

Contemporary knowledge in the 1850s

Considering the knowledge that Browning appears to have of dye preparation:

Till cunning come to pound and squeeze
And clarify,—refine to proof
The liquor filtered by degrees

it could be that he knew a little more about the process than was available through classic texts. Henri de Lucaze Duthiers was working on shellfish dyes in the 1850s, but not for dyeing. He was demonstrating the potential to use the molluscs for a photographic printing process. I don’t see enough evidence to draw any conclusions about what Browning knew, but it’s been fun speculating, and a reminder of the magic we dyers experience liberating colour from simple, natural materials.

To read the whole poem Popularity, you can go here, but two key verses are below.

VI.

Who has not heard how Tyrian shells
Enclosed the blue, that dye of dyes
Whereof one drop worked miracles,
And coloured like Astarte’s eyes
Raw silk the merchant sells?

XI.

Mere conchs! not fit for warp or woof!
Till cunning come to pound and squeeze
And clarify,—refine to proof
The liquor filtered by degrees,
While the world stands aloof.

 

NOTE: *Dyeing, as opposed to smearing. Traditional use of shellfish to colour threads and cloth, such as in Oaxaca, Mexico, is not true vat dyeing, but more akin to  surface smearing.


Links about my research, on this blog

Overview  Dyes, History and a chilly trip to Yorkshire

About orchil: Talking Orchil

My research information: Historical Dye studies


Bibliography

Cooksey, Chris (2013) Tyrian Purple: the first four thousand years, Science Progress, 96(2), p 171 – 186

Jordan, Maria (2012) Recreating the life of a tapestry: Fading dyes and the impact on the tapestry image available online from The Institute of Conservation here

Chris Cooksey’s Tyrian Purple Bibliography

Wikipedia on Tyrian Purple


Thanks

With thanks to Dr Maurizio Aceto for some input on dates, Nigel Phillips for giving me the Nucella lapillus shells in Somerset last summer, and especially to the RPA.