More a case of dyes and pigments than pure colour, really, and far from a scientific treatise.  Victoria Finlay recounts her personal quests (there were quite a few of them) to find out more about the the major colouring agents the world knew and relied upon before coal tar and aniline dyes. My copy ended up stuffed with bookmarks to help me find my favourite bits again – always a very good sign – so I’ll indicate a few of them.

She is good at drawing out the social and historical contexts:  for example, the way the saffron industry has moved to Iran, where it apparently remains economic for 28 billion crocuses to be individually hand-stripped of their stigmas.

Then there is the magic behind the cold economics, for example a co-operative in Turkey re-introducing natural dyes to recreate genuine Turkish carpets:

Dr Boehmer explained the appeal. ‘Synthetic dyes just contain one colour. But in madder there is red, of course, but blue and yellow are in there as well. It makes it softer …’ I was reminded of a photograph I saw at the Winsor & Newton factory of a piece of madder that had been magnified 240 times. It was orange and blue and red, like a kingfisher’s wings …

She feels a strong personal involvement with colouring processes, imparting her experience with a throwaway casual air which amused me:

Some said he stained it [pernambucco for violin bows] with stale urine, though when I tried this – a process I cannot recommend – it made the wood more treacly than chocolatey …

In fact she will try pretty much anything, including dabbling in a bath of mercury, which I have always wanted the chance to do:

I submerged my arm and swirled this pool of pure mercury around:  it was a wonderful sensation.  When I went with it, it felt like water.  When I went against it, it was an almost unstoppable force.  An elephant of elements.

And then there are her own stories.  Finlay’s pilgrimage to the war zone of Afghanistan in order to acquire some ultramarine for Michelangelo, five hundred years too late, was superbly Quixotic, narrowly beaten into second place in my affections by the search for Indian Yellow, a shaggy dog story so perfect that it could be incorporated into Tristram Shandy and hardly show the joins.

Definitely a keeper until I find a very deserving person.


2 responses »

  1. Isn’t mercury extremely toxic? Oh well . . .
    Apparently, stale urine was a major resource used by the chemical industry during the 1700s and early 1800s. Vast quantities were used in the alum producing works along the Yorkshire coast and Teesside.
    The book looks fascinating.

    • Yes indeed, I hope she washed her hands 🙂 As children we used to have those maze puzzles with drops of mercury in – we used to break the puzzles open so we could play with the mercury. I expect it ended up in the cracks in the floorboards, quietly vaporising – but we didn’t eat it, luckily.
      And I believe so about the pee collection. Sort of distributed ammonia manufacturing … My own very limited experience with natural dyes was extraordinarily noisome. No wonder dyeworks had to be outside city walls.

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