Pigments & organic colours used in manuscripts from Armenia & Egypt

This lecture took place a while ago now, and it has taken me a while to write anything about it, though that does not make it any less interesting. Unfortunately I have no pictures, so will endeavour to make it short. Our lecturer was Cheryl Porter who is a a specialist in pigments and had kindly given us her time as part of the Book and Paper ICON Group move to provide more specialist lectures, which was fantastic as her skills and experience are extensive.

Porter has been spending time in both Armenia and Egypt to study the pigments found in manuscripts over there. She concentrated on red and pink pigments for our lecture as there is such a huge depth of information on the subject as a whole, it could be impossible to cover all of it.

There was a specific type of red pigment found in Armenian manuscripts that they had initially found difficult to locate. After extensive research, Porter found that the pigment was made from female Armenian Cochineal beetles, specifically found in the base of the valley of Mount Arrarat. The earliest knowledge of the use of this pigment was in 1743 and was not just used for colouring manuscripts, but also as a fine dye for fabrics and silks.

Porter duly went on a beetle pilgrimage to the valley of Mount Arrarat and found disappointingly few beetles and almost no-one who knew anything about them. However luck was on her side as she met a father from the Khor Virap Monastary who was familiar with the pigment and was even able to show Porter how to formulate it from the small amount of beetles that they had found, which included keeping them in alcohol for about a year to separate the fats – this would be after slow roasting them in order to dessicate them, so a relatively gruesome process!

The number of beetles has reduced for several reasons, including the building of a chemical factory after the war, and using it as a military area, there is also no control over the animals, which are free to roam the area and eat all the grass, removing any food source for the beetles. Grass is also destroyed by using the land for crop growing, so sadly the beetle colony is reducing year by year.

Thank you to dontai.com for this picture of a cochineal beetle!

A lecture on David Smith and the use of Modern Paints

Recently I have been attending a few evening lecturs set up by ICON (Institute of Conservation). These have been on a range of different subjects concentrating on members specialities and the research some members are undertaking.

Thursday’s lecture was delivered by Richard Mulholland, a paper conservator at the V&A who has worked all over the world in paper conservation. Mulholland has a speciality in the work of David Smith and has researched him for much of his career.

Here Mulholland was showing us the use of paint in Smith’s work, both in his sculpture and drawings, which have not had as much publicity as his sculptures in the past. Smith started his career in the industrial welding industry, a skill which he transported across to his sculptures. It is also this interest in the industrial metal works throughout the early 20th century that affected the paint he used. Mulholland discussed the research he had made into the paints used by Smith and their chemical make-up, which were found to contain industrial paints, both for metal work, and for interior decoration, these were in small amounts compared to the more common use of artistic paints, such as alkyd and casein paints and later acrylics when they became more common. Smith had also stated throughout his career that he mixed many of his own paints which used egg yolks – it was due to these ingredients that Mulholland found some fatty acid deposits on top of the paintings which he was researching.

I believe a full review of this lecture will be on the ICON website in the not to distant future, but thank you very much to Richard Mulholland for a fascinating lecture.