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ALCHEMY AND ADVENTURE: A History of Exotic Colours and Poisonous Pigments


In our modern world it's easy to take colour for granted. Yet before organic chemistry the most desirable pigments were often exotic or poisonous.

Merchants supplied pungent yellow 'purree' nuggets from India, cochineal 'grana' from the holds of Spanish galleons, lapis rock was carried by camel train from the mountains of Badakhshan. Alchemists prepared deadly 'King's Yellow' and 'ruby of arsenic'. 'Moorish Gold' was concocted, according to a 12th century monk, from basilisk powder ground with human blood! Small wonder artists kept their paint recipes closely guarded in Books of Secrets.

Some pigments, such as crimson lakes and indigo were also fabric dyes. Crimson was thought to derive from worms and indigo from the 'ooze of the Nile'.

Many pigments also had uses as cosmetics and, dubiously efficacious, medicines. Deadly cinnabar was used as lipstick by wealthy Roman ladies, toxic orpiment was applied to the scalp as a hair restorative and caput mortuum (or mumia), from ground mummies, was once a general cure-all!

This study day tells the fascinating stories of alchemy and adventure behind some our most beautiful and colourful paintings.