Monday, August 25, 2014

Exotic Recipes from Artists' Apothecaries

Run by the Quakers until it closed in 1933, the Stabler-Leadbetter Apothecary Museum is a step back in time.

Wherever I go, I collect samples of local earth. I scrape ancient statues into old film canisters with a pocketknife and keep them for my collection; the rainbow-colored sandstone of Petra is a particular favorite. I keep it in a box under my bed next to the bald eagle eggs. Relax, I'm joking. I ate those eggs ages ago. 

Swirls of color in sandstone, Petra, Jordan [Ed Trayes, photographer]
But pigment has always had a colorful history; explorers travelled to the four corners for centuries specifically to plunder color, until chemists in the 18th century wrested the practice from the hands of alchemists and their hired goons and took it indoors to the laboratory. But to this day, certain colors retain hints of their exotic past. Red ocher, for example, is a constant reminder of our stellar origins. Iron oxide is forged in the belly of dying stars that explode and scatter their contents across the galaxy. In fact, Mars still sends a kilo of it to us every day. (I wrote a whole post about it, here)

Companies like De Mairo Pigments still sell natural lapis lazuli pigment
Not content with simply smearing our canvases with dirt, we've forever ranged across the earth to uncover ever more exotic pigments. As with any modern luxury item, the rarest pigment conferred a whiff of superiority upon anyone rich enough to afford it. The expensive pigment cinnabar was conspicuously splashed all over the walls of Pompeii. We assume that they just liked the color red, or were colorblind, but in the same way that we line up to buy the latest designer excrescence, perhaps they simply had to have it because it was new and exotic. Ancient Egyptians wore lapis from Afghanistan and iron beads from Mars. Venice, by the late fifteenth century, had developed an offshoot of the apothecary specifically for artists, called vendecolori, which sold pigments like the exotic oltremare da venezia – lapis lazuli imported from the mines of Badakshan, and first described by none other than Marco Polo.(1) 

The deep saturation of "Pompeiian Red" is due to the addition of fine granules to the pigment.
Wax was applied to preserve and protect the finish.

Before this time, it was perfectly natural for artists to run down to their local Apothecary for the ingredients of their craft, but these were closer in spirit to shaman's huts than laboratories. Records of Apothecaries dating as far back as 1,500 BCE in ancient Egypt show over 800 recipes and 700 different drugs.(2) Not all of the ingredients were exotic in a "strange and alluring" way, some of them were just plain weird: By the time the Renaissance rolled around, these ingredients naturally expanded to include all sorts of herbs and ground minerals of every kind and color, soaps, cosmetics, gems such as amethyst and emeralds, oddities like “ground unicorn horn” (rhinoceros horn that came through Spain from Africa), tobacco (also through Spain in the fifteenth century), sulfur, mercury, the skin of roasted vipers, dried earthworms and human faeces (most prized being those of young children), bizarre elixirs and, of course, illegal poisons like arsenic and hemlock: Shakespeare’s Romeo picked up the poison he used to kill himself from an apothecary. 

Victorian Medicine Case [source]

Combine this with the practice (for certain illustrators of Islamic illuminated texts) of making the finest brushes from hairs gathered from the inside throats of kittens, and it's easy to see why artists were traditionally looked at sideways. As for me, I'll stick to ordering from the catalog.

Recommended reading:
"Color," Victoria Finlay, Random House
"Colors: The Story of Dyes and Pigments," Abrams Discoveries

(1) Vendecolori a Venezia: the reconstruction of a Profession,” ­Louisa C. Matthew, The Burlington Magazine, Vol. 144, No. 1196 (Nov., 2002), pp. 680-686
(2) A History of Pharmaceutical Compounding. Secundum Artem ,” Allen, Jr, Lloyd, Volume 11 Number 3.


  1. I think some of this stuff is still on the shelves in Bizzarri in Venice...seriously!

    1. She means Bizzarri in Florence
      There are so many modern spin-offs of the apothecary--- the art supply, the profumerie, the herboristerie, the modern drug store-- they just have more packaging.

  2. I do know someone who collects clay and dirt when she travels, she does a lot of restoration and has a huge collection of gathered earth pigments... because sometimes you need to get that exact color of raw sienna color and there are a thousand different umbers to be found.

  3. I have a pretty good palette of colored clays just from my neighborhood- everything from yellows and reds to white, a decent green earth, and a really good black from some petrified charcoal I found near the beach. I've also ground up some mussel shells and green abalones to get those colors. Also some good pearlescent from the insides of the abs. Someday I'm going to paint a surfboard with them, as they seem to really shine under a layer of resin.

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