JAIC 1983, Volume 23, Number 1, Article 7 (pp. 65 to 66)
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Journal of the American Institute for Conservation
JAIC 1983, Volume 23, Number 1, Article 7 (pp. 65 to 66)


Richard Newman

RichardNewmanR. D.Harley. Artists' Pigments c. 1600–1835. A Study in English Documentary Sources. London, Butterworth Scientific, 1982, 2nd edition.

THOSE FAMILIAR WITH the first edition of this book (published in 1970) will find that the new edition contains comparatively little new information. The principal changes in the text involve references to George Field's manuscript notebooks, which were not available to the author earlier. The earlier edition was a small ‘scholarly-looking’ volume, while the new edition is much more attractively designed, and perhaps best of all contains considerably more illustrations (including color plates from some of Field's notebooks).

The purpose of the book, as its title indicates, is to review the ‘documentary’ history of pigments from the late 16th through the early 19th century, as gleaned from English sources. The book is well organized, with the bulk of the text consisting of chapters on pigments, arranged by color group and sometimes further divided into organic and inorganic varieties. Within each of these chapters are sections on individual pigments, ranging from a paragraph to several pages depending on the relative importance of the given pigment. In these sections the sources of the pigment, its method or methods of manufacture or preparation, the circumstances of its use, as well as questions of nomenclature are succinctly described. This organization makes it a very easy matter to find a given pigment. While information on the chemical composition of some pigments is included and the formulae for most of the inorganic pigments are noted, these subjects are not discussed to any extent. Nor does Dr. Harley discuss occurences of the pigments in paintings, as determined by analytical studies.

There are several other chapters in addition to those that deal with groups of pigments. Two introductory chapters discuss in chronological order the many sources (manuscripts and published books) that the author used in her research and discuss the reliability of various source materials. The period of approximately 250 years covered by the book begins with the anonymous “A very proper treatise, wherein is briefly sett forthe the arte of Limming,” first published in 1573, which is usually regarded as the first book on painting to be printed in English. As Dr. Harley notes, prior to the publication of this book manuscripts that dealt with painting materials usually contained separate recipes for the manufacture or preparation of pigments. During the later part of the 16th century, however, the documents tended to become more literary in style and usually were in the form of treatises describing the characteristics and uses of different pigments; they did not generally include recipes for the manufacture of pigments. At the end of the 18th century books by ‘colormen’ (the people who prepared artists' colors, although they did not necessarily manufacture the pigments themselves) began to appear. The period covered by Dr. Harley ends with George Field's Chromatography, which was published in 1835. Field was (among other things) a manufacturer of pigments and his book lists virtually all of the pigments that would have been available to an artist in 1835.

Most of the literary sources from the period covered by Dr. Harley contain few if any details regarding the actual manufacture of pigments. Information on this subject is to be found in public records and records of scientific societies, which the author discusses in a separate chapter.

The last chapter of the book, “Science and Art,” is a brief discussion of the increasing part that came to be played by industry and technology in the development of new artists' colors as well as the availability of others, particularly during the later 18th and early 19th century. In the final paragraph the author summarizes the changes that took place during the period covered by the book. In the early 17th century the workshop tradition remained strong, and it was still possible for painters to gain a thorough knowledge of their materials. But books published during the 18th century indicate that at that time artists apparently had little knowledge of the technology of colors and no easy way of gaining such knowledge. The range of pigments available by the early 19th century was larger than ever before, due to the contributions of chemists and colormakers. Although by this time artists rarely played and direct part in the preparation of the colors and paints they used in their work, information on the properties and behavior of pigments was nevertheless available to them, due in part to the efforts of colormakers such as George Field, so that artists could “make intelligent use of the contribution of science to art.”

Appendices list books with named color samples and describe patents for color-making that were granted in the early 17th century.

One can find little to fault in Dr. Harley's well-written and readable book, which provides a welcome addition to the documentary history of painting materials.

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Copyright 1983 American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works