ReviewsThis is a dazzling book. If the mysteries of alchemy appeal to you, it is a necessity. The book is a treasure house of knowledge.
Dr. Pamela Tudor-Craig, Lady Wedgewood
The Alchemy of Paint examines pre-modern artists’ recipes for a handful of pigments, including lapis lazuli, gold and vermilion. The author was, until 2022, Director of Research at the Hamilton Kerr Institute and Professor of Material Culture at the University of Cambridge. The book has become a recognised text in the undergraduate and postgraduate teaching of history, art history and the history of science.
Historic pigment recipes – many of which were reconstructed by the author – provide evidence that practicing craftspeople had a detailed grasp of the sophisticated physical and cosmological theories that defined reality in pre-modern Europe. As such, the book is an in-depth, and heavily-referenced, primer for the pre-modern European world-view. For example, the chapter on the purification of lapis lazuli – to make ultramarine – is a practical example of how so-called Aristotelian four-element theory helped people engage productively with the material world.
The first half of the book shows how theories – like the four elements, hylomorphism, emanation, etc – were reflected in practice in recipes that ‘worked’, as well as in recipes that ‘did not work’ – like dragonsblood and mercury blue – but were nonetheless faithfully repeated. The second half of the book revisits materials – including vermilion and gold – to show that widely-recognised multi-levelled meanings were inherent in materials. Physical materials could therefore contribute metaphysical meanings to the mainly religious objects that incorporated them.