Illuminating the ‘elusive’: reconstructing mediaeval recipes for anthocyanin pigments

By Sylvie Neven

Due to their trade value, a huge range of artistic materials is documented and recorded in historical written sources, such as guild regulations, contracts between artists and patrons or pharmacy price lists. However, certain substances are not recorded in these types of archives because they did not have market value. This is notably the case for plant-based materials that artists could easily find in nature and use for their colouring properties, such as the anthocyanin colourants[1]. As these colourants are highly unstable in ordinary daylight, it was generally thought that they were not used in the dyeing of quality materials or to make paint but rather employed in a domestic context, as dyes for everyday clothes. To complicate the issue, anthocyanin colourants are difficult to identify through currently available analytical methods. For all these reasons, these substances have long remained ‘elusive’.

Nevertheless, research on mediaeval artists’ recipe collections has highlighted that a number of these books not only describe these organic colourants, but also indicate their use in illumination[2]. Based on a corpus of more than 400 mediaeval artists’ recipe books, this project intends to analyse the significance of these organic substances and to (re)define their use in an artistic context. In order to find citations of anthocyanin colourants throughout a vast amount of recipes, a specific database of artistic recipes was used (‘Colour ConText Database’). This database enables easy identification of recipes dedicated to anthocyanin colourants and allows researchers to deduce the availability of these colourants in a chronologically and geographically defined area. The database also makes it possible to establish and compare the different ways in which these colourants were prepared.

Thanks to this tool, I have found that the use of anthocyanin colourants is particularly frequent in the artists’ recipe books of the so-called ‘Strasbourg tradition. Within this group, the recipes describe the use of corn poppies (Papaver rhoeas L.), blue cornflowers (Centaurea cyanus L.) bilberries (Vaccinium myrtillus L.), and elderberries (Sambucus sp.) for producing colours.

sylvie flowers 1

Papaver Rhoeas L. & Centaurea Cyanus L.

sylvie flowers 2

Vaccinium myrtillus L.

sylvie flowers 3

Sambucus sp.

From these sources, it becomes clear that anthocyanin colourants were used for modelling and shading in the realization of flesh tints, draperies and landscapes. Furthermore, they also appear to have been applied as glazes on layers of gold or silver and served for making the inks that were used to underline rubrics or elements of decoration in illuminated manuscripts.

The basic operation is relatively simple and similar from one recipe to another. The petals or the berries are ground and crushed in a mortar in order to produce a foam. The juice is then extracted by filtering the foam through a clean (linen) cloth.sylvie pestle

sylvie foam

sylvie juice The recipes mention several sorts of additional ingredients. For example, alum (potash alum or aluminium sulphate) is mentioned frequently and could have various functions. Its addition can modify the pH and provide aluminium cations that have an impact on the final hue and improve the stability of the colorant. 

In order to be used in painting and illuminating, anthocyanin colorants were preserved by setting them on a small piece of cloth, mentioned in the recipes as tüchlein or pezette, usually known in English as a ‘clothlet’. These pieces of cloth were first steeped in the prepared juice until they were saturated by the dye solution. After drying, the pieces of cloth were then wrapped in clean paper and kept between the pages of a book or in a wooden box, and stored in an area free of humidity. To use a stored colorant, the artist would cut off a small piece of the dyed cloth, place it in a shell or horn and pour some gum water or other sort of binding medium, such as egg white, onto it.

With the help of Dr Sanyova (KIK-IRPA), I have reconstructed a number of recipes of the so-called ‘Strasbourg tradition’ in the laboratory. Our purpose was to establish the different ways in which these colourants were prepared and explore how they were used in illumination techniques. We focused on comparing different procedures to make colourants from anthocyanins. The possibility of collating different manuscripts of the same textual tradition allowed us to study the evolution of recipes for the preparation of anthocyanin colourants both through time and through different copies. The numerous recipes recommended the use of different plant species and ingredients in varying quantities.

Dummy samples before and after artificial ageing process

Dummy samples before and after artificial ageing process

Over the period of several weeks, we prepared series of dummy samples of red and violet tüchlein from the juice of petals of Papaver rhoeas L. After that, the samples were evaluated by visible spectrophotometry and high performance liquid chromatography (HPLC), before and after the artificial ageing process. We found that the different recipes created a number of saturated hues providing artists with various colours.  However, interestingly, the products of the different recipes all responded similarly to the artificial ageing process.

[1] Anthocyanins are colourants that provide most of the blue, red and violet colours in numerous plants and fruits.

[2] Notably : Neven, S., ‘The Strasbourg Family Texts: Originality and Survival. A Survey of Illuminating techniques in Medieval South Germany’, in Revista de Historia da Arte, n° especial, 2011, pp. 65-77; Neven, S., ‘Describing the “elusive”: a new perception of the practices and the resources of illuminators in the North of Europe from the fourteenth to the sixteenth century’, in Renaissance Workshop, London, 2013, pp. 188-190.


Making Scents in the Victorian Home

By Jessica P. Clark

Eugène Rimmel. Image courtesy of NYPL Digital Collections, digital ID 2006250, and Wikicommons.

Eugène Rimmel. Image courtesy of NYPL Digital Collections (digital ID 2006250) and Wikicommons

In 1864, London perfumer Eugène Rimmel (of modern Rimmel Cosmetics fame) published The Book of Perfumes. Compiled from a series of articles he wrote for science-minded readers of The Englishwoman’s Domestic Magazine, the book charted the history of perfumery, as well as modern distilling techniques used by Europe’s leading manufacturing perfumers: expression, enfleurage, maceration. The Book of Perfumes resembled other perfumery books on the market, save for one important difference; Rimmel provided no recipes for women to concoct their own perfumes at home. In this regard, Rimmel’s text signified a shift away from the instructional genre, suggesting that the manufacture of perfumery should be left to professional (and male) perfumers.

Rimmel’s exclusion of feminized home production was a deliberate move. In his prologue, he noted that many ladies once operated “a private stillroom of their own and personally superintended the various ‘confections’ used for their toilet” out of necessity. By the 1860s, he argued, technological developments in London’s growing commercial industry, not to mention perfumers’ role in imperial commodity flows, vastly exceeded the material resources and technologies available to women’s self-production.

[G]ood perfumers and good perfumes are abundant enough; and, with the best recipes in the world, ladies would be unable to equal the productions of our laboratories, for how could they procure the various materials which we receive from all parts of the world? And were they even to succeed in so doing, there would still be wanting the necessary utensils and the modus faciendi, which is not easily acquired…perfumery can always be bought much better and cheaper from dealers, than it could be manufactured privately by untutored persons.[1]

According to Rimmel, English women could not match the quality of goods produced by professional men laboring in the new commercial market. What’s more, he claimed these goods were even cheaper than home production, a new argument linked to developments in mass manufacturing.

What remains unclear is the extent to which women continued to concoct perfumery in the home, despite discouragement from professionals like Rimmel. Historians like Holly Dugan and Kirsten James have highlighted the centrality of home production of perfumery in the early modern period, when English women produced scents to combat illness, miasmas, and pain. But the extent of domestic production is more difficult to ascertain in the nineteenth century, when an expanding market of consumer goods surely attracted some female consumers away from the laborious demands of home production.

We have some evidence to suggest that women continued to make scents. Account books belonging to London chemists George Daniel and Thomas Acraman Coate show female shoppers buying perfumery ingredients in the 1860s. There was also the enduring popularity of Anglo-American recipe collections that included perfumery recipes. A survey of texts produced between 1855 and 1910 reveals that many printed recipe collections continued to include instructions on producing spirituous waters, but also colognes, solid parfums, and scented sachets.

Glass frames used in the process of "enfleurage." From “Perfumery, Perfumes,” Chambers’s Encyclopaedia, Volume VI (New York: Collier, 1888) 165.

Glass frames used in commercial “enfleurage.” From “Perfumery, Perfumes,” Chambers’s Encyclopaedia, Volume VI (New York: Collier, 1888) 165. Image courtesy of Google Books.

These published recipes highlight time-honored strategies for creating scents in middle- and upper-class kitchens. One home technique for scent extraction involved layering fresh flowers with thin layers of cotton in a glass jar. After two weeks, the cotton absorbed the oils, which could then be used as a perfume. For distillation, texts advised placing petals and water in a cold still over a moderate fire, which would eventually produce fragrant waters: rose, lavender, orange, bergamot.  To create solid pastilles de toilette, readers created a paste using perfumed oils and a natural gum, tragacanth. This was fashioned into a desired shape before drying.

Interestingly, some published recipes revealed how to create perfumes available in London’s most extravagant perfumery shops. Formulas included Piesse & Lubin’s Jockey Club Bouquet (orris root, rose, cassia, tuberose, ambergris, bergamot), the ubiquitous New Mown Hay (tonquin bean, geranium, orange flower, rose, Jessamine), and Rimmel’s own “Exhibition Bouquet,” created especially for the 1851 spectacle.

While it is difficult to discern the extent to which Victorian women made their own perfumes, it is safe to assume that the practice lessened over time; the growth of the luxury perfumery market in the twentieth century is a testament to that. With the rise of new commercial markets and availability, home producers transformed into consumers, encouraged by those profiting from this development: professional manufacturing perfumers.

[1] Eugène Rimmel, Book of Perfumes (London: Chapman and Hall, 1867) vii-viii.

Texts consulted for this post include:

Beasley, Henry. Druggist’s General Receipt Book. London: J. & A. Churchill, 1852.

Cooley, Arnold James. Instructions and Cautions Respecting the Selection and Use of Perfumes, Cosmetics, and other Toilet Articles: with a comprehensive collection of formulae and directions for their preparation. London: R. Hardwicke, 1868.

Cooley, Arnold James. A Cyclopedia of Practical Receipts and Collateral Information in the Arts, Manufactures, and Trades, including medicine, pharmacy, and domestic economy. London: John Churchill, 1845.

Dussauce, H. A Practical Guide for a Perfumer. London: Trubner & Co., 1868.

Lamont, L.P. The Mirror of Beauty. London: Bailey, 1830.

Lille, Charles. The British Perfumer. London: J. Souter, 1822.

Marquart, John. 600 Miscellaneous Valuable Receipts, worth their weight in gold. Philadelphia: John E. Potter & Co., 1867.

Owen, R. Jones. Practice of Perfumery: a treatise on the toilet and cosmetic arts, historical, scientific, and practical. London: Houlston, 1870.

Piesse, G.W. Septimus. Art of Perfumery and Method of Obtaining the Odors of Plants. London: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1855.

R.B.  The Perfumer’s Legacy: or Companion to the Toilet. London: Kent & Richards, 1850.

Rimmel, Eugène. The Book of Perfumes. London: Chapman and Hall, 1865.

Art Technological Source Research

by Ad Stijnman[1]

On March 20th, 2002, a group of ten professional researchers with backgrounds in the fields of art history, conservation science and bibliography for historical art technology met for a one day meeting at the Netherlands Institute for Cultural Heritage in Amsterdam. The meeting was convened by Christoph Krekel and Ad Stijnman and the participants discussed what they would term ‘art technological source research’.[2] The term ‘sources’ then covered such various materials as technical treatises and books with recipes, imposts and artist’s inventories, studio interiors and depictions of tools, construction drawings of machines and plans of workshops, while the art objects themselves were seen as primary sources.

16th century recipe book

Fig. 1: Kunstbüchlin, Frankfurt aM: Egenolff, 1535, Bibliotheek Rijkmuseum, Amsterdam.

As a result, they founded the Art Technological Source Research (ATSR) working group, because the one thing the participants had in common was a close interest in and study of coeval documentation of the technology of any type of art or craft discipline through all times. It was then considered that – although most participants had a certain interest in the conservation of art objects – research of art technological sources could be linked to many other disciplines, for example: art history, the histories of economy, science and technique, and to the modern practices of artists and craftsmen.[3] The working group’s main objective became ‘to be a platform for the exchange and dissemination of information on the subject of sources of art materials and techniques’.

The definition of what these ‘sources’ could be – and consequently what ‘art technological source research’ should comprise – was defined rather in a general manner at the time, as it also included examination of objects and contextual art historical study. This approach caused some confusion about what ATSR stood for and often enough – although many abstracts were promising – resulted in presentations at ATSR meetings that showcased the results of successful art conservation projects that would have been better suited to conferences in the fields of Conservation, Conservation Science or Technical Art History. The actual research of ‘sources’ was then usually limited to a short reference to a historic text, sometimes an image, but often without critical apparatus (no consideration of the source’s deeper meaning and context, or evaluation of the validity of the published transcriptions or translations).

The sixth ATSR symposium Sources on Art Technology: Back to Basics (Amsterdam 2014) therefore focused on the working group’s core business: the art technological sources themselves and their research, less so what could be done with the research results, as was a common theme in preceding symposia. These, on the other hand, had demonstrated that the profound disclosure of sources relates coeval information on art technology to the style and the material condition of art objects, which is important for all further study of such objects, in whatever field.

Instead of an all-encompassing definition of the working group’s activities, it may be better to describe ‘art technological source research’ as: the close study of contemporaneous textual and visual documents which communicate information on art technology of the period under study. Understanding these documents requires variously: language skills, knowledge of palaeography and codicology, an art technological training, some background in science, an interest in art history, an eye for political, religious and social aspects, an understanding of historical weights and measures, etc. In some instances, understanding of sources is greatly enhanced by carrying out reconstructions, ranging from preparing basic recipes to re-enactments and historically accurate reconstructions.

The need for Art Technological Source Research can be illustrated by the progress that has been made in the last decades in the understanding of technical terminology in historical texts. Due to the interdisciplinary perspective and focus that researchers have brought to this field, a growing amount of source material that had long been neglected can now be appreciated and understood, as its specialist vocabulary whose meaning had been lost over time, has been deciphered for modern readers. Without the backgrounds in science, craft, materials and the technology of contemporary objects that is typical of ATSR researchers, the historical terminology for art materials and processes remains opaque, ignored as it is by etymological dictionaries and art historical discussions due to its highly specialised nature. Without testing and reconstruction, the validity and meaning of many sources remained hidden; after recent researches, we can now better distinguish between the practical and the alchemical, the intellectual construct and the workshop note in many cases.

Art Technological Source Research of visual sources is largely pending, however. Although initial progress is made with some dedicated projects researching historic studio interiors any standardisation of this kind of research and definition of visual elements is still in its infancy.


Fig. 2: Catalogue of Charles Roberson & Co, London (c.1900), private collection.

This leaves the question where Art Technological Source Research stands in relation to Art History, Conservation, Conservation Science, Technical Art History and a range of other historical disciplines, as well as modern art making practice. It can be a discipline of its own, but can also form a cornerstone of one of these disciplines, while otherwise one of these can be a cornerstone for ATSR. It will depend on the initial research question and the background of the researcher. While ATSR concentrates on textual and visual sources, the information obtained from it can be applied in yet larger ways, contextualising it to allow us to better understand the materiality of our artistic heritage.

Further Reading

Proceedings of the ATSR working group’s symposia:

M. Clarke, J.H. Townsend and A. Stijnman (eds), Art of the Past: Sources and Reconstructions, London: Archetype Publications, 2005.

S. Kroustallis, J.H. Townsend, E. Cenalmor Bruquetas, A. Stijnman and M. San Andrés Moya (eds), Art Technology: Sources and Methods, London: Archetype Publications, 2008.

E. Hermens and J.H. Townsend (eds), Sources and Serendipity: Testimonies of Artists’ Practice, London: Archetype Publications, 2009.

S. Eyb-Green, J.H. Townsend, M. Clarke, J. Nadolny and S. Kroustallis (eds), The Artist’s Process: Technology and Interpretation, London: Archetype Publications, 2012.

H. Dubois, J.H. Townsend, J.Nadolny, S. Eyb-Green and S. Neven (eds), Making and Transforming Art: Technology and Interpretation, London: Archetype Publications, 2014.

ATSR became an official working group under ICOM-CC in 2008:, and published papers in the proceedings of its Triennials:

J. Bridgland (ed.), Preprints of the ICOM-CC 15th Triennial Meeting, New Delhi: Allied Publishers, 2008, 3–24.

J. Bridgland (ed.), 16th ICOM Committee for Conservation Triennial Meeting, Lisbon, Paris: ICOM-CC, 2011. [CD-ROM]

[1] This text represents my personal view on ATSR and its relation to other disciplines, but I want to acknowledge Jilleen Nadolny for her additional suggestions and discussions.

[2] ‘Kunsttechnologisch bronnenonderzoek’ (Dutch), ‘Kunsttechnologische Quellenforschung’ (German).

[3] A. Stijnman, M. Clarke and J.H. Townsend, ‘Foreword’, in Art of the Past: Sources and Reconstructions, M. Clarke, J.H. Townsend and A. Stijnman (eds), London: Archetype Publications, 2005, v-vii.

Translating Recipes 6: Fluid Translation 2

By Carla Nappi

[This is the second post in a two-part series on Fluid Translation. Read the first post in the series here.]

One way of thinking about how to convey a sense of fluidity, flow, and movement to a text is to think about it in terms of musical form. Considering a text in terms of the components of a song invites thinking in terms of the structural elements used by songwriters: verse, chorus, bridge, etc. Their relations help words collectively mediate bodily movements and transformations. When we sing a text we’re making it part of our body in a way that’s beyond mere reading. Thinking about the ways that a text engenders physical transformations seems resonant, for me, with the ways that we’re thinking in this series about the kind of work that medical recipes do.

Informed by the ideas of fluidity and flow, this translation begins with the same Manchu recipe used in “Translating Recipes 2,” but renders it here into a form inspired by and modeled on Ed Sheeran’s “Bloodstream.” (also here). There are a lot of ways that I find that song inspiring for this purpose: it’s really thoughtful about making the sonic elements embody and reflect what’s happening in the story, it’s about fluids inside and outside of the body, it’s related (in a way) to drug history. Before reading the translation below, I recommend listening to “Bloodstream.”  Then, come back to the translation and you’ll hear the way that the recipe is modeled on that structure (and how it explicitly evokes some of the phrasing of “Bloodstream” as a kind of homage): imagine the “ehe horon” as a kind of humming to open the recipe. Then we move to the first verse (which is also the first part of the Manchu recipe: “To avoid a lot of poisons…”). Then a kind of pre-chorus (“Wait and rest…”). Then the chorus (“This is medicine…”). Then the second verse, which corresponds to the second part of the Manchu recipe. Then another pre-chorus, Then the chorus again. The recipe-song ends with a kind of outro (“When the poisoning inside…”).

The music and text of the original song work together to embody the story, and the recipe attempts to at least begin to do similar work. The intro sets the pacing and rhythm. The first verse introduces the context and scene, the narrator and main tropes. (This is also true of the recipe translation below.) Ideally, the language here should act like a fluid: long sentences that are melodic and flow, a careful alliteration and rhyme in the sentences. (The recipe translation only begins to get at this. The “poison/reason/season/conclusion” rhyme was chosen in part because the action that sound asks of your mouth, when pronounced, is a kind of opening up and then swallowing motion appropriate to the later action of the recipe.) The pre-chorus of the song takes the tone higher and moves to the refrain, asking the main question and explaining the problem, introducing more tropes and objects that will continue to be important to the song in later verses: the idea of red, of mind. (In the recipe translation, the “time/wine” sounds also move the register higher than it had been, and introduce the themes of waiting, time, and consumption that will recur later.) The refrain of the song brings together the argument: here, the listener realizes how the pacing and form of the song evoke the topic, with resonances between the sonic and semantic fading, bloodstream, chemicals. (The recipe translation doesn’t really do this, yet – but in a later edit that would be the goal.)

With all of this in mind, approach the following translation as a playful first draft. (Because deadlines are important, and draftiness is ok.) There are all kinds of ways that this can be refined and made much more fluid, but I offer it here as a way to open up and convey the spirit of this experiment. Thanks for journeying with me!

Ehe horon, ehe horon, ehe horon, ehe horon…
To avoid a lot of poisons,
For a myriad of reasons,
Doesn’t matter what’s the season,
You’ll come to the same conclusion.
Get a drop or two of oil ready,
It’ll help you when you’re unsteady
Spread it on your body,
On your chest and tummy.

Wait and rest ‘til some time has passed
Don’t rush it – you should never rush it.
Once you’ve given it some time
Have some food, have some wine…

This is medicine,
It’s soaking on through your skin.
When you’ve been poisoned,
Soak this oil into your skin.
Now wait until it kicks in.
Just wait until it kicks in.

When a person’s just been poisoned
Take a drug that’s made of flour
(You’ll find it elsewhere in this book)
You may throw up within an hour
After vomiting the drug you took,
Oil your belly and then take a look,
But if things are bad because you’re very poisoned,

Go and take 15, 20 drops
Mix with meat broth, or milk with butter.
Once you’ve given it some time,
Drink with water or with wine…

This is medicine,
Soak it through your belly skin.
After you’re poisoned,
Go and smear it on again.
Now wait until it kicks in.
Just wait until it kicks in.

When the poisoning inside
Doesn’t much seem to subside
Take another drop or two
If it doesn’t work then
Take another drop or two
You’ll get better