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Teaching a Perfect Knowledge in the Arts and Sciences: Robert Dossie’s chemical, pharmaceutical, and artistic handbooks

Front page to a 1796 reprint of Dossie’s Handmaid

By Marieke Hendriksen

Robert Dossie (1717-1777) was and English apothecary, experimental chemist, and writer. Within just three years, he published three very successful handbooks: The elaboratory laid open (1758) on chemistry and pharmacy for ‘all practitioners of medicine’, Theory and practice of chirurgical pharmacy (1761) for surgeons, and The handmaid to the arts (1758), which taught ‘a perfect knowledge of the Materia Pictoriae’ such as painting, gilding, and japanning. Gibbs (1951, 1953) has written a short overview of Dossie’s life and work, with a focus on his role in the Society of the Arts, but paid no attention to the cohesion of his seemingly divergent work.

Lowengard (2006) has briefly noted that Dossie used a form typical for books about materia medica for his book on the arts, grouping the contents according to techniques employed as well as by the media to which they might be applied, yet his work has never been thoroughly analyzed. Did Dossie indeed transmit a way of structuring and presenting practical knowledge in text from one realm to another? Recipe collections and how-to books before the eighteenth century were often a mixture of medicinal and artisanal recipes and instructions, and the boundaries between medicine, chemistry, and the preparation and application of artist’s materials often so fluid as to be almost non-existent.

Moreover, some earlier printed books on painting and dying techniques did employ the format of a systematic discussion of materials and their preparations, followed by their application, for example Willem Goeree’s 1760 Verlichterie-kunde  What was novel about Dossie’s Handmaid of the Arts though was the combination of this way of presenting practical artisanal knowledge, his attempt to be encyclopaedic in his collection – listing the uses of the same base materials in the production of various artistic and decorative objects, and his very intentional use of the term ‘Materia Pictoriae’.

Rubia tinctorium (madder), one of the many plants that was both materia medica and materia pictoria

The latter appears to have been an attempt to subtly elevate the status of the visual and decorative arts by paralleling the materia pictoriae to the materia medica. Finally, the intended audience gives us more insight in how Dossie understood his own work. From the preface of the book, it appears that Dossie did not so much aim at the people creating visual and decorative objects, but at the professional preparers of artist’s materials, of whom he wrote: “a much greater share of knowledge in natural history, experimental philosophy, and chymistry, is required to the understanding the nature of the simples [sic], and principles of the composition, in a speculative light, than is consistent with the study of other subjects more immediately necessary to an artist.” (p. vii-viii)

In eighteenth-century England, high street chemists and druggists were evolving from preparers and sellers of chemical substances to compounders, stockists, and sellers of drugs and dispensers of medical advice, and it is in this light that Dossie’ work and his division between materia medica and materia pictorial must be seen. Did Dossie intentionally and successfully adapt and implement formats and language traditionally used in one field (medicine) for the organization and transmission of practical knowledge in text to others (chemistry and the arts)? To me it appears that in his mind, materia medica and materia pictoriae were both branches on the tree of chemistry, and that his corpus, which we now tend to see as divergent, was actually a cohesive body of work to him and his contemporaries.

 

Dupré, Sven, ed. Laboratories of Art : Alchemy and Art Technology from Antiquity to the 18th Century. Archimedes 37. Cham [u.a.]: Springer, 2014.

Gibbs, F.W. “Robert Dossie (1717–77) A Further Bibliographical Note.” Annals of Science 9, no. 2 (1953): 191–93.

Gibbs, F.W.  “Robert Dossie (1717–1777) and the Society of Arts.” Annals of Science 7, no. 2 (1951): 149–72.

Lowengard, Sarah. The Creation of Color in Eighteenth-Century Europe. Columbia University Press, 2006. http://www.gutenberg-e.org/lowengard/C_Chap05.html.

Worling, Peter M. ‘Pharmacy in the Early Modern World, 1617 to 1841 AD’, in Making Medicines: A Brief History of Pharmacy and Pharmaceuticals, ed. by Stuart Anderson (London: Pharmaceutical Press, 2005), pp. 57–76.