Roubo and Watin: The Sweet Scent of Early Modern Varnishes

By Érika Wicky

Fig. 1: Nécessaire, wood and leather, ca 1760, 8,4 x 6 cm (closed), Grasse. Courtesy of Musée international de la parfumerie.

If the decorative arts of the eighteenth century shine so brightly, it is thanks to the innovation and mastering of techniques such as gilding and varnishing.[i] While the latter may have given surfaces the shiny appearance that was particularly desirable at the time, both were above all essential to protect wood, especially against insects. Varnishes were used not only for furniture, but also for small painted objects such as snuffboxes, fans, and boîtes à mouches or fly boxes (Fig. 1). Varnishes’ appealing visual characteristics and protective properties were marred, however, by what was generally perceived as their unpleasant smell. The recipes for some of these varnishes have been passed down to us, and with them, the possibility to retrieve their odors. Some of these recipes continue to be in use, such as the varnish described by French cabinetmaker André-Jacob Roubo in L’Art du menuisier-ébéniste in 1774 (Fig. 2), whose use remains frequent in restoration[ii] so that the same recipe is regularly remade at the Center for Research and Restoration of Museums of France. While current olfactory accounts of these products are much more nuanced, they do persist, which is a sign that olfactory sensitivity has certainly evolved, but also that the smell of the varnish remains a major part of the experience of its manufacture and use. What are the substances that have given varnishes such a characteristic olfactive identity through the centuries? And how has the meaning attributed to these smells evolved?

Fig. 2 : André J. Roubo, L’Art du menuisier-ébéniste, Board 11 (Paris: 1774). Courtesy of WikiMedia Commons.

There are a number of recipes for varnishes found in eighteenth-century texts, and all essentially contain aromatic plant resins. For instance, the varnish used by Jean Félix Watin (1773) was prepared as follows: “Two ounces of mastic in tears and half a pound of sandarac in a pint of wine spirit, when the materials are well dissolved together, incorporate four ounces of Venice turpentine.”[iii] Similarly, Roubo’s (1774) was “composed of one pint or two pounds of wine spirit, five ounces of sandarac, two ounces of mastic in tears, one ounce of gum elemi and one ounce of oil of aspic.”[iv] Essentially, the process involved Venice turpentine (the name given to the resin of Melese[v]), mastic in tears, sandarac and other more precious resins such as copal, or of lesser quality such as galipot, which were generally dissolved in alcohol (wine spirit), and then heated. This gave off such a strong and unpleasant odor that the practice was forbidden within city walls.[vi] Indeed, this smell could be significant during the process of preparation, and Jean Riffault, for example, recommended that cooking copal should be stopped when it gave off an empyreumatic or burnt smell [vii] (Fig. 3).

Fig. 3: Hendrik van Reede tot Drakestein, India Copal (Vateria indica L.), colored line. Courtesy of the Wellcome Collection.

Although the smell of varnish released during firing is still considered strong and dangerous today, our current perceptions seem to accord less significance overall to the smell of varnishes. For example, the sensory-aware description of a varnish recreation at the V&A mentions that the smell of lavender dominated that of turpentine.[viii] That the smell of turpentine could be camouflaged was well known in the eighteenth century, when aspic oil was often adulterated with turpentine, which was much less expensive. To ensure the quality of the aspic oil, Watin recommended approaching a soaked cloth to a fire, which dissipates the lavender oil quickly and allows the detection of the odor of any turpentine that may have been added.[ix] Since most of these raw materials were subject to adulteration, the artisans could, in fact, evaluate their quality thanks to their sense of smell. For example, according to Baudeau’s Encyclopédie méthodique (1783-4), an unpleasant smell from gum elemi (which is usually pleasant) can reveal that it was substituted with galipot.[x] The olfactory consensus here seems to rest on the fact that the artisan knew enough about the agreeable smell of gum elemi not to be tricked. Similarly, olfactory references in professional treatises, such as Roret’s guide, often rely on experience, invoking “characteristic” or “particular” odors rather than defining them by analogy, like when elemi gum is described as smelling like fennel.[xi]

Far from being a mere nuisance, the smell of the raw materials thus made it possible to identify them, in the same way that wood, whose different species were characterized by their smell, was sometimes considered when choosing materials. Odour could be so defining that, as Cheng He has shown, the concept of lacquer was long associated with a range of odorous resins rather than with a finished object.[xii] For example, objects decorated with Martin varnish [xiii] were simultaneously prized in the eighteenth century and dreaded for their bad odor. They were distinguished in particular by the use of copal, a plant resin whose use as an incense in Mexico is often mentioned in technical treatises.[xiv]

The manufacture of varnishes thus intersects with other types of olfactory knowledge. The resins used for the varnishes are found in many other recipes, in particular for perfumes. Louis Peyron’s 1986 compilation of recipes for perfumes to be burned, which had been recommended as a way to defeat the plague in the 1720s, reveals that the components of varnishes were all found in these recipes and that their strong odor was believed to have the prophylactic virtue of keeping miasmas away.[xv] The connection between varnish and perfume can be further explored in eighteenth-century perfumery treatises: in 1761, the royal perfumer proposed a “varnish” for the complexion made with sandarac spirit, whose protective and preserving virtues aligned with those of wood varnishes.[xvi]

The negative connotations associated with the smell of varnish seem to have faded with time; tear mastic was used in perfumery into the nineteenth century, [xvii] while, according to perfumer Lucile Lefranc-Gallo, gum elemi is now experiencing renewed interest in perfumery, alongside a range of spicy raw materials. The scent of varnishes produced according to eighteenth-century recipes, such as Roubo’s or Watin’s, takes us back to a time when smells had specific connotations and were part of a network of knowledge provided by olfaction, particularly with regard to the identification of materials. It is not only the sensitivity that has evolved, but also the entire olfactory culture.

 

[i] My warm thanks to Marc-André Paulin (C2RMF), Lucille Franc-Gallo and Ersy Contogouris for their advice and comments. This text forms part of the work conducted for the Marie Sklodowska-Curie research project PaintOdor (845788).

[ii] Nathalie Balcar, Frédéric Leblanc et Marc-André Paulin, “La protection de surface pour les meubles en marqueterie de métal du musée du Louvre : étude d’un vernis, entre formulations anciennes et expérimentations actuelles,” Technè, 49 (2020).

[iii] Jean Félix Watin, L’art du peintre, doreur, vernisseur (Paris: 1773), 229. Watin claimed to have discovered the secret of an odorless varnish, but he does not give its recipe in his book.

[iv] André J. Roubo, L’Art du menuisier-ébéniste (Paris: 1774).

[v] Pierre Chomel, Abrégé de l’histoire des plantes usuelles (Paris: 1712), 190.

[vi] Watin, 224.

[vii] Jean Riffault, Manuel théorique et pratique du peintre en bâtimens, du doreur et du vernisseur (Paris: Roret, 1825), 254.

[viii] “This time, despite both ingredients being very strong smelling, the scent of the lavender oil completely overpowered that of the turpentine.” Simona Valeriani, “Recreating Sixteenth-Century Varnishes on the History of Design Course,” June 23, 2017, https://www.vam.ac.uk/blog/projects/recreating-sixteenth-century-varnishes-on-the-history-of-design-course.

[ix] Watin, 202.

[x] Nicolas Baudeau, Encyclopédie méthodique (Liège: 1783-1784), 63.

[xi] Riffault, 229.

[xii] Cheng He, “Understanding the Fragrance of Lacquer in Early Modern Europe,” University of Toronto Art Journal 9.1 (2021): 68-76. https://utaj.library.utoronto.ca/index.php/utaj/article/view/36618

[xiii] Anne-Solenn Le Hô, Céline Daher, Ludovic Bellot-Gurlet, Yannick Vandenberghe, Jean Bleton, Myrtho Bonnin, Léa Drieu, Juliette Langlois, Céline Paris, Marc-André Paulin, “French lacquers of the 18th century and vernis Martin,” ICOM-CC 17th Triennial Conference, September 2014, Melbourne, Australia. hal-01279161

[xiv] Chomel, 512.

[xv] Louis Peyron, Odeurs, Parfums et parfumeurs lors des grandes épidémies méridionales de peste Arles 1721, Talk presented at the Arles Académie on March 23, 1986.

[xvi] Le parfumeur royal (Paris: 1761), 115.

[xvii] Auguste Debay, Nouveau manuel du parfumeur-chimiste (Paris: E Dentu, 1856), 37.

 

 

 

What’s in a name: Plaster of Paris

By Marieke Hendriksen

One of the problems we face as historians studying and reconstructing recipes is that the names describing ingredients, tools, and materials change over time, and that the meaning of terms itself changes over time. This is even the case with relatively recent recipes and materials that are in theory unchanged as I recently discovered. As part of my research for the ARTECHNE project, I recently looked at instructions for making anatomical casts from plaster from 1791.

Painted plaster cast of a large fibroma of the jaw, 1830s. Courtesy Surgeons' Hall Museums, RCSEd.
Painted plaster cast of a large fibroma of the jaw, 1830s. Courtesy Surgeons’ Hall Museums, RCSEd.

The creation of anatomical casts and models using plaster of Paris became increasingly popular towards the end of the eighteenth century, fuelled by the omnipresence of plaster in the visual arts and interior decoration, and the increasing importance of pathology and later physiognomy within the study of medicine. The latter meant that medical men were looking for durable three-dimensional ways to preserve diseased bodies and body parts that could not be preserved otherwise (e.g. in a preparation), either because decay could not be stopped or because the patient was still alive.

Johan Zoffany, The Portraits of the Academicians of the Royal Academy, 1771-72
Johan Zoffany, The Portraits of the Academicians of
the Royal Academy, 1771-72. Note the plaster models of antique statues around the room.

In his 1790 book The Anatomical Instructor, physician Thomas Pole (1753-1829) not only gave advice on how to make anatomical preparations and drawing, but also included over fifty pages on how to create, colour, repair and maintain plaster casts and models. Pole started the chapter on modelling with outlining the relevance of the quality of the plaster of Paris, or calcined alabaster, that was to be used. He explained that

Illustration of how to make a cast of a diseased bone from Pole's 1790 'Anatomical Instructor'
Illustration of how to make a mould of a diseased bone from Pole’s 1790 ‘Anatomical Instructor’

“…that of a middling price is used for making of moulds; the finer sort is for casts, to be poured first into the mould, when properly prepared; after it has formed a layer of about half an inch, more or less, according to circumstances, then the coarser sort is to be used to fill up the mould, or to give it sufficient thickness.”[1]

But exactly what were the various qualities of plaster for sale in London in the 1790s made of? The term ‘calcined alabaster’ tells us little, as alabaster was and is a collective noun that designates both various kinds of light-coloured, translucent and soft stone used mainly for carving decorative artefacts (often the minerals gypsum or calcite – the former much softer than the latter), and a specific compact and fine-grained variety of gypsum. In the decades after Pole’s publication, the French chemist Antoine François de Fourcroy (1755 –1809) would distinguish nine kinds of calcareous sulfate, one of which was sulfate of lime or common gypsum. In an 1810 ‘dictionary of the arts’ Fourcroy’s sulfate of lime or common gypsum was described as follows:

“Sulphat of lime, or common gypsum, or plaster-stone. This substance is white, more or less inclining to grey, interspersed with small brilliant crystals, easily cut with a knife. it is found disposed in Paris. We shall hereafter find, that it is not pure selenite, but owes its most valuable property, as plaster, to the admixture of another kind of earth. (…) Calcareous sulphat is likewise found dissolved in waters, as in the well-waters of Paris; it is never pure, but always combined with some other earthy salt, with base lime or magnesia. This salt has no apparent degree of taste. It decrepitates if a sudden heat be applied to it; it is then of an opaque white, in which state it is called fine plaster, or plaster of Paris: by this calcination it loses about twenty in one hundred.”[2]

Entrance to the Montmartre gypsum quarry. Probably early 19th century, artist unknown.
Entrance to the Montmartre gypsum quarry. Probably early 19th century, artist unknown.

As this fragment suggests, plaster of Paris indeed derives its name from a large and very pure gypsum deposit at the Montmartre and Menilmontant hills in Paris – there were plaster quarries at this site at least as early as the year 500. This led “calcined gypsum” (roasted gypsum or gypsum plaster) to be commonly known as “plaster of Paris”, even after the exhausted quarries were converted into Montmartre cemetery and the Buttes de Chaumot gardens respectively in the mid-nineteenth century. Although not all plaster came from Paris at the time Pole was writing, there is a fair chance that much high-quality plaster was indeed plaster from Paris.

Today, gypsum plaster, or plaster of Paris, no longer comes from Paris, but is still produced by heating powdered gypsum to about 150 °C. When mixed with water, this forms a paste that will harden within minutes, producing an exothermic reaction, which means it warms up. You can easily buy ‘plaster of Paris’ from artist’s supplies shops and online retailers, but none of these mention the exact chemical composition. Yet before I (or anyone else) can try my hand at reconstructing Pole’s instructions I will need to find out whether the best, finest plaster of Paris still contains a percentage of lime or magnesia, what the ‘coarser varieties’ that Pole described contained, and whether these are still available.

This project has received funding from the European Research Council (ERC) under the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme (grant agreement No 648718), and was supported by the Wellcome Trust (grant number 203403/Z/16/Z).

[1] Pole, Thomas. The Anatomical Instructor ; or an Illustration of the Modern and Most Approved Methods of Preparing and Preserving the Different Parts of the Human Body and of Quadrupeds by Injection, Corrosion, Maceration, Distention, Articulation, Modelling, &C. London: Couchman & Fry, 1790: p. 202-3.

[2] Wilkes, John. Encyclopaedia Londinensis, Or, Universal Dictionary of Arts. Vol. 4. London: J. Adlard, 1810: p. 230.

 

Gluttony and “Surfeit” in Early Modern Europe

By Carla Cevasco

From buttery stuffing to champagne, the holidays give us plenty of opportunities to indulge…and plenty of nutritional advice on how to avoid holiday decadence. Early modern Europeans likewise feared gluttony and offered remedies for overeating, but I can’t say that I’ll be too tempted to try any of them myself this holiday season.

In famine-wracked early modern Europe, gluttony was the deadliest of the seven deadly sins, and as The Divine Physician warned in 1676, “Diseases are the Interests of Sin.”[1]  Medical professionals instructed their readers to restrain their appetites in the interest of physical and spiritual health. “Take heed of surcharging thy stomach,” Raymundus Mindererus cautioned in 1674, noting that there was “nothing more hurtful to health” than an “extravagant” appetite. Thomas Tryon’s 1698 The Way to Health recommended a kind of fasting cleanse, claiming that “a little gentle Hunger” cleared “superfluous Matter” from the digestive system (43). An 1816 print (shown below) by Thomas Rowlandson depicted an obese man dining with Death.

Thomas Rowlandson, The Dance of Death: The Glutton, aquatint, 1816. Image Credit: Wellcome Library, London.
Thomas Rowlandson, The Dance of Death: The Glutton, aquatint, 1816.
Image Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

Warnings against gluttony did not always sit well with readers. Louis-François Charon’s print “Le Médicin et la Malade” (shown below),  in which a gluttonous doctor instructed his patient to go on a diet, mocked medical professionals’ emphasis on moderation and suggested that they failed to practice what they preached.

V0011678 A doctor instructs his English patient not to eat as he does Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images images@wellcome.ac.uk http://wellcomeimages.org A doctor instructs his English patient not to eat as he does. Coloured engraving by Louis-François Charon. after: Louis-François CharonPublished: - Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0 http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/
Louis-François Charon, “Le Medicin et le Malade,” colored engraving (undated).   Image Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

Medical practitioners even recognized specific, pathological forms of overeating. Phillip Barrough‘s 1601 The Practice of Physick described the “Doglike appetite,” which caused sufferers to “devoure in meate without measure” before “vomiting like dogges” (110-11). For a curative diet, Barrough prescribed stale bread, herbs, “fat & oily” meat, mallows, and most of all, wine, to “heate the stomacke, and destroy the sharpnesse of humours” that provoked patients to a canine hunger.

For those unable to heed injunctions against overeating, many recipe books offered remedies for “surfeit.” A recipe “To Make Poppies Water which is Good for a Surfeit,” in Wellcome MS 4054, called for soaking “Corn poppys,” marigolds, gillyflowers, sweet marjoram, angelico root, raisins, licorice, aniseeds, white sugar, and rosasolis in aquavitae, then straining and bottling the resulting cordial. John Gerard’s Herball or Generall Historie of Plants noted that “black Poppy drunketh in wine” stopped diarrhea; in addition, the opioid content of distilled poppy flowers or leaves would have eased the pain associated with indigestion (400-401). I would be interested in hearing from other scholars here about how the other ingredients of poppy waters might have affected their consumers.

Sala (Angelus), Method of Extracting the Juice from the Poppy, Woodcut, from  Opiologia, or a Treatise...of Opium (1618).  Image Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images images@wellcome.ac.uk http://wellcomeimages.org Method of extracting the juice from the poppy. Woodcut Opiologia, or a Treatise....of Opium Sala (Angelus) Published: 1618 Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0 http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/
Sala (Angelus), Method of Extracting the Juice from the Poppy, Woodcut, from 
Opiologia, or a Treatise…of Opium (1618). 
Image Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

In a world where people constantly risked lapsing into gluttony, and suffering ill health as a result, lack of appetite was also cause for particular concern. Medical writers identified several types and causes of loss of appetite. Barrough claimed that physiological defects, humoral imbalances, and/or sickness could result in a loss of appetite. In A New Practice of Physick, volume 1, Peter Shaw wrote that a patient might experience “anorexia,” or a long-term distaste for food, “from hard drinking, great heat, a fever,” or “consumptions” (170-71). Medical writers agreed that lack of appetite did not spontaneously occur in a healthy person, but rather could be linked to a hangover, hot weather, sickness, or bodily dysfunction.

To “provoke appetite againe,” Barrough suggested exposing the patient to pleasant odors, such as “wine infused, or decoction of quinces, or peares,” and anointing the patient with fragrant oils “of roses, masticke, and such like.” After aromatherapy, Barrough prescribed a diet of “diverse” foods “after the daintiest fashion,” including corn, eggs, “birds of the mountaines,” dates, and prunes. While medical writers blamed “variety of meats” and “curiously and daintily dressed” foods for gluttonous excesses, Barrough harnessed the appetite-stimulating powers of delicious smells and tantalizing nibbles to encourage those who had lost their hunger to find it again.[2]

Today we might reach for pink bismuth subsalicylate instead of a poppy cordial after a big meal, but early modern Europeans had many of the same questions that we do about how much to eat.

Pepto Bismol. Image Credit: Flickr user Herr Hans Gruber. Via Flickr.
Pepto Bismol. Image Credit: Flickr user Herr Hans Gruber. Via Flickr.

[1] Robert Appelbaum, Aguecheek’s Beef, Belch’s Hiccup, and Other Gastronomic Interjections: Literature, Culture, and Food among the Early Moderns (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006), 114, 243-245.

[2] Nicholas Culpeper, Medicaments for the Poor; Or, Physick for the Common People (Edinburgh, n.p., 1664), 10.

The funeral of Mrs Potato: a round-up of World War I recipes

A few days ago, while visiting the exposition ’14-18 – it’s our history’ at the Royal Museum of the Armed Forces and of Military History in Brussels, Belgium, one document particularly caught my attention: an obituary notice for the passing of Mrs Potato.

The French text reads as follows:

Announcement of the death of Mrs Potato, 1916
Announcement of the death of Mrs Potato, Brussels, 1916

Mr Joe SPUD, his wife Industry TATER [the word in the original is the dialectal Walloon word ‘crompire’];

Mr ONION, his wife Mrs LEEK and their children shallot and gherkin;

Mr CELERY, his wife Mrs CHERVIL, their child parsley;

Mr SPINACH, his wife Mrs SORREL, their children salt and pepper;

Mr CARROT, his wife Mrs TURNIP, their children green cabbage and cauliflower;

Mr GARDEN PEA, his wife Mrs FRENCH BEAN;

Widow CHICORY, born in Brussels;

have the great pain to inform you of the cruel loss they have suffered in the person of

Mrs POTATO

Born in Canada, piously deceased in Brussels

The funerals will take place every day at one (Central European time) in all homes where bellies go empty and cooking pots are in mourning.

Pray that her soul may rest in peace and that she may resurrect soon.

No flowers or wreaths.

Having never suffered from hunger, this satirical text brought things home for me. How does one cook without the most basic of ingredients? How does one go through their day without one of the cheapest source of carbohydrates? Here is a round-up of sites and blogs that may offer some answers to these questions.

Painting by R. Willems-Geurt on a sand cabine at the Belgian sea resort of Koksijde. Photo: Laurence Totelin, August 2014
Painting by R. Willems-Geurts on a sand cabine at the Belgian sea resort of Koksijde. Photo: Laurence Totelin, August 2014

The Telegraph tells us how to prepare a Trench Cake, which included currants, cocoa, ginger and nutmeg, perhaps to hide the fact that it was mostly made of flour and margarine – no eggs or butter in sight. Cookit! for its part gives us the recipe for a Trench Stew based on the recollections of a soldier from the 9th Bedfordshire Regiment. Beth Wilmshurst at greatfood mag reproduces several recipes from the 1918 British Ministry of Food, Win the War Cookery Book. The fish sausages are particularly intriguing –  might give them a try myself.

David Setevenson devotes an interesting post to the War effort at home on the British Library website, including information on food supply and rationing. Note at the bottom of the post the photo of the Belgian Cookbook (1915), which includes recipes sent by Belgian refugees. Edible Swansea had written a fascinating post on that same book a couple of years ago.

Painting by L. Ardaean at the sea-resort of Koksijde, Belgium. Photo: Laurence Totelin, August 2014
Painting by L. Ardaen at the sea-resort of Koksijde, Belgium.
Photo: Laurence Totelin, August 2014

In the USA, the University of Wisconsin has an amazing collection of North American documents relating to food and cooking during and after World War I: Recipe for Victory: Food and Cooking in Wartime. The following title  by the United States Food Administration particularly caught my attention: Food saving and sharing, telling how the older children of America may help save from famine their comrades in allied lands across the sea, prepared under the direction of the United States Food administration in cooperation with the United States Department of agriculture and the Bureau of education (1918). The tract is 102 pages in length, showing that the Food Administration expected quite a lot from its ‘older children’. The National World War Museum at Liberty National in collaboration with American Food Roots has produced a series of videos on food, cooking and rationing. The Doughboy Cookbook, by the Quartermaster Corps Foundation, presents several adapted recipes (with no claim to full authenticity) that soldiers would have used. Note in particular the ‘Mess Sergeant’s Java‘ or ‘Black Jack’ a nauseating recipe for recycling coffee involving egg-shells and salt.

Finally, in Toronto a Symposium ‘Recipe for Victory – Great War Food‘ took place in September. It involved recipe testing and tasting, including a tasting of Canadian butter tarts, on which you will find more information here.

There is of course much more to be found on the web, but no orgy of blog-reading on war recipes will ever give me a full sense of what it really felt to be hungry and scared in a trench or on the home-front. Lest we forget.

NB: many of the links above were suggested by Amanda Herbert, who is currently on leave.