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.

 

 

 

My Soda Bread

By Kathleen Lynch

There was something wrong about the package that was delivered to me at work one early spring morning years ago. It was addressed to me, and the return address also had my surname. But I didn’t recognize the name as a family member, and I didn’t know anyone in the town in Connecticut on the address. So I opened it with some sense that this package wasn’t intended for me, and that sense was amplified when I found inside a pair of house slippers, a zip-top plastic baggie that seemed to hold some dry ingredients, a recipe for Irish soda bread, and a note signed “mom.”

Why did some other Kathleen Lynch’s mom send me her soda bread recipe, never mind the slippers? That was the question I asked when I found a phone number online and called to report that this mom’s package had gone to the wrong Kathleen Lynch. In conversation, the mom assured me that she had addressed the package to her daughter correctly, and that said daughter was in Washington for a congressional internship, staying on East Capitol Street. A closer look at the package’s address confirmed that Kathleen was staying right across the street from my workplace, Folger Shakespeare Library, and that the package had been misdelivered, not misaddressed.

I rewrapped the package, added a note of apology, and left it on the doorstep of a townhouse across the street. I must have asked about her family’s soda bread recipe, noting that mine featured raisins to her caraway seeds. The next day, I had a charming note in return, discussing that Kathleen’s grandmother’s approach to soda bread, “equal parts deference and rebellion towards the old way.” What we shared was an appreciation for a simple bread, easily prepared, best eaten warm out of the oven, and laden with memories of our grandmothers, and for me, a recipe I will always call Aunt Pat’s. But were either of our breads true soda breads? I knew both could be dismissed as “tea cakes,” not soda breads. For some, it is an adamantly held distinction.

Intrigued, I wanted to know more about the history of soda bread in Ireland. In particular, I wanted to know if the oral history was true that I had heard many decades ago when I spent a year at university in Cork: the British government denied yeast to the Irish. In any Irish cookbook I pick up now, I read the headnote to breads to see if they introduce the history. Though Colman Andrews prefaces his Country Cooking of Ireland with “A Note on Geopolitics,” addressing the still contested terminology for national boundaries and county names, it does not address the specific trade regulations or coercive practices that framed rural subsistence diets. In My Irish Table, local chef Cathal Armstrong calls these “quick breads,” and notes that “yeast would have been too expensive for people in the countryside in the time of the British occupation” anyway.

Multiple editions of Aunt Pat’s soda bread recipe. Credit: author.

 

Whatever the longer history of Irish hearth-based home cooking of breads in ‘bastibles’ or cast-iron, three-legged pots, the soda bread recipe took its recognizable shape in the mid-nineteenth century with the introduction of baking soda into Ireland. Combined with sour milk or buttermilk, this agent worked to create “a very light and palatable leavened wheat bread that can easily be produced at home,” as Regina Sexton reported in A Little History of Irish Food. And as Armstrong adds, “most households in Ireland have their own recipe for quick breads passed down through the generations.”  In stressing ease and simple ingredients and tools, these authors all lightly skirt the question of impoverishment in old Ireland. For the spread of this breadmaking through Ireland also tracks the years of famine, death, sporadic relief efforts (including by English Quakers), the introduction of maize meal by the British government to offset the failing potato crops, and mass emigration.

I still don’t know the documented history of yeast in Irish baked goods. None of Sexton’s historical recipes in her “Cereals” section include it. I do understand how the oral history holds open the wounds of oppression. At the same time, I see welcome new cooking traditions taking hold in Ireland. They are based on the riches of land and seas, and often influenced by the work of the Allen family at Ballymaloe House and Cookery School in County Cork. Each of the authors above gives credit and expresses gratitude to that family. These new traditions speak powerfully to the work of nourishment and healing that food can do.

Slices of soda bread. Credit: author.

 

Memories are slippery things, formed and reformed over time and across experiences. In looking for a printed copy of “Aunt Pat’s” soda bread, I had to consider if I shouldn’t start calling this “Aunt Maureen’s” recipe, given that Aunt Pat—my mother’s sister—told me once that she adopted her recipe from Aunt Maureen—my father’s sister. So maybe it’s a Lynch recipe rather than a Gibbons one. On finding multiple printed copies of a recipe I haven’t consulted in years, I was also taken aback that Aunt Pat listed shortening as the fattening agent. That doesn’t make the bread any more satisfying to a purist, but it holds the memories of poverty closer. Or does it only speak to its time? Kathleen wrote to me that her mother made so many substitutions in the name of a healthier loaf that the “result was a dry, unpredictable rock.”

If in its purest form, soda bread does without even sugar and butter, is that not also a reminder of resourcefulness of the subsistence farmer? If Kathleen and I and all the sisters and daughters of our economically-deprived foremothers add those embellishments for a richer loaf, don’t we do it to carry forward traditions rather than be bound by them? In sitting down to a cup of tea and a slice of steaming hot soda bread with generous dabs of butter, don’t we keep their memories alive?

Irish Soda Bread

  • 4 cups flour
  • ½ cup sugar
  • 1 tsp. salt
  • 2 tsp. baking powder
  • ½ cup butter
  • 2 cups seedless raisins
  • 1 ½ cup buttermilk (or substitute whole milk with 1 tbsp. apple cider vinegar per cup milk)
  • 1 egg
  • ½ tsp. baking soda

Simmer raisins in pan of hot water. Mix and sift flour, sugar, salt, and baking powder. Work in butter with fingertips until it resembles coarse corn meal. Stir in drained raisins. Combine buttermilk, egg, baking soda. Stir buttermilk mixture into flour mixture until just moistened. Do not overmix. Bake in greased medium baking dish at 375 degrees for 40 to 45 minutes.

I think of this as my Grandma Gibbons’ soda bread recipe, and I’ve adapted it from the recipe my Aunt Pat contributed to her garden club cookbook years ago. But Aunt Pat tells me she took it from my Aunt Maureen on the Lynch side of the family. So I pass it along from both the Gibbonses and the Lynches of County Mayo.


About

Kathleen Lynch researches and writes about the Protestant spiritual autobiography and the communities of devotion that gave rise to them. She is the executive director of the Folger Institute at the Folger Shakespeare Library. She tweets @thatklynch. Her only regret about a year spent in Cork, Ireland as an undergraduate is that it predated the opening of the butter museum there.

Drinking the Ink of Prayer

By Genie Yoo  [1]

Sometimes historians dream of moments of recognition in the manuscripts they encounter. The act of reading or reciting, writing or copying, can trigger a distant memory, allowing one to draw a line connecting two seemingly unrelated points on the plane of history. I experienced something of this moment as I sat in the National Library of the Republic of Indonesia, reading an untitled and undated manuscript of Arabic prayers and their Malay prescriptions. That morning, Mas Bambang, a familiar face behind the counter, had handed me a manuscript labelled ML469. It was a prayer book, shorter and thinner than expected, and the first folio, glued tightly to the marbled cover, began with a list of recipes.

“For those who wish to memorize the Qur’an,” I copied into my notebook, “take ambergris, musk, and turmeric.” There was a hint of recognition in the order of these three ingredients, common since antiquity. “The three are to be moistened,” I copied, “to make the ink.” Suddenly, an inkling of recognition blended into memory. Two years prior, I had sat in Prof. Michael Laffan’s office in Princeton, reading out loud my transcription of the same lines from another manuscript, one which he had photographed in Simon’s Town, South Africa. “Write this prayer on a white bowl,” I wrote, “and drink for seven days.” I circled the Malay word for “bowl” (mangkung), a variation of its modern standardized form (mangkuk). Minute differences also beckon the memory. When I had given Michael a puzzled look about another variation of this term (mangku), he had pulled out the Wilkinson dictionary, an invitation to join the exercise of word hunting. Putting my pencil down, I gingerly flipped through the folios of ML469 until I arrived at the Arabic and saw that this copy of the prayer, too, like the one from Simon’s Town, was the prayer of ‘Akasa.

The earliest extant copy of Malay-language explications for the prayer of ‘Akasa in Europe is a late 16th c.-early 17th c. manuscript from the Scaliger Collection, initially mislabelled to be in the Turkish language. Or 247, Special Collections at the Leiden University Library.]

So began my fascination with two nearly identical copies of a Malay-language recipe for drinking the ink of prayer, now preserved in two manuscripts on opposite sides of the Indian Ocean: one in Jakarta, Indonesia, and the other in Simon’s Town, South Africa. While the former was a compilation of prayers in the same hand, its provenance an unmarked mystery, the latter was a shorter fragment copied into a communal notebook full of other recipe fragments. Variations between them left doubt as to their direct link in transmission; however, there were too many of the same lines in a string of recipes in the same order for the same prayer, to presume they were merely incidental. The question of a possible “original” seemed less relevant; they were likely copies of similar eighteenth-century copies circulating in the archipelago. What interested me more were the possibilities of bringing the two together into one frame: it allowed me to see that handwritten copies of similar prayer books circulated across vast distances and that prayers and their recipes for ritual use were copied, at times, in selective fragments.

The fragment in Simon’s Town was distinctive. The hand that wrote it, Michael assured me, had belonged to the famous eighteenth-century figure Imam Abdullah ibn Qadi Abd al-Salam, known as Tuan Guru (lit. “Master Teacher”). He was a nobleman from the eastern island of Tidore whom administrators of the Dutch East India Company had exiled to their Cape colony in 1780, just before the beginning of the Fourth Anglo-Dutch War. As Dr. Saarah Jappie has written, Tuan Guru’s fame is linked to his founding of the first Islamic school or madrasah in Cape Town in 1793.[2] There, he taught a diverse community of Muslim students and championed the rote-learning system in Malay and Arabic, which later madrasah teachers continued in Afrikaans.[3] Memory was essential to practicing the faith of Islam through recitation; and perhaps teaching how to commit something to heart, to preserve it within the body, inspired more than mnemonic instruction.

“For those who wish to memorize the Qur’an,” Tuan Guru had copied into the untitled notebook, “take ambergris, musk, and turmeric.” The handwriting is identical to a Qur’an Tuan Guru had copied from memory on Robben Island, now preserved at the Auwal Mosque (lit. “First Mosque,” est. 1794). “The three are to be mixed,” he wrote, “on a Friday night to make the ink.” The other manuscript had not mentioned the day and time for making the ink. If context can fill the gap, it may be noteworthy that Tuan Guru’s madrasah also functioned as the community’s first mosque, where followers of the faith congregated on Fridays, the sacred day of worship. “Write onto a white bowl this prayer,” he continued to copy, “and drink for seven days.” To write and to drink—the recipe called for a ritual assimilation of two common physical acts of learning in Islamic education.[4] Using the ink and the bowl to write and to drink, one was to absorb into the body the power of prayer, as a supplicatory means to achieve the memorization of the sacred Word.

Did Tuan Guru copy this recipe for his students in the context of the madrasah? He wrote it into a communal book full of other recipe fragments in different hands, for instance, of writing a talisman for healing. Copying it ensured that the prayer would again be copied then imbibed. The book was instructional, and the recipe meant to be used, preserved, and transmitted through the act of copying, not only on paper but also in the body. Can the manuscript in South Africa reveal something about the manuscript in Indonesia and vice versa? While the two raise more questions than answers, they also open up ways to reflect on the link between memory and the physical acts that aid it, whether in the secular context of a library or in the sacred context of a madrasah. They allow us to see the point where the plane of memory intersects with that of history, in the past and in the present.

Biography

Genie Yoo is a PhD Candidate in History at Princeton University. She specializes in the early modern and modern history of Southeast Asia and works at the intersection of science, medicine, religion, and empire. This blogpost is based on chapter two of her dissertation-in-progress, titled “Mediating Islands: Ambon Across the Ages.”

Notes

[1] My gratitude to Dr. Saarah Jappie and Michael Laffan.

[2] Saarah Jappie, “From the Madrasah to the Museum: the Social Life of the “Kietaabs” of Cape Town,” History in Africa 38 (2011): 375-376.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Prof. Rudolph T. Ware III writes about the epistemology of embodiment in Islamic pedagogy, particularly in the context of West Africa. See Rudolph T. Ware III, The Walking Qur’an: Islamic Education, Embodied Knowledge, and History in West Africa (Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press, 2014).

A Snapshot of the Food Studies Community

By Christian Reynolds

From October to December 2019, the US-UK Food Digital Scholarship Network ran a community survey asking what (and how) food scholars are currently using analogue and digital material. We were also interested how the community thought US and UK libraries and archives could better support food researchers through digitisation and activities. (See previous blog post.)

We were overwhelmed by the response to the community survey with 200 respondents from the global food research community — despite there being multiple ‘disruption events’ including an eight day university strike for many UK research institutions, as well as the Thanksgiving Holiday period. We’re really excited to have the voices of so many food researchers help us shape what is needed by the community. 

In the next few months, we are writing up the results of the community survey. But in the meantime, we want to share with you the headline descriptive results of the survey: who are we, what we want, and how we communicate. 

Who? and Where?

Though the community survey nominally focused on respondents from the United States of America (41%), and the United Kingdom (28%), there were additional respondents from multiple other countries (31%). The largest other populations of these were Canada (9%), and Australia (5%). Participants responded from twenty-one countries in total. 

There was a wide spread of ages, with the majority of respondents(44%) being between 31-50 years of age. 

Age of respondents

Over 70% of participants were academics. This included Professors (16%), Early Career researchers (14%), and Students (17%). There was a wide range of other professionals (n=55) including independent scholars, cooks and chefs, writers and journalists, book sellers, and heritage professionals. The range of respondents certainly represents the diversity of jobs and roles within the wider the food research community! But also owing to such a breath of roles and ages of respondents, there was a lot of variation in the familiarity/comfort with digital and analogue research tools.

Type of Researcher

The geographic scope of food studies is truly broad, with most researchers interested in more than one geographic area. 125 (or 62.5%) respondents were interested in the UK region, while 133 (or 66.5%) were interested in the US region. Another 66 respondents were interested in Canada, 97 in the wider colonial areas, and 99 interested in multiple other places globally.

This geographic interest is also shown by the broad range of locations holding primary research material. 112 respondents mentioned UK archives and 118 mentioned US archives. Even so, Canadian, Australian, and European archives featured heavily — and many other global institutions were mentioned.

Results suggest that there is overlap in user-base between global (UK, US, etc.) archives, but we need to do more research to understand how the community fits into the wider food research community. By this, I’m thinking of where a researcher is based versus where their archives are based. 

Percentage of respondents who use these cultural institutions

There were another ninety-four institutions were mentioned by name in the “other” text box. Multiple mentions include places like Yale University Library, Winterthur Museum, University of Toronto, New York Public Library, Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft, Bibliothèque nationale de France, National Library Australia, archive.org — and so many more.

What does the community want?

The most asked for service at 92% was… digitization of materials! The community also wants finding aids and catalogues (each 64%). These views were further expressed in the free text “other” category.

Priorities for content and services provision

What people wanted digitised most (184 respondents) was Printed Material (Books, Magazines, Advertising, Ephemera, etc.). In other words, researchers thought digitisation of these items would help their research the most.  Printed Materials had a mean “importance” score of 85 (out of 100).

However, researchers also wanted to see more OCR text functionality (n=179) and digitised manuscripts (n=178); these had mean importance scores between 74 and 80. Additional analysis needs to be carried out to understand how particular types/themes of food research (and users of specific archives) can be prioritised. 

Mean importance score for increased digitisation and access of materials to help individual research activities

How do we communicate?

Email remains the most common method for communication between researchers and cultural institutions (n=178), with in person communication being the second most popular (n=115). A smaller community of respondents interacted with cultural institutions via social media, such as Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram . We have yet to “cut” this with age based variables. Interestingly blogs and website messaging/chat, and WhatsApp services were mentioned in the “Other” free text response. 

This, of course, is just a snapshot of our community of food researchers. There is still so much to explore in the survey results! Please do contact me (c.reynolds@sheffield.ac.uk)  for if you would like to give additional feedback or thoughts. We’d love to hear from you.

And to complement the wealth of information from the community survey, we are now conducting a follow up 2020 Archive Survey — directed at curators and digitisation teams in cultural institutions. Please promote this Archive survey to any curators and digitisation teams in your own networks. We’d love to know more from cultural institutions about the scope of their food-related collections, any barriers to digitization, and future ambitions. The Archives survey closes on 14 March 2020.

Editorial Note: Christian Reynolds is the principal investigator of the the US-UK Food Digital Scholarship network  (@AHRCfoodnetwork on Twitter). The Recipes Project is a partner organisation in the network.