Category Archives: Tools and Techniques

The devil is in the details: turpentine varnish

Corrosion cast of bronchi and trachea, possibly from a rabbit, sheep, or dog, 1880-1890
Likely prepared by Harvard anatomist Samuel J. Mixter.
The Warren Anatomical Museum in the Francis A. Countway Library of Medicine

By Marieke Hendriksen

One of the first things you learn when you do reconstruction research is that the tiniest detail can make a difference.

Recently, I wanted to prepare an injection wax for corrosion preparations according to a 1790 recipe. Corrosion preparations are anatomical preparations created by injecting an organ with a fluid coloured wax that hardens. The organ is then lowered into a container with a corrosive substance, such as a hydrochloric acid solution, which corrodes the tissue, leaving a negative image of the veins and arteries of the organ. These preparations were made from at least the mid-eighteenth century, but because of their fragility, very few remain. As they were supposedly difficult to make, corrosion preparations were not only a way of studying anatomy, but also a tool for self-fashioning and establishing one’s status as an anatomist.

I have tried to create an injected preparation in the past.[1]It was my first attempt at reconstruction research ever, and although it served me well at the time, now I do things differently.

Most importantly, I want to stay much closer to the original recipe if possible. When we made the injected preparations in 2012, we used modern substitutes for some historical ingredients for economic reasons, and we did not have the time to study every ingredient in detail, substituting those we could not find directly with something we thought would have pretty much the same effect.

The recipe I want to use, Thomas Pole’s 1790 instruction for making a corrosion preparation, calls for a coarse red wax, made from fifteen ounces of yellow bees wax, eight ounces of white resin, six ounces of turpentine varnish, and three ounces of vermillion or carmine red.[2]The wax, resin, and pigment are fairly straightforward.

What is turpentine varnish though? Back in 2012, we ended up using just turpentine rather than turpentine varnish, and although those injections were not meant to be corroded, we ran into numerous problems. For example, it turned out to be almost impossible to keep the wax and the organs at a temperature at which we could both handle it and have it fluid enough to inject. It made me wonder whether sticking with the original recipe could solve that problem, so I set out to recreate it.

This turned out to be more complicated than expected, as there is not one standard recipe for turpentine varnish. Eventually I found a Dutch recipe from 1832 listing a turpentine varnish to finish display cabinets for natural history collections.[3] The ingredients are a pound of oil of turpentine, 8 ‘loot’ (a loot being 1/32 Dutch pound) of white resin, four loot of Venice turpentine, and ½ loot of aloe or kolokwint. Raw larch turpentine has a high concentration of volatile oils that can be distilled. The fluid part is known as oil of turpentine, whereas the residue left in the retort is usually called resin, rosin, or colophony. Oil of turpentine is the essential oil that remains after distilling raw larch turpentine. Venice turpentine is a thick, viscous exudation from the Austrian larch tree, which is not used as a varnish on its own as it becomes dark and brittle when exposed to oxygen and light. Aloe vera is widely known; kolokwint (the Dutch name for Citrullus colocynthisor bitter apple) less so. It is a plant with yellow fruits that resemble small pumpkins, which are very bitter and poisonous. That quality might explain its presence in a recipe for a varnish that is meant to ward off insects. Powdered aloe is readily available from artist’s material suppliers, so I went with that.

The varnish after 10 hours in the sun. The Aloe is the clearly visible murkiness on the bottom. Photograph: author.

The preparation of the varnish was pretty straightforward: put all ingredients in a bottle, cover, and leave in the sun for a day. The only problem was that I had to wait a week for a sunny day. When it came, I put in the ingredients and just left the bottle out in the sun for a couple of hours, which allowed me to stir the ingredients together. The aloe however did not resolve properly, and just sits at the bottom of the jar. While this might not be much of a problem when the varnish is applied to a cabinet, it makes this particular turpentine varnish unsuitable for use in my injection wax. Next time, I will make another batch without aloe and use that instead.

Why do I recount this–admittedly not very exciting–story? It shows how difficult it can be to follow a historical recipe to the letter. It also shows how much you learn from reconstruction research, even if it does not always yield the results you’d like, or as fast as you’d like.

[1]Marieke Hendriksen, Elegant Anatomy, (Leiden: Brill 2015), pp. 1-9.

[2]Thomas Pole, 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), pp. 21-5, 122-42.

[3] S. de Grebber, Over de schadelijke huisinsekten, als de huisvliegen, wespen, muggen, weegluizen, vlooijen, luizen, motten, pels-, boek- en kruidkevers en wormen, hout-, blad- en schildluizen, plantmijten enz., met aanwijzing van voldoende en proefhoudende middelen, om dezelve geheel uit te roeijen, Volume 1,(Amsterdam, 1832), pp. 52-3.

Vicissitudes in Soldering. Reading and Working with a Historical Gold- and Silversmithing Manual

This month, we’re excited to collaborate with History of Knowledge to celebrate the upcoming conference, Learning by the Book: Manuals and Handbooks in the History of Knowledge. The five-day event takes place at Princeton in June and features a “blogged conference” to complement traditional panel presentations. For the next few Thursdays, the Recipes Project will cross-post selections from the conference (with RP readers noting  the extended length, in keeping with HoK posts). These features are just a taste of more than thirty works produced for the conference, and readers are invited to read the full selection here. Enjoy!


Thijs Hagendijk and Tonny Beentjes

In 1721, the Dutch craftsman Willem van Laer (1674-1722) published a Guidebook for Upcoming Gold- and Silversmiths. Intended as a manual to educate young novices, the Guidebook discussed a variety of different practices, techniques, and skills that ranged from assays to determine the quality of precious metals to sand mold casting and polishing (Figure 1). Four different editions, including one pirated copy, appeared in less than fifty years, attesting to its popularity. The book was explicitly aimed at teaching young readers how to do and make things. Van Laer reassured readers by saying “there will be few young gold- or silversmiths, who won’t find anything to their liking and benefit while reading this book; they will be led by hand to the knowledge of many things.”[1] Yet, however confident Van Laer might come across in this passage, there is sufficient reason to question the actual success of Guidebook at explaining and delivering these skills. Practical knowledge is often better demonstrated than written down. Van Laer was very well aware of this fact and offered disclaimers warning his readers that full comprehension of the text was only achieved when complemented with manual instruction. This begs the question of what could, in fact, be learned from the Guidebook.

Figure 1. Title page of the Guidebook. Copy held by the Rijksmuseum Research Library, Amsterdam. (Call number: 305 E 33). Photo by Thijs Hagendijk.
Figure 1. Title page of the Guidebook. Copy held by the Rijksmuseum Research Library, Amsterdam. (Call number: 305 E 33). Photo by Thijs Hagendijk.

The best way to answer this question is to look at historical evidence, primarily in the form of marginalia or other signs of usage, that indicates how the Guidebook was read and used on the shop floor. Unfortunately, not much of this evidence has survived for reasons that historians Natasha Glaisyer and Sara Pennell have observed in their study of early modern didactic literature. They note an irony in the fact that books that were most read and used did not make it to our libraries.[2] Indeed, most Guidebooks that reside in Dutch libraries are neat and almost spotless copies – we even found a copy with its pages still uncut! (We ended up cutting its pages almost three hundred years after publication, but that is another story). This virtual lack of historical evidence pushed us in a different direction. We decided to approach the Guidebook experimentally by performing historical re-enactments. By reading and working with the text as if we were learning how to make and do things, we were able to get a better grasp of Van Laer’s potential audience and the role the book might have played in historical learning practices and the acquisition of practical skills. The re-enactments gave rise to various insights.[3] In this post, we discuss one specific result, which is a story involving both success and failure.

Part of Van Laer’s discussion of soldering features the introduction of a “convenient soldering lamp.” Even though the better part of soldering usually happened in the forge, Van Laer presents his soldering lamp so that “the maker won’t need to put the entire piece back into the fire for a tiny leak or mistake only.”[4] For a silversmith, putting a soldered piece back into the fire was always risky as the soldered joints could melt again and cause more trouble than initially was the case. The preferable method was to repair a soldered piece without having to expose it again to relatively high temperatures, which is where the soldering lamp comes in. Basically, the soldering lamp resembles a modified oil lamp with an extended snout. To reach temperatures high enough to melt the solder, one had to use a small blowpipe to blow additional air through the flame. Skillful blowing would subsequently result in a second tiny yet feisty blue flame hot enough to locally melt silver. That is, at least, what Van Laer seemed to suggest: “when the tip of the flame of such burning Lamp is blown against the spot that needs to be soldered, it makes it hotter over there and the solder will easily run.”[5]

Figure 2. Engraving of gold- and silversmithing tools. Numbers 7 and 8 indicate the soldering lamp, number 9 the blowpipe. Copy of the Guidebook held by the Rijksmuseum Library, Amsterdam (Call number: 305 E 33). Photo by Thijs Hagendijk.
Figure 2. Engraving of gold- and silversmithing tools. Numbers 7 and 8 indicate the soldering lamp, number 9 the blowpipe. Copy of the Guidebook held by the Rijksmuseum Library, Amsterdam (Call number: 305 E 33). Photo by Thijs Hagendijk.

To find out whether we could indeed solder this way, we decided to build a soldering lamp following Van Laer’s instructions. Luckily, Van Laer was meticulously detailed with respect to the lamp, discussing its dimensions and the materials needed to produce it. According to him, the lamp should be made from brass and should measure 3 inches across and 1 inch in height. Additionally, there should be a wooden handle at its back and at the front a snout of about 5 or 6 inches long. To make sure he was well understood, Van Laer also included a schematic engraving of the lamp (Figure 2). We had more than enough information to work with, and based on his drawings and instructions we produced a much-desired replica of the lamp (Figure 3). We also laid our hands on a few historical blowpipes. Now that we had the materials, we could learn to handle the tool.

Figure 2 (Detail). Engraving of gold- and silversmithing tools. Numbers 7 and 8 indicate the soldering lamp, number 9 the blowpipe. Copy of the Guidebook held by the Rijksmuseum Library, Amsterdam (Call number: 305 E 33). Photo by Thijs Hagendijk.
Figure 2 (Detail). Engraving of gold- and silversmithing tools. Numbers 7 and 8 indicate the soldering lamp, number 9 the blowpipe. Copy of the Guidebook held by the Rijksmuseum Library, Amsterdam (Call number: 305 E 33). Photo by Thijs Hagendijk.


Figure 3. Replica of the soldering lamp. Photo by Thijs Hagendijk.
Figure 3. Replica of the soldering lamp. Photo by Thijs Hagendijk.


We filled the lamp’s reservoir with olive oil and stuffed its snout with a cotton lump. When we finally lit the lamp, the burning oil filled the room with a scent of grilled food. As an initial exercise, we took a small brass strip and tried to heat it until it started to glow. Here is how it went down, as recorded by Thijs in our fieldnotes:

Glowing the metal strip did not happen before we learned our first big lesson. Intuitively, Tonny and I started out by blowing hard through the blowpipe. The more air, the hotter the flame we thought. After trying for quite some time, it seemed as if we weren’t making any progress. We could steer the yellow flame, but were not able to get the blue flame where we wanted it. Yet, after I tried some more, it suddenly appeared that I had been blowing way too hard. By blowing rather softly on to the flame, suddenly the little blue flame emerged. In general, the blowing required much exercise. When later that afternoon a visitor dropped by for an interview, we saw the amount of skill that we already acquired. She too tried to produce a feisty blue flame by blowing through the flame, but did not succeed. To my own surprise, I was immediately able to point out what went wrong. The tip of the blowpipe should almost touch the pit of the flame, while one should blow out of the flame, both from beneath and from the inside-out. Cheeks filled with air, meanwhile breathing in, breathing out, breathing in, breathing out, filling the cheeks again and keep blowing at the same time. A rhythm occurs in blowing and breathing, which maybe most resembles what happens to your breathing when running.(Fieldnotes Thijs, April 4th, 2017).

Until this point, then, the story was quite successful. We were able to reverse-engineer the soldering lamp, and, like Van Laer explained, we could reproduce the feisty blue flame. Moreover, the blue flame proved rather hot indeed, as indicated by the different oxidation colors on the brass strip. However, as soon as we tried taking it to the next level, we ran into trouble.

Still happy with the progress we made, we now wanted to solder a very basic joint. We took another brass strip, hammered it round, and set out to solder its ends together to make a tiny cylinder. We fixed the cylinder in a standing pair of tweezers to free both our hands so we could steer the soldering lamp and hold the blowpipe. A little piece of solder was put on top of the joint, as well as little bit of borax, which is a flux used to facilitate the flow of melted solder. We lit the lamp and started blowing (Figure 4).

Figure 4. Soldering a brass ring. Note the tiny blue flame. Photo by Thijs Hagendijk.
Figure 4. Soldering a brass ring. Note the tiny blue flame. Photo by Thijs Hagendijk.

One hour later we were so out of breath that we stopped, but the cylinder had not yet been soldered. We failed. Even though we raised the temperature high enough to make the solder curl up like a drop, we never reached the final state in which it flows out and runs into the joint. Using the soldering lamp appeared less straightforward than we thought it would be.

We were curious to know what went wrong, but after several more days of trial-and-error, the list of questions and issues had only grown. We turned to the Guidebook and read and re-read the passages, only to discover that Van Laer was actually quite silent on the matter. Indeed, he carefully described how to assemble the soldering lamp, but spent hardly any time on how to handle it in practice. Should the object be pre-heated, or could the soldering lamp be used on cold objects, too? We blew and soldered against a piece of charcoal to create a reverberating heat source, but was this also how Van Laer meant to use the soldering lamp? Moreover, what type of solder should we use? Van Laer listed three distinct recipes for solder with different melting points, but did not indicate which one to use in combination with the soldering lamp. To date, we still have not been able to solder a proper joint using the lamp.

Interestingly, if we compare the above experiences with other re-enactments we performed, a general pattern starts to emerge.[6] For example, with respect to sand mold casting, Van Laer vividly described how to prepare and process the sand, but left his readers hanging when it came time to assemble a mold from it. Moreover, in his discussion of chasing, he meticulously described how to transfer a design to silver, but gave no guidance on how to perform the actual chasing process. Why would Van Laer alternate between exacting detail and virtual silence? What does this say about the usability of the book? And what could, in fact, be learned from this text?

The soldering story followed a similar pattern. While Van Laer carefully discussed each and every condition needed to succeed – the soldering lamp, recipes to prepare multiple types of solder, different sorts of fluxes – we failed once we arrived at the procedure itself. Is this due to our lack of skill in operating the blowpipe and soldering lamp, or are there aspects of eighteenth-century soldering that we no longer understand? In any case, the Guidebook’s guiding principle seems to be that core operations are best demonstrated rather than put into words. Van Laer did in fact confirm this with respect to the casting procedure. Just as he came to the very heart of the procedure, he abandoned his detailed exposition, stating that “the molding and casting cannot be learned as well as through manual education.”[7]

During our re-enactments, we therefore came to interpret the Guidebook as a text containing advanced practical knowledge, including tips, tricks, and best practices. Learning new skills from scratch, such as soldering, casting, or chasing, is still best done through manual education, but once mastered, the Guidebook can indicate new routes, spell out different paths, and show new variations on a theme.


[1] Willem van Laer, Weg-wyzer Voor Aankoomende Goud en Zilversmeden: Verhandelende veele wetenschappen, die Konsten raakende, zeer nut voor alle Jonge Goud en Zilversmeeden (Amsterdam: Fredrik Helm, 1721).

[2] Natasha Glaisyer and Sara Pennell, “Introduction,” in Didactic Literature in England 1500-1800, edited by Natasha Glaisyer, Sara Pennell (London: Ashgate, 2003), 7.

[3] For a more elaborate and contextualized overview of the re-enactments performed on the Guidebook, see Thijs Hagendijk, “Learning a Craft from Books. Historical Re-enactment of Functional Reading in Gold- and Silversmithing,” Nuncius 33, no. 2 (forthcoming Summer 2018).

[4] van Laer, Weg-wyzer, 125.

[5] Ibid, 126.

[6] Hagendijk, “Learning a Craft from Books.”

[7] van Laer, Weg-wyzer, 134.

Blog Series: Learning by the Book

Join the conversation on Twitter with the hashtag #lbtb18. Tweet or email links to related discussions. Read more posts in this series, and check out the conference website.

Making Senses: Artisanal Practice and Sensory Perception in an Early Modern French Manuscript

By Tillmann Taape

Ms Fr. 640 was written in French by an unknown craftsperson in Toulouse, likely between 1580 and 1600. [1] It is an intriguing and eclectic source, with entries ranging from medical recipes to metalwork and pigment-making, and it forms the core of the Making and Knowing Project at Columbia University, introduced previously on the Recipes Blog in a post by our Director, Pamela Smith.

With its numerous instructions for making things, our manuscript provides a rich case study for the way artisans worked with and thought about materials. As previous posts in this series on Recipes and the Senses have shown, physicians, alchemists, apothecaries, and other craftsmen recognised in their bodies and its senses an important set of tools for understanding and manipulating the material world, and historians pay increasing attention to these embodied and sensory ways of knowing. In this post, I will share a few examples of the rich language of the senses in Ms. Fr. 640. As one might expect from a manuscript including painting and sculpture, the eye often takes precedence over the other senses. However, a discussion of the visual in the manuscript would by itself be far beyond the scope of a single post – we spent much of this year just trying to figure out how the author-practitioner conceptualises different pigments and shades of blue. The aim here, therefore, is to focus on the oft-neglected non-visual senses and what they can teach us about our author-practitioner’s concept of the material world, his ‘material imaginary’.


A strong smell was often a sign that things had gone wrong – the papier-mâché had turned rotten while being left to soak, or a kitchen pot had been made with too much latten (a copper alloy), which ‘stinks and smells bad’ (fol. 36v). However, smells could also help identify the materials needed for a recipe. The ingredient list for a metal alloy, for example, includes the intriguingly specific ‘congealed mercury with the smell of tin’ (fol. 92v). Musing on one of his favourite topics, the properties of fine sand used for metal casting, the author-practitioner notes that

white sand smells like sulphur when heated, and I believe it would melt. And as the substance has been cast in it, it acquires in the mold a lustre as if it were leaded or vitrified. I believe that glassmakers could use it (fol. 99r).

In addition to his observation of a vitreous glaze on the cast object, it is the sulphurous smell which suggests to the author-practitioner that this particular kind of sand is prone to melt and could even be used for making glass. Throughout the manuscript, sulphur does indeed appear as a material which can easily be melted and used to cast small objects, and even appears to function as a sort of material metaphor for transformation and experimentation.


The sense of hearing becomes itself the subject of a short entry. Under the heading ‘hearing from afar’, the author-practitioner records one of the tidbits of advice and tricks for daily life which are scattered here and there throughout the manuscript: ‘Make a small hole in the ground, put your ear against it during the night or during a quiet time, and you will easily hear muffled sounds’ (fol. 125r). In addition to facilitating amateur espionage, specific noises could serve as helpful indicators in the workshop. Before casting metal into a mould made from cuttlefish bone, the author-practitioner writes, one has to make sure that it is completely dry: ‘you will know that they are dry enough when, after having held them near the fire a little, their inside and the impression scream & crackle when you hold them up to your ear’ (fol. 145r). If one was prepared to listen carefully, the materials themselves could tell when they were ready to be worked upon.

Cuttlefish bone used for casting metal objects. © The Making and Knowing Project


The sense of taste could also help to assess and adjust one’s materials. To make ‘essence of sal ammoniac’, for example, ‘the size of two chestnuts of pulverized sal ammoniac suffices in a pot of water, and to the tongue you find the water moderately salty, for too much is not good’ (fol. 111v). The concentration of the sal ammoniac solution was clearly of some importance here, and like in most early modern recipes, the given measurements – size of a chestnut, a pot of water – might not yield very consistent results, so a qualitative sensory indication – ‘moderately salty’ – is added as a further point of reference. As well as checking one’s own procedures, taste could of course be used to assess the quality of merchandise. The city of Toulouse, where our manuscript was compiled, gained much of its considerable wealth from the trade in woad, a blue dyestuff whose French name, pastel, is a likely origin of the term ‘pastel’ colours in English and other European languages. It is not surprising, therefore, that the author-practitioner mentions this sought-after material and tells us how to tell the good from the bad. This involves several steps, including inspection and a dyeing test, but the first step is a taste test: ‘The goodness of the woad is known when, put in the mouth, it gives a taste as of vinegar’ (fol. 39r).


Perhaps unsurprisingly for someone who clearly worked with his hands a lot, the sense of touch plays a particularly important and intriguing part in the author-practitioner’s practice and writing. Returning to his favourite topic – the different kinds of sand or plaster used for casting moulds – he describes how the addition of a substance called alum de plume (literally ‘feather alum’ – it probably refers to a group of minerals known as feldspars in English) helps the mould hold together because it forms fibrous structures (hence probably the reference to feathers). Its production requires a complex process of heating and grinding up in a mortar. In the margin next to the recipe, the author-practitioner notes that one should grind the alum slowly and in small portions, and finally ‘render it very fine & soft to the touch’ (fol. 108v). The manuscript is full of these kinds of haptic properties to indicate the appropriate consistency or particle size of materials. Another ‘sand’ for casting, for example, is made with ‘the bone of oxen feet, very burned & pulverized & ground on porphyry, until it is not felt between your fingers’ (fol. 84v). Intriguingly, here the reader is told to stop grinding not when they can feel a particular sensation, but when they can no longer feel the material at all with their fingers.

As it turns out, this criterion of eluding the sense of touch was an important technical concept for early modern artisans. Our former Making and Knowing postdoc Jenny Boulboullé and former students, Raymond Carlson and Jordan Katz, have shown that the term impalpable, that is to say ‘un-feelable’ or ‘impalpable’, is central to the way the author practitioner experiences and thinks about different kinds of materials used for casting moulds.[2] Furthermore, they found that he is not the only one: the use of the term ‘impalpable’ is used in published works on metallurgy, such well-known book Pirotechnia by the sixteenth-century Italian founder and metallurgist Vanoccio Biringuccio, and the Secreti, a famous book of secrets attributed to Alessio Piemontese. In his emphasis on the haptic sensation of a material being impalpable, then, the author-practitioner speaks to a sensory terminology apparently widely shared by expert makers.

‘Knead as if you wanted to make bread’: making stucco in the Making and Knowing Lab. © The Making and Knowing Project

Describing specific sensory experiences can be difficult, and it makes sense to refer to well-known parallels from daily life – a smell like sulphur, a taste like vinegar, and so on. When it comes to the sense of touch, too, the author-practitioner relates processes described in his recipes to everyday practices. As our former student Emma Le Pouésard has shown, the practices surrounding making bread were a particularly fruitful source of these kinds of comparisons.[3] To unmould a cast object, one should ‘strongly separate the moulds as if you wanted to tear bread apart’ (fol. 114v). In an age before thermostats, this could even provide a way of gauging consistent temperatures. For one’s domestic taxidermy needs, the author-practitioner writes, one could dry animals ‘in an oven as warm as when bread has been taken out’ (fol. 129v). In a recipe for making stucco, bread making is used as a referent for working up the right kind of consistency: the recipe tells us to ‘knead as if you wanted to make bread’, until the stucco paste is ‘firm as bread dough that is ready for the oven’ (fol. 29r).

When we tried making stucco in the Making and Knowing Lab in the Fall semester, this proved to be very useful guidance. While we were not experienced bakers in the way that many early modern householders probably were, we could draw on our experience from one of our ‘skillbuilding’ exercises a few weeks earlier, when we made bread to use as a mould for wax casting, replicating one of the most intriguing processes in the manuscript. When it came to making stucco and mixing the right amounts of tragacanth gum and rye flour or champagne chalk, the author-practitioner’s instructions about kneading to a consistency like bread dough were very useful, especially in the absence of any other indication of measurements. By adding flour until we achieved a dough-like mass which would ‘stretch enough without breaking’ (fol. 29r), we eventually produced stucco which displayed fine detail and could be detached from the mould without too much trouble.

Even this brief tour of Ms. Fr. 640 shows that much is to be gained by paying attention to the non-visual senses in recipes and practical instructions. In the absence of precise standardised measurements and procedures, sensory descriptions were paramount to articulating a material’s properties, whether it was of good quality, or how much longer it needed to dry, boil, soak, or be crushed in a mortar.


[1] High-res digital images of BNF Ms. Fr. 640 are available through Gallica. The Making and Knowing Project is preparing a Digital Critical Edition of the Manuscript. In the meantime, readers may wish to refer to our Minimal Edition prototype (with translation still in progress).

[2] Raymond Carlson and Jordan Katz, ‘Casting in a Box Mold’, The Making and Knowing Project, A Digital Critical Edition of BnF Ms Fr. 640, forthcoming. For more information see

[3] Emma Le Pouésard, ‘Pain, Ostie, Rostie: Bread in Early Modern Europe’, The Making and Knowing Project, A Digital Critical Edition of BnF Ms Fr. 640, forthcoming. For more information see

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.

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.