Back in Black

25 Mar

Hello. This is my third podcast and it’s about where the colour black comes from, with a bit about Swansea’s local industrial history thrown in. It is mostly based on the book:

Colour Travels Through the Paintbox by Victoria Finlay

PURITANS AND PIRATES: Booze and Brothels and the Colour Black

Hiya. Rosie Scribblah here. This is my third podcast and it’s called PURITANS AND PIRATES: Booze and Brothels and the Colour Black. And it’s about where the colour black comes from, with a bit of Swansea’s industrial history thrown in.

Swansea in shades of black

But before I start on that I just want to say a little bit about when I was a kid and I lived in a council house in Swansea.  In a bit of Swansea called Landore.  I used to be in my bedroom a lot of the time, looking out my bedroom window.  That’s the sort of kid I was. And all I could see out of my bedroom window was black.  Everything was black.  Immediately behind our garden there was a railway line and then behind that was Hafod Tip. It was a massive copper slag tip that was supposed to be the biggest in Europe at the time.

And then behind that there was the big hill that overlooked the city called Kilvey Hill and that was black.  Everything was black. It was a horrible, desolate, industrial landscape.  But I used to love sitting there, looking out at it and I used to love painting.  We didn’t have much money so I used to nag relatives for Christmas and for birthdays if they could get me a sketch book and a little cheap tin of paints.  And I would sit in my bedroom window, painting what I could see.  And of course it was all black so I learnt to look and see all the different blacks that were there.

The silvery grey black of the railway, the purply black; a sort of purply-blue black of Hafod Tip.  It was slightly iridescent like petrol on puddles in the street.  And then there was the burnt, browny black of Kilvey Hill.  And then behind that there was the changing greys of the sky. It’s typical of Swansea, It’s so rainy the sky’s usually grey.  So as I grew up I got used to all the different blacks I could see in this landscape and I realised that the colour black was much more complex than you’d think.

Pliny and How Drawing Began

Anyway – here’s a bit about the history of Black, mostly from Victoria Finlay’s book Colour: Travels Through A Paintbox

According to Pliny who was an old dead Greek bloke, one of the first artists was a young woman from Corinth in Greece who was having a cwtch with her boyfriend before he went away on a long journey. She noticed his shadow on the wall, cast by the fire. She grabbed some burnt wood from the fire and filled in where is shadow was so she would have a perfect reminder of him.  That’s supposed to be the first recorded drawing. It’s really romantic isn’t it?

Burnt wood was also used in cave paintings around 30,000 years ago and I remember when I was very small, we had a coal fire and my Mam used to save bits of charred wood for me when she was clearing out the ashes, for me to draw with.  We didn’t have much money and she often couldn’t afford to get me stuff to draw with but we had brown paper bags with the groceries because back then, you didn’t get plastic bags.  She’s keep those for me and then she’d keep bits of charred wood from the fire and I’d draw with those. 

And that leads me very nicely into Charcoal, which is burnt wood. For hundreds of years willow charcoal has been the gold standard for drawing.  It is a very ancient crop grown for baskets – at one time everything used to be packed and shipped in wicker hampers.  By the mid 20th century, we had cheap plastic packaging and wicker crops weren’t profitable anymore.

Coates and Charcoal

Anyway there was this bloke Percy Coates, who was a British willow farmer and he was laid up for a few weeks after a nasty fall and had time to think about the future of his willow farm.  Unfortunately for him his land was only good for growing Willow so he didn’t have a lot of options. So he was in his living room and spotted some charcoal by the fire in the grate.  It gave him an idea and he did a bit of research, looking at 14th century instruction manuals and experimented with making willow charcoal in a biscuit tin in the fire.  And it worked and now Percy Coates firm makes some of the finest charcoal in the world.  He managed to save his farm.

The History of Graphite

But there are other blacks too. And another one apart from charcoal that’s very popular is graphite and that’s the stuff in the middle of pencils. People call them lead pencils but they’re not, that black stuff is graphite.  And up until the 16th century, artists in Europe actually did use lead to draw with, but it wasn’t stuffed into a tube of wood.  It wasn’t in pencil form.

Graphite was originally used to make cannon balls when it was called black lead. It became known as graphite when people started using it for drawing.  Queen Elizabeth 1st back in the 15 hundreds, set up a royal mine in Keswick which is where graphite came from, in the Lake District.  And they were protected like a military base because of how important they were to the defence industry, British graphite made the best cannon balls in Europe. And it was very expensive.

People who worked there used to smuggle graphite out of the mines because it was so expensive, but they were severely punished if they were caught.  If you got caught you’d be transported to the colonies as a slave. Or worse. Black Sal, one of the best smugglers, was hunted to death by the owner’s dogs.

Gradually, as cannon balls went out of fashion for wars, a method of putting graphite into wooden tubes was invented in the Lake District and one of the original pencil companies, Derwent, is still there. You can visit the national pencil museum in Keswick. I’ve been, it’s lovely. I can definitely recommend it.

Britain still had the best graphite, and best pencils in the world and there was a lot of international rivalry and at the end of the 1700s the French were trying to find a substitute because they were fed up paying all these high prices for British pencils and a bloke called Nicholas Conte invented a way of combining graphite with clay to make different grades of pencil and it worked, so the company he set up is still world famous for its excellent pencils.

Bideford

There’s one other type of black I want to touch on and it’s called Bideford Black, it’s a mineral that comes from mines in Bideford in North Devon. It feels a bit like a greasy charcoal and it looks like coal. It was mined for a couple of hundred years until the late 1960s when other cheaper blacks started to come onto the international market and the Bideford Black mines closed down. You can still go and get some on the coastline in the area, if you know where to look.

Black Ink

So, that’s black stuff for drawing with but there’s also black ink.

The Chinese and Egyptians were using ink at least 4000 years ago. Mostly it was made from soot mixed with natural binders – gums, resins, oils or alcohol.  The smell of ink was also important because the most common binder was fish skin glue so they used different perfumes like cloves, honey, musk and pine.  You can still buy Chinese inks that are really highly perfumed.

The other main source of black ink in the past was from oak galls, a growth on oak trees.  Wasps lay their eggs in oak trees which form protective growths around them, a bit like an oyster making a pearl.  These growths are harvested and they make a rich black ink because it has loads of tannin, which is also in tea.  It gives you the dark brown in tea.

Black Dyes Puritans and Pirates

That’s a bit about the history of ink, but there was also a big market for black dyes.

A few hundred years ago, in Britain there was this very powerful religious sect called the Puritans who liked to wear black clothes to show how pure and serious they were about their religion. Black clothes sort of represented turning your back on displaying your wealth, it was anti-bling.  But actually, a deep black cloth was almost impossible to make and it was very expensive, there were no natural black dyes in Europe so dyers had to dip cloth into blue, then red, then yellow to get something that looked like black.  And that’s why it was so expensive.

But in the end a dye was found for the religious Puritans clothes.  In Central America, there were trees called Logwood that made very good black dye.  Ironically, it had to be bought from retired pirates, who controlled the trade and spent the money they earned on booze and brothels and the pirate lifestyle. Not at all religious.  It grew in really horrible places, swamps that were infested with mosquitos and all sorts of nasty parasites and creepy crawlies.

Eventually Britain got complete control over the area and it became British Honduras.  But then they used slaves to harvest the logwood for black dye.  So the Puritan’s desire for black clothes to show how pious and religious they were was supplied by the slave trade.

Vantablack

Well that’s the historical stuff but what about nowadays?

Pigments, dyes and inks can be made artificially and there’s been a bit of a kerfuffle around black recently. A British company, Surrey Nanosystems invented a new black called Vantablack, supposed to be the blackest black ever made. A British artist Anish Kapoor bought the exclusive rights to use Vantablack in his art and banned other artists from using it. And that was very controversial and caused quite a fuss.  So another British artist, Stuart Semple, and a team of engineers in the USA, both made black pigments that were even blacker than Anish Kapoor’s Vantablack and put them on sale for anyone to use.  So now you can get the blackest black pigments ever made but they’re not natural.

Aberfan and Hafod Tip

So that’s a little history of the colour black. Back at the beginning I told you about my childhood, growing up in a black industrial environment. I’m glad to say it didn’t stay like that.  Things eventually changed.

First of all there was the Lower Swansea Valley Project which Swansea University started in the early 1960s. They planted all sorts of things onto Kilvey Hill, in huge squares, to see what would grow there. For a few years all you could see was a black hill with a square of yellow, or green, or purple here and there but eventually they found what worked and now, half a century later, Kilvey Hill is a rich, lush woodland with streams and wildlife. It’s beautiful.

What about Hafod Tip? Well, in 1966 the school in a little village called Aberfan in South Wales was engulfed by a coal tip and nearly 150 people, mostly schoolchildren, were killed. An entire generation of children in that village were wiped out.  After that, the government started to remove the tips and I can remember huge machines being set up on the Hafod Tip and over the next few years, the tip went lower and lower until eventually I could see the houses in Hafod from my bedroom window – I could never see the houses before. Eventually the tip was completely gone and they grassed it over and built a school on it.

And the view from my bedroom window changed from shades of black to shades of green. But that’s a colour for another podcast. Hwyl Fawr, see you next time.

5 Responses to “Back in Black”

  1. Alli Farkas March 27, 2021 at 04:48 #

    Fascinating history! Derwent and Conte—used their products way back when and never knew! And Kapoor? I watched his monumental Cloud Gate sculpture (also fondly known as The Bean) take shape in Chicago when I lived there. It’s the farthest thing from black that you can imagine. Also rewarding to know that your neighborhood of black got a few more colors in it as time passed. I hope you’re getting an audience for your podcasts because they are truly entertaining and informative at the same time.

    • Rosie Scribblah March 27, 2021 at 12:56 #

      Thank you Alli. Now I’ve got three in the bag, I’m going to start promoting them a bit better. I enjoy doing them. And yes, the black is gone and Swansea is now a beautifully green place 🙂

  2. Leonie Andrews March 27, 2021 at 03:40 #

    Absolutely fascinating. I knew about Vantablack but not the even newer pigment. Oooh a new art supply – don’t encourage me. 😄

    • Rosie Scribblah March 27, 2021 at 12:55 #

      hahaha Stuart Semple has invented the pinkest pink as well – but he won’t allow Anish Kapoor to buy any 😀

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