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A Green Hill and a Poisoned Emperor

6 Jul

Hiya. Rosie Scribblah here with another tea-break podcast, just enough time for a cuppa tea and maybe a biscuit. This one is about the colour Green which I read about in Victoria Finlay’s book “Colour: Travels Through The Paintbox” and also a bit of local history thrown in from the area I lived in.


I spent my early years in an area of Swansea called Greenhill, that’s the name in English and it’s Dyfatty in Welsh. It’s an old built-up inner-city area, very deprived and also a bit notorious. So why is it called Greenhill? It’s because centuries ago, before the Industrial Revolution it was indeed a beautiful Green Hill. The Welsh name, Dyfatty, means a Sheep Fold and was where sheep lived. Nearby there’s Cwmfelin and Brynmelin, the valley with the mill and the hill with the mill. They’re by Ysguborfach Street – that means a little barn, and right next to Dyfatty is an area called Hafod, Summer Pasture in English, where the sheep from Dyfatty hung out when it was fine. But all that went with the Industrial Revolution and these names are an echo of the green and bucolic past.

Green is an international colour so let’s go from Dyfatty to China…….


Where once upon a time, there was a colour so secret it was said that only royalty could own it. It was found on a very special type of porcelain called mi se (mee ser) which means mysterious colour. Sorry for my pronunciation….. It’s also known as Celadon.

It was only made during the 9th and 10th centuries CE and for hundreds of years afterwards, people wondered what it looked like and why it was such a secret.  They knew it was some sort of green but that was it. 

Sometimes thieves or archaeologists …. hmm possibly the same thing?…..  would rob graves and greenish bowls claiming to be Celadon would appear in antique shops and museums.

Legends grew up about it, the best Celadon jars were believed to be sorcerers or djinns. Some were supposed to be able to talk. And Celadon bowls were meant to be an antidote to poison.


But nobody was sure if these were the real thing until 1987, when I had a curly perm,  when Celadon was found in a secret chamber in the ruins of a collapsed tower in China. It’s all a bit Game of Thrones here. Anyway, the archaeologists knew it was genuine because they also found a stone carved with an inventory.

This tower had been locked and hidden for 1000 years so after all this time the world was able to see the real mysterious colour. Dan Dan Dan…..

And it was a sort of dirty browney olive.  There wasn’t a clue why it was so prized by the ancient Tang dynasty.  Maybe it’s one of the earliest examples of less is more.  Who knows?

Let’s travel back from China to Europe …


The oldest piece of porcelain in the British Isles is green.  It’s the Warham cup and it’s a dark sea green pot mounted on a gold support probably given to William Warham, Archbishop of Canterbury in the early 1500s. When the trade routes opened up around that time, Europe went wild for what they called ‘Oriental’ culture which covered Japan and the Middle East as well as China and porcelain was massively popular. And massively expensive.

200 years later, the Romantic poets almost worshipped the colour because of how it represented the beauty of nature. Green was associated with Indian mysticism, with Persian poems and Buddhist paintings. And there was a craze lasting hundreds of years for green wallpaper, handpainted in China and ridiculously expensive – only the wealthiest could afford it. Like the Celadon pottery of the Chinese Emperors.


The French Emperor Napoleon was possibly poisoned by his green wallpaper. Back in 1960 a lock of his hair was bought at auction and chemically analysed and they found it contained a substantial amount of arsenic. The official cause of his death was cancer. But was it really? ….

Here’s a bit of science.


Back in the day, a Swedish chemist, Carl Wilhelm Scheele, while he was investigating arsenic, came up with an astonishing green.  He patented it as Sheele’s Green and fair do’s he thought that people should be warned about how toxic it was when it went into production as a paint.

BUT his concerns were overridden by the manufacturers and it was used in paints and wallpapers everywhere. No Elfin Safety back then!

In the 1980s it was discovered that a sample of the wallpaper from Napoleon’s home on St Helena contained Sheele’s Green. The damp atmosphere on the island meant fumes from the paint would have spread throughout the rooms. So … was this what really saw Napoleon off?

Even though the green was seriously poisonous it was very widely used because there was no other way to make this colour and people loved it, they went nuts for it and other green paints were dull and not easy to make.

Here’s a bit of art history.


Back in the 1400s, an artist called Cennini (again please excuse my pronunciation) had a list of ways of making various greens, either by mixing blue and yellow or using copper based minerals from nature to make a pure green, and there were a few of those.

The first one is Malachite, a gorgeous mineral stone, it’s LUSH and it’s found in copper mines and until the late eighteenth century was called Schreckstein or Scary Stone in Germany because it was used to frighten demons and protect against evil spirits. The ancient Egyptians used it in paintings and in makeup, it was green eye shadow, and eighth century Chinese artists used it for painting the halos of Buddhas.

The next green, going back to the 1400s and Cennini, he was on about Verdigris, which was very beautiful but didn’t last. It was made by suspending a piece of copper metal over a bath of vinegar.  After a few hours a green deposit would be left on the copper.


Flemish artists in Northern Europe found a way of preserving the colour by using a special varnish and in 1434 the artist Van Eyck used it to paint the skirt in the very famous painting, The Arnolfini Marriage. And he became so famous for using it that it’s now called Van Eyck Green.

In the 1700s papers and paints made from Verdigris were fantastically popular in American interior decoration and the Persians used it until the beginning of the twentieth century.  Green is the colour of the Prophet Mohammad’s cloak and in Eastern miniature paintings, very important men were given Verdigris halos.

But this paint wasn’t just the colour of holiness and power in these miniatures. It was also the colour of sex, oooooh, because the garden, and nature, was the symbol of love. The wilderness was seen as a place where anything goes so featured in a lot of mildly erotic miniatures.

Now miniature painting was popular in Persia and in India, but the green in Indian miniatures burns the paper around it slightly, but not in the Persian ones. It turns out that Persian artists mixed their Verdigris paint with saffron and this stopped it from burning the paper, a recipe that was re-discovered in the late 20th century in a medieval Persian love poem of all things.

In the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam there is an example of a Japanese woodcut that uses the way green burns paper. In 1887 Tagahora Kunichika depicted a ghost rising out of a body and coloured the head green which burns the surrounding paper to give a very eery effect.


In 1845 a green dye from China swept the Western world. The French brought it back n the form of mud which was added to water.  The mud was made in China from the bark of two varieties of Buckthorn trees. The bark was stripped, and boiled for several days. Then a cloth was thrown into it. The cloth was taken outside in the morning and left to dry until midday. Where the sun had dried it, it would turn green. The cloth was then boiled until the green pigment soaked off. The sediment was collected, dried and sold for great riches to the West. Who discovers these things? It was called Lo Kao Green, sorry about my pronumciation.

In the second half of the nineteenth century coal tar dyes started to appear and the incredibly expensive Lo Kao Green disappeared almost overnight. After that the new chemical dyes and pigments started heading East because they were cheaper and brighter.  Natural dyes that were meant to depict and celebrate nature were displaced by new technology which did it better.  And cheaper.

So we’ve been around the world a bit, now…..  


Back to Greenhill / Dyfatty. Is it green again? Well over the years there have been some improvements. The slums I lived in when I was tiny were cleared away and replaced with multi-story flats in parks. There’s a woodland area and a lovely early 20th century bowling green with a manicured lawn and an electric fence around it to keep the urban foxes off it. It’s still very built-up and it’s an area of high deprivation, but the green is returning, nature is taking a hold and the future might well be a Green Hill again. If you liked what you heard, check out Victoria Finlay’s book and also the local info about place names came mostly from a Facebook group, Swansea and it’s history, a lovely group of people.   So check that out as well. Bye for now, speak to you again with another colour – hmmmm …. I think it’ll be brown next, which gets really gory…… Hwyl Fawr.

A Chance To Own One Of My Artworks

I have some small screenprints for sale, inspired by my drawings of the taxidermy collection at Swansea Museum. I have given these antique artifacts a modern twist by combining them with images of rubbish – old fruit nets, bubble wrap and plastic – highlighting the problem of human pollution and how it affects wildlife.

To buy my work on the Swansea Print Workshop site please click the image to the left and to see the complete image.

20 percent of the cost of each screenprint sold goes to support Swansea Print Workshop, which receives no public funding.

Got The Blues

20 May

Hello. Here’s my fourth podcast. It’s about the colour blue and again is mostly based on the book Colour: Travels Through the Paintbox by Victoria Finlay It’s under 10 minutes long – just about bearable 😀

Hiya. Rosie Scribblah here with another of my podcasts. I keep meaning to do them more often but I’m so slack! It’s about 10 minutes long so you don’t have to listen to me blabbing on and on and this one is about the colour Blue, which I read about in Victoria Finlay’s book “Colour: Travels Through The Paintbox” easily one of the best books I’ve ever read.

Now the thing is, before the Victorians sort of invented chemistry in the 19th century, all pigments and dyes were made from nature and there are some amazing stories about how colours were made. So here are some of the stories about Blue.


One of the most expensive paints of all time is ultramarine blue. Ultramarine means “from beyond the seas” so it wasn’t something that you could find knocking around in Europe and it cost so much that in the Renaissance it was kept for paintings of the most important figures, like the Virgin Mary. It’s a brilliant, rich blue which doesn’t fade – there are paintings half a millennium old which are just as bright as when the paint was new.

If you go to the national gallery in London there is an unfinished Michelangelo painting. The bit that he didn’t finish is the Virgin Mary’s clothes, because the rich bloke who commissioned it ran out of money and it was unthinkable that she would have to wear clothes painted with a cheaper colour. So Michaelangelo never finished it.

Ultramarine pigment is made from a blue gemstone called lapis lazuli, which is also popular for jewellery and back in Michaelangelo’s day, about 500 years ago, it came from just one area of mines in Afghanistan, which was a heck of a long and difficult journey along the silk route. The place is called Sar-e-sang which means the place of the stone and goes back about 7,000 years. These stone mines sent lapis lazuli to the ancient Egyptians for jewellery, and paint for the Buddhas of Bamiyan 15 hundred years ago. They’ve provided Ultramarine for medieval European illuminated manuscripts and for paintings into modern times.

But it wasn’t just expensive to get supplies of it to Europe. Getting the colour out of the stone is very difficult because it’s got a lot of other minerals in it, which makes it very pretty and sparkly for jewellery, but these are no good in paint.  

Companies that make artist’s paints have to smash the stones up into a powder and then mix it with resins and gums and oils to make a dough which is smushed around for days before it’s dumped into water and smushed some more, for hours and hours, until the vivid blue leaches out into the water. This blue liquid is left to evaporate and then we get pure powdered lapis lazuli which is then converted into very expensive paint. 

The paint makers repeat the process with the same ball of dough to get more blue out of it, but this is lower quality. Bit like olive oil.

Some companies still make ultramarine this way and you’re talking about thousands of pounds for a kilo.

But eventually science caught up with colours and in 1828 a synthetic version of ultramarine was discovered in France and it’s been called French ultramarine ever since.

I was lucky enough to do an artist residency in Pakistan a few years ago, fabulous place by the way, and I bought some pieces of lapis lazuli, some in it’s natural rocky state and a few polished pieces. It would have cost hundreds of pounds here but I got change out of twenty quid.


There’s another mineral that was used to make blue in the past and that’s cobalt, which is named after the German word Kobald, and that’s an evil goblin that lives in the earth and hates intruders. It’s found in silver mines but European miners threw it away because it’s poisonous, it’s got arsenic in it.

There’s also cobalt in Iran and the Persians, instead of chucking it away, were the first to use it for colour, glazing exquisite blue pottery tiles in mosques. It was exported as Mohamedan blue.

In Europe, from the 1500s, cobalt was an ingredient of a paint called Smalt, which was ground-up blue glass but it wasn’t until the nineteenth century that science was advanced enough to make it into a pure pigment.

Here’s an interesting bit of history that shows how vastly different life was before the Industrial Revolution.

Cobalt was used to make medieval stained glass like the incredibly beautiful and intense blue glass in Chartres cathedral in France. The way that glass was made back then was almost like alchemy. It wasn’t imported from far away, it was made on site by experienced Journeymen, artisans who travelled across Europe from job to job. Cathedral sites were chosen in or very close to thick forests because glass making took up huge amounts of wood.

The Journeymen camped on the edge of the forest, which was a strange and symbolic place; the border between civilisation and nature. It was widely believed that forests were dark places full of dangerous spirits where ordinary people shouldn’t go. This border between two worlds was where the Journeyman glass makers did their transformational magic, using fire to turn wood ash, sand and minerals into beautiful jewel-like coloured glass.

But huge amounts of trees were used up and forests around cathedral sites were flattened to make the glass. The wood was needed for the intense heat in the furnaces that melted all the ingredients together which included wood ash. These were different times and there’s no way we could allow so much environmental destruction now.  Plus there are better ways of making stained glass industrially.


The third blue I want to talk about is Prussian blue. It was discovered by accident in Germany at the beginning of the 18th century by a paint-maker called Diesbach. He was making red like he always did but ran out of one of his usual ingredients and used a substitute, thinking it wouldn’t matter. Instead of the lush carmine red he was expecting, he ended up with a vivid brilliant blue, iron ferrocyanide which is a bit of a mouthful to say so it was renamed as Prussian Blue.

It was a popular pigment and dye for almost a century and a half but in 1842, the British astronomer Sir John Herschel used it to invent the very earliest form of photography, cyanotype which is also called blueprints. Better photographic methods came along and replaced the blueprints but Prussian Blue is still a very popular colour for painters and cyanotype photography is making a bit of a comeback at the moment.

I love the way that science and art are so linked together. The technology of art is fascinating.

International Klein Blue

Let’s fast forward to the 20th century, the 1950s when the French artist Yves Klein worked with a professional paintmaker Eduard Adam to invent International Klein Blue, or IKB. It’s one of the most intense blue paints ever, it’s juicy with blueness, and it’s made from mixing ultramarine – from lapis lazuli – with a very modern artificial resin.  

You can buy a kit to make your own IKB and there’s a YouTube video showing you how.

Okay, that’s enough about the colour blue. If you like what you’ve heard and want to read a bit more, I really recommend Victoria Finlay’s book, the details are on the podcast page.

Next time, I think I’ll do something about Green, probably my favourite colour.

‘Til then, Hwyl Fawr, bye…

A Chance To Own One Of My Artworks

I have some small screenprints for sale, inspired by my drawings of the taxidermy collection at Swansea Museum. I have given these antique artifacts a modern twist by combining them with images of rubbish – old fruit nets, bubble wrap and plastic – highlighting the problem of human pollution and how it affects wildlife.

To buy my work on the Swansea Print Workshop site please click the image to the left and to see the complete image.

20 percent of the cost of each screenprint sold goes to support Swansea Print Workshop, which receives no public funding.

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.


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.


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.

Talking About Red

27 Jan
A linocut Sparta Puss in red

Here’s my second podcast. It’s about the colour red and is mostly based on the book Colour: Travels Through the Paintbox by Victoria Finlay

I hope you enjoy listening to it but if you’d prefer to read, here’s a transcript of the podcast.

Hello, Rosie Scribblah here. Welcome to my second Podcast. It’s been a while since my first one but there’s a pandemic going on so things go a bit pear shaped sometimes. I’ve been having a think about what to podcast about and I fancied doing something about Red. That’s the colour Red.

I read this amazing book a while back by Victoria Finlay, called Colour: Travels Through The Paintbox. She’s a really good storyteller so I thought I’d share some of her adventures. 


Sooo – Red. Well, it’s a fundamental colour.  It’s the colour of blood.  It’s the colour of lust and rage and love and power and any kind of heightened emotion. In the Comanche language the same word is used for colour, circle and red, which shows how important it is to them. And of course it’s the colour of the dragon of Wales. 

But making red for paints and dyes isn’t an easy business. Blood is obviously red but once spilled it quickly turns to a murky brown so it’s no use as a permanent dye.  The search for something which matches the richness of blood that can also be used for painting pictures and dying fabrics is almost as old as history itself.

Chemical pigments

Before chemical pigments were invented by the Victorians, colours came from nature, from animals, plants and minerals and elements.

And for thousands of years the most popular red in what we now call the Western world came from an insect called the Kermes, which comes from the Mediterranean and lives on the Kermes oak trees. They were crushed up and used by the ancient Greeks and Romans as a very expensive red dye. And from this Kermes we get the words crimson and carmine, which are both types of red. 

Another very expensive red was vermilion, which the Ancients called cinnabar. The Roman author Pliny wrote that is was the blood spilled from battles between elephants and dragons. But it’s a deadly mixture of sulphur and mercury, which is really poisonous. The Romans loved it so much that they used it in paintings, in frescos on their walls and in lipstick even though they knew it was so dangerous. But then these days people have Botox, a well-known deadly toxin injected into their faces, so who are we to judge?

The cochineal bug

Meanwhile, in the Americas they had a much richer red. The cochineal bug grows on prickly pear plants. Cultivating it is a delicate balance because left to their own devices the cochineal bugs will completely destroy the cacti.

To get at the pigment, cacti plants are infected with the bugs for 5 months at a time and then they leave the plants to rest for a few months. The insects are harvested by blowing them off the plants into bags using compressed air tipping them into massive steel vats and pulping them.  There’s no nice way of saying it. Trillions of insects die to make your chicken tikka masala look like it does. Because, cochineal is the common name for the permitted food colouring E120 and it’s in most foods that are red and pink, like processed ham and also in cosmetics like lipstick.

The deep red you get from cochineal bugs has always been very valuable.  Cardinals in the Catholic Church used to have hats dyed with it and Mary Queen of Scots wore a dress dyed with cochineal when she was beheaded. 

The ancient Incas

The ancient Incas had a very sophisticated symbolic colour system. Black was time, yellow was gold, blue was the sky and they used red to represent themselves.  Different types of red would mean different aspects of their empire. They used a sophisticated system of knotted cords to communicate across great distances.  A red cord tied with knots at the top would mean a great battle and blood red knots at the top would show how many of their own people had died. 

When Europeans stumbled across the Americas, gold wasn’t the only thing they wanted.  They were amazed by the red they found there.  It was richer than the ones they were used to and they didn’t waste any time, muscling in on the trade in cochineal and very quickly this new, brighter version of red totally swamped the European world.  Everybody wanted it for clothes and cosmetics.  At the time only the Spanish knew how the red was made and they guarded the secret fiercely.  The colour was imported into Europe as a reddish brown powder, so no one knew it was bugs, and the Spaniards tried to stop any other nation from travelling to the source of their supplies in the New World. 

Thiéry de Menonville

By the 18th Century, other nations wanted in on the Red action. The French sent Thiéry de Menonville to South America to find out.  The Spanish were suspicious of him and tried to send him home but he escaped and headed into the interior of Mexico.  Once he had discovered the secret, he then had to get the insects home to France. Because they would not settle on a plant once they had been removed, the plants complete with insects would have to be kidnapped and kept alive all the way back across to Europe. And, if he’d been caught the Spanish customs officers would have burnt him at the stake. That was their penalty for industrial espionage back then.

After months of searching and risking death from the Spanish, from bandits, disease and wild animals he got back to the French controlled island of Haiti where he lived. And then he found the cactus and bugs growing just round the corner from his house. Which must have been annoying. But it broke the Spanish monopoly of the cochineal trade.

The red produced by cochineal is so gorgeous that the 19th century British painter Turner used it despite being told time and again by his fellow artists, customers and even the manufacturers of his paints that it would fade.  And it did. And because of this many of the great Turner paintings that we see in museums are literally shadows of their former selves, because the reds have faded so much.


But he wasn’t that bothered. Turner was well known for not caring about his finished work and left a lot of his paintings in terrible conditions. He even ripped a tear in one painting to make a catflap for his seven Manx cats.  He was such a passionate, spontaneous artist that he wanted the reddest red at the moment he was painting and didn’t think of anything else. 

But he also used another popular red at that time, red lead. The proper name for it in its natural state is Minium but it can be made by heating up white lead, which is also really poisonous. It’s quite an orangey red and it was so widely used by Persian and Mughal artists that their work became known as miniatures.  The fact that the paintings are also usually very small is just a coincidence.

So what other reds did Turner get to use? In one of his most famous paintings, of the ship The Fighting Temeraire, he used iodine scarlet, which was developed by the inventor Humphrey Davey from the mineral iodine.  But like the others, it fades and the painting is now it’s just a pale reflection of when it was created. 

Post boxes

Finding a red that didn’t fade was also a problem for the Post office in the 1800s. Post boxes were originally painted green, but people complained that they kept bumping into them, so the Post Office painted their pillar boxes red. Unfortunately, they quickly faded to pink and had to keep being repainted until a good, colour fast synthetic red paint was invented.

So there we are, the colour Red – I hope you enjoyed hearing about colour as much as I do. Like I said, I got most of this from the book Colour: Travels Through The Paintbox by Victoria Finlay. Net time I’ll podcast about another colour – black maybe …. Or purple …. So many to choose from. Hwyl fawr, Bye….

A Chance To Own One Of My Artworks

I have some small screenprints for sale, inspired by my drawings of the taxidermy collection at Swansea Museum. I have given these antique artifacts a modern twist by combining them with images of rubbish – old fruit nets, bubble wrap and plastic – highlighting the problem of human pollution and how it affects wildlife.

To buy my work on the Swansea Print Workshop site please click the image to the left and to see the complete image.

Inspired by drawings of the taxidermy collection at Swansea Museum. I have given these antique artefacts a modern twist by combining them with images of rubbish – old fruit nets, bubble wrap and plastic – highlighting the problem of human pollution and how it affects wildlife.

20 percent of the cost of each screenprint sold goes to support Swansea Print Workshop, which receives no public funding.

Käthe Kollwitz by Rosie Scribblah

25 Nov

Here is my first podcast.  It is about one of my favourite artists Käthe Kollwitz.  Here is a screen print I did of her.  To own one of my series of silkscreen portraits celebrating great but often neglected women artists please click here.

Please see below the transcript of the podcast.

Most of us have a hero and Käthe Kollwitz is mine.

She was a German artist born in the 1860s at a time when women were definitely not supposed to become artists. It was a very blokey thing to do. But she came from a radical and idealistic family and grew up with this very strong sense of social responsibility.

At first, her father was a lawyer but it really messed with his head and he gave up a comfortable middle class lifestyle and retrained as a stone mason.

Kathe’s family recognised her incredible talent when she was a child so they paid for her to have drawing and printmaking lessons from a local engraver, which was very unusual at that time. I mean, she was a girl.

And then, when she was 18, her family sent her to art school in Berlin, which was very radical, a teenage woman on her own away from home, in those days.? And while she was in art school she got involved in socialist and feminist politics.

She finished her course and when she was 24 she married a socialist doctor, Karl Kollwitz, who was very principled and although they could have had a very comfortable lifestyle, instead Karl ran a clinic in a working class area where people paid a little bit every week, a kind of medical insurance. Kathe often helped him in the surgery and saw for herself the terrible effects of poverty.

Queen Victoria

This was at the end of the 19th century – Queen Victoria was on the throne over here and the lives of working class people across Europe were short and hard. Just think of the books written by Charles Dickens – the poorest people had awful lives.

Kathe was so talented – she could have made loads of money painting portraits for rich people but instead, she decided to become a printmaker, mainly doing etchings and lithographs.

That decision was because of her politics. Two reasons, one was because you can make lots of prints from an etching plate, so you can sell them far more cheaply that the cost of one painting, so it meant that people who were not very wealthy could afford to buy her art.

And the second reason is that there’s a long tradition of political printmaking and that suited her – she could bring her radical political beliefs into her work.

And what sort of things did she make art about?

Well, lots of political prints about the struggle of working people but also she did lots of portraits of working men and women. Now bear in mind that at that time, having a portrait done was something that only the wealthiest people could afford, and here was Kathe, drawing and making etchings of the ordinary working people who came to her husband’s surgery. That was radical.

The other subject she did a lot of work about was death. There was no medical insurance, nothing like the NHS. Medical science wasn’t all that advanced. There were no antibiotics and masses of people died from infections that wouldn’t bother us now. And lots of women died giving birth. And huge amounts of children died when they were babies and toddlers. Even in better off homes. As the wife of a doctor she was surrounded by death.

Now because her work was so political, she was very unpopular with the rulers of Germany, the First Reich, Emperor Wilhelm, Kaiser Bill, who started World War 1. He was violently opposed to any political art, he called it gutter art.  But despite that, her art very well thought of at home and abroad.

When World War 1 started, her much loved youngest son, Peter, volunteered to join the army. His father didn’t want him to but he persuaded Kathe to let him go. Unfortunately he was killed in battle just a few months later, when he was 18. Her grief was terrible and she couldn’t do any art for some years. Like so many parents across Europe she struggled with her personal tragedy.

The Great War

The Great War ended in 1918 and Germany was a defeated and broken country, sons and husbands and fathers died in the trenches and left a nation of women and children, which happened in the other the allied countries as well.

At the end of the day, there were no winners, only losers.

By this time the First Reich was gone and the Weimar Republic came into power. They thought a lot of Kathe and she had loads of major exhibitions and awards, she became a Professor and she was the first woman ever to be elected to the Berlin Academy of Art.

Then in the 1920s she made a series of incredible and very upsetting prints, woodcuts. I think during this time she was working through the grief of the war and losing her son.

She did one image called “This is The Sacrifice” and it’s obvious that her anguish comes through the way she has hacked the wood away to reveal the painful image underneath, a primeval image of the tragedy of motherhood, giving birth to beautiful baby boys only for them to be swallowed up as sacrifices in war. It’s so painful and so different to traditional depictions of war which glorify cruelty and heroism.

Her son Peter was butchered along with hundreds of thousands of sons, lovers, husbands, fathers, uncles and nephews by a stupid aristocratic family quarrel. The German royal family lived in comfortable exile after the war, while the working classes, devastated by WW1, struggled to find work, food, warmth. Again she does loads of art about this, usually showing the situation from women’s point of view.

Hitler and the Nazis

But these were desperate times and although there was a huge anti-war feeling after World War 1, as the 1920s went on and people lived in terrible conditions in Germany, that anti-war feeling was starting to change, and Hitler and the Nazis were on the rise.

They came to power in 1933 and established The Third Reich and Kathe’s work becomes even darker, facing the horrors of her country’s descent into fascism with horrific images, very Gothic and disturbing.

Many artists suffered under the Nazis, labelled degenerate, some killed themselves, some disappeared into concentration camps, some went into exile. Nobody was safe but Kathe’s style in the last years of her life became very free, almost abstract, because she couldn’t be political in her work anymore, because she would have been killed.

Self Portraits

So she did a whole load of self-portraits in these last few years. And you can see the sadness in her face. Germany was about to start another World War.  She’d lost her young son Peter in World War 1 and then her young grandson, also Peter in World War 2 and, now in her 70s, she withdrew from public life and into her own inner world.

Kathe died in 1945, shortly before the war ended.

Why isn’t better known? Well she’s a woman! That speaks volumes. And she’s German and Germans were not popular for decades after World War 2. But over the past few years her work has reached beyond Germany and she’s finally getting credit for being one of the great artists of the 20th century.

Finally, Kathe and her wonderful work is being loved again. I hope you look her up online and that you get to love her as much as I do.

Käthe Kollwitz

Well, that’s the story of Kathe Kollwitz. If you want to look her up, her name is spelled K. A. T. H. E.  K. O. L. L. W. I. T. Z.

I hope you enjoyed my first podcast. The next one is going to be about another artist that inspires me …. Frida Kahlo. In the meanwhile, look out for me on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. I’m Rosie Scribblah. Hwyl Fawr.

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