Rosamond D. Harley, Artists’ Pigments c. 1600-1835, A Study in English Documentary Sources, The International Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works, London: Butterworths, 1970. ix + 230 pp. + 8 plates £3.4s. (new style £3.20 in U.K. only).
Although this book makes no mention of the name of Blake, there being no reason why it should have done so, I would like to draw it to the attention of all of us who are working on the matter of Blake’s drawings and paintings. begin page 29 | It will prevent our making fools of ourselves by suggesting that Blake might have used pigments which were not available to him.
Dr. Harley, as technical liaison officer with Winsor & Newton, has, I might mention, been more than generous in her replies to my questions about the pigments which Blake might have used, and I greet the appearance of her book with delight, as it helps to make this information available to everyone. Her bibliography is the only full one, covering the period, which has ever been attempted, and, as a dabbler in the field which she has covered so fully, I cannot fault it in any way. Hitherto, we have had to make do with the admirable Rutherford J. Gettens & G.L. Stout, Painting Materials: A Short Encyclopaedia (latest edition: New York, Dover, 1966), but that covers too wide an area so far as the pigments are concerned (although it remains invaluable for Mediums and Supports), and Dr. Harley’s book fills the gap so far as Blake students are involved.
In his long letter to George Richmond, written in September 1828, Samuel Palmer says: “I have been sketching a head from life, and life size on gray board, in colours, and heightened with Mrs. Blake’s white, which is brighter, and sticks faster than chalk; & it seems such a quick way of getting a showy, but really good effect,...” (Geoffrey Grigson, Samuel Palmer The Visionary Years, London, 1947, p. 75). This may well have been barium white, as that was well known among watercolor painters from at least 1815 (see p. 165), but it seemed to me strange that Palmer would not have referred to it under its commonly accepted name of permanent white. In her correspondence with me Dr. Harley says that it is possible that, although the pigment Zinc White was not introduced to the watercolor public, commercially, until Winsor & Newton offered it in their 1834 catalogue, Blake, an inveterate experimenter, might very well have been trying it out a good many years earlier, and her book makes it clear that it was available from the London factory of de Massoul from the close of the 18th century, but was not satisfactory as an oil-pigment until a proper vehicle was found some half a century later. This, however, would not have concerned Blake and it seems to me more than possible that, in view of its otherwise admirable qualities (it is non-poisonous for one thing—an important consideration for a man who drank walnut oil instead of trying it out as a medium), he might have used it in his watercolors and temperas.
I merely mention this one point in the hope that others, inspired by Dr. Harley’s book, will feel free to speculate begin page 30 | within the limits which she has set. And it seems probable that, in some cases, pigments which are included as acceptable, in watercolor at least, by the latter date of 1835, may well have been a part of the experimental equipment of artists a considerable number of years before. I hope that others will agree with me in finding this book one of those which, while not dealing with Blake directly, are indispensable to those who would know roughly what he could have known in his time.