The following passage comes from the author's A Strange Business: Making Art and Money in Nineteenth-Century Great Britain, which is reviewed on this site. After pointing out pointing out the notorious instability of many pigments — “What was grey one day could be red another; what was white could rapidly become black; what was a rosy flesh cint might within a year or two be death-pale white.” — Hamilton explains the effect of new chemical discoveries on the Pre-Raphaelites and other Victorian painters. —  George P. Landow

Illuminated initial T

he profundity of the changes in the nature of the colors available to artists in the 1830s and i840s cannot be underestimated: it shines through their work. An hour in an art gallery with a collection as rich as the Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool, or the city galleries in Manchester, Birmingham or Bristol, or indeed Tate Britain, will make this amply dear. In eighteenth-century paintings, by Hogarth, Stubbs, Joseph Wright or Reynolds, we see pinks, dusty blues, quiet yellows and decorous reds, with browns and greens in abundance. Where drama unfolds, it comes not in colour but in composition: thus, in the Walker Art Gallery, David Garrick as Richard III (1745) by Hogarth leaps from the canvas by virtue of Garrick's theatrical gesture of terror; Stubbs's Horse Frightened by a Lion (1770) screams in fear, but it is the shattered silhouette of the white horse, frozen against a dark background and below a blue sky, that conveys the emotion, quite as much as the stark white against dark that the artist has used. Stubbs has used his limited palette to masterly effect by his breathtaking composition. Even the fireworks in Joseph Wright's Girandola at the Castel Sant'Angelo, Rome (1775-76) have a restraint in their explosive redness. It is the nature of the paint that is decorous, not the character or abilities of the artist. Pink flesh in Baroque nudes and martyrdoms can cover many square feet of canvas, but there is an economic imperative here as expensive and poisonous red can be thinned down into a multitude of pinks with more modestly priced white.

When the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood - Millais, Holman Hunt, Rossetti, Ford Madox Brown — first exhibited together in 1849, the sharpness of their colour was a vivid public statement of how fundamentally chemistry and the commercial production of paint had changed the way the world could be reflected in the mirror of art. While clarity of detail in a painting is a function of the fineness of the brush, the steadiness of the hand, the thinning of the paint, the smoothness of the canvas or paper, it is also as much a function of the variety and strength of colour and the artist's ability to create subtle and inventive mixtures and juxtapositions of line and tone. The vicious kick at the hound in Millais' Isabella (1848-9) would not be half so dramatic were it not for the snarl of the young man who delivered it; the snarl would not have appeared half so fierce had not Millais used bright modern pigments with their subtle variation to express it, and surrounded it with reflecting silver, high incidental detail, and the threatening interplay of serial profiles in the surrounding protagonists. And none of this would have had such an iron punch without the luminous white ground that the Pre-Raphaelites determined to paint upon.

Nevertheless, the new materials brought new responsibilities in preparation and colour management.. . . Taking great care, the Pre-Raphaelites avoided the trap that the older generation blundered into — over-reliance on two widely available mixers, asphaltum and megilp. Asphaltum, a bituminous material from the Middle East, was better employed in its primary application, being laid on roads-and pavements, rather than being painted onto canvas as an underlay. . . . Megilp, an improvised mixture of varnish, resin, plant oil and white lead, caused rapid cracking, drying and darkening, creating islands on the canvas which shrank and split away like landmasses in continental drift. [189-90]

Related Material


Hamilton, James. A Strange Business: Making Art and Money in Nineteenth-Century Great Britain. London: Atlantic Books, 2014. [Review by George P. Landow]

Last modified 15 October 2014