"Tempera is a particularly time-consuming and unforgiving medium. It is made up of powdered pigment combined with a binding vehicle, often egg yolk, and applied with small brush-strokes onto a white gesso ground. Unlike oil, it is quick-drying and cannot be altered once applied. Depth and shading arecreated by multiple layers of hatching. It has the added advantage of being very durable" — Meaghan Clarke (5)

Botticelli's Sant’Ambrogio altarpiece. Click on this image, and those below, to enlarge them.]

Tempera, an artist's medium distinct from either watercolour or oil, presents its own challenges and produces its own effects. It is often called "egg tempera," and the Tate defines it primarily as: "The technique of painting with pigments bound in a water-soluble emulsion, such as water and egg yolk." Traditionally, it was applied to a special prepared surface, usually a wood panel. The paint dries quickly, as Meaghan Clarke points out in the passage quoted above, so painting in this medium requires not only much preparation, but also great concentration. But the resultant film is hard and very long-lasting. The medium was in use during the medieval and early Renaissance period, when the artists of fifteenth-century Italy, notably Botticelli (c. 1445–1510), were at work, so a typical example of its use is Botticelli's Renaissance masterpiece, the Sant’Ambrogio altarpiece, shown above right. This is the work from which Christiana Herringham copied the heads of Mary Magdalene and St Catherine. The mid- to late-Victorian revival of interest in Botticelli's work in particular, and panel-painting in general, had the natural concomitant of reviving interest in this medium.

Herringham was not the first to translate Cennino Cennini's medieval treatise on tempera painting, Il libro dell'arte. It had previously been translated into English several decades earlier, in 1844, by Mary Merriefield. But Herringham's translation was both more accurate and more influential. As she makes clear in her preface, it was also considerably more than a translation: it was her own personal response to the use of the medium. She writes in her preface:

My justification for undertaking a new translation is that I have really used the treatise to learn tempera-painting, and that I have for a good many years been trying to find out how to produce by this method the various effects of fifteenth-century painting, having also read everything else I could find that might bear on the subject. [vi]

Herringham had, in fact, added something of a manual of her own, putting together at the end her own hints on how to proceed successfully: "Cennino's method of painting with egg will not be understood by a mere superficial reading. I have therefore put together the various hints as I understand them myself" (194). This, then, was a deeply thoughtful work, into which she poured her own experience of trial and error in the medium, and pointed out what could be achieved by it.

Herringham's Smerelda Bandinelli (after Sandro Botticelli), courtesy of Royal Holloway, London University.

Work on the translation gave further impetus to her own practice. Florence had become a place of pilgrimage in the mid- to late-nineteenth, because of all its art treasures. Not only had it acquired a thriving English community of its own, but it had also attracted a steady stream of cultural "pilgrims." For instance, after wintering there for some years, John Roddam Spencer Stanhope settled permanently just outside Florence in 1880. Many of his friends in the art world visited him there, including Edward Burne-Jones, William Morris, and William and Evelyn De Morgan (his niece). As a result of such visits, many Florentine works of art were purchased and brought back to England, including those by Sandro Botticelli. These often made their way, eventually, into the National Gallery. However, they had darkened with age and varnish. In her book about Herringham, Mary Lago tells us how "[s]he made copying the tempera masters her profession" (7), using Cennini's treatise as a guide to help her "recover what she called the lovely 'bloomy' quality of early Italian painting and to convince the public of its beauty" ("Herringham [née Powell]"). Her exquisite copies of Botticelli show just how well she fulfilled that aim.

The very fact that tempera was (and is) a tricky medium, was important. Success in employing it was admired. Maria Alambritis explains that it "was seen as a marker of greater artistic satisfaction and ability, as the method required far more precision and patience than oil." This made it, Alambritis continues, "particularly pertinent for women artists, not only as a means of validating their own artistic expertise, but also for the way in which the specific qualities of tempera resonated with newly emerging ideas about the nature of aesthetic experience." From later in the Rennaisance, painting in oil had become the easier and preferred option; however, tempera use had never died out completely — Stanhope himself had been quietly painting in tempera for some time. Now Herringham, who promoted it in her writing as well as in her work, found herself spearheading a revival. In 1901, she became one of the founders of the Society of Painters in Tempera, along with a number of other artists, including William Holman Hunt, G. F. Watts and Robert Anning Bell, who saw the advantages of tempera over oils, and hoped to share their experiences of using it. Demanding work never daunted Arts and Crafts practitioners like Bell, and the techniques and benefits of tempera appealed especially to its followers in Birmingham, one of whom was also a founding member of the group — Joseph Southall.

Tempera, which enjoyed a revival in America as well from the late 1920s, may now be produced from an "artificial emulsion using gum or glue" ("Art Term: Tempera"). But similar painting techniques are required and similar results can be obtained. Herringham's experimentation, practical advice and exemplary use of it were all instrumental in re-establishing the medium as one of those available to twentieth- and twenty-first century artists.

Related Material


Alambritis, Maria. [Review of] "Christiana Herringham: Artist, Campaigner, Collector" at Royal Holloway (14 January–8 March 2019). Interdisciplinary Studies in the Long Nineteenth-Century 3 June 2019. n.p. Web. 9 November 2019.

"Art Term: Tempera". Tate. Web. 9 November 2019.

Clarke, Meaghan. "'The greatest living critic': Christiana Herringham and the practise of connoisseurship." Visual Resources. 33 (1-2): 94-116. Available as a pdf from Sussex Research Online. Web. 9 November 2019.

Clayton, Anthony. "The Bottichelli Revival and the Art of Burne-Jones." Web. 9 November 2019.

Herringham, Christiana J. The Book of the Art of Cennino Cennini: A Contemporary Practical Treatise on Quattrocento Painting, Translated from the Italian, with Notes on Mediaeval Art Methods. 1899. London: George Allen & Unwin, 2nd impression 1922. Internet Archive. Contributed by Brigham Young University. Web. 9 November 2019.

Lago, Mary. Christiana Herringham and the Edwardian Art Scene. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1996.

____. "Herringham [née Powell], Christiana Jane, Lady Herringham (1852–1929), artist and copyist." Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Online ed. Web. 9 November 2019.

"Madonna and Child with Six Saints" (Sant'Ambrogio Altarpiece). Web. 9 November 2019.

Created 9 November 2019