Chantry Library: A Reader Reports

To start the new year, we’re pleased to have a brief report from Heritage Scientist, Tea Ghigo, who writes:

‘Tiny Tea and the Great Bookcase’, not the title of a fairy tale, although to me it feels a bit like a dream come true!

This year, I joined the conservation team at the Ashmolean Museum as a member of the European Research Council (ERC) project CHROMOTOPE, a multidisciplinary and multi-institutional project based at the Sorbonne University in Paris. The project investigates developments in colour during the nineteenth century. The Victorian Age was a flourishing period in the production of pigments and, more specifically, the 1850s saw the beginning of a ‘chromatic turn’ or colour revolution. After the discovery of mauveine — the first synthetic dye — in 1856, the chemical industry developed a plethora of new pigments and dyes which soon started colouring textiles, food, billboards and paintings. CHROMOTOPE aims at casting light on the impact this change in attitude to colour had in literature, art, science and technology.

My work at the Ashmolean Museum centres around the characterisation of the pigments used on the Great Bookcase, designed by the Architect William Burges and painted by 14 different artists for the London International Exhibition of 1862. The Bookcase is one of the most important pieces of Victorian painted furniture and is now a symbol of its time period.

The different panels of the bookcase show a certain level of chromatic correspondence, and it is possible that the same set of colours was used for the whole piece. However, the myriad of pigments available on the English market of the 1850s makes the identification of the painting materials more challenging, especially as our analysis will be carried out mostly using non-invasive analytical techniques. To narrow down the range of possibilities, we realized it would help to know which colourmen supplied the pigments used for the bookcase.

The Chantry Library holds a copy of a valuable resource for our research: an index of the account books of renowned artists’ colourman Charles Roberson & Co., active from 1820-1985 and one of the most important colour houses in Victorian London.1 According to the index, Burges himself held an account at Roberson’s from 1865, three years after the completion of the Bookcase. However, five of the fourteen artists who painted the Bookcase held accounts at Roberson’s while working on the panels.

Does this mean that Burges bought the set of colours for the Bookcase elsewhere? Or, did the artists each provide their own painting materials which some of them purchased from Roberson’s? The further we will progress with the analysis of the Bookcase, the closer we will be to answering these intriguing questions. In the meantime, we would like to thank the Chantry Library for allowing us access to this resource despite the constraints imposed by the COVID pandemic.

1. Woodcock, Sally., and Judith. Churchman. Index of Account Holders in the Roberson Archive, 1820-1939. (Cambridge: Hamilton Kerr Institute : University of Cambridge, 1997).

Tea Ghigo is a Conservation Research Fellow at the Ashmolean Museum, working on the CHROMOTOPE project since November 2020. Her research interests include the analysis of inks and pigments from manuscripts and paintings. She is particularly interested in their manufacturing processes, deterioration patterns and in the reasons why certain materials were chosen over others.

For more information on Chromotope see here .

For more information on the Great Bookcase, see here .

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