Did you know that the remarkable yellows of J.M.W Turner’s shimmering, sun-lit seascapes derived from the urine of mango-fed cows? That the rich reds that decorate some of Raphael, Rembrandt and Rubens’ greatest masterpieces were made using pigment from cochineal (a type of insect found on prickly-pear cacti in Mexico, and which is still controversially used by the food and cosmetic industry today)? Or that the ultramarine blue that Giotto described as the most illustrious, beautiful and perfect of all colours – and which helped win him timeless fame – comes from lapis lazuli, a gem stone that could only be sourced from in a single mountain range in Afghanistan and rivalled the price of gold?
While artists today can buy their paints in neat tubes online, the vibrant colours of their forefathers were not achieved with nearly as much ease. The alchemy of colour was an art in itself, and it is the strange, curious and often highly dangerous recipes and processes (some involving lethal levels of arsenic and mercury) that were used to create many of the most vivid colours of the past that forms the focus of The John Rylands Library’s latest exhibition.
The Alchemy of Colour will explore the fascinating stories behind the history of colour in art through the library’s renowned collection of rare illuminated manuscripts. Using examples from around the world – such as the vivid greens and blues that still leap from the pages of a 15th-century French text, and the unwaveringly bright yellows of an 18th-century Indian painting – visitors will not only learn more about the often ‘cloak-and-dagger’ methods behind the medieval and Renaissance palette, but also have the chance to encounter the intense beauty of some of the most important highlights of The John Rylands Library collection.
Prepare to have your understanding of colour altered for good.