Monday, November 03, 2008

Weld, madder and woad


During the academic year 1968-69, I lived with my young family in London as I studied history of science with A. Rupert Hall and Marie Boas Hall at the Imperial College. Our apartment was snuggled in the midst of the South Kensington museums: the Museum of Natural History, the Science Museum, the Geology Museum, and the Victoria and Albert. What a place to live! I dare say I learned more during nine months by browsing those wonderful institutions than during any ten years of my life.

Our back wall abutted the rear of the V&A, only feet away from the gallery where hung the Devonshire Hunting Tapestries, four huge Flemish tapestries from the mid-15th century -- from about the time Gutenberg started printing with movable type. To reach the gallery, one had to walk a block or so from Prince's Gate Mews to the side entrance of the V&A on Exhibition Road, then wend through various rooms. I loved the tapestries, as did my daughter Margaret. Sometimes we'd stop by on the way home from her preschool and sit alone in that lovely room with those stunning depictions of life in the late-Middle Ages. The details of plants, animals and costume were endlessly engaging. It has been suggested that the tapestries were originally designed for the marriage in 1444-5 of Margaret of Anjou and Henry VI of England, and although this is disputed by some experts, I played it up for my own Margaret.

The colors, of course, are faded from their original brilliance, but still rich and inviting. The threads are presumably wool and silk. I haven't been able to track down confirmation on the web, but I assume the dyes were weld (Reseda luteola, yellow), madder (Rubia tinctorum, red), and woad (Isatis tinctoria, blue), three plants whose cultivation and commerce were important in the Middle Ages. You want green? First dye with woad, then weld. And so on. Rather like the three artificial dyes that color the inks of your printer: yellow, magenta and cyan.

On Saturday mornings all three kids would go to the Museum of Natural History, where for the deposit of one big old-style English penny (now long out of circulation) they got a folding stool, a clipboard with sheets of paper, and a fistful of colored pencils, which they took off into the bowels of that voluminous building to sketch whatever took their fancy. I wonder if the same service is available to children today?