Friday, December 5, 2008

Exploring Grandfather's Paintbox - V

Chapter V


Well, there you have it. A leisurely tour through the painting kit of William Hall Henwood. I hope you have enjoyed it.

And now a question presents itself, which is, should I preserve this whole collection as I found it, as a memorial and heirloom to be passed on to my descendants, (should any of them show interest)? Or should I carefully, lovingly, renovate the box, install my own paints and brushes, and take it once more into the field. I have found some brass fittings that fit the castings where the legs screwed in. These same fittings would also fit into bamboo canes of about 9/16” outside diameter, which would make good, lightweight legs . (Or I could easily enough build telescoping legs out of hardwood which would be even better. I have a nice piece of cherry wood that has been waiting twenty-five years for the perfect little project.) There is a third option, difficult, time-consuming, but perhaps worth the effort. I could try to build a replica of the box. Without metal-working tools or the skill, I could not make an exact copy except at unjustifiable expense. I could make the box easily enough to the same size; same hinging, lid, handle and similar brass hooks to hold it closed. I could make it out of the same material as the original since I still have some pieces of walnut lying around, left over from the days when I made furniture for a hobby. But am I ever going to paint in oils en ‘plein air’? Somehow I doubt it.

Perhaps the best answer then, might be to make a walnut box of the same size and appearance simply to hold my oil paints in the studio. This would fill a need, whilst at the same time serving to remind me of the roots of my interest in painting. Tell me what you think.

Thanks, Grandfather.


Thursday, December 4, 2008

Exploring Grandfather's Paintbox - IV

Chapter IV


Grandfather was the eldest of six brothers and sisters. The only one of the six who was still alive as I grew to an age where I could remember was my great-uncle, Henry Thomas Henwood, the second youngest of the group. He too had made a career in the Bank, and he too was an artist. Having no living descendants himself, he took an interest in his great-nephews and nieces and in me particularly because I was already showing a liking for and some talent in art. When I was fourteen years old he gave me £5, that is, five pounds sterling, to buy myself a set of oil paints. “You should buy poppy oil” he cautioned me, “not linseed. That will yellow.” Five pounds was still a good sum of money in those days: it enabled me to buy a wooden box from Winsor & Newton, and fill it with a range of artist’s colours. A quality wooden palette, brushes, a clip-on double-dipper; all came out of that generous gift. That equipment today would cost several hundred dollars. Doesn’t that show the inflation we have undergone in the last fifty years! You can’t get a plate of fish and chips for five pounds today, (which, by the way, used to cost me one shilling and threepence (or fifteen cents) when I was a boy). But I digress again.

Uncle Henry invited me down to Devon to stay with him for a couple of weeks during the summer holidays that same year. By then he was a very old man, and in poor health. It was difficult for him to rouse himself, and he hardly stirred from his room. Consequently I spent many happy days rambling over the moors on the west edge of Dartmoor, which began at his doorstep. But he did show me a painting he was still working on, and demonstrated some techniques to help me along.

There is just one painting of his that has come down to me – an unfinished landscape of a meadow with cows in front of a ruined abbey. His painting style and brushwork was quite different from that of my grandfather. His cows are very good.

(But I see you are busy. I shouldn’t keep you so long. Let’s get back to the subject at hand.)

It should be remembered that the original intention of this piece was to make an inventory and catalogue of all the items in grandfather’s painting kit. I hope to be forgiven for doing this regardless of the near inevitability of boring the reader at this point.

There was a small selection of brushes in the central tray of the box. Here is what I found: (DSCN2853), (DSCN2240).

W&N Series 51 #0 Round, sable poor condition, but just usable
Rowney Series 101 #1 Round, sable no bristles remain
unknown unknown ca. #2 Long Flat, bristle poor cond. might be restored
Rowney Series 110 ca.#2 Short Flat, bristle excellent condition
W&N Series A #4 Round, bristle fair condition
W&N Series A #10 Round, bristle very good condition

I conclude that the excellent #2 Short Flat was a replacement for an earlier worn out brush, since it shows signs of light use and carries only one smear of paint on the handle – white.. When I examine my grandfather’s landscapes, it seems to me that this type and size of brush would probably have been used a lot for the trees and hills of the middle ground. I suppose the hairs on the #1 Sable had just disintegrated over time.
I was rather surprised to see the big, #10 Round. I suppose it was used mostly for underpainting the skies – the paint residues on the ferrule and handle are mostly blue and white. Residues on the #2 Long Flat show greens, browns, red and orange, indicating use on trees, grasses and buildings. The #4 Round shows traces of Venetian Red, Yellow Ochre, Raw Umber, and some greens

I am thinking about taking the two best of these brushes back into use.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Exploring Grandfather's Paintbox - III

Chapter III


Grandfather had a sure eye for tone and colour. Astonishingly to me, even his early paintings show this ability and confidence. It was not until I myself resumed painting seriously that I began to appreciate just how good a landscape artist he was. A study of his paintings reveals a wealth of the subtle greens and golds, misty blues and purples so typical of the English landscape. He understood the light. Look carefully at any of his paintings and you can see the time of day, and the season of the year. He was not shy to use warm tones of orange and ochre in the foreground to evoke a hot summer day. Long shadows, salmon tinged clouds and purple haze bring to life a late afternoon in the meadows. Yet the colours in his scenes are always harmonious, never garish, the shades gently muted as they are in life in the higher latitudes of temperate northern Europe. In those days before the advent of universal (now virtually free) colour photography it cannot have been easy to capture the moment. Both observation and memory would have to be practiced and honed. In the old days I myself used to do a quick pencil sketch of a scene and cover it with scribbled notes as to hue and tone. Now I take a dozen reference photos instead, but I’m not sure that is better.

So let us talk about colour. In Grandpa’s paintbox are twenty-seven old tubes of paint. These are in three different sizes, all fairly small compared with those commonly sold today. The lead tubes are either two, three or four inches long, and have a uniform diameter of approximately half an inch. The smallest weighs about twelve grams or half an ounce when full, the next about 18 grams, and the largest perhaps 25 grams. At a guess, the tubes hold about 5ml, 10ml and 15ml respectively.
I decided to see if I could sample each of the paints and make a colour chart. I did ultimately manage to accomplish this (Grandfather’s Paint Colours), but it was a lot easier said than done. Naturally, after a lapse of seventy years, the tubes would be a little reluctant to yield their secrets. Surprisingly, some did actually open for me without resistance, but most of the caps needed very careful but firm persuasion before they would unscrew. I devised a method of gripping the tube in a curve-jawed visegrip after first wrapping the body of the tube in several layers of cloth. Then I used a pair of small pliers to unscrew the cap. That worked in a lot of instances, but some tubes were so fragile that they started to tear apart under the twisting strain. In these cases, and in those where I found the paint to be hardened to the point where it wouldn’t squeeze out, I sampled the paint by drilling into the tube (when possible through the neck) with a 9/64” twist bit. This gave me a paint sample in the threads of the drill bit. In cases where the paint was really hard I would then grind the paint in turpentine on a ceramic palette using a round-headed siding nail. In a few cases, the paint seemed quite miraculously fresh, only the label betraying the signs of age. Ultimately I was able to retrieve pigment from every tube. Virtually every colour seems to me still to demonstrate the original hue, with one exception – I am not sure whether perhaps the Aureolin has changed colour over the years. This is not a colour I am familiar with, but I did not expect it to show as such a muddy greenish yellow.

The colours I found in the box make an interesting list. Many of the labels have names I have never encountered before. This is not surprising. With the great strides in chemistry over the last decades there have been concomitant huge developments in the pigments offered to artists. Perhaps the pace has been especially rapid because so many paints used in the past were based on highly toxic compounds. Others were made from rare and expensive substances like the semi-precious stone Lapis lazuli .

I went to the Web to look up some of the unfamiliar names. After many hours of research I found what is (to me) the single best resource for this task of investigating obsolete artists’ colours. That source is “Field’s Chromatography”, edited by Thomas Salter. This treatise was apparently first published in Paris around 1830, then revised and published in English in 1869. I will refer to it below simply as ‘Salter’. It is available freely in its entirety as an ‘e-book’ , courtesy of the Gutenberg Project. What a gift! I also came across the modern equivalent entitled ‘The Pigment Compendium’ by Nicholas Eastaugh et al. The Web provided excerpts only of that one. Both these books are available, but the price of the second one might give a bit of a shock!

But before I discovered 'Salter’ I had already dug up a lot of information, often contradictory. For instance, I started my search by looking up ‘Veronese Green’. -

Veronese Green. What a nice, earthy natural sounding Italian name, I thought. On the very first page studied I found – ‘Veronese Green: Brighter and bluer than Cadmium Green. Favored by the French Impressionists. The original, no longer made, was arsenic based and very toxic.’ (source: O... K….so we know why that one is no longer on the charts! But here I went down the wrong path and confused myself, by jumping to the erroneous conclusion that Verona Green was the same thing as Veronese Green. Not so. Verona Green, otherwise known as Terre Verte, or ‘Green Earth’ - ‘ is collected by mining. The most famous and "best" deposit of terre verte could be found near Verona, Italy, and this mine was functional until World War II’. Here is another interesting web page :
Here we are told that this pigment is composed of celadonite and glauconite. Both of these minerals are of the mica group. Terre Verte, the natural earth is still available as an oil and watercolour pigment. Winsor and Newton list their Terre Verte as being– Hydrated Chromium Oxide. So Veronese Green and Verona Green (Terre Verte) are quite different in both colour and composition. The latter is a weak earth colour, a lot less vivid than the Veronese Green discovered in Grandfather’s paintbox, which is close to Viridian, as mentioned in ‘Salter’. - (Veronese Green) or French Veronese Green, is a comparatively recent introduction, similar in colour and general properties to the following (referring to Viridian); beside which, however, it appears dull, muddy, and impure. It is often adulterated with arsenic to an enormous extent, which interferes with its transparency,mars its beauty, and renders it of course rankly poisonous.”

I guess I need a chemist to tell me if I have the arsenic variety!

This detective work begins to take a grip on you. There is a certain fascination in finding a way through all the leads, some false, to arrive at a firm and correct understanding of a pigment; something which you would expect to be simple and straightforward but often turns out exceedingly complicated and perhaps with no firm resolution at all!

The next colour I researched proved more tractable. In this case, ‘Salter’ was no help, as the pigment was only discovered in the twentieth century:
Monastral Blue:
‘A final example (of a serendipitous discovery) occurred in 1928 in Scotland. A.G. Dandridge was operating a chemical plant that produced phthalimide from ammonia and molten phthalic anhydride. Since the temperatures were quite high, the reaction was performed in a large iron sealed container. Dandridge noticed some strange blue crystals on the cover and sides of the container and was curious enough to collect some for examination. he discovered that they resulted from a reaction between the iron container and the contents. Further study found the chemical structure of the pigments and he named them phthalcyanines. By substituting copper for iron, he produced an even better pigment called 'monastral blue'. This family of pigments, which have resulted in over thirty patents, have become some of the most valuable coloring materials for paints, lacquers and printing inks.’ (source: The Bakken Library []}.

That colour then, was a brand new invention at the time my grandfather was painting.

Next I tracked the Vermilions. Winsor & Newton list Vermilion as - ‘Obsolete’ and now offer ‘Vermilion Hue’. I should dearly love to quote ‘Salter’ at full length on this one, but if I start to do that this blog will end up as a book, and mostly plagiarized at that; but I cannot resist giving you his closing paragraph on the colour:

‘ … vermilion is not so much adulterated as it once was; although, even now, brickdust, orpiment, &c. sometimes sophisticate it. The knavish practices to which the pigment has been subjected, have acquired it an ill-fame both with authors and artists. Vermilion has been charged with fading in the light, and with being blackened by impure air; but it was the custom to crimson the colour by means of lake, or tone it to a scarlet hue by red lead. With pigments as with persons, evil communications corrupt good manners—a motto that might be written with advantage on every palette.’

Scarlet Vermilion: is (technically) the compound Mercury Sulphide (HgS). We all know nowadays that mercury is bad news, so no wonder I cannot find it offered as an artist’s colour.
‘Salter’ says: Resembles the preceding (Vermilion) in all respects, except in being more scarlet in its tint, and washing better; advantages which render it more useful when the tone is required to be very bright and pure. At one time, the Dutch alone in Europe possessed the secret of giving to vermilion a rich scarlet colour.

Prussian Brown sounded interesting - ‘Prussian brown is a good and permanent colour made by calcining Prussian blue. It is a very transparent iron brown of a yellowish hue. An-other form of Prussian brown is prepared from a solution of blue copperas added to a solution of yellow prussiate of potash. This is a copper brown’:
I found a very pretty story about how to make Prussian Brown on the website -
‘According to Bouvier, a colour similar to that of bistre, and rivallingasphaltum in transparency, is produced by partially charring amoderately dark Prussian blue; neither one too intense, which gives aheavy and opaque brownish-red, nor one too aluminous and bright, whichyields a feeble and yellowish tint. Yielding to a rapture we cannotwholly share, he describes its qualities in the warmest terms. In hisopinion, it has the combined advantages of asphaltum, mummy, and rawSienna, without their drawbacks. "I cannot," he says, "commend toohighly the use of this charming bistre-tint: it is as beautiful and goodin water as in oil, perfectly transparent, of a most harmonious tone,and dries better than any other colour suitable for glazing. Closelyresembling asphaltum in tint as well as in transparency, this brown ispreferable to it in every point of view." As the colour is very quicklyand easily obtained, the artist can judge for himself of its propervalue. M. Bouvier's process is, to place upon a clear fire a large ironspoon, into which, when red hot, some pieces of the Prussian blue areput about the size of a small nut: these soon begin to crackle, andthrow off scales in proportion as they grow hot. The spoon is thenremoved, and allowed to cool: if suffered to remain too long on thefire, the right colour will not be produced. When the product is crushedsmall, some of it will be found blackish, and the rest of a yellowishbrown: this is quite as it should be. Chemically, the result is amixture of oxide of iron and partly undecomposed or carbonisedprussiate’.
Doesn’t that sound like fun?

Bouvier, cited above, was I believe the original French author (or originator) in about 1827 of the work later translated as ‘Field’s Chromatography’. On p.310 of ‘The Pigment Compendium’ by Nicholas Eastaugh et al. there are a number of instructions and directions given for how to make Prussian Brown, with references ranging from 1827 to 1906.

Ultra. Ash #2. This little tube intrigued me because, in brackets, it said ‘Lapis lazuli’., which is a semi-precious stone. ‘’ says Ultramarine Ash is ‘The residue of lapis lazuli after the ultramarine has been extracted; used as a pigment in paints’. Emma Pearce, in her book ‘Artists’ Materials’ says only that this is ‘poor quality Lapis lazuli’. The sample I recovered from the tube (see chart), proved to be a grey of a slightly greenish-blue cast; quite interesting, and different from anything I can see on the W&N chart today. The ‘’ says –

‘(Paint.) a pigment which is the residuum of lapis lazuli after the ultramarine has been extracted. It was used by the old masters as a middle or neutral tint for flesh, skies, and draperies, being of a purer and tenderer gray than that produced by the mixture of more positive colors.
- Fairholt
‘Salter’ gives an even more poetic description of this colour.

Fascinating. So lastly, I searched for - Mineral Gray, since that also stated on the label that it was ‘Lapis lazuli’.

Mineral Gray which turns out to be an even lower derivative of the stone, obtained after all the blue and ash have been worked out. The sample I have shows a purely neutral grey. So much for the rare and expensive substance! Last of all the unfamiliar colours, I came to -

Verona Brown
‘a pigment peculiar to oil painting, is a native ferruginous earth. A citrine brown of great service in tender drab greens, it forms with terre verte and the madder lakes rich autumnal tints of much beauty and permanence’ – Salter.

In addition to the archaic colours investigated above, Grandfather had the following tubes, which are mostly more familiar:

Antwerp Blue
Burnt Umber
Cadmium Green
Cerulean Blue
Charcoal Gray
Cobalt Magenta
Cobalt Violet
Extra Madder Carmine
French Ultramarine
Indian Red
Ivory Black
Purple Madder
Raw Sienna
Raw Umber
Rose Madder
Venetian Red

I find the total selection provokes some questions. Why such depth in the range of Madders and Browns? Two Verona Browns?, plus Raw Umber which is oh, so similar? and yet another (unlabelled) Mid Brown? What with the Cobalt Violet, the Cobalt Magenta and the three Madders, there are no less than five hues in the red-purple range. But the selection was thin in the blue section. No Cobalt Blue? For me that is an absolute must! How was it that he bought no less than three very close orange/scarlets? Why no yellows apart from the Aureolin? No Yellow Ochre? No Chrome or Cadmium Yellow? Grandfather certainly used plenty of this type of hue in his paintings, so perhaps he had just run out. And there were no whites either.

From my exploration of these colours and their history on the Web I learned some interesting things about the development and use of pigments. Moreover, it really brought home to me what a hugely valuable resource we have now at our fingertips on the Internet. Rare books, documents and studies from scientists and libraries around the world. How marvelous that we live in a new age of enlightenment, where such previously arcane knowledge is now freely available to all.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Exploring Grandfather's Paintbox - II

Chapter II


One day about thirty years ago my father took me to see his boyhood haunts. He led me around the ponds and woods and quiet suburbs until we came to the house where he had been born. He noted that the low wall along which he used to run as a child was still there. As he pointed to an intersection a few houses down the street he told me how he used to watch as his father left for work in the mornings. ‘I remember my father’, said he, ‘swinging round that corner in his top hat and tail coat, on his way to work’, striding down to the station to catch his train to the city. In those days suburban living and the middle class were comparatively new developments, resulting very much from the rapid spread of the railways, which had penetrated every part of the country over the previous fifty years. Now people could live in the leafy edges of the metropolis and yet still work in the very heart of the city.
I have come to understand that my grandfather had a love for the countryside, which may account for why he chose to spend a great portion of his retirement in the field, painting. He was a religious man, close to his God. He was a long time member of the London Banks Christian Union, one of the dozen men who made up its general Committee, and for twenty-two years he served as Joint Secretary of that Union. In a letter he wrote in 1936 to one of his sons, my uncle, he commented that – ‘I have sometimes consciously received help when out in the country, all by myself & I have seemed to hear the Still small voice in a way not realized at other times’. He went on to say – ‘We need to realize more how entirely we belong to GOD – we and all we possess, or all those talents of which He has made us steward & for the use of which we shall one day give account.’ Such a faith, which, (do I regret?), I cannot share.

But let us now turn our attention to the paintbox. First glance at this remarkable article shows that it is of the highest quality: It is made of neatly dovetailed solid walnut, with brass fittings. Overall the box is 40cm long, by 29.5cm wide and 8.5cm in depth, that is roughly 16x11.5x3.5 inches. Three brass butt hinges fasten the lid at the back. At the front a pair of small hooks hold it closed, and to carry the box there is a flat leather strap handle, now decayed and broken. In addition there are three fairly heavy brass castings mounted on the outside of this box, one on the lower edge at front centre, and one at each lower back corner. These fittings are threaded, and a trial showed that they accept a three-eighth inch outside diameter coarse thread (12 per inch). So the box is designed for three legs to be screwed in from underneath to support it at a convenient height in the field. The back corner fittings are designed so that the legs angle outwards at about 15 degrees. From the centre front fitting the leg drops vertically, the whole arrangement making a stable tripod. The legs are missing.

When opened, the lid of the box is held in position by a brass strap housed in the left side of the box, which hooks in variably at the lid end to provide a range of working angles for the built-in easel, which is fitted into the lid itself. This easel can hold two panels at once, one behind the other, within the depth of the lid. Panels up to fourteen inches in width and ten inches high can be accommodated, and by means of a sliding adjustment of the easel frame smaller pieces may be held, down to as little as seven and a half inches in width. Two panels (of the same size) may be easily worked on and transported home, even when still wet.

The first thing to be seen, snugly fitting in the main box, is Grandfather’s palette. At 14¾ x 10⅝ inches, rectangular, this is just barely within the inside dimensions of the box. It is made of a thin panel of solid walnut, the thumbhole cut for a right-handed artist. It isn’t dirty or crusted with old paint, though upon it there are indeed still remnants of the paints last used.. Remembering how many paintings it helped to make, it is clear the owner took good care of it. I have now put this palette back into use, lefthanded, so the surface I am using is relatively clean.
Setting aside the palette reveals an interior sectioned by neatly made tin liners. There are compartments for brushes and tubes of paint, and included also are both a small single dipper to clip onto the palette, and a little screw-topped tin can to hold medium or turpentine.
Altogether an ingenious and convenient setup, well designed for the field.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Exploring Grandfather's Paintbox. I

A Story in Five Chapters, illustrated on ‘Flickr’.

Chapter I


I opened a nearly full tube of Winsor & Newton Artist’s Oil Colour. It was a small tube of Scarlet Vermillion. Under the cap the threads were quite clean and a gleam of oil winked from the neck of the tube. I squeezed a little onto the brush, where it lay fresh, smooth and brilliant. It gave me the oddest feeling; as if the paint had been waiting for me. Waiting.

I travelled back in time recently - to nineteen thirty-eight. Not so long ago, not so far away; still in living memory, just. Far enough away and long ago to me though, for I had not been born yet.

Let me explain. A few years ago I was privileged and delighted to find myself in possession of my father’s father’s paintbox. I had not even been aware that Grandfather Henwood’s painting kit still existed until it was shown one day to my sister, who was visiting our cousin in Ireland. They thought that perhaps I would like to be the custodian of this artefact from our family history, and so it was brought to me. I was able to see and touch the paints and brushes my ancestor had used. This had great significance to me, because I never knew my paternal grandfather. He departed this world shortly before I arrived in it. Now I felt in contact with him.

I know my family’s history, so William Hall Henwood is not a stranger to me. He was born in the middle of the nineteenth century, and at the age of fifteen he went to work in the Bank. That was not an early age to start employment in those days – my other grandfather began working at the age of twelve; but that is another story. “He should really have gone into the Church” my father mused one day, but instead Grandfather Henwood served faithfully in the Bank for forty-nine years and five months, finally retiring in nineteen twenty-six at the age of sixty-five .

According to my father, he then invested in a dozen art lessons and promptly began to paint. Over the next twelve years he painted (as far as I can estimate) probably about fifty pictures. He painted in oils, mostly on wood panels, though occasionally on canvas boards too. His interest was the English landscape, and from the paintings that I and other close family members own or have seen, he painted chiefly from the countryside round about where he had lived most of his life, the area of northern Essex; the woods, ponds and gently rolling country where lies Epping Forest. His paintings were uniformly small, ten by fourteen inches. After coming into possession of his paintbox I came to realize that this size was a function of the box, which was a travelling kit, designed to be taken into the field.

I decided to thoroughly study this fascinating artefact and family heirloom, and when I did so I discovered there was more to it than immediately met the eye. That gave me the idea of writing down a full inventory and description of what I had found. But as I gradually spent more time investigating the box and its contents, my thoughts began to range wider. And when I dug out and re-read some treasured old letters which have come down to me, and reviewed once more the course of my grandfather’s life, I began to understand him better. So this story could also be called, if you like, - ‘A Tour around my Grandfather’.