Artists' Materials in Sixteenth-Century England: Import and Retail Trade

Jo Kirby Atkinson, Scientific Department, The National Gallery, London

Making Art in Tudor Britain
Abstracts from Academic Workshops (2007-8)
Funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council

The materials available for painting in sixteenth-century England were little different to those used in the previous two centuries, and in other parts of Europe. Some pigments were natural minerals: the expensive blues, ultramarine and azurite, green malachite, and the relatively cheap red and yellow earths and chalk. Of these, England was a good source of earth pigments and an exporter of red ochre. Lead white, red lead and verdigris had been manufactured since Classical times; lead industries were also well established in England. The synthesis of vermilion (the mineral cinnabar) had been known since the ninth century. However, while these pigments could have been made locally, much was imported: Montpellier was renowned for the production of verdigris and good vermilion was made in Antwerp.

The ingredients for the copper-containing green verditer were used in other industries so this pigment could have been made locally. The manufacture of lead-tin yellow ('type I') was linked with the production of ceramic glazes and that of smalt with the glass industry; both were probably imported. Red and yellow lakes, made from dye precipitated onto a suitable whitish substrate, had connections with the dyeing trade: the same imported dyestuffs, including kermes (grain), madder, brazilwood, weld and, later, cochineal, were used for both. The yellow from dyer's broom may have been used for pigment making more widely in England than in other parts of Europe. Much woad was imported for dyeing and the woad vat was the source of the blue pigment florey (indigo), but imported indigo was also used. Among other materials, linseed oil might be obtained from parts of Europe where flax was cultivated; most resins and gums were imported, although pine resin would have been available within the British Isles. Glue, from animal skins, was easily available.

The Table shows the relative costs of some painters' materials, drawn from documents dating from early and late in the sixteenth century. A similar pattern of relative costs is seen in other parts of Europe.

Examples of painters' materials in the London area in the sixteenth century (prices per pound)

Much international trade was with Antwerp, the hub of trade in north-west Europe for much of the sixteenth century, but there was also regular trade with French, Dutch and German ports. By this time, the greatest volume of goods came into London, although ports all around the coast imported a substantial quantity. English coastal and river trade was important for the further movement of goods. Import and export of goods traded in large quantities, such as madder and woad, lead white and linseed oil, is recorded in the port books kept for both sea and river ports, incomplete sequences of which survive.

Many materials used in painting were also used in pharmacy and thus, as in the rest of Europe, were traded by those whose concern had historically been with spices and similar goods: grocers and apothecaries. In London, members of the Grocers' Company imported pigments, dyestuffs, oil and gums together with the spices and other, more traditional merchandise, but some goods were also imported by Mercers, Drapers and others. It is difficult to find evidence for the import of expensive pigments like ultramarine and azurite, but occasionally the import of 'drugs ad valorem' is recorded, which could include such items. Outside cities and towns, fairs may have played a role at all stages of this commerce, as in other parts of Europe.

London was the principal commercial centre in England and had a complex guild structure, which was not necessarily replicated in other cities. It is likely that, whatever guild they belonged to and however they were named, merchants selling the ranges of goods traded by grocers and apothecaries were largely responsible for the retail trade in painters' materials. Grocers kept a wider, more general range of stock, selling most of the materials required, but not necessarily the best, expensive pigments. In contemporary sources, however, apothecaries are described as selling pigments. In practice, apothecaries tended to specialise in pharmaceutical products, often with little overlap with the grocer's stock. It is possible that the more specialist retailers of this type sold the high quality pigments, including the expensive blues and crimson lakes.


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5 J. Murrell, 'John Guillim's Book: A Heraldic Painter's Vade Mecum ', Walpole Society, LVII, 1993/1994, pp. 1-51, see p. 36.

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