The book developed from the (modern) scientific investigation of paintings that accompanied their conservation and restoration. The ideas in it were rehearsed in papers, lectures, public lunch-time talks given at the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, and courses given at the University's International Summer School.
Writing The Alchemy of Paint started in 1998 and (except for the final editing) finished in 2008. Those ten years coincided with the life of our dog, a Hungarian Vizsla called Harry. The fact that the book's gestation corresponded to a dog's life-span might have amused the medieval artists about whom I wrote. They would have noted that the book was being written towards the end of the Iron Age and that much of its content alluded to the 'wisdom of the ancients' that survived from the beginning of the Golden Age. A dog's life and the entire duration of the world were connected in medieval rhyme. One version goes
- 'The lives of three wattles, the life of a hound;
- The lives of three hounds, the life of a steed;
- The lives of three steeds, the life of a man;
- The lives of three men, the life of an eagle;
- The lives of three eagles, the life of a yew;
- The life of a yew, the length of a ridge;
- Seven ridges from Creation to Doom.'
- (This is one of many 13th/14th-century examples
- and is published in R. Graves, The White Goddess,
- Faber and Faber, London, 1997, p.260.)
A wattle (woven fence) lasts for three years, so, if we do the sums, Harry had more than his allotted span, we can expect about 81 years, and the world will end aged 5103. The rhyme's quantitative accuracy is of little concern since, for all practical purposes, the duration of the world is about as relevant to us as average human life expectancy is to a dog.
If the book was about modern pigments, then the life of a dog and the duration of the world would be completely irrelevant. However, The Alchemy of Paint is about artists' materials in the middle ages and medieval artists had holistic worldviews. So issues like the number of hounds between Creation and Doom are not unconnected to a deeper appreciation of colour. I hope that The Alchemy of Paint will help the reader to appreciate the full splendor of colour as a sensation, whether in medieval art or in the wider world.
The Alchemy of Paint was originally conceived as the introductory chapter to a book about medieval works of art. But it took on a life of its own. It slowly developed (through a number of working titles, including The Marriage of Fire and Water, and Dragonsblood) into a book about the medieval worldview. I hope the intended book about medieval works of art (working title,The Riddle of the Image) will appear in due course.
For an outline of the background to writing the book (which involved an awful lot of dog-walking), see Preview in Research Horizons,10, 2009, pp.21-22.