ELHAS News - 2023

Meeting Report - February 2023

In February we were delighted to welcome Dr Christine Holdstock to deliver a talk entitled "A History of Pigments from Cave Paintings to Leeds Street Art. Christine taught the history of colorants at Leeds university for over 20 years. She had previously entertained us with a fact filled talk on the history of dyes so we were looking forward to the afternoon's offering.

Christine began by explaining the difference between dyes and pigments - dyes are soluble and pigments are insoluble, a fact which most of us had previously been unaware of.

Telling us that pigments had been around for thousands of years, she astounded us by saying that the first examples of cave drawings dated from 73,000 years ago, and showed us an example of the work. Early drawings had a limited palette of just red, brown and black but over the centuries many new colours have been discovered. This led to much more colourful drawings such as the ones she showed us from Egyptian tomb paintings from 14,000 BC. Christine showed us many illustrations including the earliest depiction of an animal, a pig from Indonesia.

Surprisingly we were told that synthetic pigments were developed as early as 2,500 BC which resulted in more colours, many of which were so expensive to produce that they were only used in special circumstances. For example lapis lazuli {blue) was used to create the colour of Tutenkahmun's death mask, and another colour expensive to produce was red, associated with robes for Popes.

Another interesting fact was that the Peruvians used cochineal to produce the pigments for their highly colourful clothes, and in fact can produce 27 different shades of red from it. In a departure from the usual talk, Christine showed a video of tourists being showed how some of the different shades were achieved in Peru.

She also spoke about the dangers of some of the pigments, for example, the white produced from lead which Elizabeth 1st used on her face. Also, the green in wallpaper which could have contributed to Napoleon's death, since it contained arsenic. This was found in his hair after his death.

It was interesting to hear that the Forth Rail Bridge was, until quite recently, regularly repainted with the pigment developed in 1890 when it was erected. Nowadays it is still repainted in the original colour, but using a modern product.

Moving on to Leeds Street Art, Christine told us about the Art Trail which identifies all of the major Leeds artworks.

Showing an image of Cornucopia which has adorned a wall opposite the Corn Exchange for many years, she explained the symbolism of the painting which reflects the industry and wealth of the city. This features Minerva (or Athena), who is often depicted as an owl, and is a feature of the city's coat of arms.

Christine also showed us another piece of street art called Athena Rising, which is the tallest example of any street art and taller than the Statue of Liberty.

Lastly, she showed us the most recent addition to this outdoor gallery, a piece which has only been in place a couple of months. Insa X Moniker is a carbon-conscious, waste-aware mural that makes sustainability beautiful. It is a 13-metre high mural on the side of Wharf Chambers. The unique feature of this piece is that the painting medium absorbs CO2, so is an innovative method of reducing emissions in an urban environment where tree planting may not be an option.

Our audience was thoroughly absorbed by Christine's talk, and it left many of us inspired to at least visit Leeds City centre to view the street art, even if we are unable to visit cave paintings in Europe.

The next meeting on Friday 31st March will be an illustrated talk by Mike Turpin entitled "The Forgotten War - An account English Civil War in Yorkshire".

All welcome.

1 Lascaux Cave Painting
2 Pope Leo X
3 INSA X MONIKA (Leeds Art Trail)