Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
May 4, 2005
Leslie Carlyle The Artist’s Assistant: Oil Painting Instruction Manuals and Handbooks in Britain 1800–1900 With Reference to Selected Eighteenth-century Sources London: Archetype Publications, 2001. 592 pp.; 100 b/w ills. Cloth $140.00 (1873132166)

Manuals and instructional handbooks for artists have been in existence at least since Pliny the Elder’s discussion, in Book 35 of his Natural History, of the history of painting and its materials. Their numbers increased in the twentieth century, as shown by the volumes now in print and by the large number of instructional articles in “popular” artists’ magazines—as opposed to the academic or “serious” artists’ press, where there is either no instruction or, if I may say so, disdain for such a thing.

As Leslie Carlyle points out in The Artist’s Assistant: Oil Painting Instruction Manuals and Handbooks in Britain 1800–1900 with Reference to Selected Eighteenth-Century Sources (a revised and expanded edition of her doctoral dissertation), the exchange and transmission of information among artists on the technical aspects of their calling have been carried on through mostly an “oral tradition,” with some further enlightenment provided through artists’ diaries, letters, and the occasional published article. In the nineteenth century in England, however, a remarkable number of books and pamphlets having to do with oil painting were published, following on the heels of a large body of work published in the previous century.

In the introductory chapter on her sources, Carlyle offers several reasons for this. The most notable is that artists and even governmental groups wanted to raise the quality of craftsmanship among the British population, in order to compete economically with the rest of Europe. In other words, it was thought that an elevated aesthetic sense among consumers and producers of designed goods might lead to more commerce and greater economic gain. Other reasons for the proliferation of instructional manuals include the lack of practical instruction provided by schools and the perceived need to inform artists about the durability of their materials.

Carlyle goes on to describe the several different types of material she studied: instruction manuals, pamphlets published by manufacturers of products, French publications translated into English in the nineteenth century, handbook and reference manuals (the best known of which was George Field’s Chromatography; or, Treatise on colours and pigments as used by artists (first published in London in 1835; another edition was published by Winsor & Newton in 1869), and compendiums of other previously published sources.

The body of The Artist’s Assistant is divided into parts that examine the various materials an oil painter might have encountered in the nineteenth century. The first part covers the drying oils, which dry by oxidation as opposed to evaporation. We learn where the oils came from, how they were recommended to be processed and somewhat purified, and how manufacturers such as Winsor & Newton processed them. Most of these oils are still available today, if in different and more purified forms: linseed and poppy-seed oil are used by the major oil-paint makers, and one manufacturer uses walnut oil. Since the slow drying of the oils was a concern of painters, the discussion turns to various driers—materials that hasten this process—then available.

Part 2 begins by looking at the resins and varnishes that artists could choose from to manipulate the handling of their oil paints. The harder resins, copal and amber, which were dissolved in a heated oil, were incorporated into paints and also were used as final varnish coatings. Next, Carlyle looks at the availability of “spirit varnishes,” which, like damar and mastic, could be dissolved in cold solvents, without an oil addition. “Spirits” refers to “spirits of wine,” or alcohol, although turpentine was also used.

Part 3, “Materials: Mediums and Oil Paint,” surveys the various concoctions that modified prepared paints. Painting mediums, through which artists could exert fine control over the appearance of their paints, were one of the most important elements of a painter’s armory; observing their continued proliferation, mediums seem just as important today. The most notorious of the nineteenth-century painting mediums, megilp, which, as Carlyle notes, actually first appeared in the eighteenth century, is thoroughly examined. This gelled medium, also known as “magilp,” “meggellup,” “macguilp,” and so on, consists of a varnish resin mixed into a heated oil, with the addition of (sometimes) a lead drier. While megilp introduced a pleasing smoothness of application to the paints it was mixed with, it also caused numerous problems: darkening, cracking, and a general weakening of paint films. These problems were noticed even in its heyday, but manufacturers continued to supply it because many painters liked it; even more remarkable, megilp is still available today as the reincarnated Maroger’s medium. Of course, other mediums are explored as well: glues, egg mediums, waxes, various emulsions, and resins used in mediums.

The following chapters in part 3 explore solvents that painters use: turpentine and all its variants, various essential plant oils, and solvents derived from petroleum—an early form of what is now called mineral spirits. Then it’s on to oil paints and pigments: the preparation of paints and pigments and the quality of manufactured paints, which had been available since the mid-eighteenth century but were in general thought to be suspect. Many of the writers in the latter part of the nineteenth century discussed additives to prepared paints, the adulteration of prepared paints and of pigments, and the substitution of less expensive pigments or mixtures of pigments for the genuine article. By the end of the century there was so great a demand for accurate and truthful information about the contents of commercially prepared materials that such companies as Winsor & Newton responded by publishing “composition lists” for their materials.

Carlyle continues in part 4 by examining the instructions for the preparation and use of the grounds and supports oil painters could expect to encounter. In part 5, she discusses the various ways artists were instructed to paint, as well as the methods of paint application and manipulation that artists could use. She ends with a chapter on the varnishing of paintings.

The final two chapters, in part 6, concern nineteenth-century writers’ views on how materials change as they age and on who is responsible for the durability of artists’ materials. Many opinions expressed by the writers here have a contemporary resonance, as the blame for the failure of earlier paintings to survive in good condition was laid at the feet of both artists who used poor materials or poor practices and manufacturers who supplied inferior products. We hear the same arguments today.

What follows in this astounding book, constituting almost half the text, are twenty seven appendices: manufacturer’s archives, an annotated bibliography, a bibliography of other sources, a list of dictionaries and other books Carlyle used, recipes for all sorts of varnishes, oils, and mediums, descriptions of nineteenth-century pigments, and more.

This book contains remarkable scholarship of the highest order. It provides a wealth of information about the development of English oil painting in an accessible and readable way, and each chapter concludes with an extensive list of notes and references. Its story, to me at least, reveals that two hundred years ago artists and manufacturers were dealing thoughtfully and thoroughly with their materials. This is a reference that should be in every art-history library. It will prove an especially valuable resource for conservators who do research in order to treat nineteenth-century English paintings.

Mark D. Gottsegen
Associate Professor, Department of Art, University of North Carolina, Greensboro