The Pigmentum Collection

We are enormously proud of our historical pigment collection. Originally built up to give us a set of pigments for analysis and illustration in the Pigment Compendium, it now consists of more than 2000 samples.

We are always interested in collaborative research based on material from the collection. If you think you have a project that might benefit from access to the collection, please feel free to contact us. As we are sure you will understand the amounts of material we have are often very small, so we can only provide reference samples in exceptional circumstances.

The philosophy behind the pigment collecting process was essentially to create a resource that reflected the diversity of what we had discovered from the documentary research, mirror (as far as possible) our pigment taxonomy and provide a set of samples on which we could base our analyses. This meant in practice not only acquiring specimens of individual compounds or minerals that we knew had been used in the past, but also multiple examples so that we could examine variability or, at least, determine whether we could detect such differences. It was apparent that there were likely to be differences according to source (where a particular mineral had come from; what specific manufacturing process had been used) so again multiple specimens were needed.

Pigments of recent origin in the collection are largely from commercial pigment suppliers, mineral dealers and chemical supply houses, as well being specifically manufactured pigments (according to historical recipes) by us or by colleagues who have been kind enough to share their samples and research. Others still are from mineral collections, carefully sourced and with good provenance.

Additionally, we have had the opportunity to acquire historical material. These pigments come from a series of collections held by various institutions that generously allowed us to sub-sample them. Extra criteria here were that the origin of each sample must be entirely clear and that samples should not come from historical objects (where the pigment had been used in the creation of an object thus possibly leading to confusion as to what the ‘pure’ pigment contained). Amongst the ever-expanding collection of pigments we now have, for example, a group from the Roman site of Pompeii, where bowls of unbound pigment were preserved by the catastrophic eruption of Vesuvius in 79AD. We also have samples from the palette of the artist J.M.W. Turner, who left the contents of his studio to the British nation after his death. However, a major highlight for us is a virtually complete set from the so-called ‘Hafkenscheid Collection’.

The Hafkenscheid collection belongs to the Teylers Museum in Haarlem, The Netherlands. This is a fascinating example of a physical archive that was created in the early to mid-nineteenth century by an Amsterdam trader in paint, turpentine and gums. His stock came from both Europe and further afield, including Africa, the East Indies, Brazil, Java and China, so the collection also reflects a worldwide perspective. Further, the collection’s inventory (along with the specimen labels) gives insight into the wide range of names applied to pigments and through analysis, how we should interpret these traditional names. A favourite is papegaaigroen, the visually arresting ‘parrot green’ that in this case appears to be copper formate but which on other occasions could be the toxic ‘emerald green’, copper acetate arsenite.

Ours is a collection that is still growing—we have recently received a generous donation of several hundred modern azo and polycyclic pigments from the Tate Gallery, London, for example, which we will be adding to our Raman database. Further pigments will be acquired as we research particular topics. An example of this is systematically prepared pigments such as samples from our research into the formation of lead chromates under different manufacturing conditions.

In this section