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Colourful Spots in Small Books

Complex procedures, countless trial and error attempts, characterised the production and use of colours in earlier eras. Existing knowledge was passed on primarily orally, but also in writing, and was used again and again in different ways. The basic colour materials were constantly upgraded and sensitively adapted to changing needs and areas of application. It was only with the advent of printed books that these heterogeneous procedures were being fixed and standardised, and communicated to a larger number of people. In often small-format treatises, arts in the sense of ‘skill and craftsmanship’ were being presented, which were always geared towards practice. It is often difficult to really understand the recipes of the old masters, simply because the terms used at the time do not correspond to today’s materials and manufacturing processes. Even the dosage is a constant problem when it comes to implementing the recipes as they were actually intended.  For this blog post, I will not try out the recipes in order to draw conclusions. Instead, I will take a cursory look at the medium of the book and explore the question of how this secret knowledge was recorded in the medium.

How-to books on dyeing and colours were literal `books of secrets´. Instructions for making colours, such as Prussian blue, were treated as closely guarded secrets. On the other hand, numerous `tracts of action´ on dyeing and colours, which appeared from the beginning of the 16th to the end of the 18th century, reflect an increasing opening up of this field of practice to interested circles.

Today, we have access to a number of extensive historical collections of how-to manuals that provide us with insight into these processes. The Ferguson collection contains 25 vernacular language treatises on the production of colours, from the German classic Mangmeisterey. Von mancherlei Farben auf Garn, Leinwadt, Holtz, Beyn, Leder etc. (Strasbourg: Cammerlander, 1530) to Dyeing and calico printing: including an account of the most recent improvements in the manufacture and use of aniline coloures (Manchester 1876), which covers the chemical dyeing processes of the industrial age.

Dozens of books on colours and dyeing from the Ferguson Collection,
University of Glasgow Library, Special Collections

Most of them – seventeen – date from the 18th century, five from the 16th, only three from the 17th century, and one from the 19th century. The Ferguson collection does have a few gaps here. Perhaps 20% are medium-sized, while the rest are rather small. Ten treatises are in English, nine in German, four in Italian and two in French. Even this formal look at a specific field of knowledge reveals characteristics that should become typical of the Ferguson collection as a whole, such as the high proportion of smaller books and of treatises in German.

Colour art is rooted in two main areas: in textile production, where the application of dyes or pigments to fibres, yarns and fabrics is central, and in the production of inks and hand paints for writing and painting on various surfaces, whether paper and parchment or steel and iron.

German Kunst-Büchlein on colours and dyeing from the first half of the 16th century
University of Glasgow Library, Ferguson Collection

As early as 1530, two publishers in Germany published small books, one on the dyeing of fabrics, the other on colours for writing. The detailed titles of the treatises already give the reader important clues as to what to expect in the book. Jacob Cammerlander in Strasbourg published a work  under the title “Mangmeistery. Von mancherlei Farben auff Garn, Leinwadt, Holtz, Beyn, Leder etc.” (“On the many colours of yarn, linen, wood, bone, leather, etc.”) and Simon Dunckel, in Nuremberg, published a treatise similar in terms of format and scope under the title “Artliche Künste mancherley weyse Dinte und aller hand Farben zubreyten, auch Goldt und Silber sampt allen Metallen, aus der Feder zu schreiben.” (“The art of mixing inks and hand colours in many different ways, also gold and silver, together with all metals, to write with the pen.”)  At the time, the German-speaking cultural area was leading in the field of publishing small, inconspicuous art(isan) books. John Ferguson was to introduce the term “Kunst-Büchlein” as a Germanism to the English-speaking world to describe these publications.

In Artliche Künste, the reader is addressed directly, and many work processes begin with “Nym” for “take” (“recipe” in Latin); it is hence the ideal type of an “acting book,” describing, for example, which ink to use for writing on parchment and which for writing on paper.

When the writing appears magical
Artliche Künste mancherley weyse Dinte und aller hand Farben zubreyten, Nürnberg: Dunckel, 1531
University of Glasgow Library, Ferguson Collection Af-f.71

To “make a black letter with white writing,” it says on p. VIIIv: “Take pure water, temper it with egg yolk so that you can write with it, and then write on parchment or paper, let it dry well, then coat the letter with ink so that it turns black, let it dry so that no one can read it. But if you want it to be readable, put the letter on your leg and scrape it with a knife, and the writing will become white and easy to read.” The 22-page booklet is in good condition, showing hardly any signs of use, and is beautifully bound in a cover with colourful floral motifs.

Colourfullness – when the cover matches the content
Artliche Künste mancherley weyse Dinte, Nürnberg: Dunckel, 1531
University of Glasgow Library, Ferguson Collection Af-f.71

The Ferguson collection’s Mangmeistery – in Southern Germany, mangmeisters were textile dyers in prominent positions because they supervised the large ironing machine, the mangle – is also solidly bound in a red leather cover; even the gilt edging is still intact. Did Ferguson himself commission this binding or did he acquire the treatise like that? Since it was fashionable in the Victorian era to ‘smooth out’ and polish the past, it is reasonable to assume that this aesthetic can be traced back to the antiquarian trade of that time. In addition, fourteen empty double pages are accurately bound in, generously offering space to add new recipes. Marbled endpapers are glued onto the front cover, their fluid colours indicating and foreshadowing the subject matter dealt with in the book. Was this a deliberate choice? Perhaps.

In the whirl of colour

The title image, on the other hand, does not quite fit the topic, as it is taken from another treatise of Cammerlander’s oeuvre, which deals with ore extraction and metallurgical separation processes.

Migrating title images
München, Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, Res 4 Alch. 39

As is well known, the production of a woodcut was quite expensive, and a drawing had to be carved in relief into a wooden printing block – no wonder these printing blocks were used several times, as soon as the topic of the new treatise was more or less compatible with the existing woodcut.

In Wolfenbüttel, such short printed books on practical knowledge from the 16th century are hardly ever bound individually. Usually, they are part of an anthology that was compiled by the buyer in the 16th and 17th centuries, according to their personal taste. The Herzog August Library owns two copies of Mangmeisterey, one of which is held by the Augusteer, i.e., the collection of books acquired by the passionate book collector Duke August in the 17th century. To be more precise, they belong to the Quodlibetica, the last of the nineteen subject areas into which the Duke divided his universal collection. The other came to Wolfenbüttel in the 19th century, when the University Library of Helmstedt was dissolved. The thick, hardcover book in quarto format contains no fewer than 21 different writings, almost all of which are of a confessional nature and deal with the Augsburg Interim of 1548. The Mangmeisterey at the very end is strikingly different and does not seem to fit this context. Not so the collection volume from the Augusteer section of Quodlibetica, which can be translated as “all sorts of things.” Here, five very typical Books of Secrets are united in a fairly concise way, the Dificio de Ricette (Venegia: Fratelli da Sabbio, 1531) is included, as is a treatise attributed to Albertus Magnus on the secrets of herbs, precious stones and animals (Augsburg: Steyner, 1540).

Another compilation from the Quodlibetica section is remarkable for two reasons.

A book with a smudge on the cover
Herzog August Bibliothek, 240.64 Quod. (3)

The title page of the work Allerhand Farben und mancherley Dinten zubereyten (to prepare all kinds of colours and tints) (Augsburg: Steiner, 1533) shows traces of use: the mark of a large black colour stain. The binding, on the other hand, is carefully wrapped in parchment filled with writing. How to protect a book from the ravages of time? It’s quite simple: wrap it in parchment paper. The text, which is decorated with coloured initials, suggests that this is a 14th-century gradual. The dating of the other short texts compiled in the book, such as the one on the siege of Vienna by the Turks in 1529, shows that the volume, which consists of 13 texts, was created in the middle of the Reformation, when monasteries were being dissolved and the literature they contained was losing its value and ending up on the rubbish heap of history. Used thus as a “dust jacket”, the graduale, at least in part, managed to survive the times.

A booklet on colours wrapped up in spritual singing
Herzog August Bibliothek, 240.64 Quod. (13)

A brief look back at the 18th century: In the Neu-ausgefertigtes und mit vielen raren Kunst-Stücken geziertes Farben-Büchlein (“newly-produced colour book decorated with many rare pieces of skill”) from 1748, dealing with, as its title further explains, the question of how cotton and yarn can best be dyed, the frontispiece’s use of colour catches the eye. Parts of it are painted in red, thus matching its subject matter.

The frontispiece shows what it’s all about.
University of Glasgow Library, Ferguson Collection Ar-e.53

This was most likely the printer’s idea, not that of an individual user, as this design can be found in some library collections. Multi-colour printing – preferably in black and red – was nothing unusual.

Sometimes, especially with books published towards the end of the 18th century, one already has the equivalent of a scientific textbook in one’s hands; sometimes, even footnotes appear at the bottom of the page. The respected French chemist and colour expert Claude-Louis Berthollet (1748–1822) published his findings on dyes in Éléments de l’art de la teinture in 1791. A year later, the book was published in English under the full title Elements of the Art of Dying Containing The Theory of Dying in General, as far as it respects the proporties of colouring substances (Edingburgh: Lawrie and Symington, 1792). Written in antiqua and sober style, the book’s discussion of its subject matter fills almost 200 pages – as it would become standard for the modern age. For example, when it says on page 52, “If we put silk into concentrated nitric acid, it readily assumes a deep yellow colour, loses all ist force of adhesion, and is dissolved,” its style is markedly more distanced than saying “Please put silk into concentrated nitric acid then it assumes a deep yellow colour.” When the word “action” is used, it refers to the way substances react, rather than to the medium of the book that presents this knowledge in order to encourage the user to take action. Here, it is possible to discern a rather modern way of imparting knowledge, characterised by the fact that the medium makes itself largely invisible. Instead, it deliberately creates the impression that there is a strict separation between the substances and the experimenter.

Stefan Laube
(all photos by the author)

See more on dyeing and colours in past times:
Magdalene Gärtner: `Historical pigments, dyes and binders´, Encyclopedia of Color, Dyes, Pigments, volume 2, edited by Gerhard Pfaff, Berlin: De Gruyter, 2022, pp. 691-747.


OpenEdition schlägt Ihnen vor, diesen Beitrag wie folgt zu zitieren:
Stefan Laube (27. Juni 2024). Colourful Spots in Small Books. Tracts for Action. Abgerufen am 23. Juli 2024 von https://howtobook.hypotheses.org/575


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