THE POISONER’S PAINTBOX

pigments

If I were a Victorian lady detective faced with an apparently unexplained death, the first two questions that would spring to mind where whether the house had been decorated recently, and whether the victim had an interest in art. There are reasons for this apparently random train of thought, but the main one is that at that time, the overwhelming majority of pigments used in paints and dyes were highly toxic and could very easily kill. Certainly a large number of deaths were directly attributable to their use.

Virtually every colour had a dark side, but the three worst offenders were vermilion (made from cinnabar, a form of mercury), lead white (and its cousin, red lead, both quite literally made from lead) and Scheele’s Green (made from a form of copper arsenide). Even the (then) newly developed synthetic magenta dye was considered highly poisonous and should be used with care – awkward when it was so fashionable.

The colours were found absolutely everywhere: fabric dyes, housepaints, wallpapers, painted toys and both oil and watercolour paints used by artists (and genteel young ladies). It is amazing really that anyone during that period lived beyond the age of 48, such was the exposure – but they did, and some did very well on it. It’s quite hard to appreciate just what a fundamental change the development of non-toxic pigments has had on the industrial world.

Charlotte Perkins Gilman wrote a famous short story called “The Yellow Wallpaper”, about a woman who slowly loses her mind after being forced to convalesce in a room with said yellow wallpaper. Feminists have for years used considered the story a key text in the history of patriarchal oppression, but looking at it in the context of colours – could it have been the pigment that did this? Indian Yellow was a hugely popular colour in the late Victorian era and was said to have been derived from the urine of cattle fed exclusively on a certain variety of mango. I suspect, therefore, that the pigment it produced would have been quite high in ammonia and other nitrates; it wouldn’t surprise me at all to find out that she was hallucinating wildly as the chemicals degraded into the atmosphere.

The history of various pigments is a fascinating one and brings with it a wonderful selection of tall stories, horror stories, faraway places and fascinating people. Each story is another episode in the quest for the perfect shade of red, blue, yellow, green, or whatever. The lengths people went to in an attempt to brighten up their lives is both enlightening and sometimes quite sad. There is a definite darkness to the paint box.

(But what a fantastic way to slowly kill off someone you don’t like!)

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