August 21, 2020

Here's Something Cool: Mysteryes of Art

        John Bate first published The Mysteryes of Nature and Art, his illustrated compendium of mechanical and technological instructions, in 1634.  It proved popular for its practical instructions for how to make various fireworks, waterworks, art, and “confusedly intermixed” “extravagants.”  The book is most famous because it was a favorite of young Isaac Newton, said to have inspired him  to study science - especially in the matter of fireworks and colors.  Although there are fascinating projects described and illustrated throughout the work, I have chosen to show you some of Bate’s information about art.
        First, I give you a couple of recipes in which Bate instructs the artist on how to make colors, which makes up a major proportion of his advice.  Keep in mind that pre-made paints and inks were not available from your local craft store in the seventeenth century.  An artist had to be a chemist first.
        A Purple colour.  Take two pound of Heidleber, two ounces of Allum, halfe an ounce of ashes of Copper, halfe a pound of water; put them into a Skillet, and let them boyle till a third be consumed: when it is cold, straine it into a cleane vessell, and let it stand a while, then straine it into another, and then let it stand till it be thick enough.
        That sounds complicated enough, but rational.  However, apparently an artist had to be an alchemist, as well.  The following instructions seem to include more than a little magic:
        To write a gold colour.  Take a new hennes egge, make a hole at one end and let the substance out, then take the yolke without the white, and four times as much in quantitie of quicksilver; grinde them well together, and put them into the shell; stop the hole thereof with chalke, and the white of an egge, then lay it under an henne that sitteth with sixe more, let her sit on it three weeks, then breake it up, and write with it.
        Of course I’m most interested in what Bate has to say about printmaking.  His first edition covers only copper engraving and etching, but in the second edition, published the next year, he includes an extensive section on engraving in wood.  He says The working is farre more tedious and difficult than the working in brasse… when you have cut it so that it may be pickt out, yet if you have not a great care in picking it out, you may break out a part of your work, which may deface it…
On the other hand, for those inconveniences an Artist may finde in the practise thereof, this is one commodity he shall gaine; he shall be private in his designes; for he himselfe may print them when they are cut…  Bate and I are on the same wavelength there: much of the fun of relief printmaking is the ability to draw the design, carve the design, and print the design all myself.
        It’s fun to see how many different skills were required for the art being made 400 years ago.  I don’t think I would have been up to it.

[Pictures: frontispiece to Of Drawing, Limming, Colouring, Painting, and Graving;
A very easie way to describe a Towne, or Castle: being within the full sight thereof;
Of Gravers, all wood block prints from The Mysteries of Nature and Art (second edition) by John Bate, 1635 (Image from Internet Archive).]

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