Pigment hunting on Hampstead Heath

How about spending the first day of May on Hampstead Heath hunting for pigment? There is something rather primeaval about that – the sort of activity some neolithic cave painter might have engaged in at roughly the same time of the year. Of course I fantasise, but nevertheless, it is very satisfying to source one’s own materials from the bowels of the earth. Or so I thought, remembering a previous occasion when I collected golden ochre from a spring associated with the evasive river Fleet, which gives its name to Fleet street where it flows underground, having long been designated the role of one of London’s major sewers. But up here near leafy Highgate, near the Vale of Health, the river is young and pure.

The fountain which issued forth this bounty, I recalled, was an ancient carved stone affair, sitting in the middle of a field. Dog-owners bring their canines here for a drink; the water is super-fresh with a tinge of iron, and the drain into which it pours is rich with great buttery slabs of pure iron oxide – in other words, golden ochre.

It took me ages to find it again – but eventually, there it was, quaintly isolated in the middle of a field.

There is an inscription around its circular base, which says that it was erected in 1929 in memory of Henry Goodison, who was a leading campaigner for the preservation of nearby Kenwood House, a fine eighteenth century mansion remodelled by Robert Adam. The fountain is richly decorated with little animals like squirrels and hedgehogs, and some scary gargoyles.

I was ecstatic, and I entertained the passing dog-owners by pulling up the stone drain cover and scooping out great globs of iron oxide. Madwoman! It was then that I noticed that the whole fountain, which looks as if it is carved out of stone, complete with green slime, actually appears to be made of iron. There is no ochre anywhere else on the Heath, so clearly the iron oxide has been created by the spring water running though the iron structure. Well done!

All the same, it is truly iron oxide, and back at the studio, I am going to process it into a beautiful paint pigment.

Iron oxide deposits from the fountain spring

Gaygoyles guarding the fountain

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