Precious Pigments and Gold with staff from the Bodleian Library

I had the privilege of hosting at my studio a small group of staff who take care of precious historical manuscripts at the Bodleian Library, University of Oxford. They came to examine and experience some of the pigments that went into the production of hand – illustrated and illuminated manuscripts in the Middle-East and South Asia around the 15th to the 18th centuries, which I have been collecting and researching since the early 1990s. Many of the colours were processed from precious minerals, which combined with a lavish use of fine gold, made the pages of sacred and secular manuscripts scintillate like jewels.

Collection of mineral pigments

Pigment Collection

Gillian Evison handling gold leaf in preparation for the process of hand-grinding shell gold

Gillian Evison introducing a leaf of gold to the  honey/gold mixture

We spent two days processing ‘shell gold‘ – finely powdered pigment made by grinding up beaten leaves 24 carat gold. Painting in areas of shell gold became the preferred method for applying gold to manuscript pages in the East, as opposed to creating raised areas of applied gold-leaf as was predominantly favoured in the West. I think this difference was because Western manuscript pages were usually made from vellum or parchment, which are heavy and rigid enough to support laid gold, whereas the pages of Eastern manuscripts were largely made of paper, and so powdered gold pigment was more suited to their supple delicacy.

For grinding our shell-gold we used a method that I have developed over the years, based on the practice of traditional craftsmen in Rajasthan and on a variety of treatises from the 16th century – see my previous post The Alchemy of Pure Gold Pigment for some of my references. We used English gold-leaf from Habberley Meadows, which I have found to be the purest and the best after hand-beaten Indian leaf. The latter is now so rare and hard to get that I preserve my small supply as part of my reference collection.

Marinita examining the honey/gold mixture that we have worked on

Marinita examining the honey/gold mixture that we have worked on

The gold is introduced one leaf at a time into a layer of honey spread thinly on a plate, and each leaf is hand rubbed into the honey until it breaks up into tiny particles. Once all 25 leaves of a book of gold leaf is worked into the honey, the mixture is ground hard for a few hours, using the side or the base of the hand. Using any other means to do this, such as mortar and pestle or glass and muller, is a bad idea, because tiny particles of the pestle or muller get ground into the gold and spoil it’s lustre.

Once the gold has been reduced to the tiniest particles possible, we pour a quantity of hot water into the mixture to dissolve the honey, let it stand to allow all the gold particles to sink to the bottom, and then carefully pour off the honey bearing water, leaving the gold behind. After several washings we are left with pure gold powder in suspension, which is filtered through a double layer of fine silk into a smaller bowl.  After allowing the water in the solution to evaporate for a while, we transferred it to a beautiful oyster shell where the gold powder was allowed to dry and compact. It is now ready to use, requiring the tiniest drop of gum Arabic solution to turn it into a watercolour paint.

The final product: finely powdered gold pigment stored in an oyster shell.

The final product: finely powdered gold pigment stored in an oyster shell.

Julia preparing a square of gold leaf

Julia preparing a square of gold leaf on a gilder’s cushion.

Great attention was paid to the lavish gold decoration of the outer borders of manuscript pages, particularly in the case of those made for royal patrons. Sometimes they were filled with curious scenes of trees, birds and animals, all outlined and shaded with shell-gold. The gold work was  buffed up with a burnisher of polished stone untill it shone. I have shown examples in my previous post “Strange Creatures in the Margins”.

Alternatively the paper of the borders was dyed and decorated with scattered flecks of gold leaf. For this we prepared some indigo  paper that I had dyed previously with gum Arabic size. The gold leaf needs to be cut up into small pieces to facilitate sprinkling, which gave us all a good opportunity to practice some challenging handling skills. A sheet of gold leaf is laid flat on a gilder’s cushion, and carefully cut into squares with a gilder’s knife. (You can purchase guilder’s tools from L.Cornellissen & Son or Habberley Meadows). We then placed the small squares of gold leaf in a tea-strainer, and holding it over the wet sized indigo paper, worked the gold through the strainer with a gilder’s mop, allowing it to fall in a shower of tiny flecks onto the paper. When the size has dried, the gold flecks are permanently adhered to the surface of the paper. The technique has a very poetic Persian term, ‘zar-afshan‘, meaning ‘the spreading of gold’.

Cutting the gold leaf into small squares

Cutting the gold leaf into small squares


Gold sprinkle on indigo paper   photograph by KT Kacur

Gold sprinkle on indigo paper

Conservators Robert and Julia examining our shell gold and gold-flecked paper.

Conservators Robert and Julia examining our shell gold and gold-flecked paper.

It was an intense and rewarding two days, and I very much enjoyed working with the experienced conservators and librarians of the Bodleian Library, accustomed as they are to handling some of the most beautiful and valuable material in the library. My young intern Julia was pretty impressive too, and showed herself more than equal to the tricky process of handling gold leaf!

I shall be running similar workshops at the studio later this month and the next, open to anybody who would like to experience the processes I have described above. For more information about this, please see my ‘Gold Workshop’ page entitled SHELL GOLD And GOLD-FLECKED BORDERS : MAKING AND USING 24ct GOLD PIGMENT FOR MANUSCRIPT PAINTING