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Blue in Eighteenth-Century England: Pigments and Usages

Zoriana Lotut


Cet article cherche à explorer la matérialité de la couleur bleue dans l’Angleterre du xviiie siècle, en se concentrant sur l’indigo et le bleu de Prusse, qui ont dominé quantitativement et qualitativement le marché du colorant bleu au xviiie siècle. L’afflux en Europe, dont en Angleterre, de l’indigo d’importation atteignit son apogée au xviiie siècle ; tandis que la découverte du bleu de Prusse au début de ce siècle eut un grand impact sur l’utilisation d’autres pigments bleus compatibles. L’article tentera d’éclairer les raisons de l’augmentation rapide de l’importation d’indigo, et de la popularité du bleu de Prusse ; examinant en outre la façon dont ces développements ont influencé d’autres pigments bleus.

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1Interest in the history of colour has been growing in recent decades, with prominent books by John Gage and Philip Ball published in 1993 and 2003 respectively. In addition to these encyclopaedic works, which cover various aspects of the subject, other research has been conducted on specific issues concerning colour. The most popular work in the domain of colour linguistics is by Brent Berlin and Paul Kay (1969), which is devoted to the evolution of colour vocabularies, along with one on the semantics of colour by Minoru Ohtsuki (2000). It is worth noting that blue occupies a considerable place in the entire body of research on colour, probably even the leading one, with scholars of different domains having shown a particular interest in this regard. Michel Pastoureau (2001) looked at the matter from the point of view of a historian; François Delamare (2007) was a scientist who specialised in the properties of the surface of materials, and wrote about blue pigments and their chemistry; and Carol Mavor (2013), a social scientist, discussed her emotive responses to occurrences of blue in literature and the visual arts. One particularly interesting interpretation of blue was suggested by Breanne Fallon (2014), who noted that colours – and blue in particular – can take on the role of a mediator in religious experiences. An explanation for this attractiveness of blue can be found in the controversial history of its materiality and meaning which, depending on the time and location, has fluctuated from signifying spirituality and heaven to evil and hell. Another possible motivation for the widespread interest in blue in academic circles is the fact that statistically (fig. 1), it is the leading colour of preference worldwide, according to a YouGov survey conducted in 2014, and other statistical data discussed by Eva Heller (45).

Fig. 1. International survey of colour preferences

Fig. 1. International survey of colour preferences

© 2018 YouGov PLC

2The history of blue in the eighteenth century merits academic attention because during this period, blue underwent several interesting changes in terms of its materiality. The first important change was the leap in the quantity of indigo imported into Europe, which became possible in the eighteenth century due to the well-established trade routes to and from European colonies and the exploitation of a free labour force, on which indigo cultivation relied. The second change was the discovery of Prussian blue, almost at the turn of the century. Both the unprecedented growth in the availability of indigo and the introduction of Prussian blue to the eighteenth-century colourant market had an impact on the functioning and usage of other pigments available at the time. In eighteenth-century England, blue mainly came in the form of ultramarine, cobalt-based blue pigments, and woad (Isatis tinctoria), with azurite having been replaced by so-called “blue ashes” (Delamare 181). The use of natural ultramarine was mostly limited to painting, and as an artistic pigment, it was used with great caution and in small quantities due to its high price. Artificial and cheaper ultramarine was later invented by Jean-Baptiste Guimet in 1826. Cobalt-based blue, which had been known since ancient times, was also limited in its application, mainly being used for glass and enamel production while synthetic cobalt like artificial ultramarine did not come into being until the following century, being first produced by Louis Jacques Thénard in 1802. This being so, the two blue colourants that catered to multiple areas of application and dominated the blue “palette” of eighteenth-century England, both in quantity and, in most cases, in quality, were indigo and Prussian blue. To trace the main reasons behind and the consequences connected to the shift in the amount of indigo imported and the discovery of Prussian blue, this paper will examine several popular eighteenth-century English publications on colour: Practice of Painting by the artist Thomas Bardwell (1782); A Treatise on the Art of Painting by the colour maker Constant de Massoul (1797); and The Handmaid to the Arts (1764) by Robert Dossie, an English apothecary and chemist. These will be accompanied by a selection of artworks to illustrate the manner in which Prussian blue and indigo were used by painters of that period.

  • 1 Indigotine is an organic compound with a distinctive blue colour found in several plants of the Ind (...)

3One of the main consequences of the growing availability of indigo in the eighteenth century was its direct and far-reaching impact on the usage of woad. Both indigo (Indigofera tinctoria) and woad had been used to create blue colourant for centuries. Woad was the source of the pigment used by ancient Celts to paint their skin blue for various purposes as described by classical writers. References to woad can be found in the works of Julius Caesar, Pliny the Elder, and Ovid. It was used for various rituals and practices, ranging from decorative (colouring grey hair black), medicinal (in connection with the antiseptic properties for which woad was renowned), or ritualistic purposes such as covering one’s body in blue paint extracted from woad for various religious rites (as quoted in Feller 83). Indigo has been found in the fabrics used for wrapping Egyptian mummies dating from around 2,400 BC (Balfour-Paul 7, 13). Both plants produce blue pigment due to their indigotine content.1 The process of pigment extraction is also similar for both, involving fermenting crushed leaves in vats filled with alkaline solution or urine, after which bricks or “cakes” (called “cocagne” in the case of woad) are formed out of the pigment contained in the sediment at the bottom (Balfour-Paul 100-08; Feller 91).

4Nevertheless, indigo and woad differ in several ways, which explains and justifies the competition between them reaching its apogee in the eighteenth century. One such important difference is the geographical location of their cultivation sites. Woad is cultivated mostly in the northern hemisphere (fig. 2), whereas indigo typically grows in tropical and temperate climates (fig. 3). Even though indigo had been imported into Europe long before the eighteenth century, quantities were not large enough to threaten the production of local woad (Martin 103), nor could the high price of imported indigo compete with indigenous sources. The increase in indigo imports into Europe developed gradually from the fifteenth century reaching a peak in the eighteenth century (Martin 102; Balfour-Paul 59).

Fig. 2. The distribution of woad (Isatis tinctoria).

Fig. 2. The distribution of woad (Isatis tinctoria).

Copyright © 2018 CABI

Fig. 3. The distribution of indigo (Indigofera tinctoria)

Fig. 3. The distribution of indigo (Indigofera tinctoria)

Copyright © 2018 CABI

5Indigo supplies from European colonies were, however, hindered by numerous obstacles and fluctuated throughout the century. Before reaching the European market, indigo had to undergo a complicated and at times dangerous transportation process:

The obstacles to be overcome in securing and transporting [indigo] were certainly formidable. As well as illness and the hostility of local chiefs, dangers on land included “theevish beastly men […] savage beasts, lions, tygers etc.” and even “such infinite numbers of munkeyes, leaping from house to house, are readie to braine men as they pass in the streets with the stones that fall.” By sea in addition to frightening storms and the constant threat of attack from foreign vessels and pirates, the Bay of Cambay harboured special perils (Balfour-Paul 46, quoting Purchas).

Other common hindrances limiting the importation of indigo were political upheavals, slave rebellions, and wars (Martin 102-03) while resistance from local woad farmers resulted in protectionist laws in most European countries to address the unprecedented influx of indigo. At the beginning of the seventeenth century, several states had already either banned or restricted imports of indigo to protect woad manufacturers but this did not stop a steady annual growth of import (Nash 364). Harvest failures were another issue commonly affecting indigo supplies. Droughts affected harvests and “in 1761 indigo grew scarcer in St. Dominique because local planters were switching to sugar and cotton” (Fairlie 500). In addition, indigo supplies often underwent adulteration (typically through the addition of sand and slate) and smuggling in the process of transportation (Fairlie 504; Balfour-Paul 47). However, none of the above-mentioned obstacles could stop trading companies from continuing with the most profitable business venture of the time.

6Colonisation and the slave trade were other factors playing a major role in the processes that led to a crucial increase in the influx of overseas indigo into Europe (Balfour-Paul 42, 60-62; Martin 104). Apart from giving Europeans access to natural cultivation sites of indigo, colonisation also presupposed that the majority of labour involved in the manufacture of the blue dye would be performed by slaves (fig. 4). These were either local labour force, or slaves imported from Africa in the case of the West Indian and American colonies, requiring about four slaves for every four acres of indigo. Slavery was one of the decisive factors that allowed for the cultivation of indigo at an industrial scale and the unprecedented decrease in its price. In certain periods, indigo was even exchanged for slaves by measuring the weight of the pigment and that of a slave weighed naked (Balfour-Paul 60). For this reason, the history of indigo cultivation became tainted with human exploitation.

Fig. 4. Manufacturing indigo: harvesting, crushing leaves, fermenting them in vats, and drying them in cone-like vessels

Fig. 4. Manufacturing indigo: harvesting, crushing leaves, fermenting them in vats, and drying them in cone-like vessels

Pierre Pomet, Histoire Générale des drogues, Paris, 1694.

Copyright © Wellcome Institute Library, London

  • 2 See Christine Lehman’s essay on the memoirs on indigo and Prussian blue written during the eighteen (...)

7Europe’s textile industry rapidly expanded in the eighteenth century (Fairlie 503). In England, this industry rose to become the single largest employer after agriculture, and its exports sometimes amounted to 70 percent of the totality of the country’s exports. Colouring was one of the best ways to enhance the sales of textiles (Nash 363). The immense contemporary interest in textile colourants is reflected by both the quantity and quality of works that were written about possible improvements to dyeing techniques, the chemical nature of colourants, etc.2 A universal dye, equally good on every type of fabric, indigo was used in quantities that exceeded all other dyestuffs. According to Nash, it constituted “over half the value of England’s imports in dyestuff” (363). It was also held in high regard in other European countries: European imports increased six-fold in the course of the eighteenth century (Nash 363). In addition to the supplies it obtained from its own colonies, England also provisioned imported indigo from France (Martin 103, 106-07). Initially, the major sources for small amounts of indigo were Mexico, Honduras, and many West Indian islands, and the countries that participated most in the process were France, Spain, and England. The territories of indigo production were gradually extended to the southern United States – Virginia, Carolina, Georgia – and British India (Fairlie 498). According to Nash, trade with America was the “fastest growing sector of the eighteenth-century British economy” and even though only 5 percent of the total imports were dyestuff, this trade was of strategic importance because it secured the entirety of the supplies required by the expanding British textile industry (362).

  • 3 Even though indigo from South Carolina was believed to be inferior to that of the Spanish colonies, (...)

8The principal indigo importers of the time were France and Spain which obtained their supplies from St. Dominique and Central American colonies respectively. Initially, England did not play a significant role in the transatlantic indigo trade, but this changed in the middle of the century.3 Starting from around 1740, England managed to secure a leading role by seizing indigo from Spain and France during wartime and establishing a continuous inflow from South Carolina (Nash 364-66). During the Seven Years’ War, England was Europe’s major indigo supplier:

During the war of 1739-48 Spanish indigo imports were 75 percent lower, while France’s import grew until 1743, but then fell under 50 percent with the outbreak of Anglo-French hostilities. Then European imports from America recovered very quickly, before stagnating once more in the Seven Years War (1756-63), when French trade collapsed, as did Spanish when Spain entered the war in 1761. This was compensated for by the large increase in England’s trade; England became major European importer of indigo (Nash 367).

9The rivalry between indigo and woad can also be explained by factors other than the growth of indigo imports. Indigo has numerous advantages over woad. It is a nitrogen-fixing plant enriching the soil on which it grows, unlike woad which exhausts the soil and therefore requires portable woad mills that can follow the crops. More crucially, indigo has a higher indigotine content than woad, which makes it a more efficient textile dyestuff with a wider range of applications:

While the relatively weak indigotine content in woad could colour absorbent fibres like wool, the dye from other indigo bearing plants could be up to ten times stronger, more than powerful enough to saturate less accommodating vegetable fibres like silk, cotton, flax and linen (St. Clair 191).

  • 4 Cochineal and madder are the sources of red pigment.

10Different textiles require different amounts of various dyes to achieve the desired shade of colour. Due to the nature of its fibres, wool was considered the easiest to dye, whereas “silk, cotton and linen were progressively harder, having smaller pores and more obstinate natural impurities” (Fairlie 491). Provided the same dyes were used to colour different textiles, larger quantities would be required to achieve the same colour. As noted by Fairlie, indigo was “the only fast attractive dye which worked equally on all four [types of textile], with minor differences in preparation” (491). For eighteenth-century dyers, indigo – together with cochineal and madder4 – was the “dye of substance” providing fast colouration (490). Even though its price exceeded that of woad, indigo remained more economical as smaller amounts were required to achieve the same result, “4 pounds of it giving as much dye as 200 pounds of woad” (490).

11However, despite its excellence as a textile dyestuff, indigo could not satisfy the demand of artists for effective blue pigment. As stated in two publications on artistic pigments written at the time – The Practice of Painting and Perspective Made Easy (1756) by Bardwell and A Treatise on the Art of Painting, and the Composition of Colour (1797) by de Massoul – there were two major sources of blue for artists, ultramarine and Prussian blue. Bardwell’s description of ultramarine is fulsome, stressing its advantages from an artist’s standpoint, praising its exclusive quality, matt finish and special appropriateness for glazing due to its high covering capacity. However, ultramarine in the eighteenth century was still as expensive as it had been at the time of its discovery in the Middle Ages, by reason of the time-consuming process of extracting it from lapis lazuli and the fact that its supply was often unstable and unreliable. Bardwell repeatedly states that because of the high value of ultramarine, its use was typically limited to techniques that demonstrated the pigment’s beauty at its best, like glazing and highlights. One such way of using ultramarine economically was by replacing some of it with Prussian blue to create the illusion that all the blue parts of an image had been painted with ultramarine:

When we are glazing Blue, the Lights may be glazed with Ultramarine, tho’ all the other Parts are done with Prussian. This Method saves a great Quantity of that valuable Colour and answers our Purpose as well as if it had all been done with Ultramarine (Bardwell 28).

12Prussian blue – chemically, an iron ferrocyanide – was serendipitously discovered in 1704 by Diesbach as he was trying to obtain the red dye “Florentine Lake” by boiling cochineal, adding alum and ferrous sulphate and precipitating it with an alkali (potash). On one occasion, he used an alkali distilled with animal oil borrowed from the German physician Johann Conrad Dippel (1673-1734). However, the “animal” part of the mixture contained iron from blood, which led to the synthesis of blue rather than red. By the year 1730, the manufacture of Prussian blue was widespread. Termed “the first modern pigment,” Prussian blue gradually gained popularity as an artistic pigment, chiefly as a cheaper alternative to the costly ultramarine. It was recommended to use it in mixtures rather than on its own for artistic purposes, but replacing ultramarine was certainly not the only function of the new blue pigment.

13Both indigo and Prussian blue attracted enormous attention among scholars, as demonstrated by the number of theses devoted to both colourants in England and France (Delamare 190-97; Lehman § 2-3). The recipe of Prussian blue was first disclosed in England by John Woodward, a former member of the Royal Society, and his colleague the chemist John Brown. In 1724, they published the description of the new blue pigment in Philosophical Transactions 33, 15-17, “Praeparatio Caerulei Prussiaci Ex Germania Missa ad. Johannem Woodward, M. D. Prof. Med. Gresh. R. S. S.” Among the other scientists intrigued by the new colourant from Berlin were the French brothers Étienne François Geoffroy (Geoffroy Ainé) and Claude Joseph Geoffroy (Geoffroy le Jeune). The chemical formula of the new blue colourant and the ways it could be perfected were at the centre of interest. In addition to scientific curiosity, the unpredictability of indigo supply also motivated research on Prussian blue (Lowengard, chap. 32). Through experiments with the chemical formula, researchers established that iron was the secret of its intense blue. A lengthy description of the chemical characteristics of Prussian blue could even be found in a non-scientific publication like A Treatise on the Art of Painting, and the Composition of Colour (1797) by de Massoul, which on several occasions touches on the iron-based nature of the blue pigment (128, 178, 181). In the United States, where Prussian blue was used from about 1723, the pigment was called “iron blue.”

14Prussian blue was initially used as an artists’ pigment. Its occurrence in paintings increased after its discovery (Feller 211) and it was employed by a number of European painters outside Britain:

It is a pigment of cool, white and blue decorative schemes, seen in the feathery touches of Watteau or Gainsborough, the bravura strokes of Tiepolo, or the calm, timeless skies of Canaletto (Kirby and Saunders 74).

It is seen in the works of artists as diverse as William Hogarth, John Constable, Van Gogh and Monet, Japanese painters and woodblock craftsmen. This was the blue Picasso favoured during his blue period. It is still very much in use: Anish Kapoor’s flattened topographical sculpture A Wing at the Heart of Things, created in 1990, is made from slate coated in Prussian blue (St. Clair 193).

15Traces of indigo have also been identified in a limited number of paintings by European artists of this time. A rare example of one of the last occurrences of indigo in an oil painting is Meleager and Atalanta (1616) by Peter Paul Rubens (Feller 101). Nevertheless, as noted by Philip Ball, indigo was for a long time the only alternative to ultramarine in painting due to the intensity of its blue shade, even though its usage as an oil paint was quite problematic (350).

16The invention of Prussian blue almost completely ousted indigo from the artistic realm. Its instability, which had been observed by the mid-eighteenth century, did not impact its popularity (Kirby and Saunders 74). Massoul repeatedly drew attention to the pigment’s tendency to turn black, while it would also frequently become greenish. The main preoccupation was to find the exact ingredients and proportions that would result in the perfect formula for an intense shade. Manufacturing Prussian blue remained an unstable process with unpredictable results, and its biggest advantage was probably the lack of a better alternative:

The common Prussian blue, however, found in the shops, which is prepared almost wholly, at present, by ignorant and sordid people, and sold at very low prices, can be very little depended upon in paintings of consequence; but whoever would have this pigment perfect, should either prepare it, or procure it to be prepared, in the proper and true manner; and then considering the high price of ultramarine, and the foulness of indigo, it may be deemed an acquisition to the art of painting (Dossie 78).

  • 5 Indigo is used in small quantities as a food colorant (E132). However, it can only be consumed in s (...)

Prussian blue was a tenth of the price of ultramarine and its covering capacity about ten times higher (Delamare 183), and although it was difficult to control its manufacture, its supply, unlike that of indigo, was not hindered by obstacles related to trade, politics, or climate (Kirby and Saunders 73, 75). Finally, despite its cyanide component, Prussian blue is not toxic and can be used as an efficient remedy for intoxication, given that its chemical formula allows for the absorption of radioactive isotopes of metals and their further evacuation from the organism5 (Delamare 187). Probably the most advantageous and valuable of all the features of Prussian blue was its versatility, the most searched-for quality in colourants. While indigo was mostly used for dyeing textile in eighteenth-century England, Prussian blue was applied for an impressive number of purposes:

The pigment [Prussian blue] has been busy colonising other industries too: it has long been used in wallpapers, house paints and textile dyes. John Herschel, a nineteenth-century British chemist, astrologer and photographer, worked out how to use it in combination with photosensitive paper to make a kind of proto-photocopy. The results, which showed up as white marks on a blue ground, became known as ‘blueprints’, a word that has come to denote any technical drawing (St. Clair 195).

  • 6 A type of printed or painted fabric popular in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.
  • 7 A blue colourant made of indigo and dissolved in sulphuric acid, brighter but less colourfast than (...)

17Scientific research contributed to the use of Prussian blue in multiple areas from textile industry to colour printing. It was Claude Joseph Geoffroy who first had the idea of producing Prussian blue on an industrial scale for textile dyeing, similarly to indigo (Delamare 192). Most of the evidence for the use of Prussian blue in textiles comes from objects, except for prize-winning essays and theses that discuss both the use of pigments and other aspects of the textile industry (Lowengard, ch. 32). In 1748, Macquer reportedly applied Prussian blue to wool and silk (Fairlie 506), while according to Ball Prussian blue was mainly used for silk (353). Apart from that, eighteenth-century indiennes6 often employed Prussian blue instead of indigo, which could not meet the requirements of these techniques (Lowengard, ch. 32). Additionally, unlike indigo or Saxon blue,7 dyeing textiles with Prussian blue meant that various shades of blue could be obtained (Delamare 203). Finally, Prussian blue was famously used in colour printing. The Picture Office, founded in 1717 by Jacob Christoph Le Blon, was the first colour reproduction manufacturer in London. Its method of colour printing consisted of using three plates corresponding to the three primary colours, blue, yellow, and red, utilising Prussian blue as one of the primary colours (Gage 169).

18According to Michel Pastoureau, the cultural popularity of blue started to emerge and grow in the twelfth century. Nonetheless, blue pigments are scarce in nature. Although blue-coloured objects may be abundant, this rarely means that they contain blue substances; more often, their blue colour is due to the reflection of blue light. In addition to this scarcity in nature, for centuries, the blue palette depended entirely on natural sources of blue colourants. The example of indigo dyestuff in the eighteenth century shows how challenging the quest for natural pigments proved to be and how greatly it depended on natural and human factors. The unintentional discovery of Prussian blue, on the other hand, demonstrated the advantages of synthesised pigments, which could be controlled comparatively easily and had virtually no dependence on external factors such as political situations, wars, uprisings, or other difficulties that affected indigo cultivation and trade. Inspired by the lucky discovery of Prussian blue and motivated by the growing need for colourfast and affordable colourants, scientists continued their investigations, and more artificial blue colourants were added to the blue palette in the following century.

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1 Indigotine is an organic compound with a distinctive blue colour found in several plants of the Indigofera genus, of which indigo (Indigofera tinctoria) and woad (Isatis tinctoria) are probably the most famous. The amount of indigotine contained varies depending on the plant (Feller 85).

2 See Christine Lehman’s essay on the memoirs on indigo and Prussian blue written during the eighteenth century.

3 Even though indigo from South Carolina was believed to be inferior to that of the Spanish colonies, it dominated the market due to its prevalence in quantity, and by the beginning of the nineteenth century, England had become the leading supplier of imported indigo (Martin 110).

4 Cochineal and madder are the sources of red pigment.

5 Indigo is used in small quantities as a food colorant (E132). However, it can only be consumed in small quantities due to its toxic nature at large doses.

6 A type of printed or painted fabric popular in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

7 A blue colourant made of indigo and dissolved in sulphuric acid, brighter but less colourfast than indigo.

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Table des illustrations

Titre Fig. 1. International survey of colour preferences
Crédits © 2018 YouGov PLC
Fichier image/png, 42k
Titre Fig. 2. The distribution of woad (Isatis tinctoria).
Crédits Copyright © 2018 CABI
Fichier image/png, 791k
Titre Fig. 3. The distribution of indigo (Indigofera tinctoria)
Crédits Copyright © 2018 CABI
Fichier image/png, 793k
Titre Fig. 4. Manufacturing indigo: harvesting, crushing leaves, fermenting them in vats, and drying them in cone-like vessels
Légende Pierre Pomet, Histoire Générale des drogues, Paris, 1694.
Crédits Copyright © Wellcome Institute Library, London
Fichier image/jpeg, 356k
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Zoriana Lotut

Zoriana Lotut is a Ph.D. candidate in the Institute of English Studies, Warsaw University, researching colour symbolism and functions in Medieval English Literature. Her article "The Use of Blue in the Middle Ages and Beyond" is published in Acta Philologica 57 (2018). Email:

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