In Lovely Blueness: Adventures in Troubled Light

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In 2004 Colm Toibin curated an exhibition at the Chester Beatty Library in Dublin called 'Blue' which consisted of blue objects from the collection. This is his introduction to the catalogue.

The mystique of blue, and its allure, in Europe from the thirteen century onwards arose from its exotic origins. Blue colours were revered in ancient Egypt; evidence of the use of indigo dyes in the east exists from as early as the second century BC. David Bomford and Ashok Roy write in ‘Colour’ about the use of blue in thirteen century Italy: ‘Foremost in quality and reputation was the beautiful brilliant pure blue of genuine ultramarine, a mineral pigment extracted from the semi-precious stone, lapis lazuli…Its striking colour and great permanence in most media guaranteed its desirability; however, its cost was very high, since until the nineteenth century it had to be imported into Europe from its only known source - the famous mines at Sar-I-Sang in Afghanistan.’(31) It was more expensive than pure gold and contracts for commissions in Italy specified that the painter use genuine ultramarine, sometimes providing for separate payment to cover the high cost of the pigment. (32) In ‘The Materials and Techniques of Medieval Painting’, Daniel V. Thompson has written that to ‘exhibit this beautiful and costly colour in conjunction with metallic gold was to reach the peak of highest elegance in appearance, in associations and in intrinsic worth.’ (33)
The commercial battle between woad, manufactured mainly in Northern Europe, and indigo, ‘was fierce and prolonged, in some places lasting well into the eighteenth century,’ according to Jenny Balfour-Paul in her book ‘Indigo’. (34) The indigo plant was grown in India and the east; from the ninth century it was cultivated in the Arab world and was a major crop in the Jordan valley until the nineteenth century. (35) ‘Indigo could produce a blue that was ten times darker than that of woad,’ Pastoureau writes, ‘but it cost thirty to forty times as much. Indigo was available in Venice by the twelfth century and it appeared in London, Marseilles, Genoa and Bruges in the thirteenth century.’ (36) Vasco de Gama’s circumnavigation of the Cape of Good Hope in 1498, however, meant that indigo could be imported directly by sea. ‘In France,’ Balfour-Paul writes, ‘the landowning plutocracy of Languedoc had gown fat on woad profits and had little difficulty persuading the government, which gained much tax revenue from woad, to ban the import of indigo in 1598. Eleven years later the king issued a draconian edict which actually sentenced to death anyone found using “the deceitful and injurious dye called inde (ital)”.’ (37) The edict was necessary because the superiority of indigo as a dye over woad was by then generally recognised. Once a better quality indigo was discovered in the new world, mainly the West Indies, Mexico and South America, much cheaper indigo arrived in Europe, its cultivation depending heavily on slavery (‘Not a chest of indigo reached England without being stained with human blood,’ one commentator said in 1848 (37)). Woad began a terminal decline, which indigo would suffer in turn in 1878 when a synthetic version began to be manufactured in Europe. (39)
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