Wednesday, December 5, 2018

M U M M Y BROWN: Colour of the month #7

Photo: Studio Laura Daza

While studying Egyptian history and historical pigments I found an incredible and scary story behind one of these pigments.  Mummy brown, Egyptian mummy or caput mortuum, which means dead head in latin, was a pigment favoured by Pre-Raphaelite painters.

Literally it derives from its source; Egyptian mummies, both human and animal, which were ground up and mixed with myrrh and pitch.

The Pre-Raphaelites were a group of English poets; painters founded in 1948 rejected the accepted style of painting that idealised nature and beauty, forming a secret society, through which they hoped to revitalise Britain’s painting.

Mummy Brown
‘The corpse pigment’

Etymology: mummia
Source: animal/mummy
Historical name: Egyptian brown, caput mortuum
Colour range: greenish brown to a burnt umber transparent

Photo: Kkgas for Studio Laura Daza

In 1904 C. Roberson, an English colour maker company made a post  “We require a mummy for making colour. Surely a 2,000-year-old mummy of an Egyptian monarch may be used for adorning a noble fresco . . . without giving offence to the ghost of the departed gentlemen or his descendants” (Woodcock, 1996).

Photos: Harvard Art Musuem online 01. Egyptian mummy dealer 02. Mummy fragment 03. Mummy powder 04. Mummy brown paint

The export of mummies from Egypt to Europe increased tremendously during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries becoming big business even though it was illegal. Mummy powder or mummeia was mass-produced in shops across Europe used by apothecaries for medicinal purposes, applied to the skin or mixed to drinks and food and for painting.

Photo: Katya de Grunwald for Studio Laura Daza

‘An early mention of mummy as a colourant occurs in Shakespeare’s Othello, in reference to the colour of a silk handkerchief (1602-04). It also appears that mummy was used as an oil paint as early as the close of the sixteenth century’. (Walsh and Chaplin, 2008) It can be said painters prized this pigment for its novelty and aesthetic qualities, good transparency able to mix with other colours. Martin Drölling’s L’interieur d’une cuisine from 1815 is thought to contain extensive amounts of mummy.

Photo: Kkgas for Studio Laura Daza

The colour’s popularity and practice did not end until the 1960’s when paint companies ran out of mummies, bad press and material instability. Today modern and synthetic pigments are available in the market such as Indian red and Caput mortuum but will never have the same provenance.

Experimenting with Mummy Brown was a difficult task. Sourcing materials that could have been available to painters during that time and simulating processes was a complete challenge to me.

If you are interested in learning more about this colour, you may buy our DIY Colour Recipe Book, the printed or ebook version here.