James Leman’s glorious palette – Part 2

This series of blog entries describes the scientific analysis of pigments and dyes used on the Leman Album designs.


In March 2017 the population of the V&A Science Section, normally amounting to a meagre 5 bodies, ballooned to a whopping 11 (Figure 1).

Figure 1: V&A Science Section population count – updated in March 2017.

Figure 1: V&A Science Section population count – updated in March 2017.

This was due to a very welcome invasion of MOLAB foreign scientists from Perugia, Italy, who spent 5 days at the V&A analysing the Leman album with us.

Figure 2: MOLAB 1 A visiting scientists in front of a textile made to Leman’s design (T.156-2016). Photography by Eileen Budd © Victoria and Albert Museum.

Figure 2: MOLAB 1 A visiting scientists in front of a textile made to Leman’s design (T.156-2016). Photography by Eileen Budd © Victoria and Albert Museum.

MOLAB stands for MObile LABoratory and is made of a number of European laboratories and research centres which, within the framework of IPERION CH, provide their portable scientific equipment and expertise to cultural heritage institutions. Museums and galleries in Europe bid for MOLAB time and, if they are successful, they receive a visit by MOLAB, fully funded by the EU.

Figure 3: MOLAB van used to deliver portable scientific equipment to cultural heritage institutions. Photography by Costanza Miliani, MOLAB.

Figure 3: MOLAB van used to deliver portable scientific equipment to cultural heritage institutions. Photography by Costanza Miliani, MOLAB.

This is exactly what happened to us: we put in a bid in September 2016, competing with many heritage institutions from other countries. We were successful, and were awarded three successive MOLAB visits, each by a different European research group.

In March 2017 MOLAB 1A researchers from Perugia came to the V&A with five different sets of state-of-the-art scientific equipment to help us analyse the Leman Album using non-invasive methods to which we do not have access in-house (yet!). The analysis work was coordinated by Erasmus intern Rosarosa Manca, who spent a few months at the V&A helping with the Leman analyses.

Figure 4: Scientist Chiara Grazia analysing two of the Leman designs with her MOLAB equipment. Photography by Lucia Burgio © Victoria and Albert Museum.

Figure 4: Scientist Chiara Grazia analysing two of the Leman designs with her MOLAB equipment. Photography by Lucia Burgio © Victoria and Albert Museum.

Some of the MOLAB scientific methods are particularly indicated for the analysis of natural colourants derived from plants and insects.

Other MOLAB methods allowed us to map the pigments used on the designs. This was useful where we suspected degradation processes, for example where white pigments had darkened to red, brown or even black. Figure 5 shows two Leman designs where lead white has darkened, probably due to environmental pollution.

Figure 5: Discoloured white pigment on Leman designs on the left, and corresponding lead map on the right. Image prepared by Rosarosa Manca, Erasmus intern.

Figure 5: Discoloured white pigment on Leman designs on the left, and corresponding lead map on the right. Image prepared by Rosarosa Manca, Erasmus intern.

A technique called FTIR (which stands for Fourier-transform infra-red spectroscopy) helped us to confirm and support the identification of a number of pigments and dyes which we had already recognised with other methods.

Next time I will tell you more about the visit by the other two MOLAB groups, who came to work on the Leman album at the end of March and in June 2017.


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