Rethinking oil paints

My previous computer being heavily smote by lightning in a recent thunderstorm, I’ve resorted to borrowing books from friends while I wait for the replacement to arrive.  The current tome is Ralph Mayer’s The Artist’s Handbook of Materials and Techniques. This was one of the standard texts while Shawn was at uni, so has been gathering dust for a while.

The first chapter covers the history of the various types of paint in use and manner of application at different periods of history. Somehow, seeing it in ink on paper clarified the timeline that I may have inadvertently clouded in my previous post on the subject. In that post, despite my own observation about the paint work on the Warwick Jacks, I skimmed over oil paints and gave undeserving emphasis to tempera. This was partly because I’d underestimated the effect of fashion on the selection of a paint for use on a medium and partly because I was trying to avoid a 3-week drying time on each colour.

Mayer claims tempera was not just superseded as I said, but was obsolete and as a generalisation, was not used from the end of the sixteenth century through to the revival in the early nineteenth century because it wasn’t capable of producing the flashy effects that could be obtained from the latest oil paints. He states “Tempera painting was condemned by them as inferior to oil…” [Mayer, 3rd ed. p22]

The section on oil paints is illuminating (sorry, pun intended). There are two relevant parts, one on the availability of the oil medium and solvents and the other on the applications to which they were put. I’ll deal with the former section first. An oil suitable for using as paint has to be a drying oil. Suitable oils include linseed, poppy, walnut and hempseed, with recipes for the preparation going all the way back to Galen in the second century. Technological improvements in refining and the introduction of distillation to art materials in the fifteenth century improved the clarity and performance of oil paints.

Mayer has access to some sources I hadn’t even thought of checking. I’ll quote this next part in full rather than muddle it in the retelling.

Instances of their use [drying oils] in paint are found quite frequently in early records and in accounts of expenditures for materials. The use of such paint,however, was confined to commonplace or simple decorative purposes; no traditional method for work of a purely artistic pretensions were established until later times. From an examination of old expense records, oil paint is seen to have been widely used in England for decorative purposes at least as early as the thirteenth century. [p23]

I think the use on leather vessels and buckets would constitute commonplace decorative purposes. Of course, my pervious post still applies to pre-13th century use.


While I mentioned in that previous post that medieval gouache (Ital: aguazzo, meaning “mud”) was different from today’s product, even I’m surprised by how much different it is. The technique first appears in the decorative and pictorial embellishments to medieval illuminated manuscripts. The earliest modern examples are the 16th century German artist Albrecht Dürer (the fur on the hare, for example), and a series of paintings by Gaspard Poussin (1615-1675). The term applied to the early 16th century practice of applying oil paint over a tempera base. [Again from Mayer,  3rd ed. p306 with  the Wikipedia article using the same section in the fifth ed.]


I’m going to do some tests over the next couple of weeks and report the results. I’ve found a recent article on How to Use Oil Paint on Leather and other than the possible/probable mistake of diluting oil paint with water, it uses much the same process as Theophilus in Book 1, Chapter 22, Horse Saddles and Carrying Chairs. It also fits the description of gouache given above.

Samples will be tested in varying real-life conditions such as spilled beer, being left in the rain, washing up and any other torture that I can come up with. I’ll do a control with the same tempera I’ve been previously using as well. Wish me luck.

New thoughts on Dominoes

I was going to do the shoehorns post as the inaugural skeletal materials post, but life, dining chairs and procrastination about cleaning horns for use have gotten in the way. Enjoy this brief post I wrote some time back on dominos that fits a recent theme.

At the start of chapter 3 of the forthcoming second edition of the Routier Gaming Manual[1], I pontificate:

There are no references to dominos in western sources before the middle of the 18th century, when domino games appear to have been played in Italy and France. They are kept in this volume mainly so the Routiers have something to do with their dominoes.  

Early 18th century bone domino found in The Solent, allegedly lost from a French prison hulk… or is it?

And fair enough too, this is the view held by most serious scholars of the introduction of different games into Western Europe.  Strutt (1801) says, “Domino… a very childish sport imported from France a few years back”. My innocent enough enquiry to the Mary Rose Trust in 1996 about the photo to the right (simply captioned “Domino found on the Mary Rose”) resulted in the photo being taken down from the site and a personal apology to me from one of the senior archaeologists. I scored some nice archaeological drawings of combs, arrow spacers and book covers for my efforts. In 2003, I also queried a display of a single domino labelled “Medieval” in the Southampton Archaeological Museum, pointing out that their own database showed it as probably 18th century.[2]

The Southampton domino in question. It’s 14mm wide and 23mm long so almost exactly the same size as the Mary Rose find.

There’s only one problem… I just got my copy of the Mary Rose personal effects book and now I have to rewrite the intro. They were obviously prepared for people like me, the drawing of artefact 79A0665, Single Bone Domino, (complete, 25.8 x 13.3mm) comes with the accompanying text: “… was found in an insecure context on the Upper deck area… It is likely, given the provenance of the object, that the single Mary Rose domino post-dates the wreck.” So, having safely covered themselves against future emails, they fire a full broadside against people like me. “However, dominos from such earlier contexts are attested, though rare. One such with a drilled number was found in Oxford and was thought to come from a context ‘no later than the sixteenth or early seventeenth-century’ (Henig, 1976, 218).” [their emphasis] . They continue, “… The form of the Mary Rose domino closely resembles post-medieval examples from Plymoth (seventeenth century; Fairclough, 1976. 129 no. 39), Southampton (probably eighteenth century; Platt and Coleman-Smith 1975, fig. 249 no. 1950)…  Not satisfied with that, they then drag out a textual reference relevant to date of the ship. “An early reference to a game called dominoes occurs during Henry VIII’s divorce proceedings against Queen Catherine of Aragon when he resumed his gaming habit, and in January 1530 he lost £450 at dominoes at Greenwich and Whitehall (Williams 1971, 122; Privy Papers and Expenses of Henry VIII).”[3]

I’m gratified that at no other point in the book, do Gardiner and Allen go to such lengths to prove something which they say probably isn’t from the ship could have been if it really wanted to.

References and Notes

Just in case you want to follow this further…

Before the Mast: Life and Death Aboard the Mary Rose – The Archaeology of the Mary Rose Volume 4, edited by Gardiner and Allen, The Mary Rose Trust Ltd, Portsmouth, 2005. ISBN 0-9544029-4-4

 The Southampton Archaeological Museum is on line, the domino entry is at

 Henig, M. 1976. “The small finds”.  I G. Lambrick & H Woods, Excavations on the second site of the Dominican Priory, Oxford, Oxeniensia 41, 213-22.
 Faiclough, G.J. 1979. St Anrdews Street 1976. Plymouth: Plymouth Museum Archaeological Series 2
 Platt, C. 1975. “Excavations in Medieval Southampton. Volume 2: The Finds“. pp.274, fig. 249,
 Williams, N. 1971. Henry VIII and his Court. New York: Macmillan
 Strutt, J. 1801. The Sports and Pastimes of the People of England. (On line at

[1] To be published In The Fullness Of Time™

[2] Serial offender, m’Lud. I do have a nice letter from Warwick Castle thanking me for the information I sent them challenging their dating of a leather jack on stylistic grounds.

[3] This is all on p140. 

That’s not from armour.

Many of you will know of the UK Portable Antiquities Scheme and its excellent on-line database. I’m an occasional visitor and usually run a simple search on the Primary Material: Leather to see what has been added since my last visit. I did it again last week and this one came up.

Identified as a strap from a piece of armour such as a breast plate which would have been worn in the civil war era.

I’ve linked the picture to the full record for the item. Those of you who know me will be starting to wonder what I’ve done… I’m afraid I’m a repeat offender.  An example is here, but there are plenty of others. I disagree with the identification of the item, and think it is from a late 18th or early 19th century leather bucket. I’ve summarised my case in the comment on the database record but would like to provide some information and examples here that I can’t on that site. Have a good look at the database record, possibly keep it open in another window. Note the curve in the object, the closeness and type of rivets and washers and even the number of layers. The dimensions are relevant, particularly the thickness. I’ll repeat them here.

Length:       33 mm (this doesn’t accord with the scale in the photograph, either)
Width:        25 mm
Thickness: 10 mm

Let’s check the confidence with which the identification was made.

Natasha Ferguson from the Centre for Battlefield Archaeology in Glasgow has seen a photograph of this item and says it is probably a ‘strap from a piece of armour such as a breast plate which would have been worn in the civil war era’.

It is also identified as a “battlefield find”. Note that the identification is from a photograph and is only “probably”. Putting those together, I’m recognising a pattern of  “it is from a battlefield so it must be from armour” much in the same way that any left shoe found is a “ritual object“.

So let’s have a look at some of the leather straps on the types of armour in the period in question. It is a little complex as armour was made in a number of factories in Blighty and lots was left over from previous wars and also imported from Europe in some quantity.  One of the constants is that the leather straps are only one layer of leather thick. The first example is from the York Castle Museum.

Low view from level with the pikeman's left knee would have been, showing the waist belt and the inside of the shoulder straps. Some of the rivets and washers can be seen.

Nowhere does this armour have flat headed rivets or round washers. This one is of English manufacture. Here’s another one of European origin.

Dutch Pikeman's Armour, 1640s

This one is in the Leeds Armouries. Again, the straps aren’t 10mm thick, the rivets all have domed heads and if you look at the inside, the washers are square. The last one is a side view of one in the Dover Museum that was on loan from Leeds.

Side view, English Pike Armour, Dover Museum.

The other forms such as the heavy cuirassier armour follow the same pattern, I won’t bore you further with more armour photos but I do have photos of at least 50 contemporary armours and all follow the same pattern.

Having demonstrated (to my satisfaction anyway) that it isn’t an armour strap, I suppose I should now provide some evidence that it is what I think it is. Have a look at the next couple of photos and make up your own mind.

A modern copy of a water bucket carried on the Victory.

While this is a reproduction, the details are fundamentally correct. Note the spacing of the rivets and the arrangement of the washers. Seen that curve somewhere before?  Here’s another shot of a reproduction from underneath. 

Looking up at one of the Victory's leather buckets.

The sides of the bucket are considerable thinner than the thickness of the base, but it still illustrates my point. If you were to break off the bit with the four rivets to the left of the painted numbers, the piece would be about 25mm high to the crease in the base, about  65mm long and about 8mm thick.

The oldest riveted leather bucket I’ve seen is one dated either 1660 or 1666 in the Museum of London. It is very different in form to the Victory’s, although there are a number the same shape and construction as the Victory’s and dating to the turn of the nineteenth century in antique shops around the world.

I really think the Portable Antiquities Scheme are looking at a later intrusion with this object. The identification from a photograph possible means the context or stratigraphy were absent when the identification was done and too much emphasis may have been placed on it being from a mid-seventeenth century battlefield site. The find was found using a metal detector, meaning reasonably shallow and from ploughed land, leaving plenty of opportunity for later period objects to be mixed in with earlier objects.


McIntosh, F (2009) LVPL-9CD9F4 A POST MEDIEVAL Strap Fitting Webpage available at: [Accessed: 12/12/2010 11:45:00 AM]

Where is it?

Try this quick quiz…

I need help. Where is this bracer? It is in one of the UK Musea, but the image and text files on my PC have become separated and I can no longer identify it. It is another example of an item of English manufacture decorated with fleur de lys

There’s a couple the same shape from the Mary Rose, but this isn’t from there. I think the period is late Elizabeth to Commonwealth, and the file name is AN00464658_001.jpg if that helps.

All you’ll get is a warm feeling and my gratitude.

Contemporary Makers: Original 17th-18th Century Leather Powder Horn

Over on Contemporary Makers, they have a nice post on a leather powder horn. There’s two things about it that interest me (ignoring the claim that LR stands for Louis Roy although the justification for a French origin looks at least possible). The photo at the end of the post shows a fleur de lis that looks like it could have been done with one of Hugh’s stamps. This extends the possible period for this stamp by another few hundred years, well into the modern period.

The other thing is that there is another one dated 1649 in the Victoria & Albert Museum. Unfortunately, it isn’t listed on the website so I can’t link to an image. Having dealt with the V&A on the attribution of a particular gaming pouch (a uniquely English form) as being French, I received the reply that the identification that these objects were of French origin was made by a curator in 1856 based solely on use of the fleur de lis for the decoration. Things got somewhat awkward when I pointed out all the other objects in the collection that had the same decoration but were identified as English or Spanish. I’m rambling but my point is not to trust the stated origin without some other validation of the claim.

The stitching is particularly fine, to keep the powder in. It looks like it was made and decorated on a last. I’m not convinced the leather was hardened, as the embossing would have distorted as the leather shrunk.

Here’s the link to the post, it is worth a look.

Contemporary Makers: Original 17th-18th Century Leather Powder Horn.