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V&A/RCA History of Design Students Explore Early Modern Artistic Materials

Students from the V&A/RCA History of Design MA have taken part in a series of workshops recreating Early Modern artistic materials and processes, including azurite paint, amber varnish and marbling. These experiments in the creation of fifteenth-century materials took place as part of a seminar and lab course called Thinking and Experiencing Techne: Cultures of Making and Knowing, which is part of a larger international research and pedagogical initiative led by Professor Pamela Smith at Columbia University, New York.

The international Making and Knowing project explores the intersection between artistic making and scientific knowing, and is based around the digitisation of a sixteenth-century French technical manuscript that contains many Early Modern recipes compiled and written by an anonymous practitioner. 

Over the past three years, postgraduate students across the world have been working alongside academic and museum-based historians of art and science, in collaboration with expert makers, to reconstruct the technical recipes contained within the sixteenth-century manuscript.

Here at the V&A/RCA History of Design programme, the hands-on workshops on azurite paint, amber varnish and marbling were preceded by a series of seminars led by Dr Simona Valeriani, Acting Head of History of Design and Dr Spike Bucklow, a conservationist and colour specialist based at Cambridge’s Hamilton Kerr institute and also currently the V&A’s Robert H. Smith scholar in residence. Insights into varnish making were gained through the help of V&A conservators Dana Melchar and Nigel Bamforth.

During these seminars, the students looked closely at how knowledge was stored and transferred by fifteenth- and sixteenth-century makers and designers, and engaged with the development of different modes and genres of technological communication – from illustrated treatise to recipe books.

Dr Simona Valeriani is confident that hands-on workshops such as these have a definite impact on the students and their research. ‘For one thing’, she explains, ‘they start to appreciate that in order to understand modernity, you need to understand what came before.’

Stephanie Blythman and Elena Portman, both first-year History of Design students, agree. They explain that by ‘experiencing the making processes ourselves, we were able to better appreciate the different forms of labour and embodied knowledge involved in early modern craftsmanship. None of us will ever look at an early modern varnished surface in the same way again!’

The students were also introduced to objects in the V&A’s collection that have been made or decorated using these particular materials or techniques. Nick Humphrey, curator in the Furniture, Fashion and Textiles department, showed the students a number of sixteenth-century wooden items and leather items, while curators Glyn Davies and Lois Salter – both involved in the Robert H. Smith Programme at the V&A – presented a selection of wooden and alabaster works from the V&A Sculpture department.

Bringing together ingredients including chalk, madder, red wine, aspic vinegar and rabbit skin glue, the students created a varnish, while for the azurite paint they followed fifteenth-century painter Cennini’s instructions, and ground azurite rock using a pestle and mortar until it reached the consistency at which at which ‘it sings’.   

The Thinking and Experiencing Techne seminar and lab course is just one of a number of hands-on courses that the RCA/V&A History of Design programme have run in the past few years; a previous iteration saw V&A/RCA History of Design students take part in workshops in the RCA foundry, in order to learn Early Modern techniques for medal making. Read more on the programme blog.


Thinking and Experiencing Techne took place in collaboration with:  Robert H. Smith Programme; V&A Conservation Department; V&A FTF Department; V&A Sculpture Department