Chasing after a coveted pigment
Over the past nine years, we've written about the color blue in the context of a natural dye made from either indigo or woad. We’ve featured a number of textile artists who have masterd the many shades of blue, who are both master dyers and weavers and turn out spectacular textiles and designs in ahues of blue.
Early last week on my Facebook feed, an author of historical fiction showed a picture of the cover of a new novel by the author Nancy Bilyeau titled The Blue. I looked it up on Amazon to discover that it was based on the rivalry between eighteenth-century porcelain factories and the secret formulas that were concocted to create dazzling dyes. The main factory featured in the story is Derby Porcelain, which had been recognized for its exquisite tableware and figurines by King George III. Derby Porcelain rebranded in 1773 as Crown Derby and later as Royal Crown Derby. The company is still in operation and held in high regard for its superior craftsmanship.
During the eighteenth century in Britain and other parts of Europe, porcelain was considered a formidable commodity. The story opens with Genevieve Planché, a young English woman who is a descendant of Huguenot refugees. Her ambition is to become an artist, but the idea of female painters in London is not taken seriously and blocked by many of the art societies in Britain. Instead, through a family connection, she acquires a position to paint porcelain at Derby Porcelain.
During a dinner party at her grandfather’s home, the conversation about her knowledge of color attracts the attention of their guest Sir Gabriel Courtenay, a nobelman with a keen interest in porcelain and the color blue. A few nights after they meet, he offers her an opportunity that intrigues her and could help reach her goal of becoming a painter. Sir Gabriel tells her that if she learns the secrets at Porcelain Derby, specifically the formula of a rumored new blue and deliver that secret to him, he will send her to Venice so that she can study painting.
The Blue was inspired by a visit to Hillcrest, the Washington D. C. estate of Marjorie Merriweather Post, Bilyeau had admired Post’s extensive collection of magnificent porcelain, much of it Sèvres from the French factory that Madame Pompadour favored and sponsored and that King Louis XV financially backed.
Bilyeau manages to artfully layer several subplots that include the lives of Huguenots refugees in London, industrial espionage and spycraft, as well as the various formulations of blue pigment from cobalt by chemists like George Brandt. However, it is a novel and some liberties are taken in the timeline of experiments. I found myself after reading the book wanting to know more abour the porcelain rivalries during that time period and reading about Sèvres. The Blue is a fun and quick read and sparks the interest of readers to learn more about the Huguenots, the craft of porcelain making, and the history of blue in art.
The Blue is available on Amazon.
Images from the following HAND/EYE Articles: