Back to the seventeenth century, where I am working my way through a series of instructional books produced to meet the apparent and universal demand for better health, more wealth, and an enhanced quality of life. For most of yesterday I was in the company of William Salmon, Doctor of Physick, who wrote an comprehensive and detailed compendium titled Polygraphice: or The Arts of Drawing, Engraving, Etching, Limning, Painting, Washing, Varnishing, Gilding, Colouring, Dyeing, Beautifying and Perfuming, which was published in eight expanding editions from 1671 to 1701. Here we have the third edition, from the University of Heidelberg, which includes an additional “Discourse on Perspective and Chiromancy”. In some ways, this is your typical early modern mishmash of arts, “sciences”, and a bit of magic, but in other ways it is very precise and technical, the instructions for perspective and shading particularly so. Salmon is always referred to as an “empiric” in terms of his medical practice, but his publications are so diverse one assumes they are primarily derivative—yet there seems to be some strong opinions among the instructions.
And the long seventeenth-century title does not mislead us: Salmon offers up instructions on all aspects of drawing, engraving, and etching, he tells us how to mix up paint colours, of both water and oil, and how to gild, varnish and dye, and then he makes the remarkable transition from painting canvases to rooms to faces! This is the rationalization: some may wonder that we should meddle with such a subject as this, in this place, but let such know; the Painting of a deformed Face, and the licking over of old, withered, wrinkled, and weather-beaten skin are as proper appendices to a painter, as the rectification of his Errors in a piece of Canvas. Well. Since he’s in the realm of cosmetics, he tells us how to make a variety of waters, and touches on alchemy for a bit—more in forthcoming editions. I was delighted to see a very early reference to “Popinjay Green”, which I think must be my favorite color (no–apparently not that early a reference: the Oxford English Dictionary tells me that the word first appeared in English in 1322, and the reference to the color began appearing in the sixteenth century).
There is very little creativity in this text about art, but the time, place, author, and genre dictate didacticism. Salmon instructs us not only how to make paints, but also which colors to apply to which subjects, whether it’s the sky or the clouds or the grass in a “landskip” or the skin of the subject of a portrait. Once the paintings are complete, he tells his readers where they should be “disposed of” (hung) in their houses: royalty in the dining room, forbear all “obscene pictures” in the banqueting rooms, and family pictures in the bedchamber. Art is essentially skilled imitation of nature, in an ideal sense: the work of the Painter is to express the exact imitation of natural things; wherein you are to observe the excellencies and beauties of the piece, but to refuse its vices.
The dining room at the royal palace of Holyroodhouse in Edinburgh, over which King George IV reigns.