Dangerous Materials

Wallace Connections

Dangerous Materials

DANGEROUS MATERIALS

Art may be a wonderful source of comfort and inspiration but historically it has not always been safe for its makers or the environment.

Earth Day is in April, and in 2021 #WallaceConnections looked at art materials that are toxic or damaging for the environment.

A painting of Jupiter and Callisto
François Boucher, Jupiter and Callisto, 1769 (P446).

Poisonous Pigments

Lead, mercury, arsenic… These are words associated with toxicity. Who would expect to find them populating a painter’s palette?

And yet white lead is a basic lead carbonate, the bright red vermilion is made by grinding a powder of cinnabar or mercury sulfide, and the brilliant orange realgar derives from arsenic salts. These are just some of the poisonous pigments that eighteenth-century French painters used extensively. It is no wonder that many artists experienced health problems in later life!

The great François Boucher — well known for his extravagant use of colour— certainly suffered for his art, although he painted right up until his death. Late in life, around the time he made Jupiter and Callisto shown here, he complained that colours appeared muddy and that his vision was reduced: ‘[I see] only earth colours where others [see] vermilion [bright red]’.

- Dr Yuriko Jackall, Head of Curatorial and Curator of French Paintings

An ivory sculpture of the Virgin and Child
Virgin and Child, France, 14th century (S253).

Ivory

Ivory is amongst the most controversial materials in museums. Elephant poaching and illegal ivory trade continue although stricter laws are being enacted. The Wallace Collection holds 573 objects with ivory, all acquired before 1890. They include works of very high artistic and cultural value, such as this fourteenth-century figure of Virgin and Child made in France, and the relief with The Toilet of Bathsheba by François Bossuit, a renowned seventeenth-century Flemish sculptor who specialised in ivory.

An ivory sculpture of the Toilet of Bathsheba
Francis van Bossuit, The Toilet of Bathsheba, c. 1680–90 (S263).

We also have miniatures painted on ivory, and various functional items made entirely or partly of ivory, for example, carved gunpowder flasks and tobacco graters.

Not all of the artworks have been confirmed as being elephant ivory and some are from the tusks or teeth of other animals. The majority of our collection is on display. We hope that you will appreciate the beauty of art, but also reflect on the ethical aspect of these works.

- Ada de Wit, Curator of Works of Art & Sculpture

A mahogany-veneered chest-of-drawers
Attributed to Bernard Molitor, Chest-of-drawers, c. 1788 (F249).

Mahogany

This beautiful chest-of-drawers is veneered with thin layers of mahogany, a hardwood popular in French furniture during the last decades of the eighteenth century. Its marbled vein and rich colour offered a seemingly restrained alternative to the marquetry decorations in vogue earlier in the century, rather in tune with the Anglomania of the 1780s.

Initially imported from Jamaica, mahogany was used in Britain from the 1730s on such a large scale that, by the 1790s, it was difficult to obtain commercially viable wood from the island. Its exploitation expanded to other Caribbean islands and, later, to Central and South America. With this high demand over three centuries, today mahogany is listed as vulnerable by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

- Félix Zorzo, Curatorial Assistant

Discover more