I want to take a moment to acknowledge what could be the most fascinating colour I come across so far. I’m gonna get geeky here. Hold on. Let me grab my soapbox…
*Drags out soapbox
Ladies and gentlemen, I give you “Mummy Brown.” It’s also dubbed Egyptian Brown or Caput Mortuum – which translates as “dead man’s head” and is a beautifully rich brown pigment that would sit comfortably between burnt umber and raw umber in your pack of infinite coloured pencils and was one of the favourite colours of the Pre-Raphaelites.
Now, get your brain around this…
Mummy brown was originally produced in the 16th and 17th centuries from white pitch, myrrh, and the ground-up remains of ancient Egyptian mummies! Yes, you read that correctly. Ground-up remains of mummies, both human and feline, but mainly human because of the historic embarming techniques. And not just Egyptian, but also Guanche mummies of the Canary Islands!!
Mummy Brown has a good transparency to it and was applied as glazes, shadows, flesh tones and shading. However, in addition to its tendency to crack, it was extremely variable, and since it contained ammonia and particles of human fat, it was likely to affect other colours with which it was used.
Historically, demand for Mummy Brown once outstripped the available supply of true Egyptian mummies, leading to the occasional substitution of contemporary corpses of slaves or criminals. In 1564, a mummy seller in Alexandria displayed forty specimens he claimed to have manufactured himself and worked equally as well as those hundreds of years older.
Mummy Brown began to fall from popularity during the late 19th century when its ingredients became more widely known. The Pre-Raphaelite artist Edward Burne-Jones was reportedly so upset to learn of his favourite paint’s ingredient, he went so far as to have ceremonially buried his tubes of Mummy Brown in his back garden!
By 1915, the demand for Mummy Brown had fallen so much that one London seller claimed that he could satisfy the demands of his arty farty customers for twenty years from a single Egyptian mummy.
The French artist Martin Drölling is reported to have used Mummy Brown made with the remains of French kings disinterred from the Royal Abbey of St-Denis in Paris. It’s been suggested that his beautiful L’interieur d’une cuisine (that’s the name of the painting) is an example of extensive use of the pigment.
By the start of the 20th century, Mummy Brown had largely ceased production in its traditional form, owing to a continued decline in the supply of ancient mummies thus hugely increasing its value, coupled with the lack of demand from artists now the true ingredients of the pigment has been revealed!
Fascinating or gross???
I LOVE these little nuggets of history…
…and there’s so much more. Now I’ve scratched at the scab, I’ve discovered some amazing ingredients. But I’ll save them for another day.