The Art of Dyeing in Four Volumes

Hand drawn title page to Volume two of the four recipe books. Richard Comstive collection: Rossendale Museum

With an eye on the relationship between natural science collections and their cultural, social, and historical contexts, NLOB seeks to explore how such collections can contribute to museums broader activities, in say the arts and education. Sometimes very little work is needed to illuminate this relationship and to see the potentials that such collections have in engaging with a variety of groups in a number of ways. The early nineteenth century notebooks of the Rawtenstall chemist Richard Comstive are one such example. His notebooks came to the Rossendale museum on long-term loan  in 1985 and represent his chemical experiments while at the Rose Bank print works. I’ve already sketched out a little of Comstive’s historical context in First forays in the field: Rossendale below. However, such descriptions do very little justice to the insights and pleasure that can be gained from looking through his four notebooks.

Fabric samples, recipes and instructions. Richard Comstive collection: Rossendale Museum

As can be seen from the samples he used to illustrate his recipes and preparation notes, he was able to achieve a striking richness of colour with his dyes, which protected from the rigours of the last one hundred and sixty-five years, seem as bright today as they did in the 1830s.

Richard Comstive collection: Rossendale Museum

Many of the designs are remarkably modern in appearance and serve to remind us just how progressive the early nineteenth century was. Certainly, historians such as Hannah Barker have shown how prevalent retail had become by the end of the eighteenth and the start of the nineteenth century and how general social activities, the rise of the middling sorts, cultural consumption and sociability were by this time well established in the bigger cities and towns. The notebooks provide a full-colour glimpse into that world but leave me wondering how it must have been for the workers of the mills, the printers and dyers who made these colourful fabrics, many of which as dresses would ultimately grace the grandiose social Victorian social events like conversaziones – a world away from the lives of those who made them.

Richard Comstive collection: Rossendale Museum

Of course, another way of thinking through the Comstive collection of notebooks is to see them as reiterating that dynamic or tension between nature and industry. As a chemist Comstive would have also been a botanist and his recipes bare evidence of his botanical scholarship but in so doing they also reveal the very close relationship he developed between that scholarly dedication to nature and his exploitation of it.

Water Lillies. Richard Comstive collection: Rossendale Museum

What is striking with many of the samples in Comstive’s notebooks is that not only is there a natural scientific enterprise going on but also a visual, or aesthetic, homage to nature — many of the design are of flowers and plants. This reiterates again the dynamic between the scientificised industrial growth — coming out of an exploitation of nature — and a seemingly equal and opposite romanticization and increasingly nostalgic philosophy towards the natural world.

Richard Comstive collection: Rossendale Museum

However, these more pleasing aesthetic homages were not meant for Comstive or indeed the printers who laboured at Rose Bank, often working as they did, with dangerous chemicals. At the very end of one of his notebooks Comstive scribbled down a recipe for what he described as “A famous American receipt

for the Rheumatism”, observing that this “was generally found to banish the rheumatism and even contraction in the joints”. In a mill town like Rawtenstall Comstive’s botanical knowledge would have made him useful as an apothecary or druggist. Certainly, for the greater proportion of the towns’ residents, the industrial exploitation of nature had meant little more than gruelling labour, with little time to rest, and in very poor working and housing conditions. Reading the recipe, it’s easy to imagine how he would have been regularly visited while at the print works by factory workers in need of pain relief, and reminds us of the multidisciplinary nature and utility of an expertise such as botany in a town such as Rawtenstall at the beginning of the nineteenth century.

Comstive’s Famous American recipe for Rheumatism:

  1. Take of garlic two cloves
  2. Of gum ammoniac one drahm
  3. Bruise them together and make them into bolusses [sic] with water
  4. Swallow one of them at night and one of them in the morning
  5. Drink while taking this receipt
    sassafras tea, made very strong

“This is generally found to banish the rheumatism and even contraction of the joints in five times taking”

If you visit Rossendale Museum you will find many of Comstives recipes and samples digitized and available for browsing on the Museums computers as well as an excellent historical account of Comstive and the Rose Bank Print Works.

Mark Steadman



Filed under Meanings

5 responses to “The Art of Dyeing in Four Volumes

  1. David Craven

    It has been said to me in the past that natural history was the preserve of the upper classes. This is simply untrue, as most of us reading this know.

    I was amazed when I moved over to the North West to discover that Botany had been such a keen passion for workers in indiustrial towns. Coming from a non-industrial city like York, it just wasn’t something I thought about. But, of course, it shouldn’t have been a surprise at all. If you were stuck inside all day, wouldn’t your real desire then be to get out and explore the natural world?

    As I visit museums around the region, you can clearly see a common thread in collecting practice. People collected what was easy to collect; plants, shells, fossils, eggs, insects. While it may not have been the best approach from a conservation perspective, it did at least provide a deep connection to the natural world.

    I sometimes worry that level of engagement is being lost. People get their natural world fed to them through television (not to knock Sir David!), and don’t take as much interest in the fabulous wild places around them. There are many great projects that are changing this, but do we retain that inate interest?

    Is this something we have lost today?
    Or am I romanticisng the past?

    • “I sometimes worry that level of engagement is being lost. People get their natural world fed to them through television (not to knock Sir David!), and don’t take as much interest in the fabulous wild places around them. There are many great projects that are changing this, but do we retain that inate interest?”

      We would guess/hope that it is retained! Survival thing? And are we being a bit romantic about the past here?

      You could argue that relationships between people have changed even more than the relationship between people and nature, and that this is possibly a more problematic area to negotiate. Worth asking the question in what ways are these two relationships interlinked?

  2. Sam Alberti

    As you know, Anne Secord’s wonderful work on artisanal botany, and indeed on botany and Gaskell, is pertinent

  3. Beautiful books! The link between nature and industry, or nature and medicine, or maybe even in all areas of life, seems to be more immediate, though it is hard to know if this was the case for the majority of the population at the time, or just a select few.

  4. PS. We were also reminded of a documentary in which a lady dedicated her entire allotment to the cultivation of plants that could be used to produce natural dyes. Strips of coloured fabric were hung up over her shed.

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