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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
Comstive’s Famous American recipe for Rheumatism:
- Take of garlic two cloves
- Of gum ammoniac one drahm
- Bruise them together and make them into bolusses [sic] with water
- Swallow one of them at night and one of them in the morning
- 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.