Indiana Gentle and the search for Manganese Blue
The journey started as many often begin. A casual comment to others, like touch paper to fireworks. The others in this case, Art Technicians.
I adopted the guise of Dirk Gently, Holistic Detective, and casually asked the Art technicians if they knew where I might get some Manganese Blue artists water-colour paint? Mr Jones took a drag on his roll-up, blowing smoke across to Jason. The atmosphere was thick with uncertainty as Jason thumbed through an old copy of Daler Rowney. I noted the phone number on the back of the book, 01344-424621. The tension was mounting, when suddenly: 'I know that code!' exclaimed Jason, as he shot a sideways glance to Mr Jones. '108XXX(t)D'. It was time to leave. I couldn't risk outstaying my welcome, besides, I'd finished my tea!
I punched out the number and waited expectantly for the link. It was a woman's voice with a man's attitude. With the mere mention of Manganese Blue, I knew I'd touched a sore point. '...no longer available, but you could try London.' I tried the number given, 0171-6368241, and got Pat. She immediately suggested calling the number I'd just tried moments before. 'Manganese Blue is very rare. As far as I know all the supplies in London have been bought up by artists.' I held on, hoping for another angle. 'Ask to speak to Tom in the lab. He may be working on a synthetic version.' I was about to hang up, when Pat volunteered a couple of other numbers: Cornelisson's (0171-6361045) and Fitzpatrick's (0181-9857865). I phoned Daler Rowney's headquarters again, this time asking for Tom. 'It's no longer available, and due to difficulties with brightness and opacity, it's not easy to copy. You could try blending phthalo (Thyamine) blue/green shade with Corelium Zinc White'. It was time to try Fitzpatrick's. So far I'd drawn a blank on Jason's code for Daler Rowney. It was time for some hard talking.
Pip, of A P Fitzpatrick's seemed to be the person to hard talk to. He told me he could supply a sample of Manganese Blue pigment which I could try. However, he only had the dark blue variety - though he could get the lighter blue in due course. It seemed that the dark blue originated in Korea. The only people who might have the paint are Old Holland Water-colours. I suggested I might contact them. 'They're in the Netherlands!' retorted Pip. The lighter pigment, which originates in Afghanistan, will run out soon, but I hope to get some by the end of January.' He finished by giving me details of the cost per 100 grams, together with the cost of paint per 5 ml tube. I was getting closer. It was time to try Cornellisen's. I met with the same initial response. 'Only two manufacturers world-wide used to produce Manganese Blue but they've stopped due to health and safety.' I wondered if I was about to enter a dangerous world of risk and treachery. 'We did have some 60 ml pots which we got in a sale, but they've now gone.' I was about to hang up when he continued, 'We've got some of the lighter pigment which we sell in 100g bags.' I placed an order and received a 100g bag two days later.
Pip phoned back from Fitzpatrick's. I shared my news about obtaining some pigment, but stressed I'd still be interested in obtaining actual paint. 'Old Holland are coming over in a few days, they've got some paint. Do you want some?' It was difficult to contain my excitement. Here at last, the journey's end was in sight. I played it cool and said I'd have six tubes. He put me on the reserve. I reckoned I owed Pat a favour and asked if I could put her in touch with him. Pip agreed, but said she'd have to phone by Wednesday morning, so I left a message for her to call me.
Wednesday morning. I'd felt a coffee coming on, and was just settling down when the phone went. It was Pat. I explained the paint situation and mentioned Pip. There was a slight pause... 'That'll be Pip Sage.' She seemed reluctantly hesitant about contacting him... Thinking allowed that she 'might get a go-between in...' then decided she might call him herself, after all. 'He's quite well-known...' she began. 'I suppose I have the advantage of not knowing anyone.' I said, trying to second-guess her problem. She wouldn't be drawn on elaboration, but thanked me for the tip-off.
Pip phoned back a few days later to explain that the paint would not arrive until January. 'Will that be too late?' he added. I reaffirmed that I would still have some. I asked about the best method of mixing. I'd heard from tom that you use Gum Arabic (Acacia), and without letting on I knew very little, asked Pip how he would suggest mixing the pigment and Gum Arabic, for the best effect. He gave me this recipe: Poor boiling water onto the Gum Arabic - 1 Gum to 12 water. Soak for two days, Sieve before using. Grind with a glass muller Add a little water to the pigment to form a stiff paste. Add some Gum Arabic solution. Use a palette knife to blend the finished paint. I asked Pip a bit more about the paint's origins. I felt that we had struck up a good rapport, and it seemed a shame to waste it. Apparently, the Manganese was originally made in Stoke-on-Trent for the ceramic industry. However, production ceased due to legislation about lead content. The pigment Pip gets comes from Italy, although he believed the Italians got it from Korea. Old Holland have bought up virtually all known world supplies and stocks. It would seem that no time had been wasted. I hadn't realised how close I'd come to witnessing the end of an era. I needed to get things together. The future of a brilliant Cambridgeshire water colour painter hung in the balance.
The Search Continues
Time was running out. Very soon, if not already, the last Manganese Blue would be gone. I decided to try the Art shops. Everyone remembered Manganese, but no one had any! By chance I came across an old antique shop in a back street. A bell clanged a couple of times, as I pushed open the door. Sitting behind an oak desk, piled high with numerous ornamental items, of wood, silver, brass, and china, sat a small goaty-bearded man with wire-rimmed spectacles. A smell of damp old books, mixed together with pipe tobacco, filled my nostrils. The shop was piled high with old junk. I looked around for old boxes of paint. Nothing obvious, so I looked generally. Moving a tapestry fire screen, I noticed an old water-colour box under a chair. On closer inspection, I realised there were a couple of compartments, one for brushes, one for
paints. I pulled back, and away from the chair, to get a better look in the light. The lid caught on the fire screen, and some square blocks of paint jumped out of their supporting grid frame. Retrieving the blocks, to replace them, I suddenly noticed a small brown piece of folded paper below the grid. Goaty beard was looking across at me. Quickly, I turned and pretended to put the paint box back under the chair. As I did so, I lifted the corner of the frame, grabbed the paper, and returned the paints to their former positions. A few moments later, I'd found a small book to purchase, and left the shop.
Back home, I carefully unfolded the brown paper, and laid it out on the table. It measured approximately six by five inches. To one side was some kind of map, to the other, writing which looked like some kind of code. Suddenly, I recognised something: 108XXX(t)D. The Manganese Blue code. This unfortunately, did not help in translating the other writing, so I decided to visit an old friend in the British Museum.
Ranalf Scott-Johnson, was an archaeological expert in Art antiquities. We'd met whilst investigating the Prussian Painting affair in 1982. Our exploration into solving the crisis of missing diamonds took us half way around the world before we found them sandwiched between a frame in a Prussian painting. Ranalf had been instrumental in decoding a number of cryptic clues which led us straight to the crime's perpetrators hiding out in Berlin.
Placed under an illuminated magnifier, Ranalf studied the creased writing. 'This is very reminiscent of writing found carved into wooden tablets found in Afghanistan.' he began. 'Though why anyone should wish to recreate something on paper that was originally communicated in wood, around twelve sixty seven BC, is beyond me?' 'Twelve sixty seven... BC?' I repeated (emphasising the BC bit). 'Yes.' replied Ranalf. 'Very few people would be able to access this particular form of alphabet. As for the map...' He hesitated mid-ponder. 'It doesn't make sense.' 'How do you mean?' I asked. 'Well, unless I'm very much mistaken...' 'Yes?' 'It's the floor plan of our very own library!' We stood up together, and made for the door. This was so bizarre (and convenient).
The library was like a scene out of Dickens. Crusty leather volumes, behind glass covered shelves. Balcony sections, with wooden ladders on runners, circling the walls. Thin old men and women blended with a Miss Haversham scene, which made cobwebs look new. Ranalf slipped between the rows of alcoved desks and book cases, pausing only momentarily to glance at the crinkly brown map in his search for... well, something? I followed, desperately wanting to ask questions, but only too aware of the effect noise of any kind would have on the old book worms. Suddenly we were there. 'Look for Mn.' I knew immediately what he meant. Mn was Manganese, and if my memory served me, this was also atomic number 25 of the Periodic table of Elements, formerly put to song by Tom Lehrer. Suddenly, there it was, gouged into a down runner of a wooden book case. Mn. 'It's over to you, Rich.' Motioned Ranalf. He knew my record for finding secret passages, and this could be the only avenue left now. 25, I wondered? 25 could be a key here. 25 inches perhaps? Or centimetres? Or millimetres, even? There it was, a knot in the wood. And judging by my hand spans, 25 inches up from the floor. I pressed the knot, and nothing happened. 'Hang on. Look at the authors!' exclaimed Ranalf. Sure enough, we were looking at Langdon through Langthorn; Mackleton to Norton, was further along. 'As books have been added, original positions have been changed.' volunteered Ranalf. 'What about the Mn carved into the shelving?' I asked. 'I don't know.' Ranalf looked confused. Then it came to me. 'Look for a book on Manganese.' 'Good thinking.' exclaimed Ranalf. Moments later. 'Here!' Ranalf handed down a small leather bound book with hand made paper pages. 'Manganese Blue - a doubtful future, by A F Ghanistan. 'Obviously a pseudonym.' I suggested. I flicked through the pages, then as a hunch, turned to page 25. Meanwhile, Ranalf was pondering over the map. 'What's this, do you think?' pointing to a coiled line. 'It looks like a spring... or perhaps an electric coil.' I suggested. I glanced to page 25 of the book. Reading down, I noticed a reference to Manganese and its proximity to a particular location in some mountainous region or other... Proximity. A strange term to use in the context of this type of book. A sudden thought struck me like a revelation. Without more ado, I placed the book near the carved Mn. There was a click and a whirring sound. Ranalf and I exchanged glances. Something in the book had triggered something in the shelving. Below, there was a click. The knot of wood was now protruding slightly from the vertical shelving span. I reached down and pressed the knot. It went back in with a click. Simultaneously, a panel appeared to open on the left of the spar and next to the books on the shelf left of the spar. I moved a few books away so that I could get a clearer look.
A hole about the size of... well... a book, had appeared. I'd say about eight by six inches; not very big really. Inside, I could make out a shape. I reached in and pulled out a small wooden cabinet of a most peculiar design. The front had a circular window at the top and an arched gap below. Two catches released the front, which opened like a door. At last, revealed. Possibly some of the last Manganese Blue in the world. Ranalf removed the book from the Mn. Another click and a whirr and the panel closed. With great excitement we returned with the cabinet to Ranalf's room. The book worms hardly moved as we brushed past them, our find lost on their blinkered vision of ocular concentration. Inside the cabinet, as well as the Manganese Blue, was a small jar filled with prepared Gum Arabic. All that was needed now was some mixing.
Ranalf asked if he might keep the cabinet for a few days, after which, he would send it on. I agreed and we parted company. A week later, Ranalf returned with the cabinet. I could now help the Cambridgeshire artist.