In Search of Polperro Blue – A Cornish Yarn
I grew up in the West Country in the 1950’s so when my Sister Vivienne, newly resident in Polperro, asked me about ‘Polperro Blue’, I was reminded of a story – ‘ Sovereign Britain’ (1955) by James Reynolds – Irish Author, Artist and Traveller. He wrote then of the Persian Blue seas of Cornwall and the Duck Egg Blue sky. However one particular passage stood out:
“ ….. The old fishing ports, celebrated in songs and innumerable novels of Cornwall, owe a great deal of their allure to the high, narrow gray or whitened stone houses, roofed in cloudy blue slate, their window sashes painted black, hot red, white, or yellow, which appear to march in tightly closed ranks, zigzag up the cliff. If the village is Polperro, its doors and sashes, hand rails, too, will gleam with the intense Polperro Blue, a dye that is found in a mollusk among adjacent rocks ….. ”
This harks back to Phoenician (mid Bronze Age) times when the strong trade links between Cornwall and Phoenicia may have seen a mutual exchange of tin and cloth dyed with Tyrian Purple – a dye (chemically similar to that obtained from the Indigo plant – Indigofera tinctoria) extracted, by the early Phoenicians, from various mollusks or whelks, including Murex brandaris, Purpura haemostoma, Purpura lapillus, and Carpillus purpura, found on the shores of the Mediterranean and Atlantic coasts.
But today, here in modern day Polperro! I fear it unlikely: The only record I can find in Cornwall is from Roman times where evidence of dye extraction from molluscs (a blue dye from Dog Whelks) was found at a site at Duckpool, Morwenstow (Cornish Archaelogy No 34 1995).
However an intriguing story that excites the imagination. I can just hear the skipper of a trip boat now ….. .
So to continue my quest. In my travels, around the Web, I have stumbled across two other stories – which comment on the particular blue colour of the sea and sky that is Polperro. The first is from the Journal of the Royal Institution of Cornwall (1881-1882):
“ …… Polperro, when not disturbed from its usual quiet, presents a striking appearance of calm industry. Contrasting well with the brown rocks and fishing nets, blue is the prevailing colour. Not only does it pervade sea and sky, but the garb of the men and boys is blue also — tho’ of a deeper hue — for nearly all of them are clad in jerseys. The women and girls stand at the doors of their cottages, or in groups with their neighbours, patiently knitting such garments. As they chat with each other their quickly moving needles tick like watches …….”
Then there is the famous, or should it be infamous, story of the wreck of the ‘Albemarle’ in 1708. Local residents still ponder over whether its valuable cargo of diamonds and other goods as well as Indigo will ever be found. It is said that for weeks afterwards, the winter seas off Polperro turned blue with the melting of the indigo that had been among the Albemarle’s cargo.
Now the first story suggests, if only by omission, that the windows and doors of Polperro were not of the same Indigo blue (or indeed blue at all) as the Jerseys, Ganseys or Knit-Frocks as they were known. And would there really be cakes of Indigo still stashed in the caves around Polperro centuries after the wreck of the Albemarle. Perhaps only Willy Wilcox knows!
Yet Indigo (imported from the Americas or India) or Woad (Isatis tinctoria) was one of the oldest sources of blue dye or pigment in Britain and Northern Europe (indeed in the world – the oldest known fabric dyed Indigo dating to 6,000 years ago in Peru). Used for Centuries in Europe (the paint on the shutters at Le Tecoure date back to the C14 ) there is little evidence of its use as a paint in the UK although I have come across a reference to the painting of roof beams at Ducklington Oxford C17, using Woad (Traditional Buildings in the Oxford Region by John Steane and James Ayres).
So if not Indigo what other blues: Cobalt, and Cerulean Blue (from Cobalt Stannate), immediately spring to mind; with Cobalt Mines in Cornwall, Cheshire and Germany: although no more than a few Cornish mines – The Wheal Sparnon Cobalt Mines at Redruth, the Wherry mine at Penzance, Dolcoath, Pednandrea, Pengreep and East Pool – were ever involved in its production (“The Geology of Cornwall” – Selwood, Durrance and Bristow, 1998).
Yet I can find no historical references to Cobalt being used in Cornwall, or the UK for that matter, to make a paint. But I have heard, recently, of Cobalt mixed with Linseed Oil and White Zinc Oxide being used to paint the exterior woodwork on the Estate Houses and Workshops at Chatsworth. So maybe ….. .
But Polperro was not always blue: Looking at early paintings – late 1800s – of Polperro, most seem to show the traditional white walled houses with slate blue roofs; with windows and doors seemingly white: blue painted doors only creep into paintings from the turn of the C20.
Before then windows were more likely to be painted with white lead paint and doors and door frames brown – during the early 18th century white or stone- coloured (white broken with yellow ochre and a little black) oil paint appears to have been the almost universal finish for windows. However, by the middle of the 19th century purple-brown paint (first recorded as early as 1803) was popular for window joinery.
Painters of the time still mixed pigment and oil, often with a mortar and pestle, to create a stiff paste – a method we still use today – using local materials. Linseed oil paint was, and still is, a great wood preservative and gives the surface a glistening look
“….. its doors and sashes, hand rails, too, will gleam with the intense Polperro Blue ….. .”
In the 1920s Linseed oil was widely available but by 1940 had been largely replaced by synthetic oils (alkyds). And from 1950 when DIY was the craze, house painting using these modern paints, easily mass produced in virtually any colour, became a colour free-for-all: Polperro’s ‘Blue’ Heritage was in danger of being lost.
But why Blue: like many other places around the world especially near the sea or mountains, in India, Asia and Greece (Eg. Santorini) houses are painted the colour of sea and sky – traditionally with white walls and blue doors and windows. There is also perhaps an element of superstition here – doors and windows being painted blue to ward off ghosts and evil spirits; an ancient held belief in the power of blue. In South America, there is a tradition of painting porch ceilings , windows and door frames blue – Haint Blue: its origins with Indigo, the colour would vary depending upon local materials.
But to continue my story:
For a time in the 1980’s I lived in Calstock: one of my favourite walks took me past the old Lime Kilns then through the woods to Cothele where there were more kilns on the Quay. Being of an inquisitive nature – I remember one day being excited by a flash of blue bouncing off the walls as I looked up towards the roof of one of the kilns. Was it just a chance reflection of the sky; I knew of the discovery of French Ultramarine – Goethe in 1787 – when he noticed blue deposits on the walls of lime kilns near Palermo. He mentioned that the glassy blue masses were cut and used locally as a substitute for lapis in decorative work, so was reminded of this when writing this story – could it be I mused that the Lime Kilns in Polperro had yielded a blue pigment which could have been used to make paint.
However there was an even cheaper and more readily available source of Ultramarine – Dolly Blue (Synthetic Ultramarine). Used in every household in the early 1900s, as an aid to the washday blues – it was a blueing agent used to whiten clothes; and which could be found in every grocers or hardware store. Made by Reckitts (Backbarrow in Cumbria) from China clay, Caustic Soda, Sulphur, Pitch and other substances and then ground before being baked in kilns. The “Raw” Blue was washed and processed to make Ultramarine which could be added to rubber, paints and other products. It was a cheap and convenient, source of synthetic Ultramarine. I was reminded of this the other evening when funnily enough I was watching a period crime drama on TV, when I saw an old advertising poster for Reckitt’s Blue on the wall of the parlour.
Is this it then: ‘Polperro Blue’ – Dolly Blue ….. .
But wait here’s a thought I leave you to ponder dreckly: I imagined I was strolling along the shore in Polperro one day – along towards Talland – when a flash of Cobalt Blue caught my eye. Yes there it was again from among the rocks and old fossilised fish beds – a blue Vivianite crystal growing in an old mollusc shell …… First discovered as a mineral by John Vivian (1785 – 1855) at Wheal Kind, St Agnes but in its earthy form used for centuries as a blue pigment in paint. It has an endearing quality that allows me to finish my story more or less as I began:
“…. If the village is Polperro, its doors and sashes, hand rails, too, will gleam with the intense Polperro Blue, from a mineral that is found in fossilised mollusks among adjacent rocks …… .”
So anyone fancy a walk, on a bright sunny day, along the shore toward Talland – you never know you may just come across that blue crystal growing in an old mollusc shell ….
My quest has taken me on a fantastic journey around the world and to the beginning of time. – well almost. I delved deep into the history of blue – that most mystical and magical colour, held in reverence by ancient civilisations. Along the way I had help from many people: Patrick Baty of Painters and Paints Ltd London, specialists in paint and colour, Jonathan Polkest, Cornish Painter and Visual Artist Penzance, Rebecca Heane of Cornish Cream, Cynthia Carpenter Marine Biological Association, Plymouth, and Grant Sharpe of Polperro Community Council; and a whole host of unknown people who had made similar journeys before and were good enough to share their findings with the world (via the Web). Special thanks to my Sister, Vivienne, newly resident in Polperro, who first asked of me the question: ‘what colour is Polperro Blue’. This is my attempt to give her an answer. Any errors, omissions, or inaccuracies however are entirely my own; as are any embellishments – after all ‘tis but just a yarn.
(1) Denise and Henri Lambert were living in Brussels when they decided to buy an old farmhouse just outside of
the village of Lectoure, in the Gers départment. Both Denise and Henri were drawn to the blue shutters that book-ended their windows. They researched the unusual color, but no one seemed to know where the color came from. In Provence, shutters turned blue after they were sprayed with a chemical derived from copper to keep the wood from rotting, but this was not a copper-based colour. They wound up at a lab in Toulouse and after a lot of trial, error and detective work, re- discovered the wonders of the woad plant. They found the color of the shutters dated to the 14th century. They started with seeds bought from a plant conservatory, then worked with the agricultural cooperative of the Ariège. Finally in 1994, they formed a company for the re-cultivation and re- development of the woad plant – Bleu de Lectoure.
(2) Oricalcum were approached by Chatsworth Estate a few summers ago to see if they could colour- match their eponymous blue. They had previously had problems with the quality of the paint supplied by their existing supplier, as well as incorrect information on the addition of zinc white.
The blue paint they were supplied always lost its blue and turned grey over time. The great team at Ottosson Färgmakeri easily changed this to make sure that paint was made using the highest possible earth pigments and making sure cobalt blue was used instead of ultramarine (which bleaches by exposure to UV light). They also made sure that zinc white was added to the paint in the factory, to get the best anti-mold properties.
(3) Two paintings of ‘Polperro Harbour’ by G F Nicholls 1925 and JOSHUA ANDERSON HAGUE (1850 – 1916) – Both showing a house at the end of the quay with blue doors which I think becomes the Blue Peter Inn.
And another of ‘The Three Pilchards’ Polperro by DUDLEY; William Harold (1890 – 1949)
(4) Vivianite (Blue Ochre or Natural Mineral Indigo) is found principally in two environments: In the oxidized upper layers of ore deposits, where it may appear as dark indigo, blue-black, or green crystals. It is also found in organic rich environments often lining the inside of ancient mollusk shells, but sometimes associated with bones, decaying wood and other organic material; and in peat bogs.
Until recently, the use of vivianite as a blue pigment was known only in the 12/13th centuries in art works mainly from Germany and the British Isles. But the number of published occurrences has been increasing steadily over the last few years. The pigment has also been identified in medieval painting and decorating architectural elements in Germany, England, Sweden, and Norway. Ferrous phosphate was used as a pigment called blue ocher by the School of Cologne in the 13th and 14th centuries. The earthy form of the pigment has also been identified in Dutch 17th century paintings (Johannes Vermeer’s famous painting The Procuress (1656)).