IMAGE: Plate IV in William Salmon’s Polygraphice (Roy G. Neville Historical Chemical Library, CHF)
Art and alchemy, science and painting. They’re kind of a delicious combination. And not as bizarre as it sounds, I promise.
For a modern reader, William Salmon’s Polygraphice might seem like a strange jumble, a hodgepodge of unrelated things shoved into one overstuffed Hot Pocket of a book. Published in 1685, the Polygraphice is at first glance an instruction manual for artists on the best ways to grind colors, prepare a canvas, and study the proportions of the human figure. But Salmon doesn’t stop there, and neither does his almost 200-word book title (whew!). Not only does he promise to show his readers “the arts of drawing, engraving, etching, limning, painting, washing, varnishing, gilding, colouring, dying, beautifying and perfuming,” Salmon also throws in “a discourse of perspective, chiromancy and alchymy. To which also is added… the one hundred and twelve chymical arcanums of Petrus Johannes Faber, a most learned and eminent physician.”
This mix of medicine, art, and alchemy strikes us today as odd, like a weird mix of sweet and savory that wouldn’t taste quite right. But Salmon—like lots of folks during the 17th century—thought of these arts as fundamentally interconnected. In his introduction, he makes a point to emphasize that the chapters on alchemy and medicine have been included specifically for “the pleasure and satisfaction of young artists.” Artists made their own paints and solvents, varnishes, glues, and etching acids. They were well aware of the properties of workshop chemicals, and the possible reactions from combining their materials. The idea that some of them might have gone so far as to study alchemy and chemistry isn’t far-fetched.
The copy of the Polygraphice held by CHF in the Neville Rare Book Collection even gives us a glimpse of the kind of person who might have used such a book. There are plenty of annotations made by a reader interested in the book’s many recipes for gilding and coloring metals, making dyes and stains, and other processes that overlap between what we think of as art, and what we consider alchemy. And our note-taker doesn’t seem to have been shy about criticizing or complementing the usefulness of what he found: on page 524, he calls one recipe “right plain and easy,” while elsewhere he writes in his own ideas for recipe substitutions! It’s almost too easy to imagine an artist or a craftsman in his study or workroom, flipping through the pages to find the technical treasures within.
So in a sense, art and alchemy are no odd couple: instead, they’re more like chocolate and peanut butter. Two great flavors that just might be even better together!