Wednesday, 16 February 2011

Caput Mortuum, Momie, Mommia, Mummy Brown – Gruesome Brown

And then there is gruesome brown. Palimpsest is fascinated by the process whereby ancient Egyptians found their way onto 18th and 19th-century paintings. Because this old brown - mommia, momie, mummy brown - was made by griding Ancient Egyptians into a paste.

Mommia was derived from mummified bodies and was used for medicinal purposes. “They gave noisome smell at all,” John Sanderson wrote in 1586 of the mummy remains he saw in an Egyptian mass grave in 1586: [they are] like pitch, beinge broken; for I broke of[f] all parts of the bodies to see howe the flesh was turned to drugge, and brought home divers heads, hands, arms, and feete for a shewe.” And should one run out of the “real thing”, Professor of Physick and quack-doctor William Salmon had just the recipe for “artificial mummy” in his Pharmacopoeia Londinensis (The New London Dispensatory) of 1691:

Take the carcase of a young man (some say red hair’d) not dying of a Disease but killed; let it lie 24 hours in clear water in the Air: cut the flesh in pieces, to which add Powder of Myrrh and a little Aloes, imbibe it 24 hours in the Spirit of Wine and Turpentine...

But Mommia was apparently excellent for shading and by the early 18th century it became a well-established colour. In her Colour, Victoria Finlay quotes an extract from the notebooks of George Field (1777-1854) a renowned colour manufacturer, who recorded a delivery of “Mummy” from English portrait painter, Sir William Beechey:
It arrived “in a mass, containing and permeating rib-bone etc – of a strong smell resembling Garlic and Ammonia – grinds easily – works rather pasty – unaffected by damp and foul air.” 
According to a story (probably an urban myth) having discovered the origin of the paint’s ingredients a 19th century artist gave his oil paints a Christian burial.

In 1897 Bernard Shaw wrote to Grant Richards: 
I propose to call the issue Plays Pleasant and Unpleasant... If I could get all six into one volume, I should have the unpleasant ones printed on a light-brown paper (Egyptian mummy colour) in an ugly style of printing, and the pleasant ones on a white paper (machine-hand-made) in the best Klemscott style. Nobody has ever done a piebald volume before, and the thing would make a sensation.

Today Caput Mortuum is an alternative name for “Mummy Brown” and there are, I’m sure, no dead bodies involved in its production. It is Latin for “dead head” and was used by alchemists and chemists to denote remains, decay, residue. On the hunt for Gruesome Brown, Palimpsest discovered Faber-Castell’s PITT artist pen with a brush nib; FC PITT Pastel and FC Polychromos and FC Pastel (stick) – all in Caput Mortuum.

But the piece de resistance must be Sennelier’s à l’écu soft pastel Momie. An earthy yellow-ochre-brown that looks like it comes from the “real thing” – ancient decay – metamorphosed into a vital force. Encased for protection and wrapped in the distinctive Sennelier wax paper, Momie No. 104 is animated by the Ka: Tutankhamen would have approved. It comes in 7 shades too.

Lots of pigment delights in Victoria Finlay, Colour, London: Sceptre 2002; R.F. Rattray, Bernard Shaw, a Chronicle, Leagrave Press 1951; John Sanderson quote from Travels, Hakluyt Society, 2nd s., LXVII, London, 1931, 44-5  


  1. I'm quite in awe of all the information you have collected here - this is most interesting!

  2. Thank you, Blandine. Palimpsest is fascinated by the stories behind stories.