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Episode 12

The National Gallery Podcast

In the October 2007 podcast, hear about concerts to celebrate Dame Myra Hess; listen to a history of the dye indigo set in the four corners of the globe; and learn about a series of drawing events at the Gallery.

15 min 53 sec | October 2007

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Hello, I’m Miranda Hinkley. Coming up in October’s podcast from the National Gallery, London:

Kathron Sturrock: It’s very difficult to put it into words because I have a strong feeling this piece exists because you can’t actually find words to explain. It takes over where words leave off for me. It seems to me quite extraordinary that we still have to go to war and drop bombs on people to settle differences.

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): A feast for the ears as well as the eyes – take your seat among the paintings at one of this month’s classical concerts.

And – pencils to the ready!  It’s time again for the ‘Big Draw’. We’ll be finding out where, when and how you can unleash your artistic talents in the Gallery.

The history of indigo

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): We start though with a story that stretches back thousands of years and criss-crosses the globe. Indigo is one of the world’s oldest dyes and with our love-affair with blue jeans unabated, it’s set to be with us for many years to come.  But the fascinating history of indigo is intimately bound up with one of human misery – slavery.  It’s the subject of one of a series of Wednesday night lectures linked to ‘Scratch the Surface’ – the exhibition marking the bicentenary of the act that abolished the Transatlantic slave trade. I visited the show with indigo expert Dr Jenny Balfour Paul to find out more.

Miranda Hinkley (in the Gallery): I’m in the ‘Scratch the Surface’ exhibition in front of two portraits, one by Sir Joshua Reynolds, the other by Zoffany and the two figures in them are Mary Oswald and Colonel Tarleton. The link between them is that they were both directly involved in the slave trade, but the lady I’m with – Dr Jenny Balfour Paul – has noticed another link between them.

Jenny Balfour Paul: Well, I was very amused really because I was asked to talk about indigo as regards the fact that Mrs Oswald made her money out of indigo plantations, but when I saw the two portraits, I saw both of them are wearing indigo, which rather proves the point about how necessary it was to have indigo as a commodity at that time, because there they are – she’s got the most beautiful indigo dress on – silk dress – which also proves another point, is that indigo will dye… it was the most universal dye of all, so it dyed rich robes such as hers, and then his jacket, which is also dyed with indigo, but it’s wool presumably, or what you can see from the portrait.

Miranda Hinkley: Why was indigo such an important commodity?

Jenny Balfour Paul: If you think that until 1900 the world – where did they get their colours from? And if you think – what colours did they have? The primary colours are blue, red and yellow. Yellow can come from masses of plants, but it’s not a colour-fast colour. Red you can get from plants and insects – madda, cochineal – but in the whole world from about 3000 BC until 1900, every single textile that was dyed blue came from indigo. Indigo came from different plants, but nevertheless the actual blue dye - there’s no blue dye in the world except indigo – natural blue dye. So it’s a huge, huge global commodity and it started very early – it was already in huge demand in classical times. You got to the 1600s and the spice trade started and then indigo was a very desirable commodity coming from India, concentrated indigo. You could trade it, it was very labour intensive. It linked very closely with slavery. You needed slaves to produce it.

Miranda Hinkley: So slave labour was absolutely crucial to the production process?

Jenny Balfour Paul: Yes, I think the interesting thing – when the slave trade first got going, or even before that, so when the Spanish got to Central America, they saw that the people, the Mexicans were already using indigo and had done – the famous Maya blue on pottery, that was indigo – people were wearing indigo, so they started using local people to produce more of it on plantation-scale, and the local Indians – well it was awful: they said they were too weak and they got ill, so the slave trade was starting at that same time, at the end of the 16th century. The West African slaves were not only perceived to be stronger, but they also had their own indigo tradition and they were used to indigo, which is a difficult thing to handle.

And I’m quite sure when you look at where the slave trade went, and where the slaves were coming from, in West Africa, they’d been using indigo there for centuries and centuries and the oldest archaeological textiles in West Africa are all indigo dyed. So the theory is that the West Africans not only provided labour, but also provided the skills that they had, and indigo is quite tricky to handle – you need to know when to stop adding the oxygen, and you need to know how the best way to handle the plant – when’s the best time to harvest it – it’s not an easy thing to do. And if you spent too long with it, the fumes were harmful, even causing death and certainly illness.

Miranda Hinkley: So we’ve got indigo cloth being produced in India to buy the slaves that would be used to produce indigo in the West Indies?

Jenny Balfour Paul: Yes, so what you’ve’ got cloth being specially made in India, because on the whole the Indians didn’t wear indigo – they made indigo, but on the whole Indians wear red and lovely bright colours, but special cloth was made in Southern India, around Madras, that was indigo-dyed. It was then taken to West Africa and it was used to buy slaves because Africans liked to have indigo cloth, because that was the West African look, and then the slaves themselves that had been bought with indigo-dyed cloth from India, then went to the West Indies and then made the indigo on the plantations. And then that indigo from the West Indies plantations went to Europe in order to dye European army uniforms and policemen’s uniforms – well, anything, any blue textiles – butchers and farmers’ smocks, you name it. All the indigo from the West Indies was used for that blue colour, just like jeans today. So you’ve got a four-corner story – you’ve got India, West Africa, West Indies and then back to Europe.

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Dr Jenny Balfour Paul’s lecture takes place at the National Gallery on Wednesday 31 October. Tickets are £18 and include wine and snacks. For tickets and details of other Wednesday night talks in October, visit our website:

Myra Hess Day

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Bach, Messiaen, Elgar – great creative talents but not names you’d usually associate with the National Gallery. Don’t people come to look rather than listen? In fact, the institution has a long history of staging concerts, perhaps most famously those organised by celebrated pianist Dame Myra Hess. She heartened Londoners during the Second World War by presenting a daily musical event in the galleries. This month, we pay her tribute with a day of classical concerts that will see a chamber ensemble play among the paintings. Performers Piers Lane and Kathron Sturrock told us more.

Piers Lane: Hello, I’m Piers Lane and I’m a pianist and I’m also the artistic director of the fairly new Dame Myra Hess Day at the National Gallery. I was thinking that we should have a series of concerts, annual concerts, where we remember the importance of art, the spiritual significance of art in times of conflict and just give everybody an opportunity to think about conflict and how we get through that. Because Myra Hess’s idea in the first place was that in times of war you need spiritual nourishment and artistic nourishment more than any other time. And so she wrote to the BBC about that and she spoke to Sir Kenneth Clark, the then Director of the Gallery, and came up with the idea that daily nourishment of the musical variety should be available to people.

On that first day, she was wondering if maybe 30 of her friends would turn up to the concert. There was a rule that only 200 people could come and be in the rooms at that time, but the queue stretched right to the end of Trafalgar Square and in fact they squeezed a thousand people in and many were turned away. It was the most outstanding success. One of the great joys about this day is being able to play in the Barry Rooms where the wartime concerts took place. This octagonal room with its glass-dome has a wonderfully resonant acoustic and the other resonance for the players, of course, is with the feeling of playing 60 years ago. I remember last year when I played, I had this extraordinary sense of being transported back in time. Kathron Sturrock was one of the pianists who played in the Schumann Carnival last year and I’m delighted she can come back this year with her famous chamber group, the Fibonacci Sequence, which is an extraordinary set of players.

Kathron Sturrock: My name is Kathron Sturrock. I’m the pianist and the director of the chamber group, the Fibonacci Sequence. The Fibonacci Sequence is a chamber group which I founded, I think, it was about 12 years ago now. We wanted to play chamber music and I wanted to have lots of different combinations. It’s grown into a group of about 14 people and we regularly play together in different combinations.

Piers Lane: The 6.30pm concert will focus on works that have been written during war-time. From the first world war, the end of it in fact, Elgar’s very great Piano Quintet and fascinatingly it’s the 150th anniversary of Elgar’s birth this year so that’s particularly appropriate. Then there’ll be a little 6–7 minute piece by Lee Hoyby, the American composer, and this is an extremely touching work written just a couple of years ago. It’s based on a letter, or it sets a letter written by an American soldier, Private Jessie Givens during the Iraq war. It was a letter he sent home to his wife to be opened in the event of his death and it’s addressed to her and his little four-year-old boy and his unborn child. That in itself is incredibly moving and it’s wonderfully set, so that will bring the wartime theme right up to date and the second half of the concert will be devoted to the ‘Quartet for the End of Time’ by Olivier Messiaen who was actually imprisoned in a prisoner of war camp in Germany at the time he wrote the piece, remarkably with a wonderful clarinettist, a wonderful violinist, and a wonderful cellist. And so the piece was actually performed, in the prisoner of war camp, supposedly to 5,000 people. That’s been disproved, I think, because in fact only several hundred could have fitted into the space where it took place, but it’s a wonderful work for all time, one of the great masterpieces of the 20th century, but also particularly appropriate for the theme of the Myra Hess Day.

Kathron Sturrock: It’s very difficult to put it into words because I have a very strong feeling this piece exists because you can’t actually find words to explain. It takes over where words leave off for me. It seems to me quite extraordinary that we still have to go to war and drop bombs on people to settle differences. Maybe that’s why we go back to Messiaen and his message is that somewhere inside all of us is a spiritual longing for peace and we just wish people would be listening to this.

Piers Lane: In the end, it’s a jolly good piece, you know. You can relax and listen to it and it takes you away somewhere and uplifts you in an extraordinary way. The final violin solo points the way to paradise, really. It ascends – and you ascend with it.

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Piers Lane and Kathron Sturrock. The Dame Myra Hess concerts are supported by the Ernest Hecht charitable foundation and take place at 1 and 6.30pm on Wednesday 10 October. Tickets are £5 each and are available on the Gallery’s website, where you’ll also find details of other free events scheduled for the day.

The ‘Big Draw’

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Next: October sees venues throughout the UK take part in the ‘Big Draw’, a campaign to encourage adults and children alike to put pencil to paper. We’ve teamed up with the Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine art to host a series of talks and workshops over the next month that will have you itching to sketch or scribble. Here’s what we’ve got planned:

Sarah Simblet: My name is Sarah Simblet. I teach drawing and human anatomy at the Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Art which is Oxford University’s department of fine art. The ‘Big Draw’ is a national celebration of drawing held every year throughout the month of October. Hundreds of thousands of people, children and adults, get involved in projects workshops which are held in their local museums, schools and colleges and also community centres right across the UK.

David Tolley: My name’s David Tolley. I’m a tutor in photography at the Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Art in Oxford. The reason I think the ‘Big Draw’s’ important is that it encourages people to engage creatively with their surroundings and when you draw or photograph something a range of choices are presented, whether that be viewpoint or perspective, or the medium that you choose to use or what you include or exclude from the frame. So whether you’re drawing or photographing something, people tend to experience their world in a different light and I think what really happens is that the focus of people’s attention becomes specific rather than general, so it’s helping people engage with the world around them.

Sarah Simblet: Throughout October and November, we’ve got three different types of events. We’ve got a whole series of Wednesday lunchtime talks discussing different aspects of drawing, we’ve got workshops for young people and also workshops for adults, and we’ve got a special event on Wednesday 31 October, where visitors are invited to join three staff from the Ruskin School and are invited to come and draw in the National Gallery. And for the first time in the Gallery’s history, life models are going to be posing alongside the paintings, creating a unique environment for studying the figure and its image. For my own workshop, I’m going to be looking at Pollaiuolo’s ‘Saint Sebastian’. It will be focused on anatomy – I’ll be using a life model and a skeleton – and participants will be drawing to discover more about anatomy, perspective and also the weightlessness of figures in this really extraordinary, dramatic painting.

David Tolley: We’ll be using a Giordano painting as the inspiration for my workshop. What I want to get away from is the idea of people just sitting in front of the painting and drawing what’s there. So we’re going to be exploring the pose of one of the characters central to the painting, who is drawn from the feet up in exaggerated perspective. So we will be using a life model who will adopt that pose in front of the painting and this will allow people participating in the workshop to use Polaroid cameras to explore different aspects of perspective, and then to do detailed drawings of the life model, rather than of the large painting itself.

Sarah Simblet: I really enjoy the excitement of watching people discover that they can draw – that drawing’s not exclusive, that it’s available and open to everybody and it’s something that often people haven’t done since they were children and they’ll often rediscover a sense that it’s something that they’re missing. 

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Sarah Simblet and David Tolley. The ‘Day to Draw’ will be held on Wednesday 31 October. No booking is required for the workshops, and there’s also a special lunchtime lecture on the same day by legendary cartoonist Gerald Scarfe. See the website for more information and for details of this month’s other drawing events.

And if you’re visiting the Gallery, don’t forget our next big exhibition opens on 24 October. ‘Renaissance Siena’ will bring together rarely seen exhibits from collections around the world – all to give us a glimpse of one of the least known stories of the Renaissance. Join us next month for a look at its treasures.

Finally, we’d like your help. We’d love to know what you’d like to hear more about in future episodes and have put together a short survey to find out. You can fill it out online at by following the links to the podcast page. Or if you’re watching the enhanced version of the show on a computer, you can click on the web link that’s appeared on your screen now to take part. Everyone who completes the survey will be entered into a draw to receive one of ten pairs of complementary tickets to the ‘Renaissance Siena’ exhibition.

So until next month, goodbye!