REVIEWS: Madder Red: A history of luxury and trade
Robert Chenciner, Curzon Press, ISBN 0-7007-1259-3, 2000
Cornucopia Magazine, 2002
There are half a dozen people of Colour in Britain. Lady Aldington will always be linked with her indomitable quest for White Horses, research into indigo dyes is in the possession of Dr Jenny Balfour-Paul while Madder Red is the undisputed territory of Robert ‘Madder Bob’ Chenciner. These people of colour are a rare but passionate breed. Their enthusiasm acknowledges no limits, no geographical boundaries and flits through centuries and cultures like some highly charged neutron on mission. I vividly remember the passion with which I watched Lady Aldington search for Herodotus’s river Bug, one of the lost breeding grounds of the sacred white horses of the Scythians and Persians. Later I witnessed an equal glint in the eyes of Jenny Balfour-Paul (that matched the twinkle of her embroidered shawls and lapus lazuli) as she revealed to me the existence of a lost diary of a British 18th century indigo planter in Bengal. Chenciner is quite their equal.
Indeed Madder Red is not a subject to brought up lightly in his presence. For it is like opening a dictionnary at random - never knowing where you will be taken off to next. He has a historian's eye for continuity, a chemist's interest in the telling detail, a merchant-like enthusiasm for the roller-coaster laws of supply and demand combined with a salesman’s appreciation of a winning pitch. Nor is red just an intellectual interest, something to be kept in neat files for an academic career. For Bob red is the colour of life, of wine, of blood, of success and of desire. He is delighted to quote that, that man of men, Ted Hughes chose “Red” as his last poem in his last volume of poetry, Birthday Letters. Here you enter the mythical land of red; of pidgeon heart gems, coloured powders chosen to warm the bones of the long dead, of lips, Aztec sacrifices, doomed poppies and roses. To listen to all this stream of red from Bob, you should ideally be seated in his warm, hospitable kitchen and feel your cheeks glow as you are fed with slivers of red sausage, rummers of red wine and more of the propaganda of crimson.
Robert has sourced all the worlds recipes for Red, whether it be for Saharan shawls, the Coptic script in Fatamid weaving, the red kilts worn by Roman legionnaries on Hadrians Wall, that used by the Jewish dyers of Central Asia for the silk ikats of Bukhara or that which appears on an 8,000 year old coloured thread from Catal Huyuk. Although some red hues can be aquired from saffron, henna, cochineal or the famous murex shell of the phoenicians, it is the dye from Madder root that stands at the centre of the spectrum of red. As Bob lists the mantra-like pallet of colours available from the Madder root: light terra cotta, burnt orange, lacquer red, dark henna, dull orange, rose-brown, burnt orange, dark coral pink one wonders why he never took to the stage. The answer is that he has taken to the rostrum instead, a recognized figure amongst the conference circuit in Vienna and Oxford, at antique textile fairs and as a star speaker amongst the ‘rug clubs’ of the USA.
The story of Madder Red starts with a wonderful catalogue of ancient descriptions and samples (though often quite technically vague) backed up a shifting cloud of folklore. The magical role of the dyer, the transformer, and the symbolism of colours dances like the weft, in and out of the tale. The dark ages of early Christendom provide an interlude before the story builds up its pace, with European merchants and ministers desperate to get their hands on the superior textiles and techniques (like the secret of Turkey red) from out of the East. This reaches its zenith in the 16th century when the opulent exports of Persia and the Ottoman Empire become the great status objects of north-west Europe, and are given pride of place in the royal portraits of the period. From the 17th century the ancient techniques are copied and with the expansion of the world markets the trade in Madder root and Madder red reaches its great crescendo in the early 19th century. The death of the old techniques began in the 1850’s with the first great chemical synthesis of a red dye from coal-tar by a British chemist, Henry Perkin. In the succeeding thirty years a flood-gate of patented chemical inventions sweeps away the old dye stuffs. Madder Red was dead by the end of the 19th century - though the secret of the Tyrian royal-purple of the Phoenicians would not be cracked until 1998. Of Madder red in our modern age we are left only with the consolations of poetry, colour symbolism and a delight in trading in the original antique colours of pre-1850 textiles.
Robert Chenciner has the ‘eye’ of the dealer-collector to an enviable degree, managing to unearthing a Qajar Persian portrait from a local Oxfam shop only last year. Back in the late 80’s he was one of the first to appreciate the indigenous textiles of the Caucasian republic of Daghestan. His first trip there was an attempt to hunt out Caucasian dragon rugs but this soon got happily diverted into the indigenous Kaitags.
Years before his lifelong quest into Madder Red settled itself into a book: ‘Madder Red: A history of luxury and trade’ published in 2000 by Curzon Press, ISBN 0-7007-1259-3 he had produced an illustrated catalogue,’Kaitag: Textile Art from Daghestan’ in 1993, followed by ‘Daghestan: Tradition & Survival’ in 1997.
It would be a mistake to leave with the impression that Robert Chenciner is just one, in a long line, of British free scholars with an interest in Central Asia. He is also a London based broker dealing in the bottom-line world of business to business buy-outs and acquisitions. He is married to a highly qualified Amnesty International desk officer, prepares expert reports in asylum appeal cases and has a Mediterranean-like affinity for children, the kitchen and his two daughters. You could trust him with your life but I hope never again to be talked by Bob into picking-up harmless looking packages from foreign cities.
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by Barnaby Rogerson