The devil is in the details: turpentine varnish

Corrosion cast of bronchi and trachea, possibly from a rabbit, sheep, or dog, 1880-1890
Likely prepared by Harvard anatomist Samuel J. Mixter.
The Warren Anatomical Museum in the Francis A. Countway Library of Medicine

This post first appeared on The Recipes Project on 5 June 2018.

By Marieke Hendriksen

One of the first things you learn when you do reconstruction research is that the tiniest detail can make a difference.

Recently, I wanted to prepare an injection wax for corrosion preparations according to a 1790 recipe. Corrosion preparations are anatomical preparations created by injecting an organ with a fluid coloured wax that hardens. The organ is then lowered into a container with a corrosive substance, such as a hydrochloric acid solution, which corrodes the tissue, leaving a negative image of the veins and arteries of the organ. These preparations were made from at least the mid-eighteenth century, but because of their fragility, very few remain. As they were supposedly difficult to make, corrosion preparations were not only a way of studying anatomy, but also a tool for self-fashioning and establishing one’s status as an anatomist.

I have tried to create an injected preparation in the past.[1]It was my first attempt at reconstruction research ever, and although it served me well at the time, now I do things differently.

Most importantly, I want to stay much closer to the original recipe if possible. When we made the injected preparations in 2012, we used modern substitutes for some historical ingredients for economic reasons, and we did not have the time to study every ingredient in detail, substituting those we could not find directly with something we thought would have pretty much the same effect.

The recipe I want to use, Thomas Pole’s 1790 instruction for making a corrosion preparation, calls for a coarse red wax, made from fifteen ounces of yellow bees wax, eight ounces of white resin, six ounces of turpentine varnish, and three ounces of vermillion or carmine red.[2]The wax, resin, and pigment are fairly straightforward.

What is turpentine varnish though? Back in 2012, we ended up using just turpentine rather than turpentine varnish, and although those injections were not meant to be corroded, we ran into numerous problems. For example, it turned out to be almost impossible to keep the wax and the organs at a temperature at which we could both handle it and have it fluid enough to inject. It made me wonder whether sticking with the original recipe could solve that problem, so I set out to recreate it.

This turned out to be more complicated than expected, as there is not one standard recipe for turpentine varnish. Eventually I found a Dutch recipe from 1832 listing a turpentine varnish to finish display cabinets for natural history collections.[3]The ingredients are a pound of oil of turpentine, 8 ‘loot’ (a loot being 1/32 Dutch pound) of white resin, four loot of Venice turpentine, and ½ loot of aloe or kolokwint. Raw larch turpentine has a high concentration of volatile oils that can be distilled. The fluid part is known as oil of turpentine, whereas the residue left in the retort is usually called resin, rosin, or colophony. Oil of turpentine is the essential oil that remains after distilling raw larch turpentine. Venice turpentineis a thick, viscous exudation from the Austrian larch tree, which is not used as a varnish on its own as it becomes dark and brittle when exposed to oxygen and light. Aloe vera is widely known; kolokwint (the Dutch name for Citrullus colocynthisor bitter apple) less so. It is a plant with yellow fruits that resemble small pumpkins, which are very bitter and poisonous. That quality might explain its presence in a recipe for a varnish that is meant to ward off insects. Powdered aloe is readily available from artist’s material suppliers, so I went with that.

The varnish after 10 hours in the sun. The Aloe is the clearly visible murkiness on the bottom. Photograph: author.

The preparation of the varnish was pretty straightforward: put all ingredients in a bottle, cover, and leave in the sun for a day. The only problem was that I had to wait a week for a sunny day. When it came, I put in the ingredients and just left the bottle out in the sun for a couple of hours, which allowed me to stir the ingredients together. The aloe however did not resolve properly, and just sits at the bottom of the jar. While this might not be much of a problem when the varnish is applied to a cabinet, it makes this particular turpentine varnish unsuitable for use in my injection wax. Next time, I will make another batch without aloe and use that instead.

Why do I recount this–admittedly not very exciting–story? It shows how difficult it can be to follow a historical recipe to the letter. It also shows how much you learn from reconstruction research, even if it does not always yield the results you’d like, or as fast as you’d like.

[1]Marieke Hendriksen, Elegant Anatomy, (Leiden: Brill 2015), pp. 1-9.

[2]Thomas Pole, The Anatomical Instructor ; or an Illustration of the Modern and Most Approved Methods of Preparing and Preserving the Different Parts of the Human Body and of Quadrupeds by Injection, Corrosion, Maceration, Distention, Articulation, Modelling, &C(London: Couchman & Fry, 1790), pp. 21-5, 122-42.

[3] S. de Grebber, Over de schadelijke huisinsekten, als de huisvliegen, wespen, muggen, weegluizen, vlooijen, luizen, motten, pels-, boek- en kruidkevers en wormen, hout-, blad- en schildluizen, plantmijten enz., met aanwijzing van voldoende en proefhoudende middelen, om dezelve geheel uit te roeijen, Volume 1,(Amsterdam, 1832), pp. 52-3.


About mariekehendriksen

I am a historian of science, art, and ideas, with a particular interest in material culture, art and knowledge theory, the history of sensory perception, and digital humanities research methods. I currently work at Utrecht University as a postdoctoral researcher within the ERC-funded project Artechne. I received my PhD from Leiden University in 2012 and have held fellowships at institutions such as the National Maritime Museum in London, the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science in Berlin, and the Chemical Heritage Foundation in Philadelphia. The topics of my publications range from historical anatomical collections, medicine chests and anatomical preparation and modelling methods to the production of coloured glass, the transformation of alchemy in the Netherlands, and the emergence of the concept ‘technique’ in art theory. If you would like to contact me, please send an email to or use the contact form below. I am happy to answer questions regarding my research and publications or early modern history of art, science and medicine more generally, and to engage in public outreach activities.
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