Why I don’t paint my leatherwork

I had a question from a reader about my post on seax and knife scabbards: why didn’t you talk about how they were painted?

Short answer: because they weren’t.

More nuanced answer below…

Do we have any finds of painted leather?

Yes. We have finds of  painted leather-covered shields from the Roman period onwards. Parchment is also made of leather and this was of course painted, both with ink when writing and for decoration. The twelfth century writer,Theophilus, mentions painted leather screens in “On Divers Arts” (a treatise on painting, glassmaking, and metalwork), and implies that they have been around a long time. In the later medieval period we also get finds of painted leather boxes.

All of these items, however, are rigid objects with no flex in them. The only find we have of painted leather on clothing or personal items is a thirteenth century strap found in York. Crucially, this is found several layers above early medieval finds which do not show any evidence of painting, indicating that the reason we don’t find paint on other leather items isn’t simply because it hasn’t survived the ground  conditions.

Notably, this York find  is painted in the recesses of the decoration rather than on the relief, probably because it was less likely to rub off there.  Paint is likely to survive in the recesses if anywhere, yet we have elaborately decorated scabbards from the nineth century to the sixteenth century, from all over Britain,  which don’t show any evidence of paint.

Why weren’t they painted?

All paint essentially consists of pigment to provide colour, plus some kind of glue to make the paint hold together and stick to objects. Until the Renaissance, the binder was made from e.g. milk, lime, or egg, all of which are inflexible when dry. If these paints were applied to a surface which bent or flexed, the paint would simply flake off. Paint was extremely expensive because all pigments except certain reds, yellows, whites and blacks had to be imported from outside Europe.  Painting shoes, scabbards or bags was therefore an expensive way to throw away money.

Even when oil paints are developed in the 13th/14th centuries, however, painting flexible items is not common.  Painting leather has only really become common with the introduction of modern (acrylic, enamel) binders in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Was leather in Britain coloured at all?

Finds which come out of the ground certainly show a range of colours, mostly brown.

Different tanning methods produce different colours of leather. What we now call vegetable tanning produces much paler leather than, for example, oak tanning, which produces very light to very dark brown. “White” leather is also mentioned as being used in high status gloves, although note that we don’t know what colour “white” leather actually was. This probably means a very pale leather, but the precise shade is unknown.

Vegetable-tanned leather – note the pinkish tint

The uppers of the shoes above are veg-tanned, but have been dyed to resemble the colour obtained from oak-tanning. The orangey soles are actually oak tanned.

Waxing and oiling leather will also change its colour, as does use, as shown in the shoes below:

It is also entirely possible that leather was dyed, since we have evidence of leather being dyed elsewhere in the world throughout the period, but to my knowledge none of the published research into British finds includes the necessary chemical testing to know for sure.

Finally, some of the York finds show evidence of a border around the top of the shoes, sometimes from a different leather and sometimes just with the hair on the outside rather than the grain. After 1500 years in the ground, these pairs of shoes are pretty uniformly brown, but it possible that this is evidence of different coloured leathers being used for decorative effect.

Plea for more research

Comparatively little has been published on leather finds. Although you can learn a lot about which items were made from leather, how they were constructed, and what patterns they were decorated with just by looking at finds in museums, and although you can do experimental archaeology  to find out e.g. what happens if you paint leather with period paints, detailed information about dyes, tanning methods and other treatments can only really come from chemical and microscopic analysis of the finds. If you know of any publications dealing with this or any research in progress, please let me know!

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