From riches to Reckkit's, ultramarine blue at 14 Henrietta Street, Dublin

As I visited Dublin along the year, I stumbled upon a rich history of colours and pigments. Colours have done their magic here, and a particular exemple stroke me along the way.

Today I will tell you the story of a beautiful blue I spotted on the walls at 14 Henrietta St. 14 Henrietta is a gorgeous Georgian house, now a historical museum that displays hints of the life of its inhabitants along the centuries, with a deep sense of respect I really appreciated. I highly recommend visiting it.

A picture of an unrenovated wall, 14 henrietta st.

A picture of an unrenovated wall, 14 henrietta st.

This particular blue I noted, known as Reckitt’s blue, was painted as a disinfectant in the hallways, along a very catching red, in hope to make drab tenements more salubrious. A blue as a disinfectant, is it possible? Methylene blue was used as a medication. Interestingly, it can help cure intoxication to cyanides, that produces a very catching green. But it’s rather expensive and I don’t see it used to paint a whole wall, especially on a budget. So I was really intrigued.

14 Henrietta street was first a grandiose place were rich people lived. As the Irish economy plummeted under the cruel weight of English colonialism, it became a tenant’s place, crowded and insalubrious.
while visiting, we were shown portraits of the people living here in the eighteenth century, painted in delicate shades of blues : Prussian blue, and maybe a bit of the extra expensive ultramarine ground from semi precious gems imported from overseas.
In the 19th century, it became the home of poor people, dozens living where one family lived aforetime. These families were doing their best to survive, and the only rich colours they had was the blue on the walls.

As we stopped near a wall in an entryway, we were told that is was painted blue, Reckitt’s blue, for sanitary reasons, as it was supposed to be a disinfectant. I never heard of a colour that’s a disinfectant. Pigments in disinfectants, yes, but a whole colour?

I took some pictures, noticing the beautiful, intense ultramarine colour. Then I went back home and looked online for Reckitt’s bue. Here’s what I found : Reckitt’s blue wasn’t a disinfectant. It was an inexpensive laundry blue, made from synthetic ultramarine. It’s a pigment invented by two chemists, one, Guimet in France in 1826 (hence the name Paris blue and French Ultramarine for the colour) and the other, Gmelin in Germany (1828).

Reconstruction of a Victorian Reckitt’s tag from original tags (©delphine doreau 2019)

Reconstruction of a Victorian Reckitt’s tag from original tags (©delphine doreau 2019)

Reckitt’s blueing agent was sold until recently. The bluing product they made was the kind our grandmothers added to laundry to give a blue cast to yellowed white fabrics, so they seem whiter. It can’t be used in washing machines so it’s not made anymore. It made laundry look more pure, more clean. That’s probably why it was chosen for the walls.

Symbolically, and especially in catholic cultures like in Dublin, blue is a holly colour. It’s the colour of one of the major catholic saints, the Virgin Mary, a mother. She was often painted with an ultramarine robe. In a lot of ways it’s a deep, maternal colour.

Laundry blueing was easy to access, cheap, and intense, it was a cheerful way to try to make things better with a colour with a deep but quiet meaning. I don’t think they chose that blue because of a religious meaning, not at all. But it’s in the culture, deeply, in a subconscious way.

Image of synthetic ultramarine, taken by Palladian. (public domain)

Image of synthetic ultramarine, taken by Palladian. (public domain)

Looking at the wall it looks like the pigment was directly mixed with the plaster. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I don’t think nineteen century landlords could afford distemper, which was the rich, beautiful way to paint then. I find the idea to mix a laundry product (it came in tablets that diluted easily in water) with plaster quite brilliant, don’t you? It’s a cheap and effective way to make colour. It wouldn’t work with less intense pigments, but here it was a good idea. It gives a beautiful, intense blue. And it must have looked pure and clean.

Reading about it, and looking around, the story of ultramarine in Dublin is poignant and a bit heartbreaking. It’s the story of a very rich blue coming from overseas, moving to the humble service of very poor people. From riches to rags, literally, the building and the pigment share a very similar story.
Ultramarine blue was a feast for the eyes in a miserable life in tenements, and to me, a sign from the past, from people who never lost hope for better days.

More about ultramarine here: ultramarine on wikipedia.

Official website of 14 Henrietta street ( do visit next time you’re in Dublin)

colorsDelphine Doreau