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Poisonous paints, blackened bones, and beetles steeped in booze. Discover the strange and curious recipes that artists used to create some of history’s most vivid colours in the latest exhibition, The Alchemy of Colour at The John Rylands Library.

Throughout the ages, artists experimented with intriguing ingredients to concoct their colours. Often they turned to nature in their pursuit for the perfect pigment, as intent on their craft as alchemists hunting for gold. Gorgeous yellows were cooked up from the stinking urine of cows, tree growths dissolved in acid made inky blacks, and precious stones were crushed up into vibrant shades of blue.

These skilled creators stopped at nothing to make their colours sing – even if it meant risking their own health. Orpiment, a golden yellow pigment, contained dangerous levels of arsenic. The rich red of cinnabar derived from lethal mercury. Yet the risks they took left a stunning legacy, as the spectacular items on display in The Alchemy of Colour reveal.

Take the French manuscript that’s one of the stars of the show. Created in the 1430s, its blues and greens are still so bright they leap off the page almost 600 years later. Elsewhere, marvel at rare and unusual manuscripts from across the world, from the intense yellow and soft green of an 18th-century Indian painting to the lavish gold leaf adorning an illustration of the planets from 15th-century Italy.

The Alchemy of Colour uncovers the bizarre stories behind artists’ palettes through a display of some of the most striking manuscripts in our collection. An exhibition full of surprises, immerse yourself in a history of colour that’s as remarkable in its inventiveness as it is in its beauty.

The Alchemy of Colour, 15 March-27 August 2018, free entry

Image courtesy of The John Rylands Library/The University of Manchester