Image 1. A peasant alchemist in his kitchen laboratory with his family, an engraving of 1558 by Hieronymus Cock (c. 1510-1570) after a drawing by Pieter Bruegel (c. 1525-1569).
The alchemist, sitting on a three-legged stool, his clothing in tatters, drops a single coin into a crucible. Behind him, his wife upends her purse and finds it empty: this coin represents their last throw of the dice. Behind them, their neglected children scramble through empty cupboards: one places an upside-down pot on his head, a recurring image in Breughel and Bosch indicating that there is nothing left to eat. In the centre of the image, a distracted fool (recognizable by the ass’s ears) stokes a fire in a kettle so vigorously that everything is overturned. Incongruously, the whole scene is overseen by a far more comfortably situated figure, clothed sumptuously but in antiquated fashion. With his right hand he gestures to the scene before him, while pointing with his left to the word in the open book which best describes it: the book reads ‘ALGHE MIST’, a Flemish pun that can be read variously as ‘alchemist’ and ‘al ghemist’, meaning that everything is mixed up, rubbish, filth, dung, or nonsense. The consequence of this folly is displayed in the vignette in the upper right: with the family's resources exhausted by fruitless trials, the two parents lead their three children -- one still wearing the pot on his head -- toward the poorhouse.
Images 2 and 3 convey a similar warning to those further up the social scale and at a much later period of time: the painter is James Nasmyth (1808-1890). Here too the interiors is domestic, but this is no squalid peasant hovel: leather-bound folios cover the back wall; time-worn furniture is scattered about a cavernous room; the architecture in both cases is decorated gothic from the fourteenth century; and a huge broadsword leaning precariously atop the bookcase suggests an ancient noble lineage. But the grand fireplace has been converted into a makeshift alchemical oven, over which delicate glass vessels have been stacked up to a ceiling which is on the verge of collapse. Utterly absorbed in his open book, the proprietor-alchemist takes no notice of the ruin of his house, as he paces back and forth in the deepening gloom over a floor strewn with alchemical detritus.
The moral of the second of this pair of images is, if anything, even more overt. Utterly mesmerized by the glowing pan on the fire, the alchemist turns his back completely on his bare-foot boy, who has been reduced to the role of servant by his father’s obsession. Nor does he appear to notice the skull staring down from above the furnace, a mute reminder of his impending ruin.
Further reading: Christopher Wright et al., British and Irish paintings in public collections (New Haven and London: Yale University Press for the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art, 2006), p. 596.
Image 4 provides a still more melancholic reflection on the same theme, this time from 1890. An old man sits quietly, silhouetted in the gathering gloom, contemplating an enormous stone fireplace, split by misuse or the passing of centuries, which has been converted into an alchemical oven. Although surrounded by scientific instruments, his quill pen and paper lie abandoned on the tilestone floor of an old house with lofty wooden rafters. Flasks on the windowsill and a few vessels around the fire provide the only points of colour: emerald green, sulphur yellow, red, blue, and copper. Through the dusty window, a churchyard beckons.
Commentary. Howard Hotson (April 2019)