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Susanna Avery-Quash: review of a book on Mary P. Merrifield

21 August 2018

‘I consider I am now to collect facts not form theories’: Mary Merrifield and empirical research into technical art history during the 1840s

Review of:

La Donna che amava i colori. Mary P. Merrifield: Lettere dall’Italia, 1845-1846, edited by Giovanni Mazzaferro, Milan: Officina Libraria, 2018; 205pp; 19.90€ pbk; ISBN 88-99765-70-5

Susanna Avery-Quash (National Gallery, London) 19/SA-Q1

Abstract: The book review considers Giovanni Mazzaferro’s translation into Italian of a series of 39 letters by Mary Merrifield (1804-1889), a pioneering expert on historic painting techniques. The letters were written during a research trip to Northern Italy in 1845-6, paid for by the British government’s Fine Arts Commission, with the purpose of discovering and transcribing historical treatises, findings which led Merrifield to publish her still-authoritative Original Treatises on the Arts of Painting (1849). The review seeks to highlight in a variety of ways the importance of Merrifield and her contribution to the emerging field of empirical art history in Britain through the light shed by Mazzaferro on her research and its methodology, and on the contexts in both Italy and England in which she was working. It draws particular attention to her working relationship with Charles Eastlake, Secretary of the Fine Arts Commission, whose seminal Materials for a History of Oil Painting (1847) appeared two years before her own magnum opus, and explores their mutual interest in sharing newly-discovered documentary evidence about how paintings were made in the past, especially with English-speaking audiences.

Key words: Mary Philadelphia Merrifield, Fine Arts Commission, Original Treatises on the Arts of Painting, fresco painting, historical treatises, empirical research, Charles Lock Eastlake

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