University of Cambridge’s Artist-in-Residence Makes Ink from Newton’s Apple Tree

By University of Cambridge Modified on November 26, 2023
Tags : Arts & Culture | Campus Life | News

Nabil Ali is discovering the natural colours hidden within the berries, blooms, and bark found in the Cambridge University Botanic Garden — including from a very special tree.

 University of Cambridge’s Artist-in-Residence Makes Ink from Newton’s Apple Tree

I'm Artist-in-Residence at the Cambridge University Botanic Garden and over the next 14 months I’ll be exploring the Garden in a way that’s never been done. I'll be discovering new colourants made from plants for my project ‘DYE — nature, myth and climate’. I’ll be sharing the results with visitors, researchers and artists through events, performances and a colour database linked to the Garden’s Living Collections Portal.

Practice makes perfect

There are some 8,000 plant species in the Garden, so where do I start? With a map of the Garden and a bunch of medieval recipes! I’ve made a beautiful red and purple dye from a 15th-century-old German and Venetian Latin ink recipe using the common poppy, and I’ve discovered that the Jade Vine growing in the Glasshouse can be turned into pink and green paint.

The seasonality of natural colour is fascinating. At this time of year, the Buckthorn (Rhamnus cathartica. L) has green berries but soon they’ll be a dark purple. I’ll use the berries to make dyes that are yellow and green, with the ripe husks making blues and I should get a deep black from the bark.

I’ve had a few brilliant successes and a few duds! Colour can come from unexpected places. Even cat litter can give you a grey white and egg shells a pink white.

My practice is always undertaken with deep respect for the material. I use a tested framework to prepare the colourants and when I’m ‘cooking’ I wear safety equipment in case I’m working with a poisonous part of a plant.

Newton’s Gold

Making the first ink from Newton’s Apple Tree was a special moment. The tree was grafted from the original apple tree in a Lincolnshire garden that is said to have inspired Sir Isaac Newton’s theory of gravity, published in Newton’s own first copy of Principia held in Cambridge University Library.

The tree was sadly blown down in the Garden during Storm Eunice in 2022. I spotted the wood had been stored and asked to make ink from the bark.

I’m calling it ‘Newton’s Gold’. I soaked the bark for a day and a half and then boiled it to release the tannin. I thought I’d end up with black but it’s a dark golden yellow.

I've used the new ink to create an apple installation consisting of 68 apples, to mark the age of the tree before it was blown down. The apples are replicas of a cast I made from an apple taken from the tree in 2016 and the installation will be on display for the first time at Apple Day in the Botanic Garden on 22 October.

Finding inspiration in nature

The natural world is more than an inspiration for my work. It’s an indelible part of it. Organic elements and their place are absorbed into my installations, paintings, and sculptures.

My installation The Sea People (2021) took the form of ‘abandoned people’ on an Essex beach and was moulded from the clay and detritus I found there. I wanted to raise awareness of coastal erosion and the loss of land.

My project in the Botanic Garden is similarly being shaped by the place itself. The Garden’s illustrious history, its role in protecting the world’s biodiversity at a time of climate crisis, and its beauty in the changing seasons will help shape the outputs of the project. I hope that visitors will be able to explore the Garden and engage with nature in a new way, through the joy of discovering its unseen colours.

Working with researchers and artists at the university

The residency is a unique opportunity to work with researchers and artists. I’ve hand-dyed feathers for Professor Ulinka Rublack in the Faculty of History to support her research on material culture and costume. And I’m dyeing textiles for a contemporary dance performance by the Cambridge-based Tani Gill Dance Company, which will be filmed in the Garden and shown at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival next summer.

The process of ink making

Although there’s a hefty dose of trial and error in my work, the recipes are rooted in medieval scripts. I work with 14th to 16th-century recipes, including one kept in Cambridge University Library which uses 'rotten apples', saffron and verdigris to make green ink. Many have been translated by Dr Mark Clarke, a specialist in medieval craftsmen materials and techniques and author of The Art of All Colours — a very good study and catalogue of recipe books, which I frequently refer to. It is also a valuable source for all those interested in the techniques and practices of medieval arts.

My process is a going back to the old ways of making colour.I have a workshop in the Garden. There I heat the collected plant material in water, vinegar, or white wine to release the dye and then add a mordant — which is a substance which helps bond the dye. This can either brighten, dull, or deepen the dye, enriching the final colour as well as fixing the dye to the fabric fibres.

I often won’t know the outcome of a colour until it’s here. When I was doing my art degree, I felt that getting a paint tube from the shop somehow lost something of the colour it was meant to be. So, I started growing and making pigments from the herbs in my garden, establishing a new way to connect art through nature.

Impermanence is a part of that journey. I might end up with a vibrant crimson, yellow or deep blue which could change over time due to the nature of organics. But change is fine. Natural colourants are a reminder that nothing is forever — and I love watching and recording their colour journeys as they progress.

Learn more about the University of Cambridge

account_balanceMore About This School