Chalk from Chelsea

The following text and accompanying images were published online by Pigments Revealed International for their December 2022 Pigment of the Month.

Large piece of chalk stained with iron oxide (rust) 2022.

Map of London, George Phillip & Son, 1940s.

Thoughts on chalk

Calcium carbonate CaCO3


Chelsea is a district in southwest London, once known as Chelchuthe (1300), Old English Chelchede (1086), Celchyth (789) and Caelichyth (767). Chelsea’s probable translation is materially literal;  "chalk landing place," from Old English cealc "chalk" (see chalk(n.)) + hyth "landing place." Here, chalk or limestone was likely unloaded from Gravesend in Kent, (along with brick clay) and used to make lime for building construction.

The Old Saxon word for chalk is Cealc. This word slivers, a soft beginning,  ending in a crunch -  that compact crackle that deep snow has. Cealc is a greasy lubricant, a velvety mattifier and the paint maker’s secret weapon: to enliven and reveal hidden midtones. 

Chalk on the other hand sounds a little harsher, a small percussion. The rhythms of which emulate its birth, a repeated building up of sediment, over and over again, compacted and condensed and compressed into dense white matter. 

The individual resonance of these two words emphasise the different properties of these materials through the conjuring of different sounds and images.

These rounded pebbles made of chalk are known as ‘Thames spuds’. Whose softly curved bodies reveal their forced undulating movement, victims of the quick erosion of the London tide. These tumbled pieces are reminiscent of the potatoes they are colloquially named after- they even have the same weight. When wet, chalk can sometimes have a gloopy starchiness too. 

Chalk nodules or 'spuds' collected from the river Thames foreshore, 2021.

The earliest lake pigments, dyes derived from plant or animal origin,  have for hundreds of years been chemically attached to chalk. It acts as both a substrate particle and ‘chemical fix’ for the colour and gives the fugitive pigments a slightly longer life. A collaboration with nature- just imagine- million year old plankton and molluscs, whose shells are now used to keep and hold onto colour, keeping it safe for us to appreciate these fleeting colours just a little longer. 

Chalk and gum Arabic mixed to create a watercolour paint, 2022.

Washed and ground chalk pigment seen as a part of a London Pigment colour set, 2022