Mid July 2011, I leave the hard sun of Provence and just a few hours later arrive in Liege under a typically Belgian grey sky with big shots of light beaming at times on details of the scenery. This is the country of my childhood holidays and I love its gentle beauty. The area is (was most certainly) wealthy and comfortable. A House and Gardens elegant atmosphere emanates from the flowering fences and stone walls of the villas and impressive farm-castles that dot the countryside. The tempo is slow and summer heat is… low! Jacques, my host for the day, is delightfully in sync with his surroundings. And, although a chemist, I soon think of him more as a gentleman-colourman (as in gentleman-farmer). He proudly shows me his veggie patch and, while we talk in his lab, his sheep frame themselves in the window as in some Flemish landscape painting above the sill where strange shaped amber bottles – that are one of his family claim to fame – rest.
I’ve come, in truth, a much longer way to meet this man. I now live in Australia but when I was researching which oil paint ranges to select for my store, a fellow art materials shop assistant in France told me: “and then of course there’s Blockx, yes you must have Blockx, for sure they are the best.” Well, up till now I had heard good, very good, but… the best?
Most certainly, Jacques, heir to the very first Blockx who started the company in 1865, also a Jacques (but then they all are!) thinks so. And most certainly too, neither quality of ingredients, nor time is spared in the process of making oil paints, watercolours, pastels and auxiliaries in the Blockx’s factory… a grand word for a charming old stone building in which 6 persons lovingly turn pigments into colour delights! Time here feels of little concern; in the entrance, a correspondence book is open at the date of my visit, except that the hand written letters -which already discuss shipments to paint lovers on the other side of the globe- are all dated from exactly a century ago in July 1911. Perhaps, when you are doing something you love, time is never of concern…
As I soon discover, handmade here, means… handmade! In the old days, up to 30 people worked in the factory but then they were still burning their own siennas and umbers and grinding all their pigments by hand (one of these hard-working tough guys on the turn of the century group portrait he shows me could, in his 12 hour day, produce 12 tubes of 20ml oil paint!) No one does this anymore although labor, I’ve read, accounts for more than half the price of good paint, and of course “Made in Belgium” is hardly the cheapest on the planet either.
But where many other companies make the “handmade paint” claim and, of course, triple mills are filled/emptied by paintmakers the world over, here pure pigments are also still ground on the premises by stone cylinders which rotate at a slow speed without heating or polluting the paint and thus duplicate, as much as possible, a 100% handmade work. Iron oxides, earth and black pigments are ground in linseed oil, others in the much more expensive poppy seed oil which never yellows.
Jacques, perhaps a shy man outside his lab, has absolutely no second thoughts about the quality he produces. He is totally happy if his oil paint is the most expensive on the market (it actually isn’t always) and adamant no student quality is ever going to be made here, no acrylics, no mixture of pigments. In his literature you can read sentences like: “We do not, and never have, prepared transient or unstable shades. A classification by degree of stability would, therefore, be out of place.” It could be a little on the snob side perhaps but in this world where the best companies sell their souls and shortchange their personnel to make an extra dollar or use rapturous words to describe an inferior product… I actually love it!
Chances are you will not meet this elegant man (I doubt You tube is his cup of tea and… he’s probably horrified just by the name of this blog!!) but make a prayer for his long life and another one in the hope that one of his four daughters (or a grandson named Jacques?) gets the bug and keeps the world a better place by producing slowly and painstakingly… quite possibly the best paint in the world!
A 2016 Post Scriptum: To my great sadness I learnt a few months ago that the company has been sold outside of the family… no more Jacques B.s behind the wheels of a triple mill, how very sad! We wish the new owners well though and hope they understand and truly value the legacy of the company they have now the responsability to keep alive…