Book Arts

The Marsh Test
(Artist’s Residency Publishing Award at VSW)
Nov – Dec 2002
Sarah Bodman

This was an Artist’s Publishing Residency award for one month at the Visual Studies Workshop, Rochester, New York, USA Nov/Dec 2002 to produce a limited edition artist’s book The Marsh Test which is now also in their collection. The residency was supported by: the National Endowment for the Arts and the Andrea Frank Foundation. The residency series and VSW Press were both directed by Joan Lyons, author of Artists’ Books: a critical anthology and sourcebook. (


The residency also gave me the opportunity to study the wonderful selection of artists’ books at the research centre at VSW and write an article on their collection for the 2003-5 issue of the Artist’s Book Yearbook. As a resident artist, I also met and worked alongside the MFA students in the studios, which was great fun. They were working on a project to make a simple artist’s book in an edition that would produce enough copies for them to all have a copy of each person’s book at the end of the project. The students were a great bunch and very thoughtfully arranged entertainments such as a trip to the drive – through Christmas lights display in fields near Brockport, where you could tune in to Santa FM radio as you drove through the massive displays (thank you Kris, Dan, Genevieve and Sara). It felt very festive in the snow which fell on and off for a few weeks. I also had the pleasure of meeting the author and artist Dr Douglas Holleley (, who has since visited UWE to run a master-class in digital book design for artists.


The artists’ book was made in an edition of 25 during the residency and is based on The Marsh Test, a physical test to detect the presence of arsenic in the human body. The book is in the format of an old-fashioned folio, bound in blue buckram and containing a series of letters ‘discovered’ by a pathologist, Dr Lamson, in 1925.


Marie Lafarge
was found guilty of poisoning her husband Charles, in Paris, in 1840. Her trial was the first publicly documented use of James Marsh‘s highly sensitive test for the detection of arsenic in natural compounds. Her husband had died of a gastric ailment in January 1840 after eating a slice of his new wife’s homemade cake. A maid testified that she had noticed Marie adding a white powder to his drink, Marie claimed that this was gum arabic, but in court, evidence was produced that she had purchased arsenic at least twice from the local chemist.

Joseph Bonaventure Orfila, a celebrity chemist, author and lecturer appeared for the defence and argued that as the Marsh Test had never been used in court, the prosecution had no reason to refer to it. The court challenged Orfila to perform the test and he complied. Unfortunately for Marie, Orfila found arsenic present in Charles’s stomach, liver, thorax, heart and brain.


The letters in this artist’s book folio appear to have been written by Marie Lafarge to her mother, and make reference to the Marsh Test. The folio also includes two fictitious print outs of photographs of Charles and Marie and two actual diagrams of the Marsh Test, one etching which shows the original format of the test and one print which shows the enlarged flour particles. The factual version of the events (as given above) is included at the end of the book, inserted behind the image of the blue ink-bottle attached to the inside back cover.

The Arsenic Act of 1851 made it impossible to purchase arsenic without the buyer being known to the supplying chemist. The act also, more importantly insisted that arsenical compounds should be coloured from that date with soot or half an ounce of blue indigo per pound of arsenic. This meant that arsenic powder could no longer be ‘confused’ with flour or sugar, as many poisoners had previously argued in their defence.

For information on VSW Press and artists’ publications and residency opportunities, see

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