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Project Statement

by S. Bodman

James Marsh worked on developing his test to detect the presence of arsenic in the human body from 1832. The first documented use of his test was in 1840, when Marie Lafarge was found guilty of poisoning her husband in Paris. Lafarge’s trial was the first publicly documented use of this highly sensitive test for the detection of arsenic; her husband had suddenly died of a gastric ailment that January, after eating a slice of cake baked for him by his new wife. Charles’ maid testified that she had noticed Marie adding a white powder to his drink, Marie claimed that this was gum Arabic to build up his strength, but in court, evidence was produced that she had purchased arsenic at least twice from the local chemist. Joseph Bonaventure Orfila, a celebrated chemist, appeared for the defence and was challenged by the court to perform the new Marsh Test. Unfortunately for Marie; he found arsenic in Charles’ stomach, liver, thorax, heart and brain. The following Arsenic Act of 1851 made it impossible to purchase arsenic without the buyer being known to the supplying chemist. The act, 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. The trial forms the basis of the artist’s book The Marsh Test, written and produced at VSW, from Marie’s point of view as she protests her innocence.

The Marsh Test

Sarah Bodman

title note: [T. Shaw]


Sarah Bodman

type: initiating


Visual Studies Workshop Press

type: initiating


Bristol Bound Bookbinding

type: other


Publication Information

production: 11-12, 2002

Aesthetic Profile


fiction (AAT)
history (AAT)

themes: Domestic rupture during the Victorian era, domesticity of poison as a product [T. Shaw]

content form:
journals (AAT)
unknown facsimile letters

publication tradition:
fetishistic (local)
collection (local)

inspiration: Poisons [T. Shaw]

community: workshop Visual Studies Workshop [T. Shaw]

note: As a VSW resident, I worked alongside the MFA students in the studios, which was a treat, I got to see what they were working on and join them for coffees and lunch. They were busy with a project set by Joan to make a simple artist’s book in an edition to all have a copy of each person’s book at the end of their project. Work on the book was interspersed with visits to the research centre upstairs to look at all the wonderful artists’ books in VSW’s collection, and to the nearby craft shops to buy ribbons and materials for the folio. [S. Bodman]

Exhibition Information

exhibition history:

reception history:

Related Documents

manuscript type: other

location: artist's archive

General Comments