Dragon’s blood and sustainable design

A.E. Smith And Kitty Smith

When talking of Dragon’s blood one would be forgiven for thinking of the enormously popular HBO series ‘Game of Thrones‘, based on George R. R. Martin’s epic fantasy series but I do disappoint. I mean sustainability, I mean design.

Inspiration has many sources and in our times where we are on the constant search for sustainable alternatives I thought this would be an interesting piece of local historical knowledge to share. Originally published in the Powerhouse Museum’s ‘Inside the Collection’ blog by Lynne McNairn, this article demonstrates the use of natural materials for the beautification of musical instruments by Kitty Smith throughout the 1900s…

String Quartet by Kitty Smith

String Quartet by Kitty Smith

This splendid string quartet (two violins, a viola and a cello) was made by Kitty Smith (1912-2005) a professional violin maker who started her craft in the 1930s. Kitty was the daughter of Arthur Edward (A E) Smith (1880-1978) who is considered the most important violin maker in Australia.

These instruments came to mind recently on a visit to the Sydney Royal Botanic Gardens when we stopped to admire this Dragon’s Blood Tree, Dracena draco. The tree was still growing happily in spite of having fallen over. ‘Dragon’s Blood’ – the red sap from this tree can be used as an ingredient in varnish. It is soluble in alcohol, ether and oils and imparts to its solvent a rich red colour.

Dragon's Blood, Royal Botanic Gardens, Sydney

Dragon’s Blood, Royal Botanic Gardens, Sydney

Kitty and her father Arthur are known to have used Dragon’s Blood as one of the ingredients in their varnishes. Arthur is reported to have said that 99% of violins are ruined when the varnish is applied. He spent his working life experimenting with varnishes and developed his own special formulas.

The family was given a Dragon’s Blood Tree by the Royal Botanic Gardens and it thrived in their Lindfield garden. The tree was regularly tapped for its sap by Arthur and later by Kitty.

The Dragon’s Blood tree is native to West Indies and named for its red sap. The tree above is over 100 years old and could well be a relative of the tree given to Smiths.