Photo by Pattadis Walarput
Artillery Row Books

Out of the blue

Despite some political hang-ups, James Fox provides diverting stories on the history of colour

In 1856, eighteen-year-old William Henry Perkin was at home, messing around with the dreck of a failed experiment. He had not made the compound he expected. When the black sediment was diluted on blotting paper it flowered purple the rarest of pure colours. This dyeing substance (mauveine) would revolutionise the worlds of fashion, furnishing and art, making Perkin the equivalent of a multi-millionaire. Aniline dyes would provide a range of vivid, cheap colours in a world where colour had previously come from substances that were rare, expensive and poisonous.

James Fox, The World According to Colour: A Cultural History, Allen Lane

This is one story from James Fox’s book The World According to Colour. Fox treats the seven colours of black, red, yellow, blue, white, purple and green, providing stories related to pigments, perceptions and uses of these colours. There are biological responses to colour. We react strongly to red (colour of blood) and feel instinctive aversion to aposematic colour combinations (the black-and-yellow stripes of wasp and snakes is now a standardised hazard warning signifier). Divergences between cultural connotations are familiar. Different societies marry and mourn in different colours.

Conceptual linguistic constructions around colour extend from figures of speech (“caught red-handed”, “blackmail”, “yellow belly”) to the existence (and absence) of words. “Russians possess two basic terms for blue goluboi (голубой) for light blue, and sinij (синий) for dark blue and think of them as entirely separate hues. A large number of languages don’t have discrete words for pink, brown and yellow, and some use one word for both green and blue. The Tiv people of west Africa possess only three basic colour terms (black, white, red), and a few communities have no chromatic terms at all: the Burarra tribe in northern Australia divide the rainbow into gungaltja (light or bright) and gungundja (dark or dull).” Sixty-eight languages use a single word for both green and blue.

Pigments have traditionally been extracted from minerals, plants and animals. Black is the cheapest pigment and the easiest to make it is primarily burned organic matter. Cochineal is a red pigment extracted from insects native to Central America; it was the region’s most valuable export (after gold and silver) until the rise of chemical aniline dyes. It is still used as the food dye E120. Pigments often require mining, refining, curing and other procedures that can be labour intensive. Rarity can make pigments very expensive. Tyrian purple was so expensive that it was practically reserved for royalty; it was later actually restricted by sumptuary laws.

Fox allows himself to range widely, which is generally beneficial. For example, his discussion of yellow discusses gold as a metal and the place of the sun as an object of worship. Gold became a staple of Western art from the gilding on Greek temple statues, to Byzantine mosaics and gold-leaf applied to icons. While yellow (or saffron) is revered in the East, in the West it connotes disease, ill-health, tarnish and contamination.

The question of whether black is even a colour stimulated controversy. Black (darkness) as an opposite of white (light) suggested that black was absence of light; black was an absence of stimulation. Yet white and black are relational; that is, black and white relate to the colours and tones adjacent to them in space (next to them) and time (before and after them). A page appears white compared to a coloured page next to it; a room appears black after we turn off a light. “By the first century CE, black was such an explicit symbol of death that the mere sight of it filled Romans with fear. At one point Emperor Domitian attempted to intimidate his political opponents by inviting them to a banquet in which the walls, waiters, crockery, even food, were jet black. His guests’ nerves were in tatters by the time they got home.”

When it comes to white, Fox’s political radar leads him astray

Fox unearths some curious facts. Ninety-four per cent of pigments used in the African Middle Stone Age were reds. Due to the propitious connotations of the colour, rising stocks in the Chinese stock market are indicated in red. “Blue eyes don’t contain a scintilla of blue pigment; the colour is an optical illusion, produced by the same scattering effects that tint the sky and horizon.” Blue, colour of sea and sky, is relatively uncommon in tangible nature. That explains why peoples tend to name it last, according to anthropologists and linguists. (Black and white come first, followed by red.) Yves Klein patented International Klein Blue, an intense blue pigment with which he coated canvases, plaster casts, sponges and nude women, who frolicked on blank canvases in front of audiences.

Nowadays, almost any book written about colour will be distorted by liberal anxiety. When it comes to white, Fox’s political radar leads him astray. Fox is so anxious to impress readers of his political correctness he falls into fairly obvious traps. He ties neo-classical taste to nascent theories of racial superiority. Although there was a preference during the Renaissance and Enlightenment for pure white marble for statuary, Fox fails to mention that there was a vogue for tinted statues, and that polychromy was standard for religious statuary in Spain, Italy and Mediterranean lands. With heart-sinking inevitability, Fox raises American white supremacy. The story of the supremacy of lead white and its poisonous side-effects is much more interesting.

There are other weak points. He praises the notoriously severe cleaning of Titian’s Bacchus and Ariadne. The chapter on green divided by chlorophyll, Islam and eco-activism is rather unsatisfying. Fox is a good stylist and knows how to write a poetic phrase and present a striking image. If one is willing to overlook Fox’s received assumptions it comes as no surprise to see in his biographical by-line that he is a documentary writer for the BBC there is plenty of diverting information in The World According to Colour.

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