The Secret Lives of Colour by Kassia St. Clair

COLOURFUL TALES

The Secret Lives of Colour

Kassia St. Clair, John Murray: London, 2016, hb., 320pps.

History can be refracted through countless prisms – cultural, economic, environmental, ideological, moral, national, racial, religious – but one has been oddly unexplored, despite being not just obvious, but ubiquitous. That prism is colour, an element that suffuses every instinct and thought, hues our whole universe. Since hominids evolved opsin genes, we have been able to distinguish between colours and assign them significances. Over aeons, and increasingly as Homo became sapiens sapiens, we have used this rare ability to paint our world in affirmatory or menacing shades, define deities, read countries and skies, rank friends and foes, inform others about ourselves. By the time the artists of Lascaux were depicting their sable elks, umber aurochs and charcoal wisent, 17,000 years ago, ur-Europe had complex hierarchies and mythologies of colour ingrained into the everyday. Even now, when we know something of anthropology, cultural transmission, evolution, genetics, light, optics, and anomalies like synesthesia, colours carry inescapable, almost instinctive associations.

Kassia St. Clair “fell in love with colours” while writing about eighteenth century fashions, and parlayed chromophilia into a column for Elle Decoration, and so this book. These may sound like slender credentials, but she has mined carefully and mixed well, foraying into art history, art theory, biology, botany, chemistry, industrial methods, military history, politics, symbol dictionaries, and the worlds of clothes, cosmetics, football and pop. 

She reminds us how colour vision works – the rods, cones and retinas vaguely familiar from school science lessons. Then there is a well-informed (her bibliography is nine pages) overview of how colours have been created, used and viewed from the ancients up to light artists like Olafur Eliasson and the 99.96% light-eating nanotube Vantablack. 

Pliny claimed Greek painters only used black, white, red and yellow, and this was good, because having too wide a palette would have distracted them from the business of line and form. He made politic allowances for Tyrian purple, 

…for which the Roman fasces and axes clear a way. It is the badge of noble youth; it distinguishes the senator from the knight; it is called in to appease the gods. It brightens every garment, and shares with gold the glory of the triumph.

Tyrian purple was so jealously reserved to royalty that Nero had a mauve-clad high society woman dragged from a recital, stripped naked and relieved of her property. But the colour (insalubriously obtained by crushing vast quantities of shellfish and soaking the resultant ooze in stale urine) was never consistent. Pliny described it as the colour of “clotted blood”, which we would not necessarily classify as purple at all. Pliny was incidentally incorrect about the limited palette of ancient painters, as “Egyptian blue” had been produced since 2,500 B.C., and would have been available around the Middle Sea. But early colourists were indeed often limited to what was easily available from earth, lichens, plants, stones or insects (cochineal beetles are still included in the ingredients of cherry cola, euphemised as “E120”). 

Pliny-style severity was echoed by early Christians chary of artifice, pride and sensuality, like St. Cyprian: 

The very Devils first taught the use of colouring the eyebrows, and clapping on a false and lying Blush on the Cheeks, so also to change the very natural Colour of the Hair and to adulterate the true and Naked Complexion.

Such suspicion carried into the Middle Ages, the mixing of colours even for church decoration frowned upon as unnatural. Renaissance painters attracted superstitious contumely for their experiments in paint and perspective, and Isaac Newton was seen as suspect for breaking and remaking white light. 

This handsome book must have been a production headache, its white cover indented with coloured dots, its endpapers striped luxuriously, its contents pages highlighted with Pantone colour wheels, each text page edged in a swatch of the colour under discussion that allows easy comparison between shades. Or is it easy? One is struck by how subtly different colours can be, how subjectively we see them, and yet how powerfully they move us. Even white, dismissed now as ‘vanilla’ and ‘white bread’, pulsates with concepts of ‘purity’ and ‘simplicity’ that shaped how the West saw itself culturally and even physically; today’s derision is connected to these concepts, part of a sometimes inchoate effort to delegitimise a civilisation simultaneously disliked and envied. When nineteenth century historians discovered that classical statuary and structures had usually been brightly bedizened, Rodin is said to have hit his breast and declared “I feel it here that they were never coloured!” The author makes various angsty references to actual or alleged racisms, sexisms, etc. but such are almost obligatory in modern Western writing. (Metaphorically speaking, blushing pink sometimes seems to dominate our present culture.) 

If ‘simple’ white is so complicatedly emotive, how much more so is it when subdivided into lead white, ivory, silver, whitewash, isabelline, chalk and beige? These blend into blonde and other yellows, each tint tainted or tinged with absorbing stories – why the lead-tin yellow used from Giotto to Rubens suddenly disappeared, how Indian yellow derives its uniqueness from cow urine, the origins of acid-yellow emojis, why Van Gogh’s supposedly immortal sunflowers are wilting (chrome yellow reacting with other pigments), the diuretic qualities of gamboge (also used to demonstrate the reality of Brownian motion), the toxicity of orpiment, the semi-sacerdotal nature of China’s imperial yellow, confined to royals for 1,300 years between the Tang and Qing dynasties, culminating in gold, about which volumes could be and have been written.

Oranges touch on Dutch monarchs, the medieval spice trade that gave Essex’s Saffron Walden its name (the town appears again later, linked laterally to the red known as dragon’s blood), Buddhist monks, the lost Amber Room of Tsarskoye Selo, the origins of the word electron, attitudes towards redheads, the ethnocentric connotations of ‘nude’, and more. ‘Miniature’ originally did not connote smallness, but was derived from miniators, specialist applicators of a colour called minium. 

Oranges become pinks and reds. Baker-Miller pink was adopted eagerly by American institutions in the 1970s and 1980s after tests suggested the colour could reduce aggression on buses, in housing estates, drunk-tanks and jails. Football teams with red strips finish higher in the leagues. Immediately before execution, Mary Queen of Scots undid her muted outer clothes to show a crimson undergown, so associating herself with Catholic martyrdom (although Knoxians snorted it proved she was Jezebel). 

Blues were associated with barbarism by the Romans because Celtic warriors dyed themselves with woad, and this persisted in the West until the 1130s, when the visionary Abbot Suger oversaw the rebuilding of Paris’s Saint-Denis Abbey, and encouraged its adorners to use God-given cobalt. About the same time, artists began to paint the Virgin in light blue robes, and this association became increasingly powerful. In 1200, only 5% of European coats of arms contained azure; by 1400 it was almost a third. Up to the twentieth century, girls were accordingly often garbed in blue, and boys kitted out in pink (vaguely reminiscent of blood, or military redcoats). Blues are also often abused – “Let’s sell these people a piece of sky-blue”, chortled Scientology’s L. Ron Hubbard.  

Greens were associated with growth, but also with envy, toxicity and wildness (and, in the West, Islam), unsettling qualities exacerbated by the technical difficulties of creating consistent, unfading dyes or pigments. 55-75% proof absinthe, which The Times termed “emerald-tinted poison”, was blamed for nineteenth century national decadence. The 840 pound Bahia emerald immediately attracted criminality from the moment it was unearthed in 2001. Carl Scheele’s fashionable green filled Georgian and Victorian clothing and interiors with lethal levels of arsenic. 

Browns were underrated, lacking luminosity, men having been uplifted from clay and dust according to many traditions, and in the end returning to it. Excrement, mud, and rubbish were brown; russets were reserved to the poor by fourteenth century sumptuary laws; buffs and fallows were strictly for camouflage. But one could ask what would Caravaggio have been without his brown contrasts? Then Washington assumed the Fairfax Volunteers’ blue-and-buff (a combination taken up by influential English Whigs), the 1850s Indian army switched to khaki, and stag-stalking Victorians fell in love with earth-toned tweeds.

So inevitably to blacks, Secret Lives closing with an examination of the absence of light (technically, black is not a colour) widely associated with blindness, death, depression, evil, night, obscurity, and witchery. Look into John Dee’s obsidian mirror, Elizabethans shivered, and you never know what might look back. But as with all colours there are countervailing connotations – the night is when we dream, artists outline in charcoal, black means good taste, respectability, scholarship and seriousness. Once again, as so often in this engaging compendium, we wonder what we are really seeing when we consider colours. What is looking back usually is ourselves, in all our contradictions. 

This review first appeared in the July 2018 issue of Chronicles, and is reproduced with permission