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No tone unturned

Morag Myerscough

Tracking the history, development and application of colour, this absorbing and detailed analysis will change the way you see the world

A house painter painting a window, c1820.
A house painter painting a window, c1820.

I thought I knew a bit about colour. But when I started reading this book I realised my knowledge was wanting. The title, Anatomy of Colour, is perfect as it dissects colour with almost mathematical rigour. And for readers who are fascinated by how colour production has developed over the centuries it is an incredible sourcebook; one that is dense and referenced, but which also can be just dipped into in a leisurely way.

In fact, that’s perhaps how it should be digested, as reading from start to finish in one go would blow your mind with information. Each colour subject is discussed in such fine detail that, if you read it all, you’ll have gained an encyclopaedic knowledge of the subject. But it’s just as good as a reference book to discover something that might help with a particular project. It is incredible task for Patrick Baty to have pulled together such insights; as a result, for those who are specifically interested in historical colours it’s a must have.

The book is beautifully laid out and illustrated, and Baty draws on what must be an unrivalled collection of paint samples. In the introduction he mentions that it is impossible to make a book printed CMYK represent pure pigment colours as you can never truly get the depth and richness of the actual pigments. But he points us towards his ‘Papers and Paints’ shop in west London, where true colour matches can be found.

His introduction is very insightful, where he begins with the observation that few people are actually ‘taught about colour’. This is true; when I was a student at Central St Martins School I was only given a one day workshop on the primary and complimentary colour wheel. The subject was never high on the agenda in the mid 80s. Before this book I had no idea how many colour theories – Goetheian for example – that there have been over time, and how beautiful all their individual diagrams are. Baty’s book also picks up on the extensiveness of colour research, highlighting 19th century American ornithologist Robert Ridgeway’s pioneering studies of colours relating to birds, and then Professor Albert Munsell’s 20th century colour system, developed in the 1930s and identifying the attributes of hue (lightness) value (darkness) and chroma (strength) to colour. All helped lay the foundations of modern colour taxonomy.

  • Thomas Everard House The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation
    Thomas Everard House The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation
  • Dominic Myland, Mylands 1907
    Dominic Myland, Mylands 1907
  • James Brice House, Annapolis
    James Brice House, Annapolis Credit: Willie Graham
  • St James's, London
    St James's, London

But starting from first principles, learning about traditional pigments and the lengths people went to manufacture them is fascinating; the development of this technology is another story in itself. Some of the raw materials were hazardous – lead, arsenic, mercury, etc – and there was clearly more concern for the purity of pigments than there ever was for the people making them.

Early paint colours appear to relate to the materials required to make them and those names have remained constant, particularly for artists’ oils and acrylics. Lamp black was made from soot, ivory black from shavings and offcuts of comb-making industry and waste fragments of ivory, blue black from the burning of vine twigs. Ultramarine was, since ancient times, derived from the semi-precious stone Lapis Lazuli, while vermilion was a bright scarlet pigment produced by combining sulphur and mercury to form red mercuric sulphide. Chrome yellow was only synthesised in the late 1790s with developments in scientific know-how. What’s interesting is that, although artificial chemicals are used now, Baty argues that the quality of colour pigments is as good, if not better, than those produced from traditional raw materials.

  • Georgian Group
    Georgian Group Credit: Andy Marshall
  • Drayton Hall The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation
    Drayton Hall The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation Credit: Willie Graham
  • Plate from- David Ramsay Hay's The Laws of Harmonious Colouring adapted to Interior Decorations
    Plate from- David Ramsay Hay's The Laws of Harmonious Colouring adapted to Interior Decorations

His writing on colour nomenclature articularly struck me as I spent a year tweeting only in colours and describing them. One set of colour tweets was my mood in the morning and then my mood at night. Sometimes I would use a single word to describe them, such as ‘black’; and other times I needed more specificity and so use a descriptive word in front of them, such as ‘duck blue’, ‘sunshine yellow’ or ‘vivid green’. I loved finding that similar and stranger names — donkey brown, lotus pink, Derby blue names were all part of the British Standard Council’s ‘Dictionary of Colours for Interior Decoration’ of 1949.

The evolution of colour systems and paint systems in general is particularly fascinating, and I loved the section on Colour Systems and Standards 1900-1945 in which household paints moved into a completely different naming system. Baty notes in an aside on the moves made by the French Society of Chrysanthemum growers (from the Greek word Chrysous —‘golden’) to categorise flower colours due to the breeding of new plant types, that it helped push developments in colour categorisation. Introduced into Europe in the 17th century, by the start of the 20th the assortment of flower colours had become so extensive that the Société Française des Chrysanthémistes published its Répertoire des couleurs’ (1905). Selected in particularly in connection to fruit, flower and foliage shades, they came to be used as a colour catalogue in many other fields.

  • Use of Colour from a 1955 Walpamur Colour Guide
    Use of Colour from a 1955 Walpamur Colour Guide
  • Use of Colour from a 1955 Walpamur Colour Guide
    Use of Colour from a 1955 Walpamur Colour Guide
  • The Royal Horticultural Society Colour Chart
    The Royal Horticultural Society Colour Chart

In an extension of the formalised systemisation of colour, House & Garden magazine, for instance, felt it was responsible for the first major commercial attempt to convince British people that colour in the home ‘not only delights the eye, but raises the spirits and challenges the imagination’. But this had been set into motion in Britain during the 18th and 19th centuries, where rules specified exactly how rooms should be painted – so much so that French painters of the time held the view that England had developed a distinct aesthetic colour sensibility.

The immense detail Baty goes into on the subject, coupled with beautiful colour plates, makes not only for a compelling read but ultimately argues how colour – manufactured, identified and systemised – actually began to form part of the identity of a country. 

Morag Myerscough is a designer and founder of Studio Myerscough