The Secret Lives of Colour, by Kassia St. Clair. Book report #19 (2019)

The Secret Lives of Colour, by Kassia St. Clair. Pub 2016

I’ll confess to having envy – I envy those who can see and use and interpret colours. Those artists who make something remarkable appear on a canvas or through a camera lens, those fashion plates who effortlessly look fabulous all the time, birdwatchers who can distinguish between the myriad species by the variances in plumage. This book provided some insight into the mystery of this world of shade and hue, with just enough history and science to read like an enjoyable short course into that beautiful world of colour.

St. Clair covers the entire palette from white to black, providing a story for the use, making, folklore, and endurance of some familiar and many unfamiliar colours. Some of my favourites:

  • Isabelline (white) – dingy yellow-white. Apocryphal story about it being the colour of a queen’s underwear when she refused to change it while the king was away at war makes it easy to imagine this colour.
  • Gamboge (yellow) – bright luminous yellow. This colour played a role in the proof of Brownian motion.
  • Orange – “…red brought nearer to humanity by yellow.” (Kandinsky)
  • Dutch orange (orange) – burnt amber to sunny mandarin. Carrots transplanted from South America were originally purple or yellow; Dutch patriots selectively bred carrots to achieve the Dutch orange colour that is now ubiquitous.
  • Ginger (orange) – as applied to redheads, the connection to the spice is more about the fierce and fiery temperament rather than the dun yellowish colour of the root. Aphorisms include that God gives women red hair for the same reason that wasps have stripes: as a warning to others.
  • Electric blue (blue) – a pale bright blue, defined specifically as the glow of electrical discharge, most frighteningly as the colour remembered by those at Chernobyl during the 1986 accident.
  • Scheele’s green (green) – slightly grubby pea shade. This arsenic-based material become very popular in all manner of materials, resulting in poisonous wallpaper being all the rage in Victorian England.
  • Vantablack (black) – purportedly the blackest black there is.

Themes of alchemy and vanity run through many of these stories. So many of the earliest colours used in art, clothing, and cosmetics had their origins with mercury, arsenic, sulphur and all manner of toxic and noxious substances. The secret and arcane methods of production, many involving fire, lime, and ammonia (in the form of stale urine), and the hazards in both making and using the resulting pigments attest to the commitment of humans to aspire to youth and beauty at any cost.

Most of all, the hidden and quirky stories are interesting and well told, and so the book is a treat. Likely of even more interest to artists and fashionistas, but also for those like me who can only look through the window at the world of visual art.

6 – a debut book for the author
7 – a book by a female author
9 – a book of essays
10 – a book referred by a friend
15 – a book with a colour in the title (the word colour)
24 – a book by a new author to me
27 – a book that’s a new genre to me (art)

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