Lead book review

Pink for boys, blue for girls and a worldwide mania for mauve

Honor Clerk explores the history of the world through colour, from the Stone Age to orbiting the Moon

9 October 2021

9:00 AM

9 October 2021

9:00 AM

The World According to Colour: A Cultural History James Fox

Allen Lane, pp.300, 25

The Colour Code: Why We See Red, Feel Blue and Go Green Paul Simpson

Profile Books, pp.352, 14.99

It would seem, if recent publications are anything to go by, that we have an insatiable appetite for this subject. A quick search of books on colour throws up six titles in just the past three years, a further half dozen published as a set in February this year, another volume in a series by the Sorbonne academic Michel Pastoureau and now these two.

For James Fox, Cambridge academic and television art historian, a fascination with colour came when, as a six-year-old, he saw a squashed iridescent insect, and one gets the feeling that this book has been quietly simmering at the back of his mind ever since. ‘Read it, if you like,’ the author enjoins us at the outset, ‘as a cultural history of colour; though I think of it as a history of the world, according to colour.’ Not a modest claim, but as the text ranges from a Stone Age red ochre factory to Apollo 8, from human sacrifice to wallpaper production, from the human and political connotations of colour and race to Dior’s Little Black Dress, neuroscience, the chemistry of pigment, colour in music and literature and the sociological and psychological effects of colour, it all begins to seem fair enough.

Each of the seven chapters of Fox’s narrative relates to a different colour, not the Newtonian ROYGBIV familiar to us all from the rainbow, but black, red, yellow, blue, white, purple and green. Within each chapter an intricate thread weaves its way through any number of different topics. In ‘Black’ for instance, an exploration of scotopic vision, or the way in which the eye adapts to the dark, Fox describes an alternative light world in which darkness ‘necessitates an unusually industrious mode of looking: problem-solving, self-reflexive’. From here he moves on to an essay by the Japanese author Tanizaki and the 13th-century concept of yugen, a quality of nebulous mystery which brings him neatly to the inkwash paintings of Zen priests and Toyo Sesshu’s 1495 ‘Splashed-Ink Landscape’. In a tour de force description of the creative process, Fox writes:

He charged his brush with the lightest ink and applied it quickly, in a wash so pale as to be almost indistinguishable from the paper, creating middle black ink and in two dozen strokes outlined the structure of the rocks in the foreground. In certain places, where the previous layer was still wet, the inks bled together, creating a fourth shade of black between them. In other places he removed excess water from his brush and added to the wet blacks some dry ones, the strokes feathering at their ends as the hairs of the brush separated… When everything had dried, he added the final details: calligraphic marks for the tree, house and boat. After 60 or 70 strokes, Sesshu was finished.

This is typical Fox: over and over again he weaves together the historical, cultural and scientific background to provide context for a succession of bravura insights. He does it with Turner and the discovery of chrome yellow. He does it with blue: the lapis lazuli mined in the mountains of Afghanistan for the creation of ultramarine, the blue of Titian’s ‘Bacchus and Ariadne’, the effect of ‘Rayleigh scattering’, which makes the sky appear blue, all leading up to the blue of blues — IKB — that the artist Yves Klein patented and rollered on to a linen canvas primed with milk protein. ‘An IKB monochrome,’ Fox tells us, ‘unsettles the retina’, and hung on brackets some 20cm away from the wall, the work seems to advance and retreat. ‘This relentless optical vibration can induce a kind of out-of-body experience, leading observers to feel as untethered as the artworks they scrutinise.’

The story of purple has been often told, but is again given a good outing here. Up to 10,000 shells went to make a single gram of Tyrian dye, used in the Roman world to colour silk. Double the price of gold, 24 times the annual salary of an average farm labourer, its use was reserved to the upper echelons of society. Pliny spoke of a ‘mad lust’ for the colour, but after the fall of Constantinople the recipe was lost and attempts to reproduce it proved inadequate. Four hundred years later, enter Henry Perkin, son of a London builder, whose experiments with aniline, a compound found in coal tar, resulted in 1856 in the brilliant, stable colour first patented as Tyrian Purple and later famously rebranded as mauve. Perkin retired, a very rich man, at the age of 36, and in the following years ‘mauve mania’ spread across the world, spawning a glut of competitors. Industrial espionage, patent wars and legal battles ensued, and out of the melée emerged magenta, a colour whose popularity challenged even that of mauve. ‘It pulsates in the damp silver light,’ Fox writes of the magenta ribbon that took Ford Madox Brown four weeks to paint in ‘The Last of England’,

bouncing reflections across its wearer’s left cheek. As the fabric folds and wrinkles, pink highlights trade places with madder shadows; mauve dances beneath the woman’s chin, and indigo twinkles around her forehead. One end rises into a gesture of farewell, while the other congeals into a spear that shoots ominously into the husband’s chest. It is perhaps the finest thing that Brown ever painted.

Purple prose? Or a paean to the new colours of the industrial age? For my money this is a brilliant book, pace the dreadful joke at the end that ‘colour is the pigment of our imaginations’.

If Fox’s obsession with colour began as a child, Paul Simpson enters the lists with The Colour Code because he once turned up for work in a yellow suit and was told it wouldn’t do. His book covers much the same ground as Fox’s, and uses many of the same sources, but he adds orange, pink, brown and grey to his spectrum. Unsurprisingly for a journalist and editor, he is good on the history of colour classification, which gave us Pantone, the commercially standardised system of colour in the printing industry, ensuring that the green of BP or the red of Coca-Cola is always the same. This, though, is essentially a commonplace book — but no less fun for that. If you want to know about football strips or national flags, why fire engines are red, why the Pope wears white or why the leader of the Tour de France has a yellow jersey you’ll find the answer here. You’ll also find that boys used to wear pink, girls blue; that there’s a town in America where the traffic lights were upside down because the Irish inhabitants didn’t like green to be at the bottom and that Barbara Cartland, the legendary doyenne of pinkness, said: ‘No Englishwoman should wear beige or brown, because it makes them look like a baked potato.’ An image to bear in mind when flicking through the taupes, camels, caramels, nutmegs, tobaccos and minks of online fashion catalogues.

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