Game of tones
Elephant’s Breath, Pink Slip, Dead Salmon? Matthew Dennison discovers the origins of weird and wonderful paint names
TUMULTUOUS joy reigns here,’ wrote the Austrian ambassador to France in October 1781. Eleven years after her marriage, the Austrian-born Queen, Marie Antoinette, had given birth to a male heir to the throne. The little boy was christened Louis Joseph Xavier François. As heir apparent, he received the title Dauphin.
A commemorative medal was struck; in Paris, the Opera House staged a free performance of Piccinni’s opera Adèle et Ponthieu; and the fashionable world fell in love with a new shade of mid brown. With a combination of scatological frankness and royalist fervour, it was called caca-dauphin in honour of the new prince (and his bodily functions).
Such apparent eccentricity in the naming of a colour can come as no surprise to modern readers reared 2. 4. on the evocative whimsy of the Farrow & Ball paint chart. Since the early 1990s, when Tom Helme and Martin Ephson took over the Dorsetbased company founded in 1946, striking colour names have comprised a domestic British patois.
Now, a new book, How to Decorate, celebrating the company’s 70th anniversary, explains some of their origins and offers an opportunity to celebrate the creative heritage represented by colour names coined by a range of British companies, including Craig & Rose, Mylands, Little Greene and Edward Bulmer Natural Paint.
Just as colour itself provokes a response in the viewer that is invariably both conscious and unconscious, so the names chosen by paint manufacturers aim to direct our reaction to the colours themselves. The original Farrow & Ball range of the 6. 5. 7. 1990s included the company’s own shade of mid brown, called Dauphin in honour of that long-dead prince. If few decorators were aware of Louis Joseph, and even fewer that his birth had been honoured by Parisians by colour-naming, the soft sound of the French word itself felt appropriate for this gentle tertiary shade.
More recently, interior designer and colour specialist Edward Bulmer also resorted to French in naming a shade of dusty pink balanced with umber Cuisse de Nymphe Emue. Mr Bulmer borrowed the name from the Dowager Lady Egremont, who used a similar pink in the family rooms at Petworth House. Lady Egremont in turn had taken the name from that of an alba rose, usually known in Britain as Great Maiden’s Blush. 8.
What’s in a name?: 1. Cooking Apple; 2. Railings; 3. Pigeon; 4. Mushroom; 5. Dove; 6. Mole; 7. Holland Park; 8. Deepest Damson; 9. Lavender; 10. Roe Superior; 11. Toad; 12. Forget Me Not; 13. Iris; 14. Delphinium; 15. Acorn; 16. Starling Egg