The Secret Lives of Colour Kassia St Clair (John Murray, £20)
Look at any of those tantalising images of Greek islands peppering the January travel supplements, and the appealing sparkle of crystalline waters and clear skies is all too apparent. It is, therefore, extraordinary to discover that the pervasive blueness surrounding the ancient Greeks, which we find so irresistible, was never mentioned in their texts.
this is one of numerous fascinating insights in kassia St Clair’s new book, which is appropriately designed to resemble a colour swatch, each page-opening a different shade to accompany wide-ranging ‘character sketches’ of more than 70 colours. the combined effect creates a lexi- con of colours, simultaneously revealing the cultural attitudes that determine our responses to them.
the patriotic Irish conjunction of St Patrick and kelly green, for example, turns out to be a 20thcentury adaptation of the revolutionary associations of green in preference to the more usual identification of the saint with blue.
the science of vision and colour is naturally fascinating, but our present state of understanding is comparatively recent and is still evolving. In a series of short introductory essays, the author neatly summarises the principal revelations that have shaped and expanded colour theories since Isaac Newton’s analysis of the relationship between pure light and colour in the 17th century.
Just as significant to the vibrant world we now inhabit has been the manufacture through industrial processes of completely new colours. obviously, this has created vast new possibilities for artists of the past two centuries, as well as suggesting new ways in which much older pigments, such as vermilion, could be placed alongside others in radical ways.
In exploring the etymology of the intriguing names on her palette, Miss St Clair offers telling anecdotes that highlight the challenge of fixing the elusive power of colour in words. as John Ruskin wrote in 1859: ‘It is the best possible sign of a colour when nobody who sees it knows what to call it.’ Ian Warrell Ian Warrell curated the recent exhibition, ‘J. M. W. Turner: Adventures in Colour’, at Turner Contemporary, Margate
Turner’s assimilation of yellows is well known, but he also found ways of enriching pigments such as vermilion, as in Building above a Harbour