The Se­cret Lives of Colour Kas­sia St Clair (John Mur­ray, £20)

Country Life Every Week - - Books -

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

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