It’s the colour of royalty, the inspiration of the Impressionists – and now, says Ashley Hay, a forecast to beware.
ASHLEY HAY explores the art and science behind the first all-chemical colour.
THERE’S A TIBOUCHINA TREE on the street that leads from my son’s school to the railway station. I pass it once or twice a week, the brilliant flare of its colour pressing hard against my eyes when it’s in bloom. Tibouchina lepidota: its flowers blaze with one of the least subtle purples in the world.
There was a tibouchina tree at my grandparents’ house in Thirroul on the NSW south coast; it grew at the bottom of their front stairs. I can’t remember now if those stairs were wooden or if they were concrete.
What I can remember is the colour of the flowers on that tree; my grandmother would pluck two petals and stick one on each lens of her glasses, transforming her vision, and mine, into a crazy, psychedelic sight.
Whenever I see that brilliant purple, I think of my grandmother. I think of altered vision. I think of something that made me laugh when I was three or four, and that now makes me smile.
“I want to paint the air in which the bridge, the house, and the boat are to be found – the beauty of the air around them”
IN 1856, A BRIGHT YOUNG English chemist called William Perkin “invented” the first synthetic dye. He gave it the grand name of Tyrian purple at first, to speak to the history of regal Roman robes, before renaming it mauve – a lesser-used word for purple that came from the French word for a mallow flower.
With this name it became so fashionable that one colour historian who wrote a book about mauve thought it would have been impossible to step onto London’s streets without “thinking there was something wrong with your eyes”.
The colour began, unprepossessingly, as a pretty-coloured by-product of Perkin’s attempts to make synthetic quinine to combat malaria. But there was soon a recipe that would produce it reliably: take a hundred pounds of coal, Perkin began, and refine it through coal tar, coal-tar naphtha and aniline. At the end of this process, that hundred pounds of coal – roughly my bodyweight – would have yielded a quarter of an ounce (about 28 grams) of pure mauve. You’d need about four times that to match the purported weight of a soul.
In 1881, the French artist Edouard Manet declared that he had “finally discovered the true colour of the atmosphere”. This true colour, he said, was violet. Years later, the Impressionist painter Claude Monet spoke also of the air around the trees, the buildings – these “motifs”, as he called them – that most artists made the objects of their paintings. “I want to paint the air in which the bridge, the house, and the boat are to be found – the beauty of the air around them”, he said in 1895. His shadows were thick with indigos made possible by new pigments of cobalt and manganese violet. In fact, the Impressionists used so much violet tint that some of their contemporaries thought they really must have seen the world in a different way.
Monet had one ocular lens removed in 1923, years after the first violet wash of his own Impressionism, and this is thought to have given him more purple-skewed vision in one eye compared to the muddied yellow-reds that his other clouded eye saw. He painted one of his most famous canvases – one of his waterlilies – three years after that. That most beautiful, ultraviolet floral thing.
The world’s first UV index was created by Canadian scientists in 1992 and adopted and standardised by the World Health Organisation and World Meteorological Organisation two years later. In Australia, Brisbane endured 105 days of extreme UV (a reading of 11 or more on the scale) in 2004 and again in 2013. Sydney’s highest annual tally was 57 in 2004; Melbourne’s was 50 in 2009. Stay in the shade, the advice says. Wear some sunscreen and a hat. Or stay indoors altogether.
When I think about these things in combination, I see a purple light between them – a brighter relative of the violet of Manet’s and Monet’s air; a darker relative of Perkin’s mauve. The shimmer of a tibouchina’s hue.
It is also the colour that was added to the Bureau of Meteorology’s (BOM) map in January 2013 to indicate temperatures above and beyond 50° Celsius. When it appeared The Guardian framed it in the context of an imminent temperature forecast – of more than 52°C – and called it “a suitably incandescent purple”.
That 52°C didn’t arrive and purple hasn’t officially been adopted by BOM – we’re still inching towards its benchmark and washing in the reds and Tyrian tones that mark forties-and-above temperatures and nudge towards black.
The 2018-19 summer was the hottest ever recorded, with a mean temperature across the nation in January of 30.8°C, which was 2.9°C higher than the average for that month. In February 2019, a BOM map showed areas destined for temperatures of 40°C, with a vast shape that covered more than a third of Australia’s mainland. In March 2019, southeast Queensland recorded its first 40°C day for that month, with the BOM noting some locations were experiencing temperatures “10°C above the March average”.
WHEN PANTONE CHOSE ULTRAVIOLET as their colour of the year for 2018, they spoke of its ability to communicate “originality, ingenuity, and visionary thinking that points us toward the future”. Painting the air between the objects; marking the rising, rising heat.
I watch the colours swirl across the nighttime weather forecasts and wrap-ups: the reds giving in to purples that stain darker and darker still. I watch the way this darkness flows out across the familiar shape of the continent, leaching and staining that notional space, unremarked. I wait for the first blaze of that tibouchina flare on the nation’s weather charts – perhaps it will be almost a relief when it arrives. A later purple puzzle: as Rudi Hendra and Paul A Keller documented in their phytochemical study of the Illawarra flame tree (Journal of Chemistry, 2016), Australia’s first tibouchinas were introduced from South America to Alstonville, in northern NSW, in 1978. My grandmother’s tree lit up my childhood at least five years before that. But then perhaps it’s always hard to keep track of where things are and how they’re moving. Perhaps it’s as hard to unravel the provenance of things as it is to see how they’ll change or how they’ll spread.
My grandmother’s tree is long gone now, along with her house, her garden. The disruption of progress and change. Perhaps that’s why I register the echoes of that colour, mementoes of a version of the world that’s disappeared.
Here we are, a species that can acknowledge beauty – this flower; that beautiful tree – but does not have the vision to see ultraviolet light. A species that can create its own colours – after mauve, a whole rainbow of synthetic dyes – and wear them now, day after day, as if they were no remarkable thing. A species that can tilt temperature into a whole new normal and wait for summer to stain our meteorological maps that dark and inky purple shade.
And still not really see what’s going on.
ASHLEY HAY is a novelist and editor of
The Griffith Review. This is an extract from
Living with the Anthropocene: Love, Loss and Hope in the Face of Environmental Crisis, edited by Cameron Muir, Kirsten Wehner and Jenny Newell, due for release in October by Newsouth Publishing.
I watch colours swirl across the night-time weather forecasts: the reds giving in to purples that stain darker and darker still.