Our very own colour ex­pert, Kas­sia St Clair, has penned a book! Brim­ming with in­ter­est­ing facts and his­tor­i­cal in­sights, ‘The Se­cret Lives of Colour’ (John Mur­ray, £20) ex­plains the ori­gins of colours both pop­u­lar and ob­scure. Here, she se­lects five shade

ELLE Decoration (UK) - - Style Colour -


From the 12th to the 20th cen­turies, those re­quir­ing a rich, red­dish brown pig­ment might well have pur­chased ‘mummy’. Cus­tomers would have been sur­prised to know the name was lit­eral: the colour was made from ground up mum­mi­fied hu­man re­mains plun­dered from Egypt. Pre-raphaelite Sir Ed­ward Burne-jones ( The Rose Bower, right) was so hor­ri­fied when he dis­cov­ered the grisly truth that he in­sisted on giv­ing his fi­nal tube of the stuff ‘a de­cent burial’ in his back gar­den. ‘Cal­laghan’, £38 for 2.5 litres, Lit­tle Greene ( lit­tle­greene.com)


Some­time be­tween 1704 and 1706, an al­chemist in Berlin used a tainted batch of potash when try­ing to make a bright cochineal red and wound up with a deep blue in­stead. The art world was in rap­tures over this new blue – it was one tenth of the price of pre­vi­ous favourite shade ul­tra­ma­rine. It be­came the blue of the 19th cen­tury, and was used on the uni­forms of the Prussian Army (right). ‘Plim­soll’, £42.50 for 2.5 litres, Paint & Pa­per Li­brary ( paintand­pa­per­li­brary.com)


Ac­cord­ing to leg­end, this sub­stance forms when a dragon at­tacks an ele­phant but is crushed by its prey’s weight. The crea­tures’ blood min­gles and forms a glossy red, used since an­tiq­uity by artists for its colour, and by apothe­caries for its sup­posed heal­ing pow­ers. The truth of its ori­gin is less ro­man­tic: it is sap from the Dra­caena tree genus. ‘Arts Club’, £42 for 2.5 litres, My­lands (my­lands.co.uk)


In 1941, while analysing paint sam­ples from the Old Masters, Ger­man sci­en­tist Richard Ja­cobi made a sur­pris­ing dis­cov­ery: a sul­phur-yel­low pig­ment that no one else even knew ex­isted. Al­though it was the yel­low used by lu­mi­nar­ies in­clud­ing Ti­tian, Rem­brandt and Ver­meer ( Mis­tress and Maid de­tail, left), the recipe for lead-tin yel­low van­ished around 1750. Its 200-year ab­sence re­mains a mys­tery. ‘Citron’, £39.50 for 2.5 litres, Far­row & Ball ( far­row-ball.com)


Colours are rarely called upon to fight crime. The law­less­ness of the late 1970s, though, made Amer­ica’s es­tab­lish­ment des­per­ate. Into the breach stepped this sickly hue. Its creator, Dr Alexan­der G Schauss, claimed it could sap the strength of the most re­cal­ci­trant delin­quent. Slathered on cor­rec­tional fa­cil­ity walls, it was found to ren­der in­mates docile and lower the heart rates of those ex­posed to it. It could claim to be the true colour of tran­quil­lity. ‘Is­land Hibis­cus’, £40 for 2.5 litres, De­sign­ers Guild (de­sign­ers­guild.com)

‘The Se­cret Lives of Colour’ is out 20 Oc­to­ber (John Mur­ray, £20)

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