10 October 2012

Review: Color - A Natural History of the Palette by Victoria Finlay

Color - A Natural History of the Palette by Victoria Finlay book cover
I've always been fascinated about the origins of colour, and in Color - A Natural History of the Palette, author Victoria Finlay travels the world in her search for the origin and birthplace of colors and dyes.

I wasn't interested in the author's personal travelogue, so I initially had the intention of skipping over any boring parts and jumping straight to the facts about the colours which are conveniently broken down into the following chapter headings:

  1. Ochre
  2. Black and Brown
  3. White
  4. Red
  5. Orange
  6. Yellow
  7. Green
  8. Blue
  9. Indigo
  10. Violet
What I found surprising was that there were no boring bits!  Finlay has managed to keep herself out of the book for the most part, and the stories that were included were historically relevant to the colour being discussed and I didn't end up skipping a single paragraph.

Finlay's passion for color and dyes are clear early on, but far from boring the reader her enthusiasm is infectious and I found myself becoming quite excited when she found her first indigo plant or saw a purple field of saffron crocus (used for the color yellow) for the first time.

Some of my favourite facts include:
  • Red was made from the blood of the Cochineal insect, which lives on a cactus leaf
  • The colour yellow was made from saffron, harvested from the saffron crocus flower, however only 3 strands of saffron are collected from each flower.
  • In 1775, arsenic was used to create a color called Scheele's Green.  It took until 1880 for people to realise that the wallpapers and paints using this green (and other paints containing arsenic) were killing people and making others very sick.  e.g. a cat had become covered with pustules after being locked in a green room.
  • Purple is the colour that has been most legislated about over the longest time in history.
  • Purple has been a regal colour for centuries and one form of purple was made from shellfish and worn by emperors of Ancient Rome.  Finlay writes that those who wore it "probably left a cloud of garlicky, fishy smells in their wake," and that perhaps it was the "scent of power" at the time.  What a thought!
I learned so much about the history of colour, dyes, art, art forgery, culture, events in history and trade across many countries and different time periods in the world's history.  Everything from a secret green used on ancient Chinese porcelain to the colour blue used to dye English police uniforms in the 1960s was covered, all of which I found fascinating and easy to digest in Finlay's conversational writing style.

I thoroughly recommend Color - A Natural History of the Palette to readers who enjoy art, culture, history, non fiction and have a natural curiosity about the colours around us; great for trivia nights too!

My rating = ****

Carpe Librum!

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  1. Just wish to say your article is as surprising. The clearness in your post is just great and i can assume you are an expert on this subject. Well with your permission let me to grab your feed to keep updated with forthcoming post. Thanks a million and please carry on the rewarding work.


Thanks for your comment, Carpe Librum!