The history of colour

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The story of colour is the story of society, of fashion, of the way we live, of science and of art. Katherine Sorrell looks at all aspects of colour – from its history to this year’s most fashionable shades

 Did you know that there was a time when green wallpaper could kill you? Or that a very expensive dye was once made from boiled snails? But first, the early history.

It was back in the Palaeolithic era – about 35,000 years ago – that Stone Age man began to create cave paintings in which earth pigments were mixed with resin, water or glue made from animal bones and hides.

For many centuries, the most widely used natural pigments were extracted from soil and rocks, plants, insects (cochineal, for example) and animals (the distinctive Suffolk pink was made by diluting whitewash with bull’s blood). Ash and chalk were also basics; at a price, however, it was possible for strong, bright pigments or dyes to be extracted from other sources. Ultramarine blue, for example, came from ground lapis lazuli gemstones, and was once more expensive than gold (hence in art it was often reserved for painting the robes of Mary and the infant Christ), while Tyrian purple required 10,000 boiled snails to produce one gram of dye, and was employed for fabrics worn only by kings, queens and emperors.

Historically, the use of colour was governed by its ease of availability – and therefore its cost. The richest colours were always reserved for the most important parts of religious and royal interiors. In the Georgian period, the ‘common’ colours that were affordable and widely available included stone and timber colours, greys and whites – in the form of distemper and white lead. Middle class households would often use the slightly more expensive oil colours such as ‘drab’ (dull brownish grey), olive, pea green and sky blue. More expensive paints included pink, lemon, orange and straw colour, while the most costly were verdigris, ultramarine and smalt, a glittering blue. It was household income, on the whole, rather than personal taste, which determined how colourful a home could be.

Everything changed from the early 19th century, however, when chemists, spurred on by the industrialisation of textile production, began to develop synthetic colours, and the price of ‘colour’ began to fall.

Many new colours were developed and old ones were improved – though there were exceptions. Emerald Green, for example, commercially available from 1814 to the early 1900s, was based on arsenic, and fumes from wallpaper – including designs by William Morris – printed with the ink could be deadly. The new Victorian palette included bottle greens, gold, burgundy, crimson, rose, violet and mahogany, as well as intense chemical yellows, blues and greens, the results of the invention of aniline dye colours used first for wallpapers and textiles, and then for paints. Stronger colours were mostly used for rooms deemed ‘important’ (not to mention the fact that deeper colours helped to hide the soot produced by oil lamps), while white and lighter colours were considered more appropriate for bedrooms.

In a reaction to these bold Victorian colours, perhaps unsurprisingly, Edwardian hues became softer and paler and, ever since, colour has followed the roller-coaster of fashion as well as inevitable scientific advances: from the ‘greenery-yallery’ of the Aesthetic movement to the brilliant white produced by the introduction of titanium dioxide in 1916, and from the sorbet colours of the ‘50s right through to the on-trend pinks, blues and greens of 2017. These days, ready-made paint colours are inspired by historical periods, fashion themes, travel, architecture, the natural world – or you can have them specially mixed to any hue you desire. It’s fair to say that the modern world of colour has no limits.

What are this year’s most fashionable colours?

Greenery: Colour authority Pantone’s colour of 2017, Greenery is described as ‘a fresh and zesty yellow-green shade that evokes the first days of spring when nature’s greens revive, restore and renew’. Greenery is ideal for adding pops of colour in the form of cushions, cupboard fronts or vases. It also lends itself beautifully to the botanicals trend that’s so hot right now.

Millenial pink: Also known as Tumblr Pink and Scandi Pink, Millennial Pink is a soft, dusky pink that was inspired by Wes Anderson’s film The Grand Budapest Hotel and the rose gold iPhone. It’s been called gender-neutral and post-pretty, and it’s literally everywhere.

Denim drift: Dulux’s colour of the year for 2017, Denim Drift is versatile and easy to use in every room of the house, from kitchen cupboards and soft furnishings to floor coverings and entire walls. It’s easy to co-ordinate with, too.

 

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