Saturday 5 May 2018

Nomenclature of Colours - a Book Review by Joan Lennon

Before there were DIY paint charts and high-fidelity digital shade matchers, there was Werner's Nomenclature of Colours.  In 1814, Patrick Syme (Flower-Painter of Edinburgh) adapted the pioneering work of Abraham Gottlob Werner to make it "highly useful to the Arts and Sciences, particularly Zoology, Botany, Chemistry, Mineralogy, and Morbid Anatomy".  His aim was "To remove the present confusion in the names of colours, and establish a standard".

In Syme's arrangement, each colour is numbered, named, its constituent parts explained, a small square of colour shown, and then comparisons made to exactly which bit of a well-known animal or plant or mineral it is most like.

No. 24, for example, "Scotch blue, is Berlin blue, mixed with a considerable portion of velvet black, a very little grey, and a slight tinge of carmine red."  It is most like the tint seen on the "Throat of Blue Titmouse", the "Stamina of Single Purple Anemone" and "Blue Copper Ore".

And that is where I get completely hooked.

Gold Fish lustre abstracted ... Beauty Spot on Wing of Mallard Drake ... Breast of the Robin round the Red ... Old Stems of Hawthorn ...


Today, the book's most well-known user was Charles Darwin, who took it with him on the HMS Beagle and referred to it, as the Publisher's Note describes, "to craft his descriptions of what he saw, such as the changing colour of cuttlefish ... 'clouds, varying in tint between hyacinth red and chestnut brown' ... and the 'beryl blue' colour of the glaciers he saw in South America."

Werner's Nomenclature of Colours is published as a Natural History Museum facsimile volume.  It is a pleasure to hold in the hand, and full of the quaint and the poetic as well as the historical, the practical and the scientific.  I recommend it for your antiquarian browsing delectation.

Joan Lennon's website.
Joan Lennon's blog.
Walking Mountain.


Susan Price said...

I certainly prefer 'Gold Fish lustre abstracted' to the way Photoshop would put it -- something like '903752--683507-445720'
Great post!

Penny Dolan said...

What a remarkable discovery of a book! Just fascinating; those poetic, nature-based descriptions are wonderful and almost a past world in themselves. (Lovelier by far than a pantone colour chart.)

michelle lovric said...

What a gorgeous thing!

Sue Purkiss said...