On time and nuns and MP3s

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P1040645In Ladakh, northern India, a few days ago, I decided to walk from the city of Leh to Choglamsar Tibetan refugee camp, where I had taught for a summer, 30 years ago. It was five km, and I was determined not to ask the way.

I asked the way.

So much had changed. There had once been three shops, Now. Well, now there are more.

In the office I explained my story. The man looked blank until I mentioned the Buddhist nun who had shared her room with me in children’s house number 8. Then he jumped up and disappeared into another room. Ani Garab is here, he said. Read the rest of this entry

Ben Day, dot-maker, was a real person

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From a Hotrod comic book, 1950s, printed with Benday dots

When I was researching for my next book (A Brilliant History of Color in Art, to be published by the Getty in November) I looked into the Benday dots that Roy Lichtenstein made famous. And I learned that Benday was a real person. Benjamin Day. So I imagined a comic book sequence telling the story of his invention. Obviously you’ll have to imagine it too, as I can’t draw. Though if anyone wants to mock it up that would be cool.

FRAME ONE and TWO, BEN DAY as a kid – done in the black and white style of an 1850s news engraving drawing

(1852: A boy of about 14 is hunched over a desk. Behind him is an open door, where

NEW YORK SUN
Proprietor: Benjamin Henry Day.

is written in appropriate lettering. You can see his father in the next room, obviously the editor, but with a compositor’s magnifying glass…

“Dad. Black and white’s so last century. Isn’t there a way we could get some color into the paper?”

“I’m not made of money, Ben. You’d have to make it really cheap.”

NEXT FRAME, almost the same but the door’s closed… The boy’s scribbling now and thinking to himself

“Now… if I just combined three plates of dots…” Read the rest of this entry

A white chicken and a silver wheelbarrow

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I looked out the window just now and THERE WAS A WHITE CHICKEN standing beside a silver wheelbarrow in our garden… Of course I wished – it almost hurt – that I had followed my instinct and painted it red, like in the William Carlos Williams poem. I had wanted to do it this spring just in case a white chicken wandered along. And then it did wander along and I wasn’t ready. Is there a metaphor somewhere there…. ? 

Faith in Conservation reissue

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In January 2003 my husband, Martin Palmer, came home to the little cottage we lived in in the Peak District, and said that as part of the World Bank funding of some projects with his charity he had to write a book about what it was all about. They were going to publish it later that year.

He showed me the first draft of his history of the Alliance of Religions and Conservation (ARC), the charity he had set up with HRH Prince Philip eight years before.

It was nice, I said, and obviously it was amazing for the short amount of time he had available. “But if the World Bank is going to publish it, couldn’t we write a better book, an engaging one, full of stories that people would actually enjoy reading?”

And he smiled, as if that was what he was hoping I’d say, and asked me if I’d put a bit of time into improving it. “And maybe rewriting,” he said hopefully.  Read the rest of this entry

A deadline, thundering ahead

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ImageThis untitled ink and watercolour sketch by the extraordinary Californian artist Martin Ramirez somewhere between 1948 and 1963 seems to sum up my week.

I’m spending every waking hour at a desk with a train of a deadline thundering noisily past the window.

This little person doesn’t have toppling bookshelves full of wonderful art books though (and nor do they have a wonderful swiveling chair which arrived on Monday, and which distracted me for several happy minutes, until I felt a bit woozy with all that turning.) Read the rest of this entry

A Dinka name for red

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Medici con l'Africa Cuamm Dinka cattle-1Earlier this week I went to a party where I met a woman from South Sudan. Her name, she said, meant “dark red” in Dinka. Was it common in South Sudan to name people after colours, I asked. It wasn’t uncommon, she said. And is her name just for girls? Yes, she said.

So is there an equivalent, maybe “dark blue” for boys, I asked, happy as always to be chatting along a colours theme. And she started to laugh. And she giggled until little tears formed at the corners of her eyes. “The Dinka are cattle herders,” she said as if in explanation, and giggled again. I didn’t quite understand. “My name is the name for a kind of cattle colour…. (another shudder of laughter)… and no cows are dark blue!” And then we both laughed until we cried at the delightful image of dark blue cows grazing in an orange desert.

It was a lovely, funny reminder of how colour names are caught up in culture. Read the rest of this entry

When Colour could kill and I got addicted to a design website…

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Washington's verdigris dining room

Washington’s verdigris dining room

Last month the people at that wonderful (and horribly addictive) interior design website Houzz asked me to write a story about colour for their February Colour Month. It was a great chance to remember some of the extraordinary interiors stories I found while researching my Colour book, including George Washington’s insistence that his new dining room should be a particular fashionable green, made from verdigris (interestingly it was a British fashion, and he was writing home from the battlefield where he was fighting against the British in the American War of Independence.)

I also remembered one story which particularly delighted me at the time, (even though I have never had a comment about it from anyone which suggests I might have been a bit geeky) which was about the problems of painting pillar boxes red, or rather of finding a red paint that stayed red and didn’t drift to a cloudy and faded pink. For that one I spent a whole day in the Post Office archives in London, pulling out of storage letters written by angry ex Admirals who said the splotchy colour was unreasonably ugly on their streets in nice places like Tunbridge Wells, and perhaps the Post Office should bite the bullet and paint the boxes battleship grey, which at least would stand the British weather.

I took this in Bath's Great Pulteney Street: this wonderful old pillar box has no doubt been repainted many times since it was first installed more than a century ago

I took this in Bath’s Great Pulteney Street: this wonderful old pillar box has no doubt been repainted many times since it was first installed more than a century ago

There were also some awful tales about how children’s bedrooms in Victorian times were painted or wallpapered in one particular emerald green, which was seen as being jolly for children but which in reality was full of arsenic, and responsible for some horrible deaths and sicknesses. Yet despite that, at a talk given at London’s Royal Academy in the 1870s, there were still a few people who said that they didn’t care about the consequences; it was too marvellous a colour not to use. Here’s the Houzz story.