I studied Social Anthropology at St Andrews University, Scotland and William & Mary College, Virginia, after spending time in Himalayan India, teaching in a Tibetan refugee camp and realising how amazing it was to learn about different cultures. My first job was as a management trainee with Reuters, in London and Scandinavia, but I had a dream to be a real news journalist, writing about people’s lives at times of drama and trauma. So I left to study journalism for a three month diploma at the London College of Printing.
When I was there, being told just how hard it would be to find a job, a fellow student asked me where, if I could choose any newspaper or magazine in the world, I would most like to work. I still remember the street we were walking along in south London, as my answer, quite unplanned, would change my life. I said: “Hong Kong, South China Morning Post, during the Handover”. At that time I had neither visited Hong Kong nor ever read The South China Morning Post. However, I had spoken my wish, so I applied as an intern, and spent the next 12 years in Hong Kong writing for The Hong Kong Standard, RTHK (briefly) and finally The South China Morning Post, as news reporter, then arts editor.
I left to fulfil another wish, which was to write a book about where colours came from – a subject that had interested me ever since I was eight years old and heard that we could no longer make the beautiful blue glass of Chartres Cathedral. Two years later, in 2002, that was published as Colour, Travels through the Paintbox, by Sceptre (and Color: the Natural History of the Palette, by Ballantine in the US). My second book, Jewels: A Secret History, followed in 2004. Since then I have returned to the UK, got married (the two were connected), and have spent the past few years working on development programmes (another wish) with my husband, through his charity, ARC. And now I am venturing – very, very slowly – into the world of fiction-writing. In April 2014 my first published short story was published in a book called The Stories of the Stranger: a reimagining of some of the stories that just about every religion and community has, about looking after people you don’t know. In 2014 my book The Brilliant History of Color in Art was published by Getty Publications in LA, and was named the Huffington Post’s top art book for that year.
One of the surprising things that writing the books led me to was being invited onto the BBC Radio 4 programme The Museum of Curiosities a couple of years ago. On the pilot I talked about purple, and then in the first series I was asked to propose Pliny the Elder (I have a thing about Pliny the Elder) to be one of the first entries into the Museum of Curiosity. I give lots of talks, and write for several publications including Orion, Apollo, The Independent, The Smithsonian Magazine and The South China Morning Post.