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

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.

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A wonderful show of purple

Purpura. PHOTO: Traditions Mexico

A reader called Hamid Zavareei has just left a comment on this blogsite to say that there’s a brilliant slideshow about purple on the Traditions Mexico website. And it is wonderful. Really shows the beauty of those remote beaches in Oaxaca, and the extraordinary quality of that most simple of all natural dyes – the shimmer and life of it. I wish I had taken pictures like that when I was there in 2001. But I was too caught up in the whole purpleness of the escapade, in the unlikelihood that we were really there, against the odds, with a man whose name I had read in an academic paper written 10 years before, and that he lived near one particular marketplace. That day we got the only available boat in the village, driven by two teenagers who were actually supposed to be painting it (that’s why it had been left behind). I was also caught up in my desire to stop the two teenagers from hurting the shellfish.

Mexican dyed yearns. PHOTO: Tradition Mexico

I don’t know who the people at Traditions Mexico are, but they have some great photos. And when delving into their earlier albums I found another interesting slideshow from 2007, about cochineal. You can see what the little bugs look like on the opuntia cactuses, and what great buildings (many of them in the city of Oaxaca) were constructed from its profit. You can find that one here.

An ochre mine in Gloucestershire

Ochre miner at the Wick Quarries - PHOTO: THIS IS BATH

29 days after my pledge to write 500 words a day: I am not quite on track – that would mean I had already written 14,500 words which would of course be wonderful. But I have, perhaps 5,000 words more than I would have had I not thought, every day, that I had to do it, like it or not. And some of the images and incidents are keepers, especially the ones I wasn’t expecting.

Today is a “writing day” which meant that I was out in my garden in the sunshine at lunchtime reading a book for research, and taking notes, when neighbours passed. They had lunch guests, would I like to join for a gin and tonic? It took me two minutes to close the door of my house, and be round there.

Our neighbour has always promised to take me to the ochre mines at Wick, in Southern Gloucester. He is very amused that I went round the world to Australia to find ochre when there was perfectly good material five miles away from the place that would later be my home. He said that in the old days you used to see the workers finishing their shifts at five o’clock and they would look yellow-white as ghosts, their features and clothes clouded in dust. He also said that the red tarmac on the Mall in London was coloured with pigment of Wick. There is, apparently, a letter from King George V, thanking the men of Wick for the redness of his road.

It is apparently now a nature reserve. And there’s some good local research on its history. I must visit soon. I can’t believe I haven’t been there before. But first I have 500 words to write.

Pepys struggled with reading a book on Colours

I have just received a lovely letter from Mr Kenneth Bone in Stirlingshire, telling me about one of his favourite quotations from Samuel Pepys’ Diary (Vol 2).

2nd June 1667 (Lords Day)

Being weary and almost blind with writing and reading so much today, I took boat and up the river all alone as high as Putney almost, and then back again, all the way reading and finishing Mr. Boyle’s book of Colours, which is so chemical that I can understand but little of it, but enough to see that he is a most excellent man.”

Pepys was talking about Robert Boyle’s Experiments on Colours, published in 1663, and Mr Bone wondered why I hadn’t mentioned it in my bibliography of Colour: Travels through the Paintbox. I’m ashamed to say that I hadn’t even found it, let alone struggled through the chemistry of it.

However since then, Gutenberg, that wonderful free library institution (for which I helped on the inputting of a couple of fantastic obscure books a few years ago, which I’d recommend to anyone who likes that kind of thing) has now put it online.

It starts with a short Preface, expressing a concern that I have some sympathy with:

Having in convenient places of the following Treatise, mention'd the
Motives, that induc'd me to write it, and the Scope I propos'd to my self
in it; I think it superfluous to entertain the Reader now, with what he
will meet with hereafter. And I should judge it needless, to trouble
others, or my self, with any thing of Preface: were it not that I can
scarce doubt, but this Book will fall into the hands of some Readers, who
being unacquainted with the difficulty of attempts of this nature, will
think itn strange that I should publish any thing about Colours, without a
particular Theory of them.

Read more of the 1664 book here, though apparently the best edition was published in 1852, with notes by John Holmes Esq, of the British Museum. Next time, some information from the Painter’s Companion, 1810, also sadly unquoted in my book, but deserving a mention.

Happy Thanksgiving to all those readers giving thanks.