Ben Day, dot-maker, was a real person

Image

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…” Continue reading →

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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.

Turquoise

PHOTO: Robyn Jay

Oh dear. So much for New Years’ Resolutions (see last post from, ahem, four months ago). Today I have just added another page from my archives (Turquoise) and made some private resolutions to do this better and more often. A reader wrote to me a couple of days ago asking if I had any photos of the textiles I wrote about in Colour, and whether I could put them on this blog. That thought did pass recently (and briefly) though my mind quite recently but then I realised they are all either slides or prints, which means they have to be scanned individually.

“Why on earth would you do slides and prints when you could take pictures in digital?” asked a young person in the office of the environment charity I work for, looking with total astonishment at the folders of slides as if they came from another century, which they almost do.

That said, in Chicago last month I saw, to my delight, some quipus (Inca message strings, dyed with cochineal and other dyes) and do have the pictures on my digital camera. So perhaps that will be a good start.

An enormous garnet, discovered in a sewer

The finest large garnet crystal

The sewer garnet is part of the seal of the NY Mineralogical Club

I’ve just looked back at my old notes on garnets – thank goodness they didn’t all disappear, quite, with my ancient hard drive – and have been reminded of the jeweller George Frederick Kunz’s excitement in 1885 when what he estimated to be the finest large garnet crystal found to date in the United States, was found in a sewer.

“It was discovered, strange though it may seem, in the midst of the solidly-built portion of New York City” below W35th Street (between Broadway and Seventh) by a labourer who was digging for a sewer. It had not, incidentally, been lost in the sewer – garnets were evidently simply part of the bedrock of Manhattan. It was almandine, which is a nice way of saying purply-brownish, “weighed 4.4 kg, and was partly a trapezohedral shape”. Trapezohedral is the kind of description you skip over with ease, initially, thinking you know what it refers to, then in my case at least you realise you don’t have the first idea. Wikipedia describes it as ‘the dual polyhedron of an n-gonal antiprism” which didn’t help, but the illustration below is a good way to picture it. Since dubbed the “sewer garnet” it is now, apparently, part of the seal of the New York Mineralogical Society and I’m told by one of my very first blog readers (thanks!) that it can be seen at the American Museum of Natural History in New York in a place in the gallery that isn’t that obvious… so please get hunting, and let me know if you find it.

The Kunz garnet - New York Academy of Sciences Transactions 5. (1886)

You can find a few more of my random and unused notes on garnets on my new, to-be-expanded, “garnets” page here. Also, if you’re interested in the sewer garnet, the John Betts website has a good account of some of the happy and unhappy controversies and correspondences its discovery inspired.