A band on the jacket helpfully advises that this is “the book Charles Darwin used to describe colours on his voyage on HMS Beagle”. So much, you might say, for that.
This is a facsimile (if you hadn’t guessed) of a book first published in 1814. It was invaluable then and, although mainly of historical interest now, contains information that can still be of use to the artist. This version took a previously existing colour naming system and adapted it for practical use by botanists, zoologists, mineralogists and artists.
Why, you might ask, was it necessary? Two hundred years ago, colour printing didn’t exist in any useful form. Those full-colour guides we’re so used to now are surprisingly recent. Only 30 or so years ago, it wasn’t uncommon for painting books to be illustrated with only some dozen colour plates and those would be concentrated together, not run throughout the text. The quality of the colour reproduction in the present volume suggests that the swatches were hand-tinted, so this would have been a small edition, and by no means cheap.
But still, why place so much importance on how colours are described? Well, if you can’t reproduce it in print, you need a reliable way of writing about it so that the reader can mix it for themselves, and that requires a standard approach. Enter Mr Werner, ably assisted by Mr Syme.
To see how this works in practice, let’s look at Bluish Green. It “is composed of Berlin blue, and a little lemon yellow and greyish white”. The accompanying table tells us that it’s suitable for a thrush egg, the under disc of wild rose leaves or the mineral beryl. And that’s how you get the colours right, even if you haven’t got a reliable chart.
Yes, this is mainly of historical interest, but it’s a fascinating read and a reminder of how the world got on when everything really was black and white.
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