Colour charts for use in taxonomic descriptions of plants and animals were published from the last years of the seventeenth century.
The page above is one of thirteen in a wonderful little volume, whose second edition appeared in 1821 – Patrick Syme’s revision of Werner’s Nomenclature of Colours. A copy of this work was carried by the naturalist Charles Darwin on his voyage in the Beagle. In January 1833, he recorded his first sighting in a small field notebook:
This was presumably a term that he would have taken from the page of Greens below, where two (bluish) colours are described as Beryl under the heading “Mineral”
When The Reverend Leonard Jenyns wrote up the description and classification of the fishes that Darwin had seen and brought back (preserved in spirits of wine) he used Darwin’s notes and his own copy of (Syme’s revision of) Werner’s Nomenclature. The book was invaluable as the fish specimens were, in Jenyns words, “much altered by the action of the spirits”.
The strong solution of ethanol in water had a bleaching effect, and today these specimens are a ghostly white.
Abraham Gottlob Werner (1749-1817), was an eminent mineralogist and geologist, who was Bergmeister at the mining school in Freiberg , Saxony. In his 1774 book On the External Characteristics of Minerals he put forward a system for the classification of colour in order to describe and classify all characteristics of “fossils”—rocks and minerals dug out of the earth. Werner’s system was known to natural philosophers – other than geologists – and was considered a valuable aid for the organisation of colour into the nineteenth century, in spite of a number of recognised drawbacks.
Patrick Syme (1774-1845) was an Edinburgh flower painter and teacher of art. He was introduced to Werner’s work through another resident of the city, Robert Jameson, one of Werner’s favourite pupils. Jameson reconstructed Werner’s colours from his list using actual minerals, and these formed the basis for Syme’s colour samples. Given the artist’s attention to detail it is unlikely that the hand-colouring was assigned to anyone but himself.
Syme extended Werner’s 79 colours to 110, identifying each by its familiar name, as well as providing an Animal, Vegetable and Mineral equivalent – for example:
When I first came across the book in the 1980s, Ian Gow (now the Head Curator of the NTS) told me how Syme and his family would sit around a table in the evening painting colour samples that would then be cut up to stick in the Nomenclature. At the time I felt an affinity with that other Patrick, as this was how my wife and I spent our evenings – painting colour cards for our first range of Historical Colours. How ironic that twenty years later I should find myself (still) doing the same with our latest collection of colours, which have been taken from Syme’s work.
Now that I have my own copy of the book I have been able to measure each of the colours using a spectrophotometer and can reproduce them in modern house-paint. It must be said that not all the colours are immediately relevant for the decoration of houses – try as I might, I don’t think that I could ever see Arterial Blood Red appealing to our South Kensington ladies (perhaps I shall give the colour its Animal name Head of the Cock Gold-Finch).
However, there are some wonderfully subtle colours –
I and my colleagues at Papers and Paints shall start by reproducing a selection of the colours and if there is sufficient demand will slowly match all 110. Who knows, after that my next move might be to reproduce Ridgway…
Finally, I juxtapose a short verse from Darwin’s great-great-granddaughter, the poet Ruth Padel, with a page from Syme’s revision of the Nomenclature. In her Darwin: A Life in Poems she draws his “voice” from direct but carefully adjusted quotations from letters, journals and notebooks and shows how invaluable Werner’s Nomenclature would have been to the naturalist as he observed the exotic wildlife on the Galapagos Islands:
inviting. A broken field of black basaltic lava
thrown into most rugged waves and crossed
by fissures.’ Lava tubes, tuff cones and bright,
red-orange crabs. A land iguana! One saffron
leathery elbow, powdery as lichen, sticking out
The aptly named Darwin the Iguana is shown just below the sample of Saffron Yellow:
Sarah Lowengard – The Creation of Color in Eighteenth-Century Europe
Charles B. Wood
Bath Royal Literary & Scientific Institution
David Ramsey Hay
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