Wednesday, 14 August 2013

"Tapping the cells of knowledge": On researching colour in London libraries and excellent teachers

When in London, I carry out much of my research on colour at either the British Library, the National Art Library at the V&A or the Colour Reference Library at the Royal College of Art. The Colour Reference Library very kindly lent three items, including Moses Harris's Natural System of Colours (1811) (related blog post HERE) for my Regency Colour and Beyond display at the Royal Pavilion.

All three libraries are  wonderful spaces to work in, staffed with very helpful and knowledgable people and I feel privileged and grateful to be able to spend time there.

Last week I went to the British Library to have a closer look at the King's Library. This is George III's collection of around 60,000 books, which was given to the nation by his son George IV in 1823. They were housed in the British Museum in a long gallery and from 1857 in the round Reading Room of the British Museum. Now, of course, the library forms the glass heart of the new British Library building at King's Cross.

King George III's personal copy of Newton's Opticks, 1704, with that famous prismatic colour wheel (Fig.11).
Here is George III's own copy of Newton's Opticks in its first English edition (he owned three more copies in Latin), showing the fold-out copper plate engraving my diagrams illustrating the text. This particular plate includes his famous circle of seven spectral colours, perhaps the earliest colour circle published in England.

By coincidence I received an email from one of my (clearly excellent) English teachers from high school (German 'Gymnasium') in the same week. He sent me these lines:

Excerpt from Louis MacNeice, “The British Museum Reading Room”

Under the hive-like dome the stooping haunted readers
Go up and down the alleys, tap the cells of knowledge --
Honey and wax, the accumulation of years --
Some on commission, some for the love of learning,
Some because they have nothing better to do
Or because they hope these walls of books will deaden
The drumming of the demon in their ears.

Cranks, hacks, poverty-stricken scholars,
In pince-nez, period hats or romantic beards
And cherishing their hobby or their doom
Some are too much alive and some are asleep
Hanging like bats in a world of inverted values,
Folded up in themselves in a world which is safe and silent.

These links neatly to four lines from a Wordsworth's poem the same teacher wrote in a card for me on finishing my A-Levels (Abitur) more than 25 years ago:

Enough of Science and of Art;
Close up those barren leaves;
Come forth, and bring with you a heart
That watches and receives.

Very appropriate in the throes of finishing a doctoral thesis.

Thursday, 8 August 2013

I am guest-blogging again: Blue in the Royal Pavilion, Brighton

I am guest-blogging again over at

Royal Pavilion & Brighton Museums 
Behind the scenes with staff and volunteers

as part of a running commentary on the display Regency Colour and Beyond in the Royal Pavilion. This blog post is on blue pigments in the Royal Pavilion. Link here:

The main display cabinet of Regency Colour and Beyond

View of the South Galleries of the Royal Pavilion©Royal Pavilion & Museums, Brighton & Hove. 

Cross-section showing Blue Verditer pigment
©Royal Pavilion & Museums, Brighton & Hove.
Photograph: Janet Brough, 1989.

Friday, 5 July 2013

Moses Harris, Faber Birren and the treasure chests of Yale University libraries

I have returned from a week at the Yale Center for British Art, where I attended a seminar on color, together with nine other colour researchers and fine art students. I have seen many wonderful things in the Rare Books collection of the YCBA and other libraries at Yale and have pushed my myopic eyes and my I-Phone camera to the limit, but I have returned with many beautiful pictures and notes.

Gartside, Turner and Merrifield mingling at the YCBA
At one point I had a first edition of Mary Gartside's Essay on Light and Shade (1805), a1827 copy of a book on colour in art that was once owned and embellished with detailed marginalia by Mary Philadelphia Merrifield, and one of the few Turner sketchbooks outside the Turner Bequest in front of me, with a little rainbow painted by Constable propped up on the table next to me.

A Constable rainbow (in the dark?)

A plate from Faber Birren's copy of Moses Harris's Natural System of Colours, first edition

 Another highlight was to look at a few gems in Faber Birren's collection of colour books. It was the first time I handled a first edition of Moses Harris's Natural System of Colours (between 1769 and 1776). For my Regency Colour display at the Royal Pavilion I borrowed a second edition (1811) from the Colour Reference Library at the Royal College of Art, and while in the U.S. I was lucky to find a copy of Faber Birren's facsimile reprint of it from 1963.
I have blogged properly about this short but utterly beautiful and influential publication on the Royal Pavilion and Museums blog:

Thursday, 18 April 2013

Regency Colour and Beyond, Yale and Storm Thorgerson

I have just heard the news about the death of Storm Thorgerson at the age of 69, who designed many iconic (and I feel this is an instance where the word is actually appropriate) album covers, including Pink Floyd's for Dark Side Of The Moon (1973). A simple idea brilliantly executed. I particularly liked his stained-glass version of it for the 2003 anniversary edition.

Hats off to Storm, and may he rest in peace.

In other news, details about my display on/of Regency colour and colour theory at the Royal Pavilion, Brighton, 15 June to 13 October 2013 have gone live on the Pavilion website. The new What's On (May - August 2013) also gives information on a couple of talks and curator's tours I will be giving. I recently gave a lecture on the subject at the Regency Society of Brighton and Hove's AGM, where guests got a preview of what will be on display:

Regency Colour and Beyond, 1785–1850 

15 June to 13 October 2013
Royal Pavilion  

Admission payable, members free

The Pavilion is enriched with the most magnificent ornaments and the gayest and most splendid colours; yet all is in keeping and well relieved.
J.D. Parry, An Historical and Descriptive Account of the Coast of Sussex, 1833
In Regency times, visitors to George IV’s Royal Pavilion were astonished at the flamboyant colours in the exotic interiors of the palace.  These new temporary displays in the Royal Pavilion explore the interior d├ęcor and Regency understandings of colour.  Revealing the palace’s innovative and radical use of colour during the Regency period, visitors can discover why certain colours were used and how their use here continues to influence us through the ages.

Related events:
Light and colour from the East? 
Thursday 27 June
Royal Pavilion, William IV Room and tour of the displays
1pm Free with Royal Pavilion admission, book in advance
Alexandra Loske, co-curator of Regency Colour, talks about Chinoiserie style and Eastern influences in the Pavilion followed by a short tour of the displays.

Curator’s tours

Wednesday 3 July, repeated Monday 16 September
An introduction to the displays by Alexandra Loske

1-1.30pm Free with Royal Pavilion admission

A hugely enjoyable project to work on. I am currently writing the labels and panel texts for the display (it cannot be called an exhibition because it will not be installed in the main exhibition space), meaning I have to reduce everything I know about Regency colour, colour theory and the Royal Pavilion into a handful of sentences.

Related to the project I will be pontificating about the colour blue in fashion and culture at Fabrica Gallery in Brighton on 9 May.

Just after the installation of the display I shall be jetting to New York (it has been too long since I have been there!) and then to New Haven, where I will be attending the Summer Seminar at the Yale Center for British Art. I applied for one of the 10 free places for it, replaced every single 'colour' in the application with 'color' and was lucky enough to be given a place, with flights and accommodation paid for. I am tremendously excited about it.

Yale Center for British Art 

2013 Summer Seminar

Coloring Color: The history, science and materiality of paint

From June 17–21, 2013, the Center convenes its third Graduate Student Summer Seminar. Titled “Coloring Color: The history, science and materiality of paint,” the seminar, which is organized by the Center’s Conservation Department, will concentrate on the physical materials of color. The seminar will examine color from historic and scientific perspectives, explore its physical definitions and biological responses, and create a familiarity with the language of color as it evolved historically. The aim of the seminar is to equip students with a fundamental understanding of the history and theory of color, and to develop an understanding of the appearance of color in paintings and works on paper.