Celebration and Disturbance

Kassia St Clair, The Secret Lives of Colour

John Murray, 320pp, £20.00, ISBN 9781473630819

reviewed by Polly Bull

The first thing a reader interested in colour and design will be struck by about Kassia St Clair’s new book, The Secret Lives of Colour, is the physical beauty of the publication. The book offers ‘potted’ histories as of 75 shades of colour that have interested her the most. The cover is white and speckled with colour dot imprints. The reader is greeted with a spectrum in the frontispiece. We then get graphs, charts and quotes of famous minds describing colours. Each potted history has a coloured margin to distinguish it, making it easy for the reader to flip through at random and read about one of the 75 selected colours. The book lends itself well to sporadic reading; it would work well on a coffee table, for visitors and guests to browse through casually. However, if the reader was in the mood to binge on colour history, that option is available too.

Highlights include the chapter on Violet, in which St Clair describes the fascination felt by the Impressionists for that particular colour. Edouard Manet ‘announced to his friends’ that the colour of the atmosphere was violet. On the other hand, critics of the Impressionists said that violet could be associated with madness. In an even more troubling and astute piece of research, St Clair reveals the dark irony behind lead white: the pigment was used in women’s makeup historically, but it was fatal. The section on Green is particularly fascinating as St Clair explores the global variations in how people think about colour. Whilst in the West green is associated with natural tropes such as fertility and springtime, it has very powerful symbolic significance in the Muslim faith: it features prominently in medieval Islamic poetry and it was the favourite colour of the Prophet Muhammed; the colour features in the flags of many predominantly Islamic countries.

One prevalent motif in this book is the tension between celebration and disturbance. Whilst the rainbow in recent times is celebrated as a symbol of solidarity and inclusion, this book does show the danger of psychedelia taken too far. In some cases, disturbance is an understatement. Colours can actually be dangerous, as in the case of electric blue: in an interview with the New Scientist magazine looking back on the Chernobyl disaster of 1986, a nuclear engineer called Alexander Yuvchenko described the deadly reaction as a ‘huge beam of projected light flooding up into infinity . . . light bluish, and it was very beautiful’. These connotations of danger and fear and darkness is unusual when we think of children’s face-painting or romantic watercolours; the Rainbow Bright children’s toy or even the popularity of adult colouring books currently. How can colour be a threat? Hit songs from Disney films like Pocahontas (1995) encourage us to ‘paint with all the colours of the wind’; the international symbol for LGBTQ+ awareness and pride is the rainbow.

Another interesting element of St Clair’s work is her investigation of colour as a material object. We so often just think of colour as a property that exists attached to other material things, as if a particular colour can be intrinsically connected to a bedspread or a lampshade, for example. But StClair shows us how chemical compounds come together to actually form the colours as more than ephemeral. They can be permanent due to their chemical makeup. For example, hematite, the colour of rust, is made up of Fe2O3, anhydrous iron oxide. It is fascinating to consider the building blocks of colour. However, hematite shows that even though the chemicals are permanent, the particular combinations are not. The colour, so closely resembling red – ‘celebration, sex, joy . . . danger and death’ – has now gone out of fashion because more vivid versions have developed.

There is entertainment behind colours as well. In the case of ‘Rossa Corsa’ (racing red) we find the story of an unbelievable enterprise in which teams raced cars from ‘Peking to Paris’ in 1907. An Italian named Prince Scipione Luigi Marcantonio Francesco Rodolfo Borghese raced in a team against four other teams (three French and one Dutch) and won. The colour of his car became the colour of Enzo Ferrari’s cars and speculatively is one reason red seems to feature so much in the national Italian pallet.

Scarlet, ironically the colour of shame in Nathanial Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter (1850), and of the dress Scarlett O’Hara wears boldly when Rhett Butler tries to shame her for ‘indiscretions’, was worn bravely by Mary Queen of Scots in 1587 upon her execution. Just before her beheading she took off her outer clothes to disclose a ‘bright scarlet undergown’. She proved herself bravely as a Catholic martyr. The thought of thinking through your death outfit so symbolically was a bold and courageous move for the queen. Another leader of the same epoch, Elizabeth I, whilst abstaining from the dramatic tone after famously nominating herself to be the virgin queen, dressed all her ladies-in-waiting, in scarlet to contrast with her neutral attire adopted after her coronation inn 1558. Recently we have seen female leaders also wearing colours symbolically. Hilary Clinton heroically appeared dressed in a white pantsuit to most likely honour the suffragettes of the early 20th century, for the most recent presidential inauguration

St Clair is no stranger to this topic as it is a passion that grew from her work as a columnist for Elle Decoration. The Secret Lives of Colour is extremely well-researched historically, each colour story is rich in detail and description, combining vignettes of historical actors with contextual background ranging from the ancient past to the present day. For anyone who was ever fascinated by a box of crayons, coloured pencils or the story of people in time, St Clair’s book will not disappoint.