Victorian Colour Revolution: the Nineteenth Century Chromatic Turn

The nineteenth century is often perceived through a black-and-white filter, as a funereal age filled with coal pollution and bleak, working class slums. And yet, despite the prevailing monochrome understanding of the industrial age, this was a period in which the production and perception of colour transformed dramatically. Scientific innovations such as William Henry Perkin’s accidental discovery of mauvine, the first aniline dye, dovetailed with Charles Darwin’s theories on the use of colour in sexual selection and John Ruskin’s essays on the sacred nature of colour which were adopted from Pre-Raphaelite ideas. This panel aims to reveal how these developments transformed the work of British artists who placed colour at the centre of their creative process as well as the interlinked perspectives of the scientists who made colour their new object of study and manufacturers who sold colour in all its newfound iterations.

Although Victorian England was at the centre of a multifaceted and, ultimately, global revolution, this moment in which the attitudes towards colour fundamentally shifted has received relatively little attention from art historians of nineteenth-century British visual culture, especially in contrast to multiple studies on the French Impressionists use of colour. Therefore, this panel invited papers that explore a wide-range of chromatic material across nineteenth-century Britain, but also from other parts of the world affected by these developments. We particularly encouraged papers that adopt an interdisciplinary methodology weaving in the importance of translating colour across spheres of cultural production, including art historical studies that account for the history of science, and contributions from scientists, conservators and technical art historians.

Session Convenors:  

Madeline Hewitson, Ashmoleoan Museum, University of Oxford 

Charlotte Ribeyrol, Sorbonne Université 

Matthew Winterbottom,  Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford 


Joyce Dixon,  University of Edinburgh 

‘Mr Syme’s useful little work’: Colour, collecting and zoological image-making, 1820–1850 

This paper is anchored in the pages of three works of 19th-century natural history: The Zoology of the Northern Parts of British America (1829–37) by John Richardson (1787–1865); Illustrations of the Zoology of South Africa (1838–49) by Andrew Smith (1797–1872); and The Zoology of the Voyage of H.M.S. Beagle (1839–43) by Charles Darwin (1809–1882). 

Each was received by its British audience as an object of aesthetic, scientific and colonial value. Each was the result of the exploratory travels of its respective author overseas. Each contains lushly-depicted and minutely-described renderings of zoological subjects. And each is indebted to Patrick Syme’s colour manual Werner’s Nomenclature of Colours (1814/1821) for its chromatic vocabulary. 

This paper will explore the exact nature of the ‘usefulness’ of Syme’s book in relation to these works, including the assortment of written, visual and biological matter underpinning them. Straddling the tropics with Darwin, skirting the Arctic with Richardson and exploring the South African interior with Smith, this paper will excavate a vast and under-researched archive of diversely-coloured materials, amassed at the furthest fringes of British exploration and colonial reach. 

More often stated than investigated, the multifarious utility of Werner’s Nomenclature of Colours to the 19th-century naturalist will be revealed: as an essential piece of travelling apparatus; as a device for the translation of zoological colour; and as a lexicon of standard terms, injecting its exacting colour concepts into the ephemeral inventories of expedition archives, and into the fine-tuned remediations of zoological ‘imagetext’. 

Kirsty Dootson Sinclair, University of St Andrews 

What Colour is the Anthropocene? Eco-Critical Approaches to Victorian Chromatics 

This paper interrogates the relationship between colour and climate change, asking how Victorian chromatic innovations contributed to forms of ecological degradation that typify the Anthropocene. While the Anthropocene is routinely presented in terms of befoulment and contamination, this paper asks whether colour—as an object of aesthetic pleasure—operates as a cosmetic for our climate crisis, thereby glamourising and beautifying the damaging ecological effects of its own manufacture. Considering pigments, inks and dyes, employed across the fields of painting, printing, film and fashion, this paper investigates the ecological implications of Victorian chromatics. 

Central to these considerations are William Henry Perkin’s landmark discovery of aniline (or coal-tar) dyes in 1856, which entangled Victorian colour with the petro-chemical industries and their attendant ecological impacts. However, this paper also consider organic, natural pigments that were constituent elements of the Victorian palette that were equally implicated in environmental devastation, including Indian Yellow and lampblack. 

Far from considering the Anthropocene as a universalising term, this paper takes up what Françoise Vergès terms the Racial Capitalocene, which highlights the absolute imbrication of race, capitalism, imperialism and climate. This term helps draw together the histories of colour-as-race and colour-as-hue, as the British desire for colour in the form of tinctorial substances drove colonial expansionism around the world at the same moment European taxonomies of race became increasingly became codified in terms of colour. By asking ‘What Colour is the Anthropocene?’ this paper thinks together histories of race, colour, and climate in Victorian Britain. 

Pandora Syperek, Loughborough University, London

Victorian Iridescence: Evolutionary Self-Fashioning in the Bethnal Green Museum’s Animal Products 

Iridescence is well known to be a structural rather than pigmentary quality, explaining its remarkable longevity in museum objects ranging from taxidermy birds, butterflies and beetles to costume and jewellery made with feathers and shell, which may otherwise appear dusty and faded. This paper considers the dual applications of iridescence in the lives of animals and in human fashion, and their dynamics on display. Specifically, I examine the collection of Animal Products at the South Kensington Museum’s Bethnal Green branch, which necessarily bordered natural history and design. As these displays, whether scientific specimens or decorative art objects, are commonly subject to deterioration and decay caused by pests and environmental conditions, they demonstrate the mutability of such animal ‘afterlives’ (Alberti 2011) and their second death in deaccession. And yet, in iridescence there is a surprising sense of permanence that belies the ravages of time. It indeed presents a marker of deep time through its evolutionary development, whether in feathers, elytra or nacre. Although Charles Darwin (1871) jumped species to attribute the appeal of bird plumage in human fashions to a shared evolutionary process of sexual selection, the intra-species significance of self-fashioning with, for example, mother-of-pearl is less evident. The various purposes of iridescence, whether among different species or different cultural applications, complicate straightforward readings of beauty or attraction and thereby open up the Animal Products beyond a binary of decorative and functional. Here I consider the interlinked science and politics of iridescence via the long object histories and networked meanings within the V&A’s collections. 

Ludovic Le Saux, Université Paris-Dauphine-PSL 

Glaciers, twilights and “all manner of strange things”: William Morris and the Colours of Iceland 

In the closing lines of her introduction to Volume VIII (Journals of Travel in Iceland, 1871-1873) of her father’s Collected Works (1910-1915), May Morris acknowledges her debt to artist W.G. Collingwood, whose late 19th-century watercolours “were invaluable to [her] in supplementing [her] father’s description of the colour of Iceland, helping [her] to realize his wonder and pleasure over its strangeness.” The somewhat odd-sounding singular “colour” is testament to William Morris’s unique perception of and fascination for the chromatic quality of Iceland, as well as to his difficulty at delineating with precision what exactly this quality is. 

Morris’s two travels had an enduring impact on him as a person, but also as a poet, artist and craftsman. Yet both in his letters and his journals, Morris’s descriptions of Iceland tend to remain imprecise and abound with references to its “strangeness”. This indeterminacy stems in part from the ever-shifting colours of natural objects and phenomena that act as kaleidoscopic prisms or filters, instead of fixed, inanimate elements. Morris’s Icelandic colours are therefore felt, rather than understood or visualised; and the strangeness lies too in the way the poet endeavours to root these imprecise chromatic perceptions in a certain materiality that makes them almost palpable. 

This paper offers to explore how Morris’s impactful chromatic experience of Iceland was one of mobile and “strange colours”, whose organic instability – neither synthetic, nor yet decadent – was more akin to that of fading medieval tapestries, thereby influencing his artistic practice even more by highlighting the critical importance of the materiality of colour. 

Lauren Bruce, Nottingham Trent University 

‘“Made of Dead Pharaohs” The Materiality of Mummy Brown Paint 

This paper critically analyses the materiality of the colour ‘mummy brown,’ a by-product of the mummy trade in the wake of British imperial expansion in Egypt. The colour ‘mummy brown’ is made from ground up ancient Egyptian mummified remains (mummia). Its “rich and bituminous qualities” were popular amongst artists in the Victorian era. 

I examine the paintings of proficient users of mummy brown; Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s Beata Beatrix depicts Lizzie Siddal at the point of death; Edward Burne-Jones’ The Beguiling of Merlin illustrates the Arthurian legend through themes of burial and death; Eugène Delacroix’s Ceres portrays a Roman goddess of agriculture linked to Egyptian mythology, emphasising the ‘earthly’ qualities. In addition to their “innovative and liberating” techniques which made them central figures during this period, their use of mummy brown paint adds further layers to their work. This pigment was produced and chosen precisely to obtain a desired result as it was completely distinctive. Ultimately, no other organic or synthetic pigment could achieve the effect of mummy brown; to this day, mummy brown has never been accurately replicated. The very nature of mummy brown gives an exoticism to these paintings, linking themes of death with mummified human flesh represented in a unique colour which lies between raw and burnt umber. 

This interdisciplinary paper contributes to our understanding of Victorian artists’ development of ‘organic’ pigments, pivoting from the focus on the synthetic aniline revolution, providing a unique analysis of one of the many unethical consequences of the mummy trade. 

Keren Hammerschlag, Australian National University 

The Problem of Colour in Victorian Art and Science 

This paper considers the ways Edwin Long’s monumental painting Babylonian Marriage Market (1875; Royal Holloway, London) imagines race in the ancient world and, by extension, in Victorian England. Babylonian Marriage Market was understood at the time of its first exhibition as an exercise in the depiction of ‘every shade of colour, from the firmness and fairness of Greek marble to Nubian bronze or black basalt,’ to quote The Times. Critics such as John Ruskin even went so far as to use anatomical and anthropological language to describe the work, highlighting the degree to which the painting was understood in thoroughly scientific terms. The anthropological discourse that informed the production and reception of Babylonian Marriage Market sought to divide humanity into clearly defined categories based on skin, hair and eye colour. But even the most ardent Victorian race scientists, on occasion, admitted that colour was a particularly unreliable marker of racial difference (hence the preference for skulls). To overcome the problem of colour, anthropologists tried using all manner of instruments to identify skin tones, from spinning tops to colour charts. In Babylonian Marriage Market Long sought to organise the female figures lined-up along the base of the canvas according to racial hierarchies of the day. However, there are aspects of the painting that resist an anthropological reading, revealing race to be a malleable, elastic and fundamentally unstable system of human categorisation.  

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