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The hidden histories of five extraordinary colours

Posted on 07 Apr 2021

From ‘Gamboge Yellow’ to ‘Orpiment Orange’, how does a colour get its name? Here, ‘Nature’s Palette’ author Patrick Baty shares the stories behind five remarkable colours celebrated in the book – including one to be found on the ‘Neck Ruff of the Golden Pheasant’ and the ‘Belly of the Warty Newt’.

I first came across Werner’s Nomenclature (1821) about thirty years ago and was charmed by the little volume containing just over a hundred hand-coloured samples. Each colour was named, and examples given of where each could be found in the Animal, Vegetable and Mineral Kingdoms.

The Introduction made clear that it had been published by a Scottish flower-painter, called Patrick Syme, and that it had been inspired by a German mineralogist called Werner. However, at that stage I did not think of following up its origins.  It was only while preparing a lecture on its influence on the British Standard paint range of 1955, many years later, that I began to probe. However, once I had found a copy of Abraham Werner’s Von den äusserlichen Kennzeichen der Fossilien, of 1774, and painfully negotiated the German blackletter typeface, I realised that it would not be straightforward matter. It was immediately clear that there were a number of inconsistencies. For example, Syme mentions seventy-nine colours being listed by Werner and yet there were only fifty-four originally. Of the ten blues listed by Syme only three came from Werner, and of the seventeen reds in Syme only six were actually mentioned by Werner – in spite of the fact that Syme claimed that thirteen were. So, what was happening and where were all these other colours coming from?

It took a while, but the answers to these and many more questions that emerged during my investigation are answered in Nature’s Palette. It is a story that involves many of the leading natural scientists of the nineteenth century and one that is almost entirely unknown.

My work is largely centred on colour employed in an architectural context, so this might be regarded as a slight departure. However, the fact that it was the distant genesis of a range of paint colours that were produced in England shortly after the Second World War made it more relevant. A secondary outcome was the fact that I thought that I might use a selection of these colours as the basis of a new paint range to distribute from my shop, Papers and Paints. Always keen to show collections of colours from the past, Werner’s colours come with their own unique, story.

Syme had extended Werner’s eight Hauptfarben (main Colours) to ten, adding Purple and Orange to White, Grey, Black, Blue, Green, Yellow, Red and Brown.

To give you a flavour of the colours, I have selected just five.

1. No 78, Orpiment Orange

This reddish orange from Syme’s new category of Orange did not appear in Werner’s original list. We are told that it is ‘the characteristic colour, [and] is about equal parts of gamboge yellow and arterial blood red.’  Presumably by ‘characteristic’ is meant that it is the colour of the orange-yellow arsenic sulphide mineral known as Orpiment. However, rather than employ that pigment, Syme was suggesting a mix of two other colours that he featured in his book.

In the Animal Kingdom this colour can be seen on the Neck Ruff of the Golden Pheasant and also on the Belly of the Warty Newt.  You can imagine, when we came to name our new paint colours, why we chose Symes’s Vegetable example Indian Cress rather than something sounding like a component of the witch’s brew in Macbeth. (Having said that, Arterial Blood Red was too good to resist for another one).

Writing the book was a massive learning experience. Who knew, for example, that Indian Cress was the old name for the Garden Nasturtium, that wonderfully coloured plant that can be added to spice up a salad?

Although Symes does not list a mineral example, James Sowerby, in his British Mineralogy, of 1802-17 shows the colour on carbonate of lime.

2. No 66, Gamboge Yellow

From the Yellow category is another colour named after a pigment, in this case the poisonous resin obtained from the evergreen Garcinia tree. Again, this is described as the ‘characteristic’ colour and it was another one introduced by Syme, rather than Werner.

The name of the pigment is derived from Gambogia, the Latin word for Cambodia, from where it was first exported to Europe in the early seventeenth century. It was primarily employed by artists in watercolour, and Sir William Hooker, the botanist and botanical illustrator, mixed it with Prussian blue to create Hooker’s Green.

The colour can be found on the Wings of the Goldfinch and on the Canary Bird. In the Vegetable Kingdom it can be seen on the Yellow Jasmine and in the world of Minerals on High Coloured Sulphur.

Charles Darwin, who had a copy of Werner’s Nomenclature in his library on HMS Beagle, used it to describe many of the samples that he took and observations that he made. When describing the Rough-faced Shag (Phalacrocorax carunculatus) he wrote:

Cormorant: skin round eyes Campanula blue cockles at base of upper mandible saffron & gamboge yellow.

Examples of the colour can be seen in the scientific works published throughout the century. The ornithologist John Gould shows it on the wing feathers of the goldfinch in his five-volume work Birds of Europe, of 1832-37.  Somewhat later, Robert Bentley and Henry Trimen use it on the petals of the jasmine in their Medicinal Plants, of 1880.

3. No 53, Emerald Green

Although we are told that Emerald Green, is another ‘characteristic’ colour of Werner it does not appear in his list of 1774, being introduced by the French chemist, mineralogist and meteorologist, Claudine Picardet in her translation (and adaptation) of 1790. Again, rather than using the (arsenical) pigment of the same name, Syme tells us that it is composed of about equal parts of Berlin blue and gamboge yellow.

It can be seen on the Beauty Spot on the Wing of the Teal Drake, as illustrated by John Gould in his Birds of Europe. The name is also one of the twenty-five or more colour terms taken from Syme by the American ornithologist, Robert Ridgway, in his magnificent Color Standards and Color Nomenclature of 1912.  This, self-published, work included 1,115 colours illustrated with painted samples reproduced on 53 plates.  It is one of the treasures in any colour enthusiast’s library.

Darwin’s notebooks from his Beagle voyage records:

As a white cloud here and there affords a pleasing contrast with the azure sky, so in the lagoon, bands of living coral darken the emerald green water.

The colour is visible on the leaves of the fig in an illustration in a rather charming Dutch book called Neerland’s Planentuin (Netherlands’ Botanic Garden) of 1865.

4. No 31, Berlin Blue

Berlin Blue is described as the pure, or characteristic colour of Werner, which suggests that it was mixed with that pigment alone – Berlin Blue being a name that seems to have first been given to the newly-invented Prussian Blue in 1709.

Syme tells us that it could be found on the Wing Feathers of the Jay and one can see this in John Gould’s Birds of Europe of 1832-37. He also suggests that the colour can seen on Hepatica (or Liverwort) and on the gemstone Blue Sapphire.

Early in the voyage of HMS Beagle, in March 1832, when they were just off Bahia in NE Brazil, Darwin described the colour of the ocean in his Zoology Notes:

I had been struck by the beautiful colour of the sea when seen through the chinks of a straw hat… it was according to Werner nomenclature Indigo with a little Azure blue. The sky at the time was Berlin with little Ultramarine blue.

Berliner blau is one of the names that appears in a chart contained in a most unusual nomenclature of colours published primarily for botanists and mycologists in 1894. The work was called Chromotaxia and was written in Latin by an Italian, Pier Andrea Saccardo. Berlin Blue is also one of Werner’s original names that was used by the ornithologist, Robert Ridgway, in his book of 1912.

5. No 14, Bluish Grey

Bluish Grey is another one of Werner’s original colours. Syme says that it can be mixed by adding ash grey to a little blue, although he does not say which blue.

In the Animal Kingdom it can be found on the back and on the tail Coverts of the Wood Pigeon (the latter are those feathers which cover the base of the tail feathers). Once again, it can be seen clearly in John Gould’s Birds of Europe.

Although Syme makes no suggestion for finding it in the Vegetable Kingdom, it is visible on the leaves of the sea kale.

James Sowerby, the naturalist and illustrator, included Bluish Grey in the colour terms that he listed in A New Elucidation of Colours, Prismatic, and Material, of 1809.

Bluish Grey is yet another of Werner’s colours that Ridgway includes in his 1912 book of Color Standards.

In 1804, the Austrian Carmelite monk, Joseph Maria Redemtus Zappe, in his Mineralogisches Handlexicon, says that:

A Bluish Grey colour can be seen on some hornstone (a mineral like quartz) on marl and also on dense limestone.

He was one of a number of clergymen natural scientists who appear throughout this story.

Werner’s Nomenclature is a fascinating work, and I might easily have picked any other selection of five colours to describe. Little known now, it remained in use for over a hundred years, and I have even found evidence of it being employed by one of the art directors of a 1950s New York advertising agency – although this was not for work, but to describe her lover’s body.


Written by Patrick Baty

Nature's Palette

A colour reference system from the natural world Patrick Baty, Peter Davidson, Elaine Charwat, Giulia Simonini, André Karliczek