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.