Isabella Whitworth

probably more than natural and synthetic dyes, wax, resists, and history


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Inspiration from polèng

My two presentations at last month’s World Textile Day were something of a sensation. During the first talk there was an unfortunate medical emergency requiring an ambulance, and in the second the projector plug dislodged and the screen went blank, just as I started waving my arms in excitement over an image of Imperial Purple. That’ll teach me.

I had been invited to talk about inspiration, and how I started to work with textiles after a graphic design training and several years in industry. I directly attribute my career change to travels in India, Indonesia and Australia in the 1980s where I observed unfamiliar textiles being created, used or worn. For the first time I properly understood how textiles can hold significance and meaning and became absorbed in the ways that dye can be controlled.  I bought many examples of cloths and textiles on my travels which I displayed at the World Textiles Day talk, and amongst them were samples of Balinese polèng cloth. Of all the cloths I came across, polèng is the one that most changed my way of thinking.

poleng1_edited-1

Polèng cloth from Bali, purchased in market

Polèng is not technically complex. It’s formed of equal strips of warp and weft in black and white set up to intersect and create black, white and grey squares. In the West we often see similar, coloured checked cloth used for tablecloths, children’s dresses, casual shirts and curtains. We call it gingham. It has a homely feel to my eyes, and when on my first trip to Bali in the ’80s I noticed it draped around trees, shrines, altars and statues I was puzzled by the meaning and usage of this unmissable cloth.

Next to where I stayed in Ubud was the home of a remarkable Italian dancer called Cristina Formaggia. Cristina was a most extraordinary woman (she died, too young, in 2008) and I include several links about her below. She had lived on the island for some years and through her kindness friendship and humour I learned much about Balinese life, belief, ritual and dance.  Her insights and knowledge were offered from a dual perspective as both Westerner and deeply-embedded student of Balinese tradition. Only when planning the Word Textiles Day talk did I realise how much I owed to her, which included an explanation of polèng. 

If you seek an academic explanation of polèng, please stop here as I can’t give you one. My simplified version is that for everything, there is an opposite. For good, there is evil. For sickness, there is health. For heat there is cold, and so on: no element exists without its opposite and through its opposite each element acquires its meaning and purpose. So it is with the equal black and white squares, and with spiritual awareness comes the grey, the point at which elements blend and stand in balance. The need to maintain these opposite elements in balance seemed to me to be what polèng symbolises, and what every Balinese knows as elemental when they see the cloth.

‘..polèng is an expression of the community of existence: being in its totality, which is made up of black and white, in the world of both the visible and the invisible.’

Brigitta Hauser- Schäublin, quoted from the book linked below

Links

Cristina Formaggia links

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cristina_Wistari_Formaggia

https://www.themagdalenaproject.org/content/cristina-wistari-formaggia-1945-2008

http://repository.essex.ac.uk/23060/

https://www.fortdecafe.org/topeng-cristina-formaggia/

World Textile Days 2020

Book: Chapter seven focuses on polèng cloth:

Balinese Textiles; Brigitta Hauser-Schäublin, Marie-Louise Nabholz-Kartaschoff, Urs Ramseyer, British Museum Press, 1991

 


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Three historic purples: Tyrian Purple, orchil, and Perkin’s mauveine

dyetrio

Top: blue-purple samples: mauveine-dyed using a shibori technique; lower pair of silks: orchil-dyed in redder shades; threads on orchil-dyed silks: dyed with Tyrian Purple

Here is an image showing an extraordinary trio of historic, and historical, purple dyes. Two are the natural dyes Tyrian Purple and orchil, whose histories are so ancient their origins are unknown. The other dye is a recreated mauveine, the first synthetic dye to be commercially developed, after synthesis in 1856.

All three dyes play a part in an archive I have been researching, which relates to a dye manufacturer based in Leeds. The company began when a young chemist called James Bedford started making orchil and cudbear, later forming a company named Wood & Bedford in around 1850. Through various changes of names and expansions, the company became a major international dye and chemical manufacturer, finally folding in 2004 under the name Yorkshire Chemicals. You can read more about the history by following links below.

Orchil was the natural, lichen sourced dyestuff on which the company’s fortunes were founded by James Bedford. But by the late nineteenth century, William Henry Perkin had discovered and patented his synthetic dye mauveine, signalling the gradual demise of natural dyes in commercial use and the beginning of chemical manufacturing. There was a family connection between the Bedford family and the Perkins’: WH Perkin’s son Arthur G. Perkin married a Bedford daughter. The Leeds company managed to weather the transition from natural to synthetic products and its archives are a fascinating record of how they achieved their success.

As to the Tyrian Purple, perhaps the most unexpected items from the archive are the genuine shellfish-dyed thread samples found in a small envelope. You can see one of the two samples in the image above. Again, please read their story by following links below.

Mauveine dyeings

I was contacted earlier this year by Dr John Plater, a Senior Lecturer in Chemistry at the University of Aberdeen. John has made a study of mauveine and has come to several interesting conclusions about Perkin’s dye. It seems that not all mauveines were / are the same. To read about John’s research, please follow the links below. John had read about my studies in orchil and was curious to know something of the versatility of mauveine in working practice. I sent him shibori-tied silks so that he could experiment with dyeing them, suggesting he try an immersion method on one set of samples, and separately apply dyes with an eyedropper. I find the eyedropper method very successful with synthetic dyes as it gives great control of the dye, and is very economical. You can judge which you think most effective from the page below. Immersion dyed are on the left.

mauveine

The archive’s new home

Later this week I will be presenting a paper at the DHA (Dyes in History and Archaeology) Conference at the Royal School of Needlework, Hampton Court. It will describe the entirety of the Leeds archive, part of which I have been studying. It is now available for public study through the West Yorkshire Joint Services (WYJS) facility at Morley, near Leeds. I will write a separate blog about this after the Conference.

Links

Story of the Leeds Archive on this blog 

Tyrian Treasure Part One

Tyrian Treasure Part Two

Dyes, history, and a chilly trip to Yorkshire

Some articles about the work of John Plater:

Detective work uncovers Perkin’s deep understanding of first synthetic dye

Meet the Researcher: free online article from Au Science magazine, (p 21)

Purple’s Reign

‘Accidental chemist’ who brought colour to Victorian society was ‘far ahead of his time’

 

 

 

 

 


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Tyrian Treasure: Part 2

woodbedford

Colophon from after 1850

Part One of this research story can be found in the previous blog, or just click here

The Bedford family of Leeds The Bedford family first started manufacturing orchil, a purple dye made from varieties of lichen, in around 1820. Orchil-making was a skilful process relying on fermentation, and dye vats could be expensively spoiled through inattention or inexperience.

Printed matter from early days of manufacturing. The name ‘Wood’ was retained after the death of Edward Wood, a sales partner from around 1850

Three successive generations of enterprising Bedfords steered the expanding manufacturing company into the 20th century, with achievements stemming from knowledge of new research and techniques, coupled with their inventive outlook. This period saw them incorporate synthetic dyes into their manufacturing, but their use of natural products for tanning and dyeing continued into the mid 20th century. The company changed names several times, but there was never a takeover. As ‘Yorkshire Chemicals’ the business finally folded in the early 2000s: by then there were no Bedfords in the company.

Charles Samuel Bedford (1865 – 1945) In 1880 – 81, Charles Samuel Bedford, grandson of founder James Bedford, attended the Yorkshire College to study chemistry. There was one other student: Arthur George Perkin, the second son of Sir William Henry Perkin whose 1865 discovery of a synthesised purple dye known as mauveine had revolutionised the dye and chemical industry. The meeting of these two young students developed to a lifelong connection when Arthur married Charles’ sister Annie. Arthur and Annie spent their lives in Leeds where Arthur worked at what became the University of Leeds. Strong social ties existed between both families.

Connections Family, scientific, and working connections of the Bedfords may explain why samples of genuine Tyrian Purple arrived in the archive. There was no commercial or industrial potential in shellfish dye so one can assume there was a purely academic interest in dyeing and retaining them.

What did the dyer of the Tyrian Purple need to know? Zvi’s photomicrographic images of the purple threads confirmed that the samples were evenly and homogeneously dyed, meaning that they were dyed, not smeared by direct application. Therefore, two key pieces of knowledge had to be in place to vat dye the cotton threads. The dyer needed to know that the shellfish pigment was an indigoid molecule, and that a reduction vat was required.

Knowledge of the hydrosulphite reduction vat was first presented in 1873 by Schützenberger and Lalande. Paul Friedländer’s work in 1909 Vienna determined that the main component of purple pigment from shellfish was an indigoid, namely dibromoindigo.

Scientific connections to the Bedfords were strong, coming from the wider Perkin family, and the Yorkshire College (later the University of Leeds) where Arthur worked. Latest research would have been quickly accessible.

tyrian

The envelope containing the two small skeins of shellfish dyed cotton: labelled in Charles Bedford’s handwriting

Dating the dyeing and the identity of the dyer The relevant part of the Leeds archive was assembled from around 1914. By considering the timeline, we arrived at a possible dyeing date of 1910 – 1913. The identity of the dyer remains unknown since no explanatory notes have been found, but the writing on the envelope containing the threads is that of Charles S. Bedford. So it’s quite possible he dyed it himself, had it dyed by a colleague well-versed in the chemistry of the time, or it was given to him by someone whose work he trusted. In Zvi’s words, this century-old Tyrian Purple sample is the most modern historic sample yet found: a true historic treasure.

Tyrian Purple, known as the ‘Purple of the Ancients’ was a well-discussed subject and appears in 19th century  literature associated, as ever, with wealth and status. The Bedford and Perkin families already represented two historic purples – orchil and mauveine – and one can imagine their curiosity about the dye chemistry of this exotic third.


 

demolition

Demolition site, Yorkshire Chemicals, Kirkstall Road, Leeds, 2008

The demise of Yorkshire Chemicals The Bedford family’s original business changed names several times over its lifetime, but there was never a takeover. It went into receivership in around 2004 styled as Yorkshire Chemicals. The factory on Kirkstall Road, first occupied by the Bedfords in 1850, was abandoned. I visited the demolition site in 2008 and felt unexpectedly emotional. Rising smoke, derelict buildings and heaps of twisted metal seemed the only legacy of a proud family’s early endeavours.

The Phoenix  But there is now an upside. The envelope of purple threads falling from hinges of an upturned rusty trunk has restored to us genuine samples of fabled Tyrian Purple. They are the first ‘modern’ dyeings known since  the 15th century, which illustrate scientific connections of the time as well as the curiosity, inventiveness, and the achievements of a Leeds family. To use Zvi’s words once more, the samples are like a ‘Phoenician rising from the rubble’, serving as a testament to past working and family lives of the Bedfords – and so many like them. They are, quite simply, Tyrian Treasure.

If you are interested in knowing more about any aspect of this research please write to me via the blog contact page.


Thanks 

Many thanks to colleague and friend Zvi Koren for his knowledge, his diligence and his support, and for his comments and additions to this pair of blogs. And for not forgetting to see the punny side of things.


Links and bibliography

Whitworth and Koren paper published in Ambix. Available from Taylor & Francis Online here.

Ancient shellfish used for purple dye vanishes from eastern Med  Guardian article , December 5th 2016


Related posts  on this blog

Testing Times 1 & 2

Getting to Blue

A Purple Pursuit

French Connections

Reasons to be Stressful

Talking Orchil

Dyes, History, and a Chilly Trip to Yorkshire


Inge Boesken Kanold artist researching and working with shellfish pigment

The Edelstein Center for the Analysis of Ancient Artifacts


John Edmonds’ book: Tyrian or Imperial Purple Dye: The Mystery of Imperial Purple Dye, Historic Dye series no. 7, Little Chalfont, 2000. Published by the author.


Smearing process of dyeing

 


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Tyrian Treasure: Part One

 

writtentyreThe Guardian: Monday 5th December 2016.

‘The shellfish that was one of the main sources of Tyrian purple – one of the most storied and valuable trading products in the ancient world – has disappeared from the eastern Mediterranean coast, amid warnings of an ongoing multi-species collapse blamed on global rises in sea temperatures.’

Historical cessation of shellfish dyeing The word ‘Tyrian’ derives from the city of Tyre on the north African coast, an area long associated with the Phoenicians and the shellfish dyeing industry. Tyrian Purple has already ‘disappeared’ once. Although an article linked from the Guardian states ‘snail-fueled purple persisted until chemists learned to make synthetic dyes,’ this is quite untrue.

It’s well known (in the dye world, at least) that shellfish dyeing largely ceased around the time of the Fall of Constantinople in 1453, after which the last dyers seemed to have disappeared. And in the eastern Mediterranean, purple dyeing ceased almost a millennium earlier as a result of the Arab conquest at the beginning of the 7th century.  Analysis of historic textiles continues to confirm this. The biochemical method of shellfish dyeing was complex, relying on processes which were not understood chemically, and were probably only passed down within families. Basically, when the dyers ‘disappeared’ they took the method with them. Any contemporaneous written records of the dye process are incomplete or ambiguous, and cannot be used to make a vat.

Recovery of the dyeing method Shellfish pigment must first be made soluble, (as with any dye), and this only occurs in alkaline conditions of around pH 8 and higher. An additional requirement for dissolution of the pigment is that it must undergo ‘reduction’. In reduction the pigment’s molecules are converted to a slightly altered, but more soluble, molecular structure. This reduction process is achieved by removing oxygen from the pigment molecules, or by adding hydrogen to them.  The vat turns a yellowy colour and fibre, threads or fabric are introduced. Colour will return to dyed items as they re-oxygenate on removal into the air. Readers who are indigo dyers will be familiar with this process.

The lost dyeing method Until the painstaking work in the 1990s of a retired engineer, the late John Edmonds, the exact method for creating a true shellfish purple reduction vat was lost. (Note that a reduction vat is entirely different from a direct application process performed by smearing the pre-pigment secretions).  Edmonds used his knowledge of woad fermentation to recreate the ancient shellfish dye method. He knew, from the early 20th century work of Paul Friedländer, that shellfish dye was an indigoid and would need a reduction process to work.  Edmonds used shellfish pigment extract for colour, and the rotting flesh of tinned cockles to start the required fermentation.  In subsequent years, chemist Zvi Koren (more about Zvi later) and artist Inge Boesken-Kanold separately explored and perfected more authentic historical procedures for dyeing and painting using shellfish purple.

The purple threads The earliest known historically accurate shellfish dyeings since the 15th century were, until recently, the initial samples produced by Edmonds. But in 2008 I discovered a small envelope containing purple cotton threads in a nineteenth / early twentieth century archive. They were labelled in as having been dyed with ‘the bodies of shellfish’. Could they be genuine?

dyedwith

bigtyre

Zvi Koren In 2011 I wandered around an exhibition in the company of Zvi Koren. Zvi is an internationally known and respected authority on shellfish purple and his lively presentations on the subject make him a unique and entertaining conference speaker. He showed interest in my presentations on orchil research, and we discovered a mutual obsession for appallingly groanworthy puns.

I tentatively mentioned the envelope of shellfish dyed threads I had found.  Zvi was clearly sceptical, as rightly befitted an analytical chemist, and was fairly certain the threads would be fake. He told me that only a scientific analysis, rather than visual inspection, would prove or disprove the claim. In his work, Zvi has analysed archaeological dyeings previously claimed by analysts to be shellfish dyed. Zvi’s precise analyses on these same artefacts showed that the ‘real purple’ was in fact an overdye produced from madder and indigo. He reminded me that prior to the work of Edmonds and others I’d have to go back nearly 600 years to find a true dyeing supported by chemical analysis. Paul Friedländer, who first identified the chemistry of shellfish purple in 1909, left no known samples.  But Zvi’s a good sport and was clearly intrigued. He suggested I send a small sample of the threads to him for analysis at the Edelstein Center for the Analysis of Ancient Artifacts, in Israel. So I did.

The research Zvi has described his astonishment when his analysis found the dyeing to be genuine shellfish purple, and he suggested we write a paper together. The work we undertook mapped a possible scenario for how the dyeing came about, why, and at what date. It involved parallel investigations based on Zvi’s scientific analysis of the threads through photomicrographic images and instrumental chromatography. We also studied classical and biblical texts; 19th century literature; the history of science and scientific connections; and the remarkable Bedford family of Leeds.  Zvi was extremely patient with my lack of chemical knowledge and I continue to be grateful for his clear explanations, and the general good humour which illuminated the science I frequently failed to grasp.

Significance of our research So is this a big deal? We definitely think so. It’s huge!  Firstly, before the Tyrian Purple dyed threads I found, no other dyeings have been confirmed since around the 15th century. That’s of considerable interest to researchers. Additionally, their very existence superbly illustrates the activities, interests and connections of an industrious Leeds family in the late 19th and early 20th century. More of that in Part Two – which will follow in the next fortnight.

If you are interested in knowing more about any aspect of this research please contact me through the blog. 


Thanks Many thanks to colleague and friend Zvi Koren for his knowledge, diligence and support, and for his comments and additions to this and the following blog. And not forgetting the puns.


Links and bibliography

Whitworth and Koren paper published in Ambix. Available from Taylor & Francis Online here.

Ancient shellfish used for purple dye vanishes from eastern Med  Guardian article , December 5th 2016


Related posts  on this blog

Testing Times 1 & 2

Getting to Blue

A Purple Pursuit

French Connections

Reasons to be Stressful

Talking Orchil

Dyes, History, and a Chilly Trip to Yorkshire


Inge Boesken Kanold artist researching and working with shellfish pigment

The Edelstein Center for the Analysis of Ancient Artifacts


John Edmonds’ book: Tyrian or Imperial Purple Dye: The Mystery of Imperial Purple Dye, Historic Dye series no. 7, Little Chalfont, 2000. Published by the author.


Smearing process of dyeing


 


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Tyrian Purple – from a Leeds archive?

In early 2008 a small hand-labelled envelope fell from the hinges of a rusty trunk. In it were two knotted twists of purple-dyed threads.

A co-authored paper I’ve written with Professor Zvi Koren about these extraordinary threads was finally published yesterday, after several years’ research. Their existence offers a fascinating insight into the scientific connections and achievements of the people of nineteenth and twentieth century Leeds. You can read the abstract of the paper here

threads_edited-1

I will write more about it in a week or so. If you can’t wait to read the paper, there is a limited number of free downloads available. If you want one, contact me through this website or on Twitter, and I can send a link.

tyrian

Until I am back with more, here are some thanks

To Ambix for publishing our work and for the exceptional quality of their editing

To Professor Koren who set out on this purple adventure with me after a chance conversation at La Rochelle during ISEND

To the owner of the Leeds archive, who allowed us to analyse the threads and the ink on the envelope

Links

Professor Zvi Koren is the Director of the Edelstein Center for the Analysis of Ancient Artifacts at the Shenkar College of Engineering, Design and Art, Ramat-Gan, Israel.

Ambix published by Taylor & Francis Online

Some background to the research already on this blog here


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Testing Times 1 & 2

Testing One

I have many friends who take an interest in my pots of goo and occasionally they send me things. One such friend returning from Essaouira sent me pigment she had been sold as ‘shellfish purple’. Historically, the Moroccan coast was an area much involved in the making of this fabled dye (also known as Imperial Purple and Tyrian Purple) but I expressed doubt that what she had sent was ‘the real thing’ because it is fabulously expensive to produce even a small quantity. Just 5 grams costs around £450.00. But I thought it would be fun to try dyeing with it.

grains

Green grains and finished colour on silk

I took advice from a specialist colleague, Professor Zvi Koren of the Edelstein Center for the Analysis of Ancient Artefacts (link below). He advised that shellfish pigment is not water-soluble, so that by adding just water I would not get a true solution: I’d get a reddish coloured mixture with the pigments dispersed but not dissolved. I added water and the grains went bright pink. Very bright indeed, as you can see below.

pH

The colour of the grains in solution: testing pH

reduced

Reduced liquid with lumps of dye matter

Following my colleague’s advice, I reduced grains in a hydrosulfite / dithionite bath in an alkaline solution, at about 60 C. The liquid went completely clear, with the dye matter gathered in lumps. This didn’t look right at all for shellfish purple, which should change to a greenish colour (as with indigo).  Nevertheless, I dipped silk into the clear mixture and it came out a bright pink – which does not wash out. So it’s certainly a dye, but certainly not shellfish purple.

Two other pointers to its not being shellfish purple: the Essaouira grains are green, and they shouldn’t be. There’s no snail pigment that colour, according to my colleague. It’s usually dark, blackish, brownish, purplish or violetish, but never green. And on top of that, the grains should have a yukky fishy smell. The Essaouira grains smelled vaguely of incense.

So this was a fascinating experiment, a story echoing many historical tales of dyes that were not as they claimed.

My thanks to Professor Zvi Koren of the Edelstein Center for the Analysis of Ancient Artifacts for his input and advice on testing the Essaouira grains.

Friends: please don’t stop sending me interesting things. But as an H&S caveat, pigments and grains bought in faraway places may be toxic or otherwise harmful so you need to be aware of handling and storing them. They are not necessarily what they say on the tin.

Testing the Other

At a recent course at West Dean my Old Geyser of a fabric steamer developed a problem. The thirty-year old steamer assembly consists of a standard water boiler (the sort to be found in every village hall), a custom-made stainless steel chamber, lid, and perforated base plate. Silks are rolled in paper and stacked upright inside the steel chamber. Water is heated in the boiler, the steam circulates and the combination of heat and damp sets the dyes. The water isn’t held at a constant boil but needs to come up to the boil – and hold it – every two or three minutes, for around two-and-a-half hours.

Only, at West Dean, it didn’t. The boil was less frequent than usual, and was held for shorter periods. I was concerned that dyes were insufficiently fixed and suspected a problem with the thermostat. (I should add that West Dean supply a professional Uhlig steamer, but I have always used mine, which holds more silk).

Back home, phone calls revealed that a new ‘simmerstat’ is what I required. But during the time since I bought the boiler, Brussels has dictated that EU citizens are insufficiently responsible to handle dangerous pieces of equipment that boil water. (Those in favour of Brexit might enjoy the link at the bottom of the page). A catering boiler will no longer come to a full, constant boil. My new simmerstat was fitted by the technical department, but the gaps between boils seemed longer than I remembered…. or was I just being twitchy?

I then discovered that a secondhand Uhlig steamer was on sale, owned by an ex-student. I couldn’t believe this piece of luck – and bought it. It is a solid, stable and well designed piece of equipment, although as with the West Dean one, it does not hold as much yardage as Old Geyser. In the Uhlig I tested several pieces of silk, including three blues which have a tendency to run if steamed sufficiently. No run-off.

runoff

Some runoff may be expected in initial rinses after steaming if heavily concentrated dye is used. Thereafter the water should run clear

samplessteam

Samples of identically dyed silks steamed in two steamers to compare colour and runoff

I tested identical blues in the mended Old Geyser. It now appears to be working well too – so I now have two working steamers. No recycling tip for Old Geyser: he threw a steamy party.

LINKS

Where to buy shellfish purple in 2016? Here

Brexit? Pulling the plug on high speed kettles here

The Edelstein Center for the Analysis of Ancient Artifacts here

 

 


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Getting to Blue

In my last blog A Purple Pursuit, I wrote about Browning’s Popularity, in which he referred to shellfish dye in a complex poem on inspiration, skill and genius. What I didn’t say, but others wisely pointed out, was the oddity of Browning referring to the dye as blue throughout the poem. Shellfish dye (from the ‘Tyrian shells’) is quite definitely purple and the colour, history and source of Imperial Purple were well known in Browning’s time. So, why blue?

Who has not heard how Tyrian shells
Enclosed the blue, that dye of dyes

Whereof one drop worked miracles,
And coloured like Astarte’s eyes
Raw silk the merchant sells?

I scratched around many sources but failed to find a historical reference, or image, defining Astarte’s eyes as blue. Maybe I have missed something. But the Resident Poetry Advisor says that Browning was more than capable of implying non-existent references, or even inventing them. This seems most perverse, but Browning was a poet and that’s the kind of thing poets do.

indigo

Author’s indigo-dyed wool yarn, using increasing vat strength

Putting Browning firmly aside, I happened across a reference to William Gladstone’s Studies on Homer and the Homeric Age. Gladstone (1809 – 1908) was a British Liberal politician, three times Prime Minister, living at a time when politicians digested more than soundbites.

Gladstone studied the Iliad page by page, and as he did so he recorded the occurrence of words for colour. What he noticed was rather remarkable. He came across much mention of black, some white, less red, very little yellow, tiny amounts of green…but no blue. Was Homer ‘colourblind’, or unable to perceive colours? Were all Greeks the same, and their perception of colours (and the words to describe them) inherited, building over several generations? It left me wondering whether Astarte’s eyes could have been blue if there wasn’t yet a word for it, which was a head-spinning prospect.

Lazarus Geiger (1829-1870), a philosopher and philologist, took Gladstone’s research further and studied other ancient texts (for instance, Icelandic sagas, Vedic literature, and the original Hebrew version of the Bible) finding that none of them contained a word for blue. Geiger concluded that across ancient cultures, words for colour developed in an oddly consistent order. Black was always first, followed by white, red, yellow, green. Blue came next, eventually.

If this intrigues you, I suggest you listen to the Radiolab broadcast linked below. It makes more sense of it than I can here, but still left me wondering what exactly was being said. One of the programme’s guests is linguist Guy Deutscher. Listen, particularly, to the account of his little daughter trying to name the colour of the sky.

buddhist_edited-1

Author’s watercolour from sketchbook, 1995, recording the many dyed colours and fading shades of Buddhist monks’ robes in Sikkim and North India

My head can’t get itself round the concept that without an object to attach it to, a colour didn’t ‘exist’ and didn’t acquire a name. But that’s partly what is being said and it leads me to dyeing, and the need to name colours. I was dyeing felt last week, trying to achieve a good range of reds. I used different amounts of mordant, varied the percentages of weld, cochineal and madder and overdyed in different sequences. Small variations occurred in the reds and I sought to describe these to a client in words. Colours need adjectives like ‘bright’, ‘dark’, ‘dull’ etc but one inevitably ends up with a comparison to a universally understood coloured object, such as a poppy, a pillarbox, a brick, a patch of rust, a rose. We take this for granted but it’s very sophisticated, relying on a well-established set of understandings. We often need an object when we describe colour.

In her book Tintes y Tintoreros de América, Ana Roquero records the many changes that took place in Central and South American textile practice during the Spanish colonial period. One of the imports from Spain to the New World was an entire vocabulary for textiles. As well as words for machinery, tools, technical terms and cloth and fabric, this included words for colour. These colour words are still alive in parts of Latin America amongst mestizo weavers and dyers, when their use in today’s Spain is long lost.

In this case it’s the itinerant word that has preserved the colour, and I find that fascinating.


Links

Radiolab broadcast ‘Why Isn’t the Sky Blue’ here

The Himba and the perception of colour Anthropology and the Human Condition: here

Books:

Roquero, Ana, 2006, Tintes y tintoreros de América: catálogo de materias primas y registro etnográfico de México, Centro América, Andes Centrales y Selva Amazónica, Ministerio de Cultura, España

Deutscher, Guy, 2010, Through the Language Glass, Heinemann

Comments

Please also check out the very interesting links offered in comments for this page. Many thanks to those who have written and included them