We'll travel far for colour... as, to pluck an obvious example from the air, during the Renaissance to remote and dangerous Central Asia for Lapis Lazuli, carried by land and sea to Venice to be laboriously, meticulously ground and washed – ultimately to produce pure blue and beautiful ultramarine pigment, prized and coveted and wildly expensive.
We’ll work hard for it, too. Here’s the recipe for the red used in the 8th century Lindisfarne Gospels: take sheets of lead, cake them in beer or wine must, suspend them above pots of vinegar or urine and bury the whole lot in manure. The heat from the decaying manure will slowly – over days – cause the liquid to evaporate and corrode the lead to a white powder. Scrape the powder – white lead or ceruse, an important pigment in its own right – from the lead and then roast it, stirring with an iron spoon. It will gradually turn red – and there’s the colour, called red lead or minium, for your capital letters and illuminations. It is, of course, poisonous.
TOAST - RED. Regine Shirt £115 / Washed Linen Nightie £115
Not, however, so poisonous as orpiment – trisulphide of arsenic, and just as potentially fatal as the name implies. A stone imported from Italy to Northumbria – again to be used in the Lindisfarne Gospels – from which a bright, rich yellow was obtained.
And so on… To read through a good list of artists’ pigments is to read an implied history of arduous travel, exploration, trade, ingenuity, innovation, experimentation – all in the service of beauty and utility in colour (and secondarily, no doubt, in the quest for wealth – which, given the labour and hazard involved, is only fair enough.)
Colour, second perhaps only to music, profoundly and viscerally moves us. Here’s not the place to wonder why – the joy of the thing being that we don’t need to worry about it. One can put thoughts aside and simply glory in a delightful human idiosyncrasy. Perhaps visit the National Gallery on a quiet, rainy morning and allow yourself to get lost in the fathomless blue of the sky in Titian’s Bacchus and Ariadne, a blue that started its journey being picked from the rock somewhere in distant Central Asia.
TOAST - BLUE. Ariane Dress - £125 / Alayna dress in phthalo blue - £129
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Words by Jamie Seaton.