by Roderick Conway Morris

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Birmingham Museums
Phidias Showing the Frieze of the Parthenon to his Friends
by Lawrence Alma-Tadema, 1868-69

Full of Bright Ideas

By Roderick Conway Morris
OXFORD 1 December 2023


'Savage nations, uneducated people, and children have a great predilection for vivid colours,' opined Goethe in his 'Theory of Colour' of 1810. It is perhaps just as well he did not live to see the explosion of colour that engulfed Europe less than half a century later.

The story of this transformation of our visual world is now the subject of an enlightening and entertaining exhibition, Colour Revolution: Victorian Art, Fashion & Design, at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford.

Revolutions broke out all over the Continent in 1848, from Paris to Palermo, Berlin to Budapest, Milan to Munich, Venice to Vienna and a dozen other cities. Hector Berlioz happened to be in London in July 1848 and was disappointed when, after a tense stand-off, 200,000 Chartists 'dispersed in perfect order'. The French composer concluded that Englishmen could no more organize a riot than 'Italians could write symphonies'.

Another milder, artistic uprising occurred in what came to be called the Year of Revolutions - the foundation of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. They were inspired by the Flemish and Italian artists of the early Renaissance but even more so by a fascination with all things medieval - especially stained glass and illuminated manuscripts. This led to their adoption of startling bright lighting and strong colours. Ruskin championed the Pre-Raphaelites in the face of attacks from traditionalist critics. Despite his wife Effie's running off with the artist John Everett Millais, he later wrote of Millais' gorgeously colourful canvas 'Mariana' (1851) that it was 'the perfectest of his works, and the representative picture of that generation'.

The stained glass window in 'Mariana' was based on those in Merton College Oxford's chapel. The Pre-Raphaelites' enthusiasm for this art form led to a major revival. Edward Burne-Jones made a phenomenal number of designs for it and more stained glass was produced during the second half of the nineteenth century than since the Middle Ages.

However, a more fundamental and widespread revolution in colour took place in 1856, when a brilliant 18-year-old chemist, William Henry Perkin, accidentally discovered a means of making cheap synthetic colours from coal tar. Until then many colours could only be made with expensive, imported, naturally derived dyes and hence were the preserve of the wealthy. Perkin had been charged with creating an artificial quinine, but a side product of his (unsuccessful) experiments was a virulent purple dye. Aniline, which took its name from the Arabic for indigo, anil, had been extracted from indigo in 1820. But Perkin's discovery that it could be made for a fraction of the cost from coal tar led to further experiments to produce it as a commercial dye. By the time he was 19, Perkin had patented the process and opened his own dye works at Greenhill, near London.

Purple was already a favourite colour of that arbiter of fashion Empress Eugenie of France, but now almost overnight this costly colour - which was soon also described by the French word 'mauve' - became available to all. When Perkin displayed a block of his dye measuring a mere 20 inches by 9 inches at the International Exhibition of 1862, he noted that it was the 'product of no less than 2,000 tons of coal'. Yet this concentrated waste was sufficient to dye 300 miles of silk cloth.

Aniline purple was generally available from late 1858 and it quickly became so ubiquitous that Dickens wrote of 'the fashionable insanity for Perkin purple' and warned that, 'We shall soon have purple omnibuses and purple houses'. In 1858 an intense synthetic crimson red also came on the market presently followed by a rainbow array of other tints. A French visitor to England in the 1860s complained of being confronted with dresses 'of really ferocious violet, purple or poppy red silks, grass-green dresses decorated with flowers, azure blue scarves and dresses of purple silk, very shiny so that they reflect the light dazzlingly.'

But an 1861 newspaper article entitled 'The Triumph of Colour' celebrated the development: 'never were the ladies of England dressed in such brilliant hues as in the present day'. And another in the following year asserted that the new dyes constituted 'a new power for manufacturing England. No longer compelled to import our dyes, we draw in great variety some of the most beautiful known colours out of the darkness of our own inexhaustible coal mines.'

Yet alarm bells were set ringing by the spread of these dyes to petticoats, stockings and shoes, and even corsets. The introduction of steel-framed crinolines in the early 1860s and slightly shorter skirts promoted by the Empress Eugenie gave opportunities for enticing flashes of these newly colourful accessories. And the more censorious were horrified that even respectable women were adopting and flaunting lingerie more suited to demi-mondaines.

Menswear was meanwhile becoming ever more sombre. With the exception of socks, males were expected to wear dark attire (now typically dyed with new aniline blacks, which was more stable and also employed for mens' and women's mourning dress). Colourful accessories, such as embroidered slippers, smoking jackets and hats were to be worn strictly in the privacy of the home.

Although now less often referred to than the Great Exhibition of 1851, the International Exhibition of 1862 was in colour terms the more important event. The show was the first time that synthetic dyes were extensively displayed to an international audience. Many of the British visitors were already attired in these new colours and colour was a major element in numerous exhibits.

It was also the occasion of the first significant showing of the art and artefacts of Japan, which was just opening up to the rest of the world after its over 250-year-long self-isolation from the rest of the world. Among the revelations were the boldly colourful woodblock prints by the likes of Hokusai and Hiroshige, which helped fuel a craze for Japonisme.

A key figure in both the 1851 and 1862 Exhibitions was the architect and designer Owen Jones, author of the influential 'Grammar of Ornament' (1856). This leading 'chromophile' had provided the interior decor for the 1851 show.

By the time the great re-creator of ancient scenes, the Dutch artist Alma-Tadema, came to England for the first time in 1862, the Crystal Palace that had housed the Great Exhibition of 1851 had been dismantled and moved from Hyde Park to Sydenham. There, among Owen Jones's contributions to the new 'Fine Art Courts' installation, was a reconstruction of the Parthenon Frieze (or Elgin Marbles) brightly painted as it would have been in antiquity. This issue had provoked a furious debate with the purists continuing to claim that ancient statuary had been white and unadorned, despite the mounting archeological evidence to the contrary. Alma-Tadema visited both Sydenham and the International Exhibition in South Kensington, and his 'Phidias Showing the Frieze of the Parthenon to his Friends' (1868-69) was almost indubitably inspired by Jones's work.

For the 1862 Exhibition Jones provided a polychrome Pompeiian temple adorned with ancient texts in praise of colour. Centre stage beneath its portal was John Gibson's 'Tinted Venus', a Carrara marble statue, whose flesh was waxed, hair gilded, eyes coloured blue and lips rouged to give it a life-like appearance. When Elizabeth Barrett Browning saw it in Gibson's studio in Rome in 1854 she recorded that she had 'seldom, if ever, seen so indecent a statue'. It duly raised a storm of protest in London.

Another star turn was the architect William Burgess's 'Great Bookcase', a huge construction embellished, between 1859 and 1862 by 13 young artists, with wildly polychrome scenes inspired by Egyptian, Greek, Pompeiian, Byzantine and Medieval and early Renaissance art.

Oscar Wilde notoriously wore an artificially dyed green carnation at the first night of his play 'Lady Windermere's Fan' in 1892. During this period the colour green took on negative associations, seemingly on account of toxic green dyes containing arsenic and the lurid colour of that most demonic and destructive drink, absinthe. Yellow also became suspect, thanks to its use on the covers of risqué French novels and the fin-de-sècle British periodical The Yellow Book, which ceased publication in the wake of the Wilde scandal and his conviction in 1895. Both dangerous hues are symbolically brought together in Ramon Casas's 'Decadent Young Woman, After the Dance' (1899).

While it was in Britain that the aniline dyes that transformed the visual environment in Europe and, in due course, the rest of the world, were first discovered, in typical fashion it was elsewhere they were most profitably developed and exploited. Germany and Switzerland in particular used the technology to build their even now dominant positions as chemical and pharmaceutical powers. For, as the exhibition's curator Matthew Winterbottom observes in the show's catalogue, synthetic dyes formed the basis of a host of other products including 'artificial medicines, cosmetics, food sweeteners and flavourings, pesticides, fertilisers and chemical weapons'.

Colour Revolution: Victorian Art, Fashion & Design; Ashmolean Museum, London; 21 September - 18 February 2024

First published: The Lady

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2024