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Part 8. First The Blues

Part 8 - Colour and Dyes: First the Blues

Colour and dying are where patchwork and quilting meet physics and chemistry-and beat a hasty retreat! I hope that in this two-part review I can bring such fascinating books to your notice that you will be tempted to find how accessible it is.

The first book is a small colourful paperback Colour by Francois Delamare and Bernard Guineau. Subtitled "Making and Using Dyes and Pigments"; it is an extremely readable and entertaining historical overview of their subject. They start with the pre-historic use of pigments in wall decoration, move through the medieval demands for colour in painting, manuscripts, ceramics and clothes to the time when "chemistry supplanted alchemy" with the birth of organic chemistry and the triumphs of dye production.

This book is beautifully produced, well set out with lots of delightful colour illustrations, several to a page with an occasional double spread. However, as these pictures do not always relate directly to the adjacent text, their interesting captions are best read as a supplement every few pages to avoid losing the narrative thread.

Colour finishes with a section (on yellow pages) entitled Documents and contains short excerpts from books on The history of colours, Antique Colour Recipes, Naming Colours and Modern Artists Confront Colour. There are two pages of Further Reading, four pages for the List of Illustrations, Photographic Credits and Text Credits and finally, a three page Index.

This inexpensive and erudite little volume should be on everyone's bookshelf: the ideal introduction to colour and dyes - "as rich, varied and delightful as a box of crayons"

The authors of Colour are French so their emphasis is more European than we are used to, but the next book is firmly rooted in Britain. It is Mauve by Simon Garfield, subtitled How one man invented a colour that changed the world. This is the story of William Perkin whose discovery and patents of the dyestuff mauve in 1856 "would make him the richest chemist in England".


Originally Perkin was trying to synthesise quinine to treat malaria - his wrong turning thus became the impetus for all the subsequent aniline dyes and so many other important derivatives that Garfield writes about with such enthusiasm. It makes a triumphant story and at the end we may share Simon Garfield's dismay at not finding William Perkin's picture hanging gloriously in the National Portrait Gallery but relegated to a far-flung storeroom! However, those numerous mauve fabrics in old patchwork may now have a whole new significance thanks to this small volume.

The book is very nicely produced with eight pages of photographs, some colour, plus twelve pages for the Bibliography and eight for the Index. The Author's Note and Acknowledgements round off gracefully. The hardback version has a stylish black and mauve dust wrapper that is unfortunately lost in the paperback edition.

The last book of the three reviewed is the most scholarly. It is Indigo by Jenny Balfour -Paul, first published by British Museum Press in 1998. She ends her book by saying "Certain words contain within them, layer upon layer of meanings as the wrapping is peeled away. I hope this book, having delved through many layers, has demonstrated that there is far more to the word 'indigo' than meets the eye". Certainly her book succeeds in this: the two hundred and thirty pages of text are dense with fact but carry their knowledge lightly, it is an enjoyable, grown-up read. The book is well illustrated with one hundred and fifty colour and fifty black and white pictures. There are hundreds of endnotes, arranged under their chapter headings, plus an extensive Bibliography running to six pages.

The flow of the book is mildly historical, staring with an introduction, The Myth and the Magic, through From Antiquity to the Middle Ages and into Indigo's Heyday. Here the book branches off to discuss woad and synthetic indigo. The next chapter is Indigo Plants and the Making of their Dye but the actual chemical formulae are kept to one page at the bookend. Three textile chapters follow Indigo Dyeing Worldwide, The Variety of Decorative techniques and For Richer, For Poorer: Textiles Prestigious and Popular. All are wide ranging, detailed and well illustrated. The next chapter, Blue Art, is short and focuses on the use of indigo as a paint and ink and to colour leather and paper. The final chapter is called In Sickness and in Health and covers some of the complicated and entangled roles of indigo, both mystical and practical.

This book must stand as the authoritative source of current knowledge and scholarship about indigo. Jenny Balfour-Paul's sources of information range from Pliny through recipes and travel accounts from the seventeenth /eighteenth centuries to current research work at Bristol University. As already said the notes and bibliography are exemplary, there is also a brief Glossary of Technical Terms, a four-page Index and two pages of Illustration Acknowledgements.


All three books are in print and could be ordered on line from who, at the time of writing are offering discounts and special offers, plus free postage on orders over £39. But all these books should be available by order from any good bookshop; I have given their ISBNs.

Colour by Francois Delamare and Bernard Guineau is a paperback published by Thames and Hudson (London 2000) in their New Horizons Series, ISBN 0-500-30102-6 and costs £6.95

Mauve by Simon Garfield is published by Faber and Faber (London 2000). The hardback ISBN is 0-571-20197-0 and costs £9.95, the paperback ISBN is 0-571-20917-1 and costs £6.99

Indigo by Jenny Balfour-Paul is published by the British Museum Press (London 1998). The hardback

SBN is 0-714-11776-5 and costs £29.95; the paperback ISBN is 0-714-12550-4 and costs £19.99

Having introduced, and I hope converted some of you to the delightful world of colour and dyes, I will look at red in the next issue- look forward to Turkey reds, alizarin and madder!

© Brigid J.Ockelton. 2002

PLEASE NOTE - An indication is given of the availability and market price of the book at the time of writing and may not reflect today's availability and price.