Book Review: The Secret Lives of Colour by Kassia St Clair

National News Categories: 
Publish date: 
11 Sep 2017
Author: 
Analiese Treacy

This book by Kassia St Clair, a freelance writer for Elle Decoration and a former arts editor at The Economist, is a most fascinating read. As the title suggest, the book captures some of the weird and wonderful stories associated with over 75 different shades, dyes and hues, some of which you may never even have heard of. Opening with a quote from John Ruskin ‘The purest and most thoughtful minds are those which love colour the most’, Kassia delves into the into some fascinating stories such as that of Scheele’s Green, the toxic copper arsenate which became used in the mass production of 19th Century wallpapers almost poisoning a generation of British home owners with its toxic fumes. St Clair provides insights into the use of Kohl, the black colour used by the Egyptians as eyeliner. Believed to have magical properties in making the whites of the eyes stand out, the Pharaohs valued it so much they buried themselves with it so as to wear it in the afterlife. The quality of Kohl depended on the wealth of the wearer, with the poorer versions made from a combination of animal fats and soot and the richer versions made from mixtures of galena, powdered pearls, gold, coral or emeralds bound with oil or milk and scented with saffron, frankincense or fennel. In 1979, Baker Miller Pink, first painted on the walls of a US Naval Correctional Centre in Seattle Washington, was praised for its undeniable calming effect on inmates reducing levels of violence within the centre significantly. The success of this colour in taming the most ferocious and anxious of minds, gave it something of a pop like status in the US, with its use seen creeping over the seats of buses, houses and even sports locker rooms. More stories such as that of Heliotrope, varying shades of which were worn during the Victorian era to denote periods of ‘half mourning’ and the accidental discovery of Mauve in the search for a cure for Malaria, keep the reader engaged and definitely wanting more. While by no means comparable with the Pigment Compendium, this book is intriguing, fun and entertaining and definitely worth a read if you are an unwavering lover of colour!

The Secret Lives of Colour,  Kassia St Clair, Murray Publishers, 2016