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To dye for: The violent, greed-filled history of colour

Book review: David Coles’s illustrated history details the brutal origins of dyes and pigments

Chromatopia: An Illustrated History of Colour
Chromatopia: An Illustrated History of Colour
Author: David Coles
ISBN-13: 978-0500501351
Publisher: Thames & Hudson
Guideline Price: £24.95

As any self-respecting vegan knows, carmine food colouring comes from the cochineal insect. Also known as E120, its presence in the red of Skittles sweets was an issue for vegans and vegetarians until it was finally removed in recent years. About 14,000 insects are needed to make just 100 grams of cochineal dye according to Chromatopia, David Coles’s illustrated history of colour. It’s a laborious process yet for thousands of years mankind has gone to considerable trouble to produce dyes, inks and paints.

Colour is fundamental to our experience of the world – so fundamental that throughout history, health and lives were risked for the sake of treasured pigments. Carmine was used in the Americas for dyeing textiles as early as 700 BCE: “One of the reddest dyes that the natural world has ever produced, the crimson dye is carminic acid which is produced by the female cochineal to deter other insect predators.”

When the Spanish invaded the Aztec Empire, they discovered this valuable export, protecting “their exclusive supply by disguising the red dye’s origins in mystery, spreading the story that the cochineal was a pea-like vegetable . . . It became the third-greatest traded product from the New World after gold and silver.”

The history and theory of colour is a wide and fascinating field. There has been an endless supply of books about colour in recent years. From the brilliant travelogue-cum-memoir, Colour by Victoria Finlay to Kassia St Clair’s The Secret Life of Colour, readers are spoiled for choice. There’s even a whole book devoted to the history of the colour mauve. Colour matters and it excites – anyone interested in art or design, history or science or even etymology will fall under its spell.


Chromatopia divides the story into several sections from the “First Colours” through “Colour in the time of the Ancients”, “Medieval Colour” and so on. The production of Tyrian purple goes back at least 3,500 years. According to Greek legend, it was discovered by Hercules when his dog’s “purple-stained mouth” revealed that the rich dye came from a predatory sea snail. A single ounce of Tyrian purple required the “sacrifice of around 250,000 sea snails” and only the highest rank could wear this noble colour.

Emerald green used in the 19th century for wallpapers gave off poisonous arsenic vapours

Later during the Crusades, the method of preparing was lost and only rediscovered as recently as 1998. Indian yellow, made exclusively in the village of Mirzapur, was another colour whose origin was shrouded in rumour in the western world. It wasn’t until the Bengali civil servant, TN Mukharji actually travelled there and detailed the extraordinary process to the British authorities that Indian yellow was finally revealed to be a product of the urine of cows fed exclusively on mango leaves. Sadly, the cows were in a poor state of health because of their limited diet. Another surprise for me was finding out that mummy brown really came from flesh, bones and wrappings of mummified ancient Egyptians.


It was the Egyptians who invented the first synthetic colour – the gorgeous Egyptian blue which colours the famous crown of Queen Nefertiti. The gold orpiment pigment which was also used by the Egyptians as a cosmetic contained a highly toxic sulphide of arsenic. The Romans, well aware of its dangerous properties, used slaves to mine it: “For the unlucky slaves this was, in essence, a death sentence.” But even poisons won’t deter the colour lovers, realgar’s “beguiling orange hue” was also known as “ruby of arsenic” and used to stave off rats in the Middle Ages. Emerald green used in the 19th century for wallpapers gave off poisonous arsenic vapours. Vermillion, which comes from cinnabar, was dug out of mercury mines which were so deadly to the miners, the King of Spain sent condemned criminals to serve their sentences at the Almaden mercury mine.

Coles is well-placed to talk about colour as he has been making paints since he attended Bristol art college in the early 1980s

Chromatopia is rich in captivating nuggets of information but with so many books on colour competing for our attention it might be good to look at what is different about Chromatopia as it weighs in with a fairly hefty price tag. A coffee table book brim-full with colour photographs of pigments and paint and the natural world from which these colours spring yet it is small and compact enough to carry around comfortably.

It is also compact in the sense that every word counts – a world of interesting scientific and historical facts is arranged in an easily navigable and highly attractive format. It is pleasure to hold and peruse and it works as primer too for the tyro paint-maker as it shows with detailed colour photographs how paint is made and even includes some recipes.

Coles is well-placed to talk about colour as he has been making paints since he attended Bristol art college in the early 1980s. His fascination started even earlier when he was a boy and his father took him to Cornelissen & Son, the famous art materials store in Covent Garden.

In the 1990s, after emigrating to Australia, Coles set up the highly respected Langridge Artist Colours, building it up from very small beginnings. Coles has developed many new colours; the first was zinc blue which “attempts to replicate the light-filled blue of the Australian sky, which differs from that of Europe and America. The searing sunlight here excites everything it touches, creating a highly chromatic vibration that is immediate and modern.”

Coles’s passionate focus is palpable from the opening pages when, in a handful of words, he nails the story of colour, paint-makers, artists and merchants throughout history: “Looking back it could be mistaken for destiny but how I got to this place in time is a tale of serendipity, family legacy, chance meetings, wrong turns and a tenacious pursuit of the alchemical transformation of dirt into colour.”

Martina Evans is a poet and novelist. Her latest collection, Now We Can Talk Openly About Men is published by Carcanet.

Martina Evans

Martina Evans

Martina Evans, a contributor to The Irish Times, is a poet, novelist and critic