In 19th-century Britain, revolutionary advances in chemistry led to an explosion of vibrant new dyes and pigments, introducing a dazzling array of colour possibilities for Victorian wardrobes and homes, as well as for the painter’s palette. I sat down in conversation with Matthew Winterbottom, lead curator of the exhibition Victorian Colour Revolution: Victorian Art, Fashion and Design at the Ashmolean, Oxford, to discuss the various ways that Victorian artists responded to these new hues, how the social and cultural meanings of colour evolved, and how the impact of the colour revolution is still felt today.
The Victorian Colour Revolution
Evie: What was the Victorian colour revolution and in what ways was it a revolution?
Matthew: Well, I think the real revolution was the synthetic dye revolution which took place in the 1850s. This introduction of new, coal tar-based aniline dyes really revolutionised and democratised colour for the first time because it made the world much more colourful. But the colour revolution doesn’t just refer to that. It’s the whole question of colour in the 19th century, particularly during Queen Victoria’s reign from 1837-1901, and the revolution in attitudes towards colour, and how people think and use colour. So it’s not just about the new technology, but also the use of colour in art and the appreciation of colour from past cultures and non-European cultures as well, and how that informed and inspired new art and new design.
Evie: What kind of new pigments were artists using in their palettes?
Matthew: One of the great revolutions to take place was the new pigments being invented, although actually some of the new pigments were already invented in the early 19th century, and J.M.W Turner was using some of these new colourful pigments. In particular things like the Chrome Yellows which he was using to great impact in some of those sunsets. The Pre-Raphaelites figure quite heavily in the exhibition- we start with a wonderful portrait of John Ruskin, whose writings greatly inspired the Pre-Raphaelites, by one of the Pre-Raphaelites themselves, John Everett Millais. Ruskin exhorted artists to go back to medieval art and use the colours found in that art. But actually, the Pre-Raphaelites were using many modern pigments. One pigment they used to great effect were the arsenic greens, the very bright emerald greens (as they’re known), which really give many Pre-Raphaelite paintings that intense colour. They were using modern pigments, they weren’t using medieval materials or medieval techniques.
Evie: I love that idea of harking back to the past while using new colour technologies.
Matthew: That’s very Victorian, I think. The Victorians cull the past for all sorts- for the style, for inspiration. But then they used modern technology to make them very much 19th-century objects. So William Burges, who created this amazing gothic-revival bookcase, used enitrely modern materials and techniques. We’ve had the pigments analysed, and even though they look similar to the pigments used on painted furniture in the 13th and 14th centuries, they’re not. They are modern, often highly toxic pigments that look the same but aren’t the same.
Artists’ Reactions to the New Colours
Evie: Were there artists that rejected the new synthetic dyes and pigments in favour of traditional materials? I’m thinking in particular of William Morris.
Matthew: Morris was actively rejecting the modern dyes. He wrote about them and hated them! He described the ‘livid ugliness’ of aniline dyes as they fade. He didn’t like the way they faded. He liked the way that old vegetable dyes in textiles and tapestries faded down to these muted colours. He very much single-handedly revived traditional techniques of vegetable dyeing, but of course it was too late. By the 1880s and 1890s, they were being abandoned because the new synthetic dyes were easier to use and cheaper, and so actually it’s a losing battle. And, of course, it was too expensive. William Morris wanted to create good design for the masses, but actually, you can’t do that by using very expensive hand-dyeing techniques. He was never going to really revive the true art of vegetable dyeing. It was already too late.
Evie: That line about ‘livid ugliness’ is brilliant!
Matthew: He gives this lecture where he complains about the modern dyes. He was also rejecting the arsenic greens in wallpapers. His family owned arsenic mines in England and arsenic was used extensively for the greens in wallpapers in the 19th century. His company produced arsenic-free wallpapers in the 1870s and 1880s for people who wanted to think they were safe and weren’t poisoning their children who might lick the wallpaper and get arsenic poisoning!
Evie: How did other people react to the new colours?
Matthew: There was a French visitor who came to London in the early 1860s and he was appalled by just how vivid some of the women’s dresses were — very bright violets and the magentas, which were very intense. There were people who were alarmed by how bright some of these colours were and there was a pushback.
Evie: How about the colours used by artists?
Matthew: John Singer-Sargent is interesting because he could afford the best natural pigments, so sometimes he painted women wearing these aniline-dyed dresses, but using natural pigments, like Madder, in the paints that he’s using to represent the aniline colours in the actual dresses. So that’s an interesting idea.
Of course, aniline dyes were rapidly incorporated into paints. James McNeill Whistler didn’t like the anilines. He writes about going to an Impressionist exhibition in Paris in the 1880s and talks about the use of aniline, but he spells it ‘analine’ because he doesn’t like them! He spells it slightly subversively to make that point! William Holman Hunt also railed against them. He gave a famous lecture in 1880 where he complained about the adulteration of artist pigments with anilines. He’s not completely against all synthetic colours, but he doesn’t like anilines and he worries that they won’t last and that they will fade. Whereas someone like Turner didn’t care, he didn’t care if his colours weren’t going to last. He was for the there and now, for the wonderful bright effect. If they faded in a few years it wasn’t really a concern for him, but not all artists felt that way. Artists like Holman Hunt were very concerned about their paintings remaining colourful in perpetuity. He did lots of experiments with new pigments to make sure they had that longevity.
The Democratisation of Colour During the Victorian Colour Revolution
Evie: How did the invention of the metal paint tube change artist colour?
Matthew: Winsor & Newton invented that in the 1840s, and that completely transformed artistic practice because for the first time, you could buy pre-mixed oil paints. You could take them in tubes and travel wherever you wanted and you could do outdoor painting. This had a massive effect of course, on the Impressionists, who took these paints and painted outside with them. In the past, you’d have to mix your own and grind your own paint. It was a very laborious process, and suddenly artistic practice was transformed. Whistler famously said that he painted his Nocturne: Blue and Gold, St Mark’s, Venice while sitting at the Caffè Florian, the famous cafe in St Mark’s square. Whether or not he did we don’t know! But he could have done because you could take the pre-mixed paints with you. You didn’t have to be sat in the studio grinding and mixing your own paints.
Evie: Presumably this made painting accessible to so many more people, and to people that didn’t have a formal training?
Matthew: Yes, there’s an explosion of amateur painting in the 19th century. There’s an explosion of the middle class as well, of course, so everyone’s painting. Actually, in Britain, it was often watercolours. You get these pre-made watercolour tablets being produced, enabling everybody to go and paint. You could buy, as you can today, a palette of watercolours that you can use. So again, this transforms people’s ability to paint outside and create paintings. And particularly middle-class women — women were not supposed to work, so they were meant to do things like painting or needlework, these middle-class pastimes.
Evie: Queen Victoria herself was a watercolourist, wasn’t she?
Matthew: She was absolutely, as were many members of the royal family. Some of them were extremely talented. It was part of your education as a young woman. You’d be taught to draw, often by quite skilful teachers, people like John Ruskin.
Evie: Speaking of Ruskin, could you touch on how his approach to colour was influential?
Matthew: John Ruskin was key in shaping the discourse on colour in the 19th century. He was one of the first to say that colour is so important in art. That it’s not a secondary thing, or ephemeral, that it’s key to the beauty of art and that artists should go and find colour wherever they can and use it. Because for him it’s very religious- it’s the sanctity of colour, it’s a gift from God.
The Social Aspects of Colour
Evie: In what ways did colour take on new associations during this period?
Matthew: Well, in the last third of Queen Victoria’s reign, green and yellow became associated with the decadent movement. Partly because green had associations with toxicity. These amazing bright emerald green dyes and pigments, which were very beautiful but very toxic, so green takes on this frisson of danger. Yellow was the colour of the illicit French erotic novels that had yellow paper covers. We have a wonderful portrait of a young decadent girl in the exhibition, she’s reading a yellow book and sitting on a green sofa. The colours enable us to decode her as a decadent and a contemporary audience would have seen this. So yellow gets an association in the 1890s, particularly with decadence and with marginalised culture. But also it becomes a colour of modernity. In the 1890s electric lighting comes in, things are lightening up and interiors are getting brighter, and so yellow becomes associated with the modern movement. The 1890s are sometimes called the yellow nineties. So bright yellow becomes very popular, often mixed in with green. it’s an interesting combination. You’ll see it in people like Van Gogh, Toulouse Lautrec, and many other artists.
And then we also look at blue, and how blue becomes associated with Japan. Japan had essentially been closed off to the outside world since the 18th century, and it opened up in the 1850s to trade with the rest of the world. Many Japanese goods came over to Europe and are transformative for many artists. People were inspired by the colours, compositions, designs, and the blue in woodblock prints. So blue became associated with Japan. Of course, the irony is that the blue in Japanese woodblock prints was a very modern introduction. It was introduced in the 1820s by the Dutch who were bringing in European Prussian Blue pigment, and the Japanese took to that very quickly in their woodblock prints. So in the 1850s, when these prints were being exported out into Europe, people saw the blue as quintessentially Japanese, even though it was a European introduction. It’s an interesting cultural mix.
Evie: Prussian Blue is Hokusai’s blue isn’t it?
Matthew: Yes! Before the 1820s there was no blue in Japanese woodblock prints. The great thing about Prussian Blue is that you can tone it. You can tone it down, and you can wipe away bits on the woodblock to give you this tonality of different shades of blues. It’s a very versatile pigment, and this is why the Japanese take to it.
Modern Perspectives on the Victorian Colour Revolution
Evie: Why do you think we have this idea of the Victorian period as being monochrome, lacking in colour?
Matthew: Partly because of the Victorians themselves. People like Charles Dickens perpetuate this image. He was writing very polemical literature, and it’s exaggerated deliberately. When we read it today, we might not realise that he’s giving an exaggerated view of polluted, dark cities. Of course, it is partly true. Britain is rapidly industrialising, and for the first time more people live in cities than in the countryside, the population is massively increasing, cities are very polluted, and there is horrible poverty, so it is partly true. Queen Victoria being in mourning for 40 years is not helpful. She wore black from 1861 to 1901, even though she had loved colour before she went into mourning. And of course, photography hasn’t helped. The monochrome photography perpetuated a monochrome view. I think all of these things came together to give a rather distorted view. But actually, something really special happens to colour in the 19th century, there is a whole philosophical change towards colour and the importance of colour. Not just the technological introduction of new colours, but also the use of colour in art.
Evie: How do you think the Victorian colour revolution has impacted us today?
Matthew: Well, the world we live in begins at this point. This is the synthetic revolution that we all live with today. We take bright colour for granted, and we live in a very colourful world. All the colours we’re surrounded with today are synthetic. And of course, once you can synthesise colour you can synthesise perfumes, flavourings, and pharmaceuticals. It all begins at this moment. But also our attitude towards colour, I think, goes back to this time. That slight nervousness about bright colour, about gaudy colour, goes back to this period when colour was democratised. Absolutely, it is the beginning of the modern world we live in today.
Colour Revolution: Victorian Art, Fashion and Design was on display at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford. The exhibition has now ended but you can still watch the exhibition trailer: