A history of the world in 10 colours

6 MIN READ | by Kassia St Clair on Aug 6, 2020
6 MIN READ | by Kassia St Clair on Aug 6, 2020

Colour expert extraordinaire, Kassia St Clair, tells all about the colourful history of colour. Kassia’s first book, The Secret Lives of Colour, is a top-ten bestseller that was selected as Radio 4′s Book of the Week and has since been translated into over a dozen languages. You can find Kassia’s work in the Economist, Architectural Digest, and TLS; her Elle Decoration colour column has been running since 2013. Here, Kassia talks us through her top 10 colours in history – from sinister ‘mummy brown’ to super luxe gold.


Also going by the names cinnabar and mercury sulphide, vermilion is one of the brightest and lushest reds our early ancestors could get their hands on. It occurs naturally, but rarely. This made it expensive; in the 1st century AD, when it was being transported to Rome, it came under guard. Archaeologists unearthed a jar of it at a pigment shop in Pompeii; nearby, it had been used to decorate a room in the ‘Villa of Mysteries’. 

  1. GOLD

The most coveted metal that has become the embodiment of luxury and success: think of the gold standard, gold medals or golden boys or girls. Does our love for it stem from its reflective surface, its heft or rarity? Perhaps it is the fact that it doesn’t tarnish or the sunny warmth of its colour? Either way, its appeal has a long history. Golden trinkets turn up in the richest of tombs the world over and both alchemists and artists spent centuries trying to recreate its lustre. Gilding the backgrounds of paintings, popular in medieval art, required special craftsmen⁠—goldbeaters⁠—to hammer out gold coins until they were gossamer thin. These would then be applied to a surface and burnished, with a ruby, ideally, until they shone.


This fine, dream-like blue, made from finely ground lapis lazuli was, at times, costlier than gold. So precious was it, and so coveted because of its association with the Virgin Mary, that patrons would sometimes buy the pigment themselves, only handing small amounts to the artists day by day. A synthetic version, created in the 19th century, brought the cost down but didn’t blunt artists’ affection for it. Yves Klein trademarked a mixture of the powdered pigment and a special binder to create his IKB series. To him, this blue was his art.

  1. MUMMY

Egyptian mummies turn up in the unlikeliest of places. Pliny suggested using it, ground fine, as a toothpaste. Catherine de Medici and Francois I of France both used it as a medicine. Once it was a standard in apothecary shops, it was only a small hop for artists to start using it as a pigment. Also known as caput mortum (‘dead man’s head’), this brown pigment could be found on palettes from the 12th to the 20th century. Often artists didn’t even really know that ‘mummy brown’ really was made from mummies and were horrified when they found out. Edward Burne-Jones was so mortified by the discovery that, in 1881, he insisted on giving two tube of pigment a full burial ceremony in his garden in London.

  1. MAUVE

Many of the best pigments were discovered by mistake. Mauve was no different. In 1856 William Henry Perkin, then just 18, was trying to create quinine, a malaria treatment, from coal tar. Instead he created a dull purple dye, the very first aniline dye,  and discovered a whole new branch of chemistry. Numerous other aniline dyes followed⁠—greens, blacks, pinks, reds and yellows⁠—but this discovery also gave the world other chemicals, such as the synthetic musk used in perfumes and one of the ingredients of aspirin. Mauve itself was also wildly popular in Victorian Britain. So popular, in fact, that one satirical magazine quipped in 1859 that Britons were suffering a case of the ‘the mauve measles.’


Although many of us are surrounded by greens⁠—plants, grasses, algaes⁠—good, stable green pigments are, strangely enough, rather rare. This is why there was so much fuss when, in 1775, Carl Wilhelm Scheele, a Swedish chemist created a new pea green pigment that was cheap and easy to make. Soon it was everywhere: in dress fabrics, in wallpapers, artificial flowers and on artists; palettes. J.M.W. Turner used in in 1805. Problems emerged later. In the mid 19th century it was discovered that Scheele’s eponymous green contained large quantities of arsenic. This wonderful green was pure poison.


If pink has, for the past century, been seen as the colour of fairer sex, then shocking pink is surely the poster colour for bad girls. Daisy Fellowes, friend of the Churchills and renowned for the wild parties and even wilder ways in the 1920s and 30s, was a fan. So too were the outrageous newspaper editor Diana Vreeland and surrealist fashion designer Elsa Schiaparelli. It became something of a signature for the latter, who used it in collections and when decorating her home. She called it “Bright, impossible, impudent, becoming and life giving.” It was this colour and she had in mind when creating her first perfume, which came in a bottle shaped like a woman’s torso in an electrifying pink case. The name? ‘Shocking’, naturally.


Is any other colour so redolent of an era, a mindset or a soundtrack as acid yellow? There was something about this hue: bright, subversive, eye-catching and slightly sinister that neatly encapsulated rave culture. Think of the smiley faces emblazoned on album covers of the 1980s. In the decades since, with the rise of emojis and an era of relative stability in the US and UK, acid yellow has lost some of its sour bite. It feels fresh, sunny even. Still, discontent always needs a colour scheme: acid yellow might be due a revival.


In 2009 a team of scientists working at Oregon State University stumbled across the first new blue pigment to be discovered in 200 years. Like mauve, it was the result of a happy accident: they had actually been working on materials with special electronic properties. Somehow, they thought to heat a mixture containing yttrium, indium and manganese together to over a thousand degrees centigrade. What emerged was a powder the colour of a fresh sky on a sunny spring day. YInMn blue⁠—they named it after the elements it contained⁠—has since been approved for commercial use in paint. Find it soon on an artist’s palette near you.


Black, like white, may seem like an absolute but it turns out it itself really a spectrum. At the extreme end⁠—the none more black end⁠—is Vantablack. This material, made from carbon nanotubes, absorbs 99.965% of the visible spectrum, reflecting so little light that it fools your eyes. A surface covered in Vantablack has no depth: spheres look like circles, cubes like squares. Its biggest outing to date was an entire building at the Winter Olympics at Pyeongchang in South Korea, which was then studded with tiny white lights. It was if the building had been transfigured into an otherworldly portal to the night sky.