Nature's colours: from page to paint
Charles Darwin took a copy of Patrick Syme's book, Werner's Nomenclature of Colours, with him on his Beagle voyage in 1831 and used it to make natural history observations.
The story of Werner's Nomenclature begins in 1774 with a publication by German mineralogist Abraham Gottlob Werner - Von den äußerlichen Kennzeichen der Fossilien (On the External Characteristics of Fossils).
A distinguished geologist and bergmeister (mine manager), Werner attempted to standardise colours according to the minerals he observed.
An original copy of Werner's book is housed in the Library’s Special Collections at the Museum. Library Special Collections Manager, Andrea Hart, explains how Werner's work went on to inspire generations of naturalists.
'This is the original book that started it all off,' says Andrea. 'Werner sought to establish a colour classification system to consistently describe the colours of minerals. Unlike Syme’s eventual adaption, Werner only uses tables for his 54 colours - there are no colour swatches.'
Fast-forward to 1814 and Scottish flower painter Patrick Syme used Werner's work as inspiration to produce his own book, Werner's Nomenclature of Colours. Syme adapted Werner's ideas and expanded on them.
Syme increased the number of colours listed to 108, but in addition to the mineral species where those colours were found in minerals, he also brought in descriptions of where those colours were found in the animal and plant worlds.
Andrea says, 'This is where you get the wonderful names for colours like "Back of Nuthatch" or "Beauty Spot on Wing of Teal Drake". Syme's descriptions of colour are poetic but were also useful.'
Crucially, alongside his vivid descriptions, Syme painstakingly added accompanying painted colour charts.
He went to great lengths to ensure the colours were consistent across copies. Each colour was painted onto a large sheet which was then cut up and the individual swatches were pasted into every book.
This consistency made Syme's work an invaluable guide for artists and for naturalists in the field who could use his standard reference for describing their observations.
Charles Darwin took a copy of Syme's work with him on his Beagle voyage. Darwin described his encounters by directly quoting the colours from Syme's work, making comparisons such as the 'clouds, varying in tint between hyacinth red and chestnut brown'.
In search of true colour
As with many items in the rare books collection, preserving the original colours in works such as Werner's need to be carefully managed.
Andrea explains that, 'Exposure of the volumes to light, as with any of the watercolours in the collection, will over time start making a visible difference and fading may occur.'
This was a challenge when the Museum's publishing team recently produced a facsimile edition of Syme's work. Some pigments used to make the original swatches were unstable, have faded time or have reacted to the chemicals in the paper.
To create the new facsimile publication, two separate copies of Syme's work from the Museum's collections were compared with a third digitized version by the Getty Museum to establish the best possible match. This was then translated into something that could be reproduced and printed using modern methods.
Head of Publishing at the Museum, Colin Zeigler, described it as a 'painstaking process'. He notes that the inevitable changes to the colours over time and the constraints CMYK printing - a modern four colour printing model that uses cyan, magenta, yellow and key (black) - mean that the colours in the Museum's edition are a close approximation to the original.
From page to paint
The original copies of Werner's Nomenclature of Colours that are preserved in the Museum Library have now been given new life as part of a collaboration with Farrow & Ball.
Farrow & Ball worked closely with Andrea, using Syme's work to inspire its new Colour by Nature palette. Head of Creative, Charlotte Cosby, brought a spectrophotometer to the Museum's rare books room to take readings of Syme's colour swatches, carefully selecting 16 colours. Back at its Dorset laboratory, Farrow & Ball's technical experts then worked with the readings to carefully analyse each colour in varying light conditions to perfect the exact formulation and pigment levels throughout.
Each of Colour By Nature’s 16 shades of paint, from Lake Red to Broccoli Brown, maintain Syme's original names and were meticulously drawn from one volume to create the new range.
Andrea says, 'Firstly, this collaboration was a lot of fun. But it's great that our special collections can be used in ways you might not necessarily have thought about before.'
Protecting our collections
The Museum is home to a significant collection of rare books, artworks and manuscripts as well as the Museum Archive. Some of the extraordinary works from these collections can be seen on display in the Images of Nature gallery. The gallery has rotating themes to ensure the precious artworks are never on display for too long.
'In order to protect and preserve the Museum’s collection, we need to regulate and monitor how much exposure and handling each item receives especially when they are on display to ensure that they do not suffer irreparable damage,’ explains Andrea.
This new partnership has also demonstrated how new relevance and purpose can be found in looking to the past and the published scientific record. While Syme's original work will now return again to the collections, his colour charts and legacy will now find new life in homes around the world.