Anyone who’s picked up a Farrow & Ball colour card over the past two decades will be familiar with the diversity of its colour names and stories. From old Dorset dialect words to families of plants, the sands of the Hamptons to the colourful powders of Holi festival, our colour creators’ inspiration can – and does – spring from anywhere.
So for our new collection to be entirely inspired not just by one place, but by a single object, is rare indeed. That object is Werner’s Nomenclature of Colours, the classification of colour in nature that helped Charles Darwin describe his findings on the 1831–36 voyage of HMS Beagle. More specifically, it’s the early copy of the text that sits in the rare book library of the Natural History Museum, co-creators of our new paint collection, Colour by Nature. To tell us more about this remarkable volume, we sat down with Andrea Hart, Head of Special Collections at the library.
The Farrow & Ball palette with Werner's original blues
Tell us about Werner’s Nomenclature of Colours – what is it that makes it so special?
The story of Werner’s Nomenclature starts in 1774 with a publication by influential German mineralogist Abraham Gottlob Werner, who sought to establish a classification system for the colours of minerals. Scottish painter Patrick Syme built off this original work, adding animal and vegetable examples and creating the text that’s still loved by scientists and artists today.
Previous colour charts had been designed for artists, while Syme’s publication established a standardised and common colour terminology that was designed to be portable for scientific fieldwork. It was most famously used by Charles Darwin on the 1831–36 voyage of HMS Beagle.
It’s also the charm of Werner’s Nomenclature that makes it so special, from its poetic names to the care taken in its preparation. Syme committed much time to ensuring his colour mixtures were stable, with each painted onto a sheet which was then cut up and the individual swatches pasted into every book for consistency.
Do you have a personal favourite colour in Werner’s Nomenclature?
I like the references used for Skimmed Milk White – the White of the Human Eyeballs, Back of the Petals of Blue Hepatica and Common Opal – as they’re such a diverse but instantly relatable selection of objects. My favourite colour would have to be Orpiment Orange, as it reminds me of the psychedelic carpet in the Library!
What other exciting items have you encountered as Head of Special Collections?
Oh gosh, there are too many to list! From my collections, there’s artwork from Captain Cook’s voyages and our oldest book – Pliny’s Naturalis Historia, which was published in 1469 – but there are some fascinating items in the specimen collections too. There’s a penguin egg collected by Apsley Cherry-Garrard from the Terra Nova expedition, and a giant dung beetle that spent its entire life from egg to adult entombed inside a ball of elephant dung that had been caked in wet mud and baked into clay. More recently, I found myself standing next to one of the rib bones of Hope, the blue whale suspended in the Museum’s Hintze Hall, which was not only a very exciting but a most humbling experience.
Take us through a day in the life of a curator – what’s it like working with the Special Collections?
During the considerable time I’ve worked with the Special Collections, it’s been very rare for any two days to be the same. The Museum Library contains some of the Museum’s most treasured items, from rare books, manuscripts and artwork to the official archives that document its history. My primary responsibility is the preservation and care of the collections, as well as their management, access, promotion and development.
Ultimately, it’s about sharing and interpreting what is held within the collections so that everyone can be inspired about the natural world. Even though I’ve worked with the collections for such a long time, I remain in awe of them and their continued relevance to the world. I can open up volumes and still have my breath taken away.
What role does a resource like Werner’s Nomenclature play in a world where images can be captured in an instant? Can we still learn from it?
I think there are many roles a resource like Werner’s Nomenclature can play both as a visual and physical historical entity, It functions as a lens to the past, helping us to understand and place in perspective how we arrived at where we are today and how much dedication and research is still required, even with all of our technological advances. The standardisation of colour also remains just as important today as it was in Werner’s time, along with our long-standing relationship with nature and how we continue to use and be inspired by it on a daily basis.
We’re encouraging others to head outdoors and find their favourite examples of colour in nature. Do you have any tips for them?
My daughter arrived home from school the other day with a rose petal, which she’d collected because of the incredible gradation of colour from hot pink through to dark red – sometimes it’s just a question of taking a closer look, and once you start looking, you find the sheer diversity of colour everywhere.
You could set yourself a challenge to see how many shades of a particular colour you can find – famed natural history artists the Bauer brothers had 200 shades of green in their palette. Another challenge might be to find something that is naturally blue (not including the sky or water!) as it’s one of the rarest colours in nature. For a real challenge, take a copy of Werner’s book and see how many colour matches you can make from the pages – perhaps even have a go at making up some new colour names!