Protecting the World's Most Precious Colours

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Back in the day, painting a picture wasn't quite so simple as wandering down to the local Hobbycraft for a pack of paint. Sometimes you'd have to cross whole continents for just the right hue.

The rarity of a colour could render it more valuable than gold, and sometimes particular pigments were found from the strangest of sources. Take for example the earthy brown of a thousands of years old mummy, the sepia tones of cuttlefish ink, the toxic yellow of cadmium or white of lead, or the vibrant red of countless crushed beetles.

The association with colour and value often had more than  just aesthetic value. In many societies, the right to wear certain colours were constricted by class and social standing. For example in Roman times 'Tyrian purple' - a pigment lifted from the secretions of sea snails - was restricted for use of only the emperor alone. 'Prophyrogenitus' was the name of an emperor who gained his throne through dynasty rather than force and meant 'born to purple'.
In Early-Modern England Sumptury laws were common practice and held harsh punishments, especially in Elizabethan times when the new rising middle class merchants often almost bankrupted themselves in the expense of posing in rich colours in order to performatively elevate their own status. For men, the law forbade:

"Cloth of gold, silver, tinseled satin, silk, or cloth mixed or embroidered with any gold or silver: except all degrees above viscounts, and viscounts, barons, and other persons of like degree, in doublets, jerkins, linings of cloaks, gowns, and hose.
Woolen cloth made out of the realm, but in caps only; velvet, crimson, or scarlet; furs, black genets, lucernes; embroidery or tailor's work having gold or silver or pearl therein: except dukes, marquises, earls, and their children, viscounts, barons, and knights being companions of the Garter, or any person being of the Privy Council.

Velvet in gowns, coats, or other uttermost garments; fur of leopards; embroidery with any silk: except men of the degrees above mentioned, barons' sons, knights and gentlemen in ordinary office attendant upon her majesty's person, and such as have been employed in embassages to foreign princes."

Deep blues, purples, crimson, gold and silver were all met with a critical eye, as their wear allowed people's position in society to be identified at a glance. If you were a common man or woman you were permitted to wear brown, beige, yellow, orange, russet, green, grey and a particular blue that was not deep indigo, but was instead the blue created by dying with traditional woad. You can find the full breadth of restrictions for Elizabethan men in a handy table here. 

The library of pigments of course form a fantastic historical record that both emcompases art and sociology and are vital to have as a reference for ageing and identifying historical paintings and their costly forgeries. In Harvard, there is a library dedicated to the preservation of these unique pigments, stored in rainbows of vials as a testament to the enduring value we put on creative expression.

What is your favourite colour? And, perhaps more interestingly, where does it come from?
[ Clearly I have expensive and rather royal tastes: my favourite pigments are always warm red-spectrum purples ;)  ]


-SophieandHerKind for the original post on tumblr that led me to the article.

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