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Colour Revolution: A sparkling ride through the Victorian world

By Theresa Thompson, Timeless Travels' Art Correspondent

Ramon Casas (1866–1932), A Decadent young woman, After the dance, 1899. Museu do Montserrat, Barcelona

From sepia-filled gloom to joyous colour, the Ashmolean Museum’s major autumn exhibition takes us on a sparkling ride through the Victorian world to “dispel the myth that the Victorian era was a dreary landscape of ‘dark satanic mills’ and cities choked with smog.”

The opening gallery is dark, chiming with our preconceptions of the era. Reproduced on the wall is French illustrator Gustav Doré’s 1872 engraving of the London slums. That, and the quote above it from Dickens’ Hard Times sets the scene, speaking of smoke and chimneys and ashes, a black canal and a river that ran purple with evil-smelling dye.

Displayed opposite is Queen Victoria’s black silk mourning dress from 1900 - on loan from the Royal Collection – perhaps embodying the era in the popular imagination as dreary, sombre and serious. Victoria wore black for 40 years following the death of her beloved Prince Albert in 1861.

Yet the coal that was responsible for Britain’s soot-blackened and smog-choked cityscapes also had the power to spark the colour revolution explored in this show. The “evil-smelling purple dye” that ran in those rivers was a by-product of coal-tar.

Day dress, English, late-1860s, aniline dyed silk and glass beads, Manchester Art Gallery

The electric purple colour of a day dress from the late 1860s, seen later in the show, still has the power to astonish – and not only because it once belonged to a Baptist minister’s daughter. Its extraordinary colour came from the new aniline dye “Mauvine”, a commercial synthetic colour created from a chemical extracted from coal tar.

Up till then, brightly coloured textiles were the preserve of the wealthy and powerful in society, and markers of status. But in 1856, a young chemistry student by the name of William Henry Perkin made the surprise discovery of aniline purple, a vivid violet colour left over from the sticky black effluent when coal was converted into gas (used for lighting), while he was trying to produce artificial quinine (to treat malaria). Initially thought to be of no use and often dumped into rivers, Perkin recognised its commercial potential. Very soon, Mauvine was the colour du jour. So much so that in 1858 Punch dubbed the craze that was gripping Britain, the “Mauve measles”.

A rainbow of colour possibilities arose within Victorian wardrobes – across the whole spectrum of society – for as production increased, the price of dyes reduced, making bright colours available to all. Racy dyed stockings and underwear became fashionable; new steel-hooped crinoline petticoats gave glimpses of ankles clad in bold pink, blue or purple stockings or shoes. Men were not immune to this ‘measles’; within the confines of their own homes, men indulged in colourful smoking jackets and slippers, despite men’s tailoring on the whole growing more conservative over the course of the 19th century.

It was a “seismic revolution in the dye industry that had started the previous decade,” says exhibition co-curator Matthew Winterbottom. Chemists across Europe rapidly added to the synthetic colour palette. Likewise, Perkin in 1867 making alizarin, the active colorant of madder root, a traditional vegetable dye for reds, pinks and browns.

In a very short time, new anilines were being used to print postage stamps, make inks, pigments, paints, colour paper and even food, as well as fashion.

But the exhibition is by no means confined to fashion. The 140 objects on show from international collections range from paintings such as John Ruskin’s exquisite watercolour studies, to Turner and Whistler’s experiments with colour harmony, and colour theory charts, to Morris & Co.’s elaborate designs, flamboyant jewellery (some pretty grisly), and homeware that would enliven the streets and homes of Victorian Britain and Europe.

The Great Bookcase, 1859-62, designed by William Burges (1827-81), Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford

The 1862 International Exhibition in London was the highpoint of the Victorian Colour Revolution, writes Winterbottom in the very readable exhibition book. Colour was everywhere, from the building to the displays, even on the visitors themselves thanks to the newly invented coal-tar dyes. The Ashmolean’s lavishly decorated Great Bookcase designed by the architect William Burges (1827–81) was the centrepiece of the Exhibition’s Medieval Court. At three meters high, the bookcase echoes the polychrome porch of a Gothic cathedral, and was painted by thirteen promising young artists, including Edward Burne-Jones (1833–98) and Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-82).

Revivalist and Pre-Raphaelite artists such as these were working in the context of rapid scientific progress and the popularisation of new scientific ideas by figures like Charles Darwin (1809-82), for whom beauty and colour in the natural world had an evolutionary function.

A small highlight in this section of the show for me was to see a copy of Werner’s Nomenclature of Colours, 1814, a book I knew Darwin had taken with him on the 1832 Beagle voyage. This colour classification system of hand painted swatches set against examples in nature not only made colour comparisons possible for scientific fieldwork, but also enlivened the prose poetically, with water described, for example, as ‘emerald green’ or yellow as canary, primrose or sulphur. That voyage took Darwin to the Galapagos Islands where he was able to observe animals and birds that had evolved in isolated environments, observations that led him to his famous theory of natural selection.

Unfortunately, Darwin’s concept of natural selection and the use of colour in the animal kingdom inadvertently led to particularly gruesome Victorian appetites for some of nature’s most beautiful animals, beetles and hummingbirds among them, as adornments. Not only were feathers of birds like peacocks used in millinery and such like, but whole bird and beetle bodies were incorporated into Victorian fashion.

A Hummingbird necklace (1865) on display, made of seven decapitated emerald and ruby-topaz birds, was a coveted design by jeweller, Harry Emmanuel. As the craze for hummingbird embellishments grew, during one week in 1888, 400,000 ‘skins’ were auctioned; the following week a mere 370,000. And in 1884, the Portuguese ambassador to London presented Foreign Secretary Lord Granville with a piece of jewellery made of the bodies of 46 iridescent green South American weevils. Granville had these mounted on a tiara and necklace (1885) for his wife.

Lady Granville’s beetle parure and case, 1884–5. British Museum, London

There was a human cost too to colourful fashion: for instance, in 1862 a factory girl making artificial flowers for women’s headdresses died from poisoning. The killer was arsenic - the main ingredient of the new green dye.

In the final room of this lively wide-ranging exhibition, the focus is on green and yellow, the ‘unnatural’ colours embraced by the late 19th century ‘Decadent’ movement, whose aesthetic ideology was of excess and artificiality. So, we see the dyed-green carnation sported by Oscar Wilde, examples of the racy avant-garde periodical, The Yellow Book that appeared in London in 1894, and the poster girl of the show: a young woman portrayed collapsed on a sofa, languidly holding one of those risqué books, in Ramon Casas’ (1866-1932) stunning A Decadent young woman, After the dance, 1899.

Mr Matthew Winterbottom, Curator of Sculpture and Decorative Arts and Exhibition Curator, Ashmolean Museum, says: ‘This exhibition aims to be a joyous and surprising tour through a period of history that has been misunderstood as bleak or black and white. The Victorian colour revolution made a radical impact on the lives of everyday people throughout Europe and beyond; and this is a chance to see some the 19th century’s most colourful and spectacular works of art, fashion and design.’


COLOUR REVOLUTION. Victorian Art, Fashion & Design.

Ashmolean Museum, Oxford

Showing until: 18 February 2024


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