Review: The Secret Lives of Colour

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For regular readers of the blog, it will come as no surprise when I say I really, really like colours. I like looking at them, playing with them, making them and stumbling upon which combinations come together to make something even more exciting than their constituent parts. It probably also comes as no surprise then, that when I saw Kassia St Clair’s ‘The Secret Lives of Colour’, I felt as though someone had written a book just for me.

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The Secret Lives of Colour’ is beautiful design meets light and easy prose. Even the cover, with a touch of debossing on all the coloured spots, is a touch of art and the book doesn’t disappoint when you dive in either. The book is based on the author’s weekly column on colour at Elle Decoration magazine, which is perfect inspiration for all of you that aspire to create homes that look like no one lives in them, and is a gentle meander through the history, philosophy, science and linguistics of lots and lots of different colours.

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The book begins with a little tidbit on how we see and what colours actually are. The science behind the different interactions of dyes and pigments with light is actually very cool, and Kassia St Clair touches ever so briefly on this (in a very simplified way!) as well as how this information is processed by the cellular machinery in our eyes and brain. This is followed with a small discussion on the history and language of colour, which raises some interesting points such as the ancient Greeks not actually having a word for ‘blue’ and the implications of how the absence or presence of these descriptive words in a language shaped the perceptions of colours and the world at the time.

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Each individual chapter in the ‘prelude’ is at most two pages long, so everything is incredibly light on the details but they are all full of these delightful titbits of knowledge that make it an interesting read. It’s hard not to enjoy flitting between discussion on ancient Greek to modern Korean and Rennell-Bellona, a language with only 4000 speakers.  However, if all of this doesn’t leave you feeling a bit dizzy, it will leave you wanting a bit more sustenance…

The Colours

The bulk of the book is devoted to discussing the members of 10 different colour families. In a charming piece of design, the margin of each page is coloured to match the subject, so don’t worry if you’re not confident differentiating your orchils from your heliotropes. Each family of colours is separated by two blank pages, showing a gradient composed of all the upcoming members in all their glory. The layout is a stroke of genius and each colour only has one or two pages of accompanying text, making it a perfect book to pick up when you only have a few minutes.

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For being so sparse on words, Kassia St Clair’s prose does take you on some rich adventures. While her use of words like Brobdingnagian might veer a bit too much into purple prose territory for some, I enjoyed her liberal lashings of everything obscure the English language had to offer. With each colour comes a related story, perhaps how it was used in a piece of art, the tale of the chemist who first brought the colour to life, or even how the colour’s name came into being. It’s an impressively diverse dash through history and a thousand other topics and St Clair injects some light humour throughout. I particularly enjoyed one sentence recounting the disintegration of many of the traditions forbidding purple clothing following William Perkin’s creation of the aniline dye we associate with mauve. ‘Familiarity bred contempt, and purple became a colour much like any other’.

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Many of the colours described in the book are artists pigments and there are some great, vivid descriptions of all the assorted stenches and dangers associated with their creation. Art history enthusiasts will no doubt enjoy St Clair’s description of one of the subjects in the Arnolfini Portrait with ‘fishy eyes and looks a little like Vladimir Putin’ and the following speculation as to what the event captured in the painting might be. You can tell I read too much academic literature because sometimes St Clair veers dangerously close to entangling history and supposition in a way that could be a little misleading for the reader, all in the name of creating good prose. This is clearly not intended as a serious academic text, and I don’t have enough expertise on the history side to confirm if many of the events described are indeed accurate but my inner scientist didn’t have too many alarm bells ringing, except a horrible typo on one chemical formula…

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The Secret Lives of Colour’ is a lovely book, both aesthetically and with the digestible, easy prose and St Clair’s talent for breathing life into all sorts of historical tales. My one criticism is that a lot of the advertised 320 page is filler and fluff. By the time you account for all the pretty pages, the index and the bibliography and further reading, you’re left with about 241 pages of written content. I certainly don’t begrudge the references page as I’m sure I’ll end up taking a look at some of the titles listed there but I enjoyed the tales so much that I just wanted more!

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It’s a very accessible book with widespread appeal, owing to the plethora of topics it covers. I’d be very impressed if there was anyone who could honestly say they didn’t learn a new fact or two and I hope it has been as carefully researched as a I suspect it has. Klassia St Clair’s writing is just plain fun and I’m very curious to read her new book ‘The Golden Thread: How Fabric Changed History’ which was released just last month. If you’re after a bright and breezy read and have even the most passing of interests in colours or art, I’d say ‘The Secret Lives of Colour’ is a great book for you.


Author: Kassia St Clair

Publisher: John Murray

Edition: Hardback, October 2016

Dimensions: 24.5 x 14.2 x 2.5 cm

Pages: 320

10 thoughts on “Review: The Secret Lives of Colour

  1. Thank you for this review. It sounds like a great book, and as someone who would like to learn more about colour I’m sure I would get a lot out of it. The new book sounds interesting too. And just in time for Christmas!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I thought of you and your art when I was reading about all the stories of crushing up pigments and making oils. Your recent post was really interesting – I think you would have enjoyed the section of the book on one of the pinks that they used to use for prisons as apparently it reduced aggression! (It’s such a horrible shade of pink that it probably induced despair instead…)


  2. Ooh, I think this is now going to be added to my ‘to read’ pile! Colour fascinates me, I have a 30 year old book just called Colour and I can still dip in and out of it. This book sounds a lot more readable too.

    Liked by 1 person

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