A Striped Armchair, I knew it was one I would have to hunt down and read immediately. You see, I have a thing for colour. I am not an artist but colour lights up something in my brain; when I lived with my parents and felt sad, I would go and lie in the bright yellow hallway and feel instantly better. Colours can change my emotions and make me feel different things, calm me down, cheer me up or soothe me. A whole book about the history of colours and how they are made sounded perfect.
Colour is part travel, part history. Finlay has divided the book according to the rainbow and investigates how each colour was made in the time before synthetic colours. Where possible, she visits countries of traditional production and learns how to make these colours herself and also about how colour production changed societies and cultures. Finlay writes about why certain colours are given a high status (e.g. purple as the colour of royalty), compares how the same colours were made in different countries and why some became prized over others.
I really enjoyed Colour. Finlay is an engaging writer who is fascinated by her subject matter and this comes across on the page. Finding out how colours were made was truly compelling as I had no idea that humans were so inventive. From sea snails to animal bones to bug blood to precious stones, there seems to be nothing colourful in nature that was not exploited for paint or dye at some time in history. I was fascinated with the complicated process of making colour, of how you go from a rock of lapis lazuli to a blue oil paint and how artists used to make their own colours and tones according to what they wanted to paint. Colour had power in history and there are plenty of accounts of countries and places become rich by making a fade-resistant paint that could be exported. Finlay does a good job of explaining how these colours then became exulted and held up by society, part of the fabric of life.
Although I enjoyed the travel sections, where Finlay meets people living where colours were made in the past and discusses the legacy of colour with them, these sections took a backseat for me to the sections about actually making the paint or dye itself. I would also have liked to learn more about modern paint making, about how many of the traditional colour sources are still used, and how the transition was made from natural to artificial colours. Finlay clearly feels like something has been lost as we're forgetting the secrets of natural colours and I couldn't help but agree with her. I'd be interested to see a modern paint-making factory to investigate how different things really are (I know you can still buy some traditional colours).
All in all, an absorbing and well written non-fiction book that I'm happy I picked up. I'd recommend it to anyone who enjoys travel or history, or anyone who has ever mixed their own colours using a watercolour set.
First Published: 2002
Score: 4 out of 5