Werner’s Nomenclature of Colours (1814)

Go to your local DIY store and the paints will no doubt carry strange names: Tawny Day Lily, Meadow Mist, Candied Yam, Marshmallow Bunny, to name but a few. As Daniel Harris points out in Cabinet magazine, paint names developed their own poetic style and, like a certain tradition of lyric poetry they make reference to nature to express mood or atmosphere. Likewise, Werner’s Nomenclature of Colour (first published in 1814) constructs a system or taxonomy for the classification of colour with reference to things in the natural world, (rather than to objects of everyday artifice, as with the work of Emily Noyes Vanderpoel). And though the goal is to primarily enable a scientific structure of identification, rather than evoke mood, the end product can't help but veer to the poetic.

The book is based on the work of the German geologist Abraham Gottlob Werner who, in his 1774 book Treatise on the External Characters of Fossils (translated into English in 1805), developed a nomenclature of colours so as to offer a standard with which to describe the visual characteristics of minerals. Clearly taken by the idea, some three decades later the Scottish painter of flowers Patrick Syme amended and extended Werner's system. In addition to the mineral referent, for each of Werner's colours Syme added an example from the animal and vegetable kingdom, as well as providing an actual patch of colour on the page to accompany the words. While Werner found a suite of 79 tints enough for his geological purpose, now opened up to other realms of nature, Syme added 31 extra colours to bring the total to 110.

With Syme's new reference categories there's born a whole new world of relationships between disparate aspects of nature, encounters dictated solely by colour. For example, for "skimmed-milk white" we have the white of the human eyeballs (animal), the back of the petals of blue hepatica (vegetable), and common opal (mineral); for "lavender purple" we have "the light parts of spots of on the under wings of Peacock Butterfly" (animal), "dried lavender flowers" (vegetable), and "porcelain jasper" (mineral). Wonderfully odd monochrome tableaux are conjured: upon a crop of calamine a bed of straw in which sits a polar bear; or the style of an Orange Lily encrusted with Brazilian topaz and the eyes of the largest flesh fly.

Syme’s confidence in obscure references to the natural world came from an obsession with taxonomies at the time, a line developed from Carl Linnaeus to Charles Darwin (who made use of Werner’s Nomenclature on the Beagle). Such people often relied on a network of collectors and explorers, those obsessed with ordering and categorizing, pinning down butterflies and stuffing birds. In an age of mass digital reproduction, the pinning down of colour is perhaps as difficult as ever. It might be easier to turn to Pantone though, rather than Abraham Gottlob Werner.

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