Werner, Syme & Darwin

Nijhuis-The-Book-That-Colored-Charles-Darwins-World-Secondary-Featured

In his nearly five years aboard H.M.S. Beagle, Charles Darwin catalogued a dizzying array of new creatures. But how to show them to the people back home? Illustration by R. Fresson

9781588346216

It is a fine way to start a new week, thinking of a young person setting sail, and to narrow the focus of that thought, consider color.  We appreciate the notice by Michelle Nijhuis in the current issue of the New Yorker magazine about the upcoming re-issuing of this book, and her comment about it is welcome. Less welcome is the fact that if you click on her link to the book, or search on the title of the book with a fresh search, you will be directed to Amazon. At least if you are searching from the USA. Even from a USA-based search you can find alternatives, but from sources in places such as this excellent shop in the UK, or this one in Scandinavia. With that in mind, if the review below makes you think about purchasing the book, please consider clicking the image to the left which will link you to a bookstore in the USA that is offering it for pre-sale. Either way, enjoy this for now:

The Book That Colored Charles Darwin’s World

“I had been struck by the beautiful colour of the sea when seen through the chinks of a straw hat,” Charles Darwin wrote, in late March, 1832, as H.M.S. Beagle threaded its way through the Abrolhos Shoals, off the Brazilian coast. The water, he wrote, was “Indigo with a little Azure blue,” while the sky above was “Berlin with [a] little Ultra marine.”

Nomen1Darwin, then twenty-three, was only three months into the nearly five-year adventure that would transform his life and, eventually, the way that humans saw themselves and other species. As the voyage’s so-called scientific person, he would collect masses of rocks, fossils, animals, and plants, periodically shipping his specimens to Cambridge in containers ranging from barrels to pillboxes. Like other naturalists of his time, though, his primary documentary tool was the written word, and during the voyage he drew many of his words from a slim volume called “Werner’s Nomenclature of Colours,” published in 1814 by the Scottish artist Patrick Syme.

Nomen2Syme’s guide, a facsimile of which will be released in early February by Smithsonian Books, contains samples, names, and descriptions of a hundred and ten colors, ranging from Snow White to Asparagus Green to Arterial Blood Red to, finally, Blackish Brown. Based on a color-naming system developed in the late eighteenth century by the German mineralogist Abraham Werner, the guide is full of geological comparisons: Grayish White is likened to granular limestone, Brownish Orange to Brazilian topaz. Syme, a flower painter and art teacher, added comparisons from the living world. To Werner’s eyes, the Berlin Blue that Darwin saw in the Atlantic sky resembled a sapphire; to Syme, the wing feathers of a jay.

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Courtesy Smithsonian Books

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Courtesy Smithsonian Books

Darwin said that he always named the colors he saw “with the book in hand,” and, indeed, Syme’s terms are scattered throughout the diaries and notebooks that he filled while aboard the Beagle. Darwin describes cuttlefish as tinted with “hyacinth red and chestnut brown,” a sea slug as “primrose yellow,” and a type of soft coral as “light auricular purple.” Specimens could degrade, paintings could fade, and color photography was still a far-off dream, but with Syme’s help Darwin could encode the colors of an unfamiliar world—and carry them safely home. When his “Journal of Researches” (now known as “The Voyage of the Beagle”) was published, in 1839, one reviewer called Darwin “a first-rate landscape-painter with the pen.”

Syme’s guide was only one of the charts, wheels, and other color taxonomies that proliferated in nineteenth-century Europe. Produced mainly by artists and naturalists, they were intended to establish a standard set of labels for the visible spectrum, stabilizing the correspondence between what Tanya Kelley, a professor of languages at the University of Missouri–Kansas City, has called “word and world.” In some ways, these taxonomies only complicated human communication about color, greatly expanding the number of named colors and creating a multitude of conflicting categories. But, as Darwin found, they also allowed colors observed in one place to be reliably reproduced in another, and they drew attention to surprising similarities. Syme points out, for instance, that the spots on a tiger moth’s wings are the same shade of reddish black as the “Breast of [a] Pochard Duck.” The ultramarine blue that Darwin recorded on the Abrolhos Shoals is found not only in the wings of the heath butterfly but also in borage flowers and lapis-lazuli stones…

Read the whole article here.

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