Issue 4.1 (2018)

Preface by Guest Editors Jade Boyd and Dr Liz Renes

“Generally speaking, colour is a power which directly influences the soul.

Colour is the keyboard, the eyes are the hammers, the soul is the piano with many strings.”

- Wassily Kandinsky, Concerning the Spiritual in Art (1911)

Colour is, at its core, a biological and natural element: a wavelength of light. Omniscient and all pervasive, it is a key component of the natural world, influencing migration and mating patterns, our instinctual language towards food and survival, and stimulating the pleasure sense in the beauty of dawns, dusk, flora, and fauna. Colour’s broad-reaching complexity in nature, however, also belies an equally long-standing complexity with how civilisation and culture have tried to comprehend, mould and interpret colour. 

Early cultural attempts to understand colour initially placed its importance within framed binaries. While ancient Classical cultures embraced colour, often practicing sculptural polychromy, their language focused on concepts of hue, contrast, and brightness, while also arguing that colour held subservience to the ‘masculine’ and ‘moral’ authority of line. Known as the Aristotelean debate of disegno versus colore, colour’s separation from other aspects of art continued well into the Renaissance, with Italian artists using their preferences for colour as indicative of certain regional nationalisms – Venice for colour, Rome for line.

These discrete battles lines held firm throughout centuries and cultures, even reaching into debates of the late Victorian period. Renewed interest in the colour of ancient sculpture by Johann Winkelmann, John Ruskin, and Walter Pater saw Classicists again asserting that even Homer placed little importance on colour in his writings, going so far as to allude to a primitive ‘colour-blindness’. Prime Minister William Gladstone in his Studies on Homer and the Homeric Age (1858), pushed back against this notion of the ‘primitive’ by arguing for simply a difference in the cultural value of colours attributes, with contrast and brilliance providing more symbolic significance than it does to a contemporary audience. [1]

The ‘danger’ of colour, and its association with what many considered archaic or decadent cultures, contributed to nineteenth-century debates on colour’s morality and thus its contemporary symbolic significance. Critic and colour theorist Charles Blanc continued to perpetuate colour as corrupt, ‘primitive’ and both cosmetic and dangerous, demonstrating what artist and critic David Batchelor identifies as chromophobia, or a ‘fear and loathing’ of colour.[2] Batchelor suggests that in The Grammar of Painting and Engraving (1867) Blanc portrays colour as ‘a permanent internal threat’ which represented a ‘mythical savage state’ and the potential for another fall from paradise; it had to be ‘controlled and subordinated’.[3]

In his pivotal study Colour and Meaning (1999), art historian John Gage traces the historical reception of colour and comments on this trend of what he refers to as a ‘disdain’ for colour.[4] He identifies in particular a preoccupation with the monochrome in both the reproduction of the visual arts, such as the black-and-white engravings Charles Darwin used in Descent of Man (1871), and in sculpture, a trope which dates back to the Renaissance and which he suggests arises from the erroneous assumption that ancient Greek sculpture was originally white. Gage also draws our attention to the social aspects of this denigration of colour, noting that in some Oriental and European cultures ‘a disdain for colour has been seen as a mark of refinement and distinction’, a correlation which was fomented by the association between black clothing, wealth and nobility during the Renaissance period.[5]

Whilst these attitudes towards colour have by no means been eradicated – in his 2000 study Batchelor examines the continued preoccupation with material whiteness in Western culture – new schools of thought also began to emerge that rejected colour’s existence as both binary and subservient or corrupt. An emerging appreciation and understanding of colour in a broader spectrum, as signposted by Gladstone – or indicated by the ‘wheel’, as Isaac Newton theorised in his studies in the late 1660s – had a number of important ramifications. An increased scientific awareness of colour and its centrality in light and optics placed it within the realm of the natural, as opposed the decadent or debased, while also serving to extract colour from confined symbolic narratives. Essayist and physician Havelock Ellis suggested in 1896 that the question of the shifting perceptions of colour’s value belongs ‘not to the region of physiology, but to that of philology and aesthetics’, opening the way for studies of colour in new fields.[6] Spectrum is a word that widens, increases and expands colour, allowing it to be embraced in other aspects of contemporary culture.

Wassily Kandinsky’s reading of colour in his 1911 essay shows an appreciation for this new expressive capacity of colour, freeing it from a merely superficial or representational function. Colour perception, according to Kandinsky, is ‘the starting point of a whole chain of related sensations’ and affects us both physically and psychologically.[7] A famous synaesthete, where colour becomes mingled with the non-visual senses, Kandinsky’s essay provides a pertinent parallel with the different ways of ‘seeing’ colour in this issue.  Indeed, colour is a deeply embodied and intersensory experience which stirs us psychologically: ‘colour awakens a corresponding physical sensation, which undoubtedly works upon the soul’.[8] For Kandinsky, the experience of colour is a spiritual one, a powerfully affective chromatic echo which moves us at a precognitive level.

About this edition

‘Chromatography’ traces this affective power of colour: the ways in which colours stir us, the individual and subjective experience of seeing colour and the importance we place in colour symbolism on a cultural level. Starting as far back as the early Greeks, whose categorisation of colour influenced intellectual and psychological debates on visual aesthetics for centuries, Yukiko Saito’s article will look to challenge perceptions of Classical binaries and ‘brightness’ through analysis of the text in Homer’s The Illiad.

Shifting from logic to belief, our articles will also explore colour as an embodied and affective force which shapes the ways in which we see the world and forms our social practices. Two articles in our collection will explore the idea of colour and faith, in its use in funerary customs and religious festivals. In her work on Romano-British grave traditions, Chloe Clark finds evidence of highly localised and independent colour choices in bead samples from Lankhills Cemetery and the Eastern Cemetery of Roman London, and offers some engaging conclusions on colour symbolism and Romano-British funerary practices. Alexandra Lee’s article focuses on the white ‘uniform’ of the Bianchi devotions in Medieval Italy, finding equally significant variation and regional diversity, tracing the symbolic links between whiteness and divinity and problematizing the wearing of white, including the effects of the physicality of the journey on white cloth.

With the emergence of the age of Enlightenment, Andy Hahn’s article on Isaac Newton and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s colour experiments and theories establishes a new branch for our understanding of colour – as an element of light, optics and space. Placing colour into the realm of the sciences universalises colour, centring it within the optical sense and making it accessible to any sighted person. Linking colour with vision paves the way for later experiments in synaesthesia, or the smelling, hearing and tasting of colour, an aspect explored in Jodie Miller’s reading of synaesthesia and otherness in Afro-German writer Sharon Dodua Otoo’s novel Synchronicity (2014).

The creative pieces in this edition serve to support the idea of the omniscience of colour, exploring it through art and literature, and through the processes of naming, making and seeing. Gretchen Fletcher takes us to the root of colour, imagining in ‘The Evolution of Color’ how an unseen deity brought colour into being, playfully mixing and melting colours to form the hue of grapes, leaves and fire.

A response to aesthetic colour – particularly its use by certain artists such as Frida Kahlo, Yves Klein, Henri Matisse and Vincent Van Gogh – is a commonality that runs through many of our chosen poems, as authors such as Sarah Brown Weitzman, Lennie Hay and Sam Moore try to mediate their visual and emotional responses through verbal expression. Priscilla Long continues the interdisciplinary idea of colour, as her poem ‘Blues Factory’ playfully cycles through our many words for the colour blue, weaving together categorisation as well as creative expression. In our prose works, both Miriam Huxley and Susan Weaver consider the ways in which human creativity explores colour, through the process of making and unmaking.  Huxley’s ‘Felix: An Artist’ takes us back to the turbulent explosion of energy in nineteenth-century Paris, as painters sought after the chemical greens of absinthe to inspire the blues, reds and yellows of their canvases, while Weaver’s ‘Earth and Fire’ finds inspiration in the firing and forming of clay, as one artist responds to the making of another.

Through both an exploration of colour as embodied and meaningful and creative responses to this phenomenon, this issue brings colour back to the fore and extracts it from purely metaphorical or superficial contexts. Chromatography re-frames colour as central to our bodily experiences of the world and the societies we live in as our contributors chart the scientific, ritualistic and biological facets of the colour experience and capture the affective capacity of colour in poetry and prose, providing critical and creative responses to the long-debated, problematic and ambivalent status of colour.



[1] W.E. Gladstone, Studies on Homer and the Homeric Age (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1858), pp. 457-499. Gladstone also addressed the controversy over his interpretations of Homer and colour in ‘The Colour Sense’, Nineteenth Century 2 (1877), 366-388.

[2] David Batchelor, Chromophobia (London: Reaktion Books, 2000), p. 22.

[3] Batchelor, p. 23.

[4] John Gage, Colour and Meaning: Art, Science and Symbolism (London: Thames and Hudson, 1999), p. 30.

[5] Gage, p. 31.

[6] Havelock Ellis, The Colour-Sense in Literature (London: Ulysses Book Shop, 1931), p. 6.

[7] Wassily Kandinsky, Concerning the Spiritual in Art, trans. by M. T. H. Sadler (New York: Dover, 1977), p. 23.

[8] Kandinsky, p. 24.



Alexandra Lee, Dressing in White for the Bianchi Devotions of 1399 [pp. 7-22]

Andre Michael Hahn, The Colours of Place and Space: Analogy Networks in Newton’s and Geothe’s Scientific Practices and Theories [pp. 23-42]

Chloe Clark, Focusing on Colour: Colour Patterns and Symbolism Within Bead Assemblages from Romano-British Grave Goods [pp. 43-65]

Jodie Miller, Analysing a Synesthetic ‘In-Betweenness’ in an Afro-German Content through Magical Realism in Sharon Dodua Otoo’s Synchronicity [pp.66-80]

Yukiko Saito, Some Remarks on Brightness in Homer’s Illiad [pp. 81-99]

Creative Pieces

Gretchen Fletcher, The Evolution of Colour [pp. 100-101]

Lennie Hay, In the Gallery with Frida Kahlo [pp. 102-103]

Miriam Huxley, Felix: An Artist [pp. 104-110]

Priscilla Long, Blues Factory and Matisse’s Radiance [pp. 111-113]

Sam Moore, Yves Klein Blue [pp.114-115]

Sarah Brown Weitzman, Vincent’s Yellow and Abandoning Green [pp. 116 - 118]

Susan Weaver, Earth and Fire [pp. 118-120]

Alexandra Lee
Alexandra Lee

Dressing in White for the Bianchi Devotions of 1399

Andy Hahn
Andy Hahn

The Colours of Place & Space: Analogy Networks in Newton’s and Geothe’s Scientific Practices and Theories

Chloe Clark
Chloe Clark

Focusing on Colour: Colour Patterns and Symbolism Within Bead Assemblages from Romano-British Grave Goods

Jodie Miller
Jodie Miller

Analysing a Synesthetic ‘In-Betweenness’ in an Afro-German Content through Magical Realism in Sharon Dodua Otoo’s Synchronicity

Yukiko Saito
Yukiko Saito

Some Remarks on Brightness in Homer’s Illiad

Gretchen Fletcher
Gretchen Fletcher

The Evolution of Colour

Lennie Hay
Lennie Hay

In the Gallery with Frida Kahlo

Miriam Huxley
Miriam Huxley

Felix: An Artist

Priscilla Long
Priscilla Long

Blues Factory and Matisse’s Radiance

Sam Moore
Sam Moore

Yves Klein Blue

Susan Weaver
Susan Weaver

Earth and Fire

Sarah Brown Weitzman
Sarah Brown Weitzman

Vincent’s Yellow and Abandoning Green