the money of colour

In the opening scene of Margery Allingham’s novel, Death of a Ghost, two characters reflect on the value of the work of John Lafcadio a deceased artist known for his striking and lavish use of colour:

All that massing of colour. Great quantities of paint. I used to say to him – in joke you know – it’s lucky you make it yourself, John, or you’d never be able to afford it. See that blue? That’s the Lafcadio blue. No one’s got that secret yet. The secret of the crimson had to go to help to pay the death duties. Balmoral and Huxley bought it. Now any Tom, Dick or Harry can get a tube for a few shillings.”

Lafcadio’s colours are both precious and enigmatic – a combination of costly pigments and closely guarded secrets. But, once their secret is out, these treasured colour concepts can quickly depreciate into commodities, tubes of which any Tom, Dick or Harry can buy at a low price.

This fictional exchange about the work of John Lafcadio captures colour’s crucial paradox. On the one hand, it is an idea and an ideal, something that’s fleeting, ephemeral, and shrouded in creative mystery. But on the other hand, colour is just stuff: material substances formed from dyes and pigments. As an aesthetic concept, colour can often seem as if it is a collection of intellectual notions that are difficult to grasp or barely there at all, yet as a commodity, colour is something that’s easily categorised and classified, put on the shelf to be picked up, bought and sold. But how much does colour cost? What is the price of the secret of a particular shade? Is colour something of inestimable value or is it essentially worthless? Is colour an elusive mystery or is it simply base material? What might it mean to claim intellectual or property rights in a colour? Who owns colour anyway? For centuries, everyone from artists and art historians, to businesses and brands have been bothered by such questions surrounding the money of colour.

Nineteenth century trade card of S&I Fuller, purveyor of superfine watercolours

Before the nineteenth-century invention of cheap, synthetic pigments, the money of colour was something professional artists could not afford to ignore. Johannes Vermeer loved to paint his vivid blues with lapis lazuli – an extraordinarily expensive mineral, imported into Europe from what is now Afghanistan, to create the pigment known as “ultramarine” (because its provenance was “beyond the sea.”) Blue pigments ground and mixed from lapis lazuli were described as “perfect beyond all colours,” but because of their extortionate price, could only be used in very small quantities.

Johannes Vermeer, The Milkmaid (1657-58) Rijksmuseum

Vermeer carefully estimated the quantity of lapis lazuli required for each painting, and factored its cost into the price of the commission. His underlying sketches were coloured with azurite, indigo or smalt, with glorious, deep-hued ultramarine – ground from the mineral that was then worth more than gold – reserved only for the surface work of his small canvases.

Titian, Bacchus and Ariadne (1522-23) National Gallery, London. The sky’s vivid blues were created with ultramarine / lapis lazuli.

During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, countless aspirant artists toured, studied and sketched in Italy, marvelling at the richly hued canvases and frescos of the Venetian school. All artists admired Titian’s extraordinary use of colour – but what was his secret? If only an authoritative recipe for Bacchus and Ariadne’s striking shades was made available, if only Titian’s precise method of grinding down minerals and mixing oils and pigments were better known, then surely his aesthetic might be emulated, replicated, even, to make history painting live again, in a new age? The reproduction of such luminous blues might be expensive, but wouldn’t any price be worth paying for the secret of Titian’s colours?

Sir Joshua Reynolds, Theory (1779-80) Royal Academy of Arts

The ambition to revivify Venetian colouring for a modern age certainly animated the founders of Britain’s Royal Academy of Arts (1768) whose first president – Sir Joshua Reynolds – wrote a series of Discourses urging his contemporaries to do just that. Rumours abounded about Reynolds’ purchase of a painting by Titian, which he had allegedly stripped back to ascertain the composition of the great master’s pigments and the method of their application. The colours of Reynolds’ canvases were, even in their own time, notoriously fugitive and many of his paintings are now badly faded.

Joshua Reynolds, Studio Experiments in Colour and Media. Royal Academy of Arts

So exactly how had Titian managed colour? The question was taken up by the Royal Academy’s second president, Benjamin West, who, as a young man had visited Italy, become completely obsessed with the Venetian masters, and attempted to re-create their spirit and colour in works like the Death of General Wolfe.

First exhibited at the Royal Academy exhibition in 1771, engravings after West’s Death of General Wolfe made his painting one of the eighteenth century’s most commercially successful and frequently reproduced.

West’s aspirant style of history painting was much admired, but his use of colour less so. Colouring, in fact, was a matter about which the Royal Academy’s second president became very sensitive, and this made him susceptible to a hoax.

Johann Zoffany, The Academicians of the Royal Academy (1771-2).A bespectacled Reynolds stands front and centre, while Benjamin West leans nonchalantly on the drawing desk at the far left. The academy’s two founding female members – Angelica Kauffman and Mary Moser – are depicted in absentia via two portraits on the wall. Despite the fact that both women were highly successful, professional artists equal to any in the room, representing them in the act of drawing a male model would have drawn accusations of impropriety.

Cue Ann Jemima Provis, and her father, Thomas: the latter, a court sweeper at St James’ Palace, the former, an enterprising miniaturist, whose work had been included in the Royal Academy Exhibition of 1787.

Provis’s Portrait of a Young Lady is number 282 in the Royal Academy Exhibition Catalogue (1787)

The associations of the Royal household, and the previous inclusion of work in a Royal Academy exhibition, perhaps lent these two ingenious fraudsters a gloss of legitimacy when they approached West with the news that they had come into possession of an “ancient Italian manuscript” in which Titian’s pigment recipes, and his methods of mixing and applying paint to canvas were described. Ann Jemima – who claimed to have successfully absorbed and replicated the “Venetian Secret” – was willing to share her valuable knowledge with West, but only at a price which would secure her own financial future.

Benjamin West, Study for Cicero Discovering the Tomb of Archimedes (1797). Royal Academy of Arts.

West was later understandably tight-lipped about the affair, but the diary of power-hungry Royal Academy gossip, Joseph Farington, allows us to unpick a sequence of events in which West was eventually convinced of the authenticity of the “Venetian secret”, and then attempted to draw his colleagues into a sort of eighteenth-century aesthetic pyramid scheme. The idea was that a select group of seven fee-paying academicians would convey the the secret of Titian’s colouring to a larger group of carefully chosen artists in a syndicate arrangement (at the price of 10 guineas a head) which would eventually allow Ann Jemima and her father to pocket the considerable sum of 600 guineas.

Benjamin West, Cicero Discovering the Tomb of Archimedes (1797) – a canvas painted after West’s induction into the “secret”

The price of Venetian colouring certainly seemed very high! But West – drawn on by the fantasy of creating glorious, luminous history paintings and becoming the Titian of his day – eventually agreed to the fraudsters’ exorbitant demands. Ann Jemima introduced him to the “secret,” instructing West to prepare his canvases with a dark red ground; to then use a thin blend of linseed oil to bind his paint; and to finally underlay a series of brightly coloured glazes with a very particular ‘grey’ mix of ivory, black, and Prussian blue (a pigment which of course, had not yet been invented in Titian’s time). Some of West’s fellow artists, such as John Opie, were initially impressed with the work he subsequently produced which “had much of the apparent propertys of the Venetian School of Colouring,” but many others were unconvinced. When the public finally got to see the paintings that West had created after absorbing Provis’s secret, they were not wowed by bold, Titian-esque luminosity, but disappointed by images that seemed greyed out and inert. “Such industrious folly in contriving for the publicity of a quacking, disgraceful imposture,” said the typically uncompromising Irish artist, James Barry “is, I believe, unparalleled in the history of art.” James Gillray, who, like Barry was no fan of the exclusive academician in-crowd, quickly reached for his satiric pencil, and got to work.

James Gillray, Titianus Redivivus, or, the Seven Wise Men Consulting the New Venetian Oracle (1797)

In Gillray’s wonderfully wild visual rendition of the Venetian secret’s wild affair, Ann Jemima Provis stands at the apex of a colourful rainbow bridge – which desperate fame-hungry artists grapple vainly to ascend – painting a portrait of Titian that’s both grotesque and lewd. Her beautiful green dress, complete with splendid peacock train, is carried by the three graces, but the quilted petticoat she wears beneath is torn and frayed.

Ann Jemima holds the easel and brushes of a professional artist, but the humble earthenware pot in which her pigments are mixed is that of the working-class painter of signs or houses.

earthenware pots, used to mix pigments, are seen in this lively print by Rowlandson, The Sign Painter’s Workshop (1790)

The rainbow’s motto reads redeunt Titianica regna, jam nova progenies coelo demittitur alto / The Titian kingdoms are returning, and a new generation is already being sent down from heaven. At the front of the image sit the new Venetian generation in the form of the seven duped academicians who were reportedly party to the secret

A prim, pernickety and perfectly turned out Joseph Farington sits on the right, with unkempt and dishevelled John Opie beside him.

A malevolent grinning monkey – whose appearance combines the French revolutionary with the simian – happily claims the fraudulent secret, clutching a “list of subscribers to the Ventian humbug at ten g[uineas] each dupe”, while urinating over the printed works of other contemporary artists like Fuseli and, Cosway. . . .

. . . meanwhile, the spirit of the Royal Academy’s former president, Sir Joshua Reynods rises up from beneath the floor, muttering an incantation which combines the charm song sung by Macbeth’s witches with the distinctive blend of pigments of which the Venetian secret was purportedly composed . . .

. . while a disgraced Benjamin West slinks away, with Alderman Boydel (then petitioning for the establishment of his Shakespeare Gallery) and spewing 5 guinea lottery tickets, suggesting the perpetration of yet another public hoax.

I enjoy thinking about eighteenth-century frauds and tricksters, whose bizarre success and wild celebrity is often a key to opening up the many contradictions of an interestingly contradictory era (as is the case today, in instances from Elizabeth Holmes to the Fyre festival). And however much one sympathises with poor Benjamin West (whose reputation never really recovered from the affair), one can’t help but admire the canny, enterprising and creative Ann Jemima for cooking up a crazy hoax which spoke so powerfully to the colour credulity of a whole generation of aspirant British artists.

West’s revised version of Cicero discovering the Tomb of Archmides, painted in 1804, as a kind of atonement.

Today, colour “secrets” still command high prices, and debates rage over precisely who has the rights to, and the ability to reproduce, particular iconic shades. Such debates occasionally descend into litigation, which not only involves the use of particular colours, but their placement in particular locations on particular kinds of product.

Christian Louboutin created his signature red-soles in 1992, nabbing his assistant’s bottle of bright, red nail polish to transform his elegant high-heeled creations in a nifty stroke of design genius. When they first appeared, Louboutin’s red soles were read as distinctive signs of luxury and exclusivity – but should other, less exclusive, shoe manufacturers be prevented from the use of similar shades of red? Louboutin certainly thinks so, and in a series of lawsuits has tried to prevent Spanish fast-fashion brand, Zara, from creating and selling its own red soled shoes; attempted to sue Dutch retailer Van Haren Schoenen BV for copyright infringement, and, most recently, filed a complaint against Japanese footwear manufacturer, Eizo, claiming 42 million yen under Japan’s unfair competition legislation. All of these lawsuits concerned Louboutin’s signature shade of red, and its placement on the soles of women’s shoes. None have yet proved successful.

Is it possible, as Louboutin’s lawyers have repeatedly argued, for colour to become a trademark, and hence the exclusive property of one brand? In a few limited contemporary instances, it seems so.

Brands that have registered individual colours as legally-binding trademarks include UPS, John Deere, Dynorod and, most recently, Cadbury, for the particular shade of purple classified as Pantone 2685C. In a fractious and long-running series of suits (involving confectionary brand competitor, Nestlé), Cadbury won the right to exclusive use of this colour because of the long-term “acquired distinctiveness” of its association with the brand (since Cadbury’s founding in 1914).

Over time, the argument goes, a particular colour might become so interwoven with a brand’s identity that it assumes an utterly central importance in the public understanding of its message and its meaning. For some companies, colour equates importantly to brand power, and identity – and of course, it equates to money too.

Pullman brown, a trademark owned by UPS

Debates about the money of colour have certainly now moved on from the days when Vermeer carefully eked out his precious supplies of lapis lazuli, or Benjamin West might be fooled into paying Ann Jemima Provis for her Venetian secret. Colour is still just stuff, but its material existence is also increasingly defined by a series of complex licensing and IP arrangements that are now the exclusive property of a very small number of companies. When one such company falls out with another – as is the case in the current licensing disagreement between Adobe and Pantone – the world’s practical use of colour in print, online, and other forms of graphic reproduction – might be instantly transformed. What does it mean to own a colour? In our digital and AI driven future, the answers to that question might begin to sound very different. 

Further reading

Margery Allingham, Death of A Ghost (1934)

M Dorothy George  Catalogue of Political and Personal Satires Preserved in the Department of Prints and Drawings in the British Museum (vol vii) (1942). 

Rosie Dias, “Venetian secrets : Benjamin West and the contexts of colour at the Royal Academy” in John Barrell, Mark Hallett and Sarah Monks, eds, Living With the Royal Academy: Artistic Ideals and Experiences in England 1768-1848 (2013)

David Scott Kastan (with Stephen Farthing) On Color (2018)