Owen Jones, 'Persia', 1865

Owen Jones, 'Persia', 1865

Born in 1809, the architect Owen Jones came of age at a time when Neoclassicism was in vogue and the preferred color for buildings was white, inside and out. The early nineteenth century was also a time of intense curiosity, however, and architectural historians were just discovering the polychromatic origins of the ancient buildings they revered. Inspired by these findings, Jones embarked on a Grand Tour of Italy, Greece, Egypt, Turkey and Spain in 1832, along with fellow color enthusiast, French architect Jules Goury. Once in Spain, the pair became immersed in an intense study of the Alhambra Palace, their aim being to record this gloriously patterned and brilliantly colored structure in print. While Goury tragically died of cholera while still in Spain, Jones returned to London and set about reproducing his drawings of the building.

At the time, British printing lagged behind that of mainland Europe, so in order to achieve the quality he desired, Jones established a press in his own home. This was no mean feat. In A History of Chromolithography, the print historian Michael Twyman describes how “Jones brought to the Alhambra the visual and technical skills of an architect, which would account for the precision of the drawing, but the printing of his chromolithographed plates also required great skill. It would not have been easy to charge such large solid areas of the stone evenly and to have them more or less register where the two colours abut.” It is a wonder that Jones marshaled his colors into line.

First published in 1842, Jones’s Alhambra studies found little commercial success, but were nonetheless highly influential. Attracting the attention of the leading figures in the Victorian design reform movement, including Prince Albert himself, they led to Jones’s involvement in the Great Exhibition of 1851 — he was charged with designing a color scheme for the whole of the interior. Using only primary colors — blue, red and yellow — his design was by no means universally popular, but the palette became a major force in the development of late Victorian taste.

In 1856, Jones published his most significant work, The Grammar of Ornament. A summary of his writings and lectures of the proceeding years, its purpose was to establish common principles behind the best of ornament, gathered from around the world and across historical eras. Introducing the plates with a set of principles, Jones devoted 20 out of 37 of these to the use of color, including no. 21: “Use blue for concave surfaces,” and no. 31: “Gold ornaments must be outlined in black!” The illustrations are distinguished in most cases by their use of a limited number of pure, flat colors. Republished with additional plates in 1865, and again in 1910, and in print throughout most of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, The Grammar of Ornament has had a sustained and profound influence on the use of hue. The author George Grossmith mocked the outfall in his novel, Diary of a Nobody (1892), co-authored with his brother, Weedon Grossmith, in which the comically aspirant protagonist, Mr. Pooter, paints his bath bright red with disastrous results.

While there is an assumption that the success of color print — both of illustration and photography — rests on straightforward verisimilitude, in fact the nature of chromatic truth is far from clear-cut. That the relationship between colors is transformed by the slightest shift in the light is a phenomenon well known to anyone who has tried out paint samples with a domestic wall in mind (one that can lead to a paroxysm of indecision). The scientists of color reproduction sometimes use real fruit and flowers as points of reference, but, while the apple may be absolute, the color it reflects can only be relative. To an extent, color becomes the product of the technologies of its reproduction. Those who have mastered those technologies, such as Jones, can determine not merely what is seen as desirable, but what is seen at all.

Currently, the biggest name in color reproduction is Pantone. Starting life in 1950s New York as a print company, half a century later Pantone has transformed into to a near-universal colour matching system. Where Jones’s colors shaded Britain, Pantone’s paint the world; and where Jones was motivated by archaeological discovery, Pantone’s imperative is commerce. The lynchpin of Pantone is its ‘Guide,’ a large number of thin cardboard sheets printed with color swatches and bound together in a fan that creates the aura of comprehensiveness. Its blanket adoption by designers and reproduction houses has made it hard for a color that falls outside its bounds to assert its existence.

There are Pantone naysayers, among them fourth-generation Swiss printer, Thomi Wolfensberger. He takes particular issue with Pantone’s rule of making a color lighter by adding transparent white and darker by adding black: “Pantone would never dull a yellow with violet, but that would help keep the brightness!” In 2000, Pantone started declaring a ‘Color of the Year’. The first was Cerulean Blue (Pantone 15-4020), and this year the sensationally-named Ultra Violet (Pantone 18-3838) — in fact a very ordinary purple — has been awarded the title. A potential echo of the late nineteenth century Mr. Pooter finding himself in what looked like a bath of blood, will 2018 unfold in slavish shades of mauve?