Werner’s Nomenclature of Colour, the 19th-Century “Color Dictionary” Used by Charles Darwin (1814)

Before Pan­tone invent­ed “a uni­ver­sal col­or lan­guage” or big box hard­ware stores arose with pro­pri­etary dis­plays of col­or­ful­ly-named paints—over a cen­tu­ry before, in fact—a Ger­man min­er­al­o­gist named Abra­ham Got­t­lob Wern­er invent­ed a col­or sys­tem, as detailed and thor­ough a guide as an artist might need. But rather than only cater to the needs of painters, design­ers, and man­u­fac­tur­ers, Werner’s Nomen­cla­ture of Colours also served the needs of sci­en­tists. “Charles Dar­win even used the guide,” writes This is Colos­sal, “dur­ing his voy­age to the Madeira, Canary, and Cape Verde islands on the H.M.S. Bea­gle.”

Werner’s is one of many such “col­or dic­tio­nar­ies” from the 19th cen­tu­ry, “designed to give peo­ple around the world a com­mon vocab­u­lary,” writes Daniel Lewis at Smith­son­ian, “to describe the col­ors of every­thing from rocks and flow­ers to stars, birds, and postage stamps.” These guides appealed espe­cial­ly to nat­u­ral­ists.

Indeed, the book began—before Scot­tish painter Patrick Syme updat­ed the sys­tem in Eng­lish, with swatch­es of exam­ple colors—as a naturalist’s guide to the col­ors of the world, nam­ing them accord­ing to Werner’s poet­ic fan­cy. “With­out an image for ref­er­ence,” the orig­i­nal text “pro­vid­ed immense hand­writ­ten detail describ­ing where each spe­cif­ic shade could be found on an ani­mal, plant, or min­er­al. Many of Wern­er’s unique col­or names still exist in com­mon usage, though they’ve detached from his scheme ages ago.

Pruss­ian Blue, for instance, which can be locat­ed “in the beau­ty spot of a mallard’s wing, on the sta­mi­na of a bluish-pur­ple anemone, or in a piece of blue cop­per ore.” Oth­er exam­ples, notes Fast Company’s Kelsey Camp­bell-Dol­laghan, include “’Skimmed Milk White,’” or no. 7… found in ‘the white of the human eye’ or in opals,” and no. 67, or “’Wax Yel­low’… found in the lar­vae of large Water Bee­tles or the green­ish parts of a Non­pareil Apple.” It would have been Syme’s 1814 guide that Dar­win con­sult­ed, as did sci­en­tists, nat­u­ral­ists, and artists for two cen­turies after­ward, either as a tax­o­nom­ic col­or ref­er­ence or as an admirable his­toric artifact—a painstak­ing descrip­tion of the col­ors of the world, or those encoun­tered by two 18th and 19th cen­tu­ry Euro­pean observers, in an era before pho­to­graph­ic repro­duc­tion cre­at­ed its own set of stan­dards.

The book is now being repub­lished in an afford­able pock­et-size edi­tion by Smith­son­ian Books, who note that the Edin­burgh flower painter Syme, in his illus­tra­tions of Werner’s nomen­cla­ture, “used the actu­al min­er­als described by Wern­er to cre­ate the col­or charts.” This degree of fideli­ty to the source extends to Syme’s use of tables to neat­ly orga­nize Werner’s pre­cise descrip­tions. Next to each color’s num­ber, name, and swatch, are columns with its loca­tion on var­i­ous ani­mals, veg­eta­bles and min­er­als. “Orpi­ment Orange,” named after a min­er­al, though none is list­ed in its col­umn, will be found, Wern­er tells us, on the “neck ruff of the gold­en pheas­ant” or “bel­ly of the warty newt.” Should you have trou­ble track­ing these down, sure­ly you’ve got some “Indi­an cress” around?

While its ref­er­ences may not be those your typ­i­cal indus­tri­al design­er or graph­ic artist is like­ly to find help­ful, Werner’s Nomen­cla­ture of Colours will still find a trea­sured place in the col­lec­tions of design­ers and visu­al artists of all kinds, as well as his­to­ri­ans, writ­ers, poets, and the sci­en­tif­ic inher­i­tors of 19th cen­tu­ry nat­u­ral­ism, as a “charm­ing arti­fact from the gold­en age of nat­ur­al his­to­ry and glob­al explo­ration.” Flip through a scanned ver­sion of the 1821 sec­ond edi­tion just above, includ­ing Wern­er’s intro­duc­tion and care­ful lists of col­or prop­er­ties, or read it in a larg­er for­mat at the Inter­net Archive. The new edi­tion is now avail­able for pur­chase here.

via This Is Colos­sal/Fast Co

Relat­ed Con­tent:

The Vibrant Col­or Wheels Designed by Goethe, New­ton & Oth­er The­o­rists of Col­or (1665–1810)

Goethe’s Col­or­ful & Abstract Illus­tra­tions for His 1810 Trea­tise, The­o­ry of Col­ors: Scans of the First Edi­tion

How Tech­ni­col­or Rev­o­lu­tion­ized Cin­e­ma with Sur­re­al, Elec­tric Col­ors & Changed How We See Our World

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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