A Visit to The Colour Reference Library at The Royal College of Art!


Colour wheel by Mary Gartside

Colour wheel by Mary Gartside

I went on an expedition to visit the Colour Reference Library at the Royal College of Art in London!

I don’t go to London very often and am pretty good at navigating my way around underground, but up above…oh my gosh! It’s all quite hectic and a million miles from what I’m used to! I had taken with me a selection of Google maps to get around, but even with those I managed to get lost…quite a bit! Thankfully various door porters, road workers and free-runners were all very helpful in pointing me in the right directions and I made it in time for the start of the talk.

The RCA Library holds over 30 Special Collections, the Colour Reference Library (CRL) being one of them. The CRL has over 3000 volumes, including 1600 books and various journals, papers, swatches and unique materials. The collection sees hundreds of students and external users each year and is one of the largest collections of colour related publications in the world.

We were shown a selection of works from well known colour theorists such as, Moses Harris, M E Chevreul, and Josef Albers, along with lesser known names like Mary Gartside and Maxwell Armfield.


Screen from Alber’s ‘Interactions of Colour’

Chevreul is known for his theories on how we perceive colour, its behaviour depending on its composition, and is known for his work with tapestry, researching into the fading of colours. He discovered that the fading wasn’t fading at all, but the optical contrast with other colours and retinal fatigue.

Albers’ work looks at the interaction of colour and how one colour can look different entirely when placed with another. The CRL have a 2nd edition of his book ‘Interaction of Colour’, which holds various examples of his theory. We were shown one which had a brown strip on a background, with another strip going across the brown, breaking the colour in two. The brown looked totally different on each side, one darker than the other, until you lifted the strip and could see it was all one of the same colour. At home I do quite a bit of painting and I’m mostly led by colour when I work, even if I have an idea of image or concept. I’ve never really thought much of the theory behind it all and have always loved that liberation of just flowing with the colour, but I found the theories insightful and intriguing.

Watercolour by Mary Gartsdie

Watercolour by Mary Gartside

Mary Gartside defined the terms ‘warm’ and ‘cool’ when it comes to colour. Her theories and work are lesser known, with her work having been dismissed or unacknowledged due to gender issues at that time. Mary published three books between 1805 – 1808, by disguising her work as watercolour painting manuals and she remained the only woman to have presented a theory on colour until well in to the twentieth century. I loved hearing the story of her defiance and self-promotion, even publishing the books herself, regardless of gender issues.

The CRL arrived at the Royal College of Art in 1977 and is stored in a temperature controlled room for preservation of its dated materials. It’s subject matter spans across human psychology, dyestuffs and decorative ornament to mysticism, colour healing and camouflage; representing more than six centuries of study.

Front cover of 'Spectropia'

Front cover of ‘Spectropia’

The collection merges the worlds of art with science, mysticism and materialism. One book they hold is ‘Spectropia’ (1864) by J.H.Brown. He regarded spiritualism as a ‘mental epidemic’ and wrote a book to show how our senses can be deceived with optical illusions. The book holds lithographed plates of images, which when you look at for a period of time and then look away, the images hover in front of you still. The writings are about colour, light and the structure of the eyes, with the hope of expelling the superstition of spirit beings!

They hold numerous resources regarding the standards and nomenclature of colour, such as Pantone, British Colour Council, Et Al and Munsell. In Werner’s ‘Nonmenclature of Colours’ (1814), he lists the various scales or degrees of colour and likens them to things in the animal, vegetable and mineral world for distinction. I never realised there were so many variations of black! From ‘velvet black’ like a mole, ‘greenish black’ like the breast of a lapwing to ‘reddish black’ like the spots on a tiger moth! He even likens one to the ‘largest black slug’!

The library have loaned out their resources for exhibitions such as the Tate Liverpool’s ‘Colour Chart: Reinventing Colour, 1950 – Today’ (2009) and are a point of reference for numerous researchers from a wide range of industries whether artistic, scientific, architectural or medical.

Tapis De Tarragona

Tapis De Tarragona

After the talk, I had a quick peak in their Galleries to see the exhibitions on at the moment. After a day of misfortune getting lost, I had a moment of luck and caught one of the last days of their exhibition ‘The Miro Tapestry & Catalan Red Cross’! The collection includes works by Tapies, Clave, Barceló and Mariscal, but the highlight is Miro’s ‘Tapis De Tarragona’, the last surviving work of its kind by Miro. A stroke of luck indeed!





For further information about the Special Collections at the RCA click here. Access is by appointment only.

The Colour Reference Library is based at the Royal College of Art, London, a ten minute walk from South Kensington tube station.

Robynne Willowby, December 2014