The Library of Rare Colours

Friday January 31, 2020 Written by Genevieve

As far as colours go, Ultramarine is a banger. Cadmium Yellow and Emerald Green are pretty stunning too. And if thinking about them just now has given the more artistically inclined among you a sudden hankering to cut sick on a canvas, you shouldn’t have too much trouble finding each of those colours at your closest art supply shop.

But a hundred years ago, those shades wouldn’t have as so accessible – or safe – as they are today. According to Narayan Khandekar, director of the Straus Center for Conservation and Technical Studies at Harvard Art Museum, real Cadmium Yellow was highly toxic and reserved only for industrial purposes. Emerald Green, made with copper acetoarsenite, was used most commonly as insecticide. And the difficulty of getting lapis lazuli from Afghanistan to produce true Ultramarine pigment made the colour worth more than gold.   

These are the back-stories of just three shades from the treasure trove that is Harvard’s Forbes Pigment Collection.

Founded in 1910, the collection tells the remarkable story of the lengths humanity has gone to in the quest to possess and wield colour. From Cochineal Red (made from beetles) to Mummy Brown (a pigment literally extracted from the embalming cloths of mummies) this wall of bottles boasts more than 2,500 samples, and counting. Quite a colourful collection.