Colour Control: Chromatic Regulation in Modern Britain 1800 – 2000

Issues of subjectivity, authorship and regulation dominated the recent Colour Control workshop organised by Kirsty Sinclair Dootson (Yale University) and hosted at the Paul Mellon Centre. On a blisteringly sunny day, researchers and experts from a wide range of disciplinary backgrounds converged to discuss colour within the context of British history. Dootson began proceedings with an introduction to the major themes covered throughout the day. The individual and subjective response to colour was underscored with reference to ‘the dress’, an image that became an internet sensation in 2015 (was the dress, pictured below, white and gold or blue and black?). Dootson argued that the technological, industrial and aesthetic drivers behind such questions can be traced throughout British fashion, design, media and art history. The continued idelogical negotiations between colour variability and constraint; instability and regulation also operate on an international, national and even local scale.

Dress 2015

Working on a British cinema history project, it is fascinating to hear that similar issues regarding the development, marketing, reception and temporality of colour are found across different industries. Sonia Ashmore’s (independent) discussion on fabrics and Indian textiles explored shifts in fashion, and particularly the varying colour trends set by Liberty during the late 19th century. Emma West (University of Birmingham) presented some fantastic poster designs commissioned by the Empire Marketing Board with repeated colour schemes used to create a ‘united’ image of imperial Britain. Intended for educational purposes, West explained that the posters were designed with the specific intention of creating a positive brand identity for the EMB through the utilisation of colour. The ideological function of colour was further discussed by Dominique Grisard (Swiss Centre for Social Research) who examined the historical links between the colour pink, race and gender. Grisard identified the ‘English Rose’ as a persistent archetype that continues to influence, particularly evident in the construction of pale beauty ideals maintained by the cosmetic industry. The debates that followed each presentation provided a stimulating space to discuss ideas generated by the talks.


After lunch, our project PI Sarah Street (University of Bristol) examined horticultural colour charts designed by Robert F. Wilson for the British Colour Council in the 1930s. Street argued that the prescriptive language and formal presentation of colour schemes speak to broader narratives found across industrial and domestic spheres. However, the colour red, with its excessive connotations, demands release from such constraints – most notably expressed in film. Lynda Nead (Birkbeck) explored the relationship between greyscale and colour by contrasting two photographs taken during post-war Britain. Nead discussed how the layers of colour captured in a floral image of Dunfermline Abbey appeared ‘stuck on’, providing an unreal image which may have worked for marketing but lacked sincerity: Britain as colourful spectacle.


Finally, Helen Wheatley (University of Warwick) presented her on-going public engagement work connected with Coventry’s City of Culture status in 2021. Her recent research uncovered 35mm documentary footage of Coventry Cathedral filmed over a period of six years (directed by John Read and produced by Robin Whitworth) and originally broadcast two days before the cathedral’s official consecration following major restoration work in May 1962. However, it was not aired in its original colour format until 1967 when the BBC used the film to test run colour for the first time on television. Wheatley argued such decisions raise important issues of intended meaning, authorial control and spectatorship. The final round table discussions generated from the talks focused on the following questions: who defines the language of colour? How does this influence our understanding? How does meaning change over time? What are the implications of how, when and where colour is presented? The workshop provided the perfect opportunity for scholars of textiles, fashion, design, art history, and film and media to share different approaches and insights into these important intermedial and intertextual questions. The notion of what we mean by ‘colour control’ is contradictory and complex, and certainly reflects the research conducted for our Eastmancolor project.

We very much look forward to continuing this debate!

Thanks to Kirsty Sinclair Dootson and Sarah Turner for convening the workshop and the Paul Mellon Centre for hosting the event which took place on Tuesday 26th June 2018.

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