Werner’s Nomenclature of Colours

A page of blues in Werner’s Nomenclature of Colours, first published in 1814 and just released in a new facsimile edition. Courtesy Smithsonian Books. During the latter part of the year 1834, the HMS Beagle was nosing down the coast of South America. On board, a young gentleman geologist was busy collecting data that would, on his return to England two years later, give birth to the theory of evolution. For the moment, however, Charles Darwin was young, unknown, and almost overwhelmed by the teeming array of life all around him. On December 6 he saw a sea slug that was largely “crimson red,” with a “lilac with lead color” belly and finer, rose-colored mouth parts. A few days earlier he noted—as ever, too feverish to heed punctuation or grammar—a frog with “Throat & breast & [cheeks] rich chestnut brown with snow white marks thighs blackish.” These scribbled descriptions hint at two intractable challenges that Darwin faced, both relating to color. The first: Any samples he brought home would be bleached bare of the subtle hues they had in life by his crude preserving agents. The second, wider problem: Color vocabulary—then, as now—is anything but universal. “An object,” Patrick […]

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