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Colourful histories

How we think about different hues has been 'coloured' by years of history, culture and scientific endeavour, says Dr Gavin Evans in new book The Story of Colour.

The Story of Colour, a new book from lecturer Dr Gavin Evans, explores the hidden messages of the spectrum, the cultural history and the symbolism inherent in the way we talk about colour.

Why do we ‘paint the town red,’ for example? How could Napoleon’s green wallpaper have hastened his death? Why is the colour of jealousy green, black, yellow or purple in different cultures? Was pink always ‘a girls’ colour’? Why is the White House white?

Talking to BBC Focus Magazine about the cultural history of colour, Evans explained: “How we interpret colours, even how we see them, is more a product of nurture than nature.

“The rainbow used to have just five colours – until 1704 when Sir Isaac Newton added orange and indigo to the list simply because he had a fondness for the supposedly mystical properties of the number seven.

“In fact, there are no pure colours in a rainbow – they all blend into one continuous spectrum - but ever since Newton we’ve settled on seven and used little rhymes to remember them. Americans favour ‘Roy G Biv’ while British children might learn ‘Richard of York gave battle in vain’ – red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo and violet. Attentive children might therefore be perplexed by the song, ‘I can sing a rainbow’, which begins, ‘Red and yellow and pink and green, purple and orange and blue.'

“So it would seem that the colours of the rainbow can differ, and when we dip into the cultural histories of these colours, we see even wider differences… When we look at or talk about a colour in a particular setting, we are as likely to see its cultural or symbolic meaning as the shade itself.”

In The Story of Colour, Evans addresses our perceptions of image, race, language and identity, telling the story of how we have come to view the world through lenses passed down to us by politics, fashion, sport and, not least, prejudice. Looking across art, science, history, linguistics and pop culture, the book uncovers what colour has meant to people, when, and why.

Evans is an Associate Lecturer of Media and Journalism at Birkbeck and has previously worked as a journalist. As well as The Story of Colour, he is the author of seven other books including Mapreaders and Multitaskers, also released this year, which challenges commonly held beliefs about the biological origins of gender difference.

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