Colour at the Fitzwilliam

There are certain classes of noun which I very rarely teach: types of tree, for example, or species of bird. I don’t think my students would see the relevance if I handed them a chart of common British bird species, and laboured over their pronunciation of chaffinch, say, or song thrush. Or if I brought in sprays of leaves and taught them to distinguish an oak from an ash from a chestnut. Much as it would please me.

In the same way, I don’t often teach my students shades of colours. I take it for granted that they can identify red blue yellow and green, but there it stops. I would be amazed to hear any of my students describe something as navy blue or pea green, or speak of the crimson sun or the scarlet jerkin; or to pin something down as plum or burgundy or puce, or to dwell on the ultramarines and umbers and lakes of the painters.

But perhaps an opportunity presents itself for my first colour-shade lesson. An exhibition at the Fitzwilliam Museum entitled Colour: The Art and Science of Illuminated Manuscripts will be open from 30th July until the end of the year. It posits that the body of surviving illuminated manuscripts is the most complete document we have of medieval and early Renaissance painting style, far outweighing in importance the ravaged remainder of panels and altarpieces. And this is especially true when it comes to colour palettes. An altarpiece will have stood for centuries in a smoky church, its colours fading year on year; an illuminated manuscript, meanwhile, will have been a prized and protected possession for all of its lifetime, and will have preserved its chromatic intensity accordingly.

Initial Letter of Genesis, The Wenceslas Bible c. 1389

A must see then, you would suppose, for the first confirmed tetrachromat – a woman in the north east of England who has four, rather than the traditional three, cones in her retina. The shades of colours she and other tetrachromats can see have no names at all, since they have never been named. They inhabit an intense and unknowable world, just like many of my students.