Centre for Life History and Life Writing Research

Squaring the Colour Circle: the lives and work of women in colour history

Led by art historian Alexandra Loske, this project seeks to gather information about the lives and work of women who wrote about, engaged with, and taught colour from the eighteenth century onward. The aim is to create a hub for data, information and image material that will help us understand how women in the eighteenth, nineteenth and early twentieth centuries managed to engage in a field largely dominated by men.

Examples of women writing and publishing on colour before the twentieth century are extremely rare. In his comprehensive bibliography Books on Colour 1495-2015 Roy Osborne estimates that in the nineteenth-century approximately 430 original books on colour were published in Europe, Asia and the Americas, compared to an estimated 1,500 in the twentieth century. Of the nineteenth-century publications, fewer than twenty were authored by women, although we can cautiously add a few more of anonymous authorship, and publications that have never been recorded or don’t survive. 

Angelica Kauffmann colouring 18th centuryAn allegory of 'Colouring', after Angelica Kauffmann, 1780s

Few women wrote about colour specifically; instead they considered colour in certain contexts, frequently botany or flower painting, the latter considered a ‘polite art’ and thus suitable for ladies.  Among these are Anne Pratt (1806-1893) and Elizabeth Twining (1805-1889). In the last two decades of the nineteenth century there was a surge in practical handbooks and textbooks on colour, as well as an interesting example of literary criticism by the US American writer Alice Edwards Pratt (1860-1902). Her PhD thesis on The Use of Color in the Verse of the English Romantic Poets (1898) can cautiously regarded the beginning of the inclusion of women into the scholarly canon of colour literature.  Other, less academic works, often concern the familiar subjects long associated with the female sphere, such fashion, flowers, home decoration and teaching guides. This remains a tendency in the twentieth century, but the dramatic rise in publications generally also provided opportunities for experimental writing.

The first woman who can be identified in colour history as an author of published treatises on colour is the English flower painter Mary Gartside. Very little is known about her life, but she taught watercolour painting to ladies and exhibited botanical drawings at the Royal Academy in 1781 and at other London venues until 1808. 

A generation after Gartside another woman left a significant mark on colour research and literature in the nineteenth century. The English writer Mary Philadelphia Merrifield is best known for the first English translation of Cennino Cennini’s 1437 manuscript Libro dell’arte (A Treatise on Painting), published in 1844. Following the success of her translation Merrifield was commissioned by the British government to travel to France and Italy, in order to identify and transcribe medieval and Renaissance manuscripts on colour, and research the make-up of early pigments and Italian methods of painting.

The aim of this project is to create a list of women in colour history, record their work (colour-related publications as well as letters, diaries and other autobiographical material), and establish how each one was able to engage with a subject tradionally associated with men (some referred to as 'colourmen'), for example Sir Isaac Newton, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, George Field, Moses Harris, Michel Eugène Chevreul, Johannes Itten, Albert Henry Munsell, and Wassily Kandinsky.
The project is led by Dr Alexandra Loske, an art historian, curator, oral historian and member of the CLHLWR, who has published and lectured widely on the history of colour.

Related events and projects:

Mary Gartside by Alexandra Loske 2024