Part travelogue, part narrative history, Colour unlocks the history of the colours of the rainbow, and reveals how paints came to be invented, discovered, traded and used. This remarkable and beautifully written book remembers a time when red paint was really the colour of blood, when orange was the poison pigment, blue as expensive as gold, and yellow made from the urine of cows force-fed with mangoes. It looks at how green was carried by yaks along the silk road, and how an entire nation was founded on the colour purple. Exciting, richly informative, and always surprising, Colour lifts the lid on the historical palette and unearths an astonishing wealth of stories about the quest for colours, and our efforts to understand them.
I definitely learned quite a bit about the history of dyes and similar materials from this book. It's arranged thematically by color, which chapters for all the colors of the rainbow as well as brown, black, and white. I think my favorite chapters were probably green, indigo (which has also always been one of my favorite materials to dye with), and purple. The purple chapter, right at the end of the book, was especially interesting to me because I'd known that snails were used for Roman dyes for a long time, and I really enjoyed learning about the process here.
Perhaps a major caution or just fyi that I'd like to add to this book, though, which keeps me from wanting to rate it higher is that not all of the book is quite what I'd expected--I'd gone into the book expecting information on the history of colors, which there definitely was, but the book was really more properly half history, half travelogue. Very substantial portions of each chapter are about the author traveling to India or Lebanon or Mexico or China or other places to physically visit places important in the history of different colors' dyestuffs. While I did enjoy parts of this, it really wasn't what I was expecting from the book, and I think I'd have been perfectly happy with a bit more focus on the colors and dyes themselves.
There is a fair amount of humor in Color. To see what I mean, find the section where Finlay describes the interesting practice of boiling cow urine after the bovine have been fed a steady diet of mango leaves for two weeks straight.