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Colour: Travels Through the Paintbox [Hardcover]

Victoria Finlay
4.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (45 customer reviews)

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Book Description

19 Sep 2002

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.

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Product details

  • Hardcover: 512 pages
  • Publisher: Sceptre; 2002 First Edition edition (19 Sep 2002)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0340733284
  • ISBN-13: 978-0340733288
  • Product Dimensions: 21.8 x 14.2 x 5 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (45 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 1,002,524 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

I'm a journalist, writer and occasional radio presenter. I first became obsessed with colours when I was eight years old, and my father took me to see a stained glass window in Chartres cathedral and explained how it was created 800 years ago and we were no longer able to make that particular cobalt blue. Many years later I gave up my day job as Arts Editor of the South China Morning Post in Hong Kong - where I lived for 12 years - to write "Colour: Travels Through The Paintbox". My second book followed in 2005, called "Jewels: A Secret History" (though in UK hardback it was originally titled "Buried Treasure". A publisher thing.)

In the course of my research, I travelled to the underground opal churches of outback Australia, interviewed retired pearl fishermen in Scotland, crawled through Cleopatra's long-deserted emerald mines, climbed the "blue mountains" of Afghanistan where Michelangelo's finest ultramarine paint came from, and tried my hand at gem cutting in the dusty Sri Lankan "city of gems" where Marco Polo once bartered for sapphires.

I moved back to the UK in 2003 and now live near Bath, working for an international environmental charity and writing for various UK and international publications. I recently appeared as a guest in the first series of BBC Radio 4's "Museum of Curiosities", hosted by John Lloyd (QI) and Bill Bailey; I was talking about Pliny the Elder. In 2009 "Colour" was chosen by Folio to be their gift book of the year. They completely and beautifully redesigned it, spotted a couple of Latin errors, and most splendidly added more than 100 stunning colour illustrations. It is what my Colour book always wanted to be.

Product Description


Packed with stories, anecdotes and adventures. A full rainbow ... as vivid as the colours themselves (Express)

You get your money's worth and change to spare ... Both picaresque and picturesque, it's a rich read. (Evening Standard)

This is a rare and wonderful book - a model of erudition and charm, the

writing elegant and precise, and with at least one new and fascinating

revelation on every single page. I could not be more enthusiastic.

(Simon Winchester, author of THE PROFESSOR AND THE)

It's pure pleasure to join this gutsy arts reporter-cum-scholar on her quest for historical pigments and dyes around the world ... Even drab (technically the tone between olive and puce) seems less so when Finlay examines it (Independent)

It's hard to criticise her spirit of cultural exploration and easy to share her intelligent enthusiasm . . .Packed with pertinent trivia . . . informative and fun (South China Morning Post)

Full of forgotten facts and beguiling anecdotes . . . it would be hard to confront a painting ever again without seeing in it a kind of coded map of the world (Telegraph)

Packed with facts, fables and anecdotes ... Finlay's detailed and brilliantly researched account makes for a fascinating read (Australian Interior Trends)

Victoria Finlay has unlocked the history of colour in this trawl through some little-known history (Courier Mail ( Australia))

An irresistible cornucopia ...Her travels are Marco Polish; her research vast but lightly worn. The whole book is an infectious delight. (RTE Guide)

Book Description

On a journey that takes her from Afghanistan, to the Australian outback, to ancient caves in China, and the saffron harvest in Spain, Victoria Finlay gives an extraordinary, and compelling account of the history of colour.

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Customer Reviews

4.9 out of 5 stars
4.9 out of 5 stars
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
34 of 34 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Fascinating Read 23 Nov 2002
I bought this book initially for a friend who paints, but while looking through it, I was hooked. It is absolutely fascinating. It covers travel, history, art and science. Needless to say my friend will not be receiving the first copy I bought. It is such an easy book to read. I definitely will be looking into other books on the subject as shown in the bibliograpy of this book. I would thoroughly recommend it to anyone.
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49 of 50 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An art history student's answer to prayer 3 Oct 2002
I've been looking for a book like this for ages. Victoria Finlay's sub-title (Travels Through the Paint-box)describes this fascinating tome well.It is partly an autobiographical travelogue and partly a history of all the colours of the rainbow. There are several useful maps and some stunning photographs - I suppose more would have put the price up too much. Because she covers so many colours there is a tendency sometimes to feel 'I wish she had gone more deeply into that,' but the excellent bibliography and end-notes will enable me to research further into those areas. This should be in all art department libraries and on the bookshelves of all art students who can afford it. If I hadn't bought it already it would be top of my Christmas list.
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17 of 17 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Absolutely fabulous 19 Jan 2005
This book was the beginning of a travel of my own. The book takes us around the world discovering the origins of the pigments of all the colours in the rainbow. Combining historical facts, trivia stories and interesting people Victoria Finlay takes us on a journey that we do not wish to end! I am currently reading it for the second time and it has been a strong basis (both in terms of info and bibliography) for my thesis about the theory of colour in Portuguese Modernism.
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13 of 13 people found the following review helpful
By Niki
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
If you have any artistic ability however small and are in possession of a paint box no-one could fail to love reading this delightful book, Victoria Finlays quest to find the origins of colours leads her all over the world and in the process she ferrets around and comes up with anecdotes that make you chuckle out loud or cringe in disgust !!!Her vivid description of extracting crimson from squashed living beetles is on a par with Bram Stoker! She brings many of the old Masters to life as she discribes their anxiety to find paints that will out last the ravages of time and indeed if Turner had listened to his 'colour' masters many of his paintings would have been even more spectacular. One almost becomes addicted to the chapters as she embellishes and embraces the colour and then tantilizingly moves onto the next !!! This a book I will cherish and re-read many times.
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26 of 27 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Tremendously beautiful 29 Jan 2004
When you take things for granted you usually do not understand their importance and beauty. This happens with colours. Victoria Finlay's book invites us to look at our surrounding world with different eyes and teaches us to stare with fascination at colours. It is a beautiful book that takes us on a journey around the world, allowing us to meet extremely interesting people that have so much to tell on something as beautiful as colours. When you finish reading it, you wish the rainbow had not only 7, but hundreds of colours!!! A must read for curious minds....
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23 of 24 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Gobsmacking 7 Aug 2005
By A Customer
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
This is truely amazing - always fascinated by colour, but never, ever would I have guessed at the amazing stories behind them. So many unrelated puzzling trivials have been answered in this book, the old masters can be seen in a new light, even to an art heathen, the fact that the paintings have survived this long is indeed a feat of outstanding wonder, given the careful chemistry and make up of the materials they had to work with. A truely amazing, fascinating historical book, beautifully written, and I'm so glad I've had the opportunity to read it.
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20 of 21 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A real find for travel & art enthusiasts 20 Dec 2003
By A Customer
Victoria Finlay comes from a background both as an arts journatist and also someone who has lived and worked abroad. This broad view shines through.
It is really a collection of stories, linked by the quest for colour. It is a rich and rewarding read, and one that is both absorbing. Yet as the stories of the individual colours and pigments are revealed and are amazingly potent, the book can also be taken in bite sized chunks - ideal for those, who like me, do much of their reading while commuting.
So, if you love William Dalrymple, are an art student, or just want to find out how lucky we are to live in a multi-coloured world, I stongly recommend this book.
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14 of 15 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A colourful read 23 July 2003
By M. Wong
We see colour everywhere and it never occured to me to think about how paints and dyes were made. It was not even something I was concerned about. But in reading the backcover, I was drawn by the writer's single-minded quest to find out how people made colour before we had synthetically produced paints.
She takes us from the "non-colours" of black & white and through the spectrum of the rainbow, the seven colours of which - Mr Roy G Biv - were defined by Isaac Newton. I was surprised to find that Newton's definition was actually his own interpretation of what he decided should be 7 shades, ie had he wished, he could have insisted on turquoise (between green & blue) instead of indigo (between blue & purple).
I was amazed to find out that red comes from a cochineal bug which feeds on the prickly pear cactus, green from copper dipped in vinegar, and purple from the tears of a sea-snail.
And then there are there are the fascinating bits of trivia. Perhaps Napolean died not from cancer but from a reaction between arsenic and the damp in the green in his wallpaper.
There are many many more bits like this, but I won't spoil it for other readers. I picked up this book on spec, and it was a thoroughly enjoyable read.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars Five Stars
A wonderful and magical reality of the meaning of colour as experienced in its origination.
Published 12 days ago by J B.
5.0 out of 5 stars Five Stars
An excellent read.
Published 17 days ago by KTS
5.0 out of 5 stars Five Stars
Top notch
Published 19 days ago by samir m tawil
5.0 out of 5 stars Five Stars
Full of information and a good read
Published 1 month ago by Catherine
3.0 out of 5 stars Three Stars
This book was given away as a present without reading it first. So this 'average' rating is not representative.
Published 1 month ago by John
5.0 out of 5 stars a book i enjoy dipping into on bursts
A wealth of information, a book i enjoy dipping into on bursts.
Published 2 months ago by susan c miller
5.0 out of 5 stars One of my favourite non-fiction reads
I find myself tempted to just write lots of superlatives and pepper this review with exclamation marks. Read more
Published 2 months ago by CA ALEXANDER
5.0 out of 5 stars Fascinating
Finley leads us through a fascinating journey into colour, great read, a travel through time and space on the wings of colour
Published 2 months ago by L. Buongiorno
5.0 out of 5 stars Great experience!
This book is packed with great anecdotes from start to finish and is a great and very fact filled read. Read more
Published 4 months ago by G. Webster
5.0 out of 5 stars Another book I would like to reread!
Color is just fascinating. this is another book I would like to reread. Color is inspiring and cheering! I have to reread this. Read more
Published 5 months ago by SYLVIA CLAIRE STUBBS
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