(Not so) Mellow Yellow

Alexandra Loske on the colour closest to light.

Have you ever dared to wear a bright yellow outfit, or to put on yellow shoes? If you have, you probably got noticed. For yellow, in its perceived pure form, is the most ‘noticeable’ of colours. It’s not universally loved, but tends to trigger strong emotions. On the electromagnetic spectrum of colours visible to the human eye, as dispersed by a prism in Isaac Newton’s experiments, it has a middling to off-centre position between orange and green, measurable as between 565 and 590 nanometers.

However, in art, culture, nature, fashion, religion and many other aspects of life, it has a leading role, and was placed first on many artists’ palettes and in colour literature. The colour theorist and flower painter Mary Gartside listed it as the first ‘proper’ colour in her 1805 Essay on Light and Shade, on Colour, and on Composition in General, preceded only by white.

Hi-viz yellows

Despite being so highly visible, yellow is not actually one of the colours of our tri-chromatic colour vision. The colour receptors of most mammals, including humans, can detect green, blue and red. This enables us to distinguish an estimated ten million different colours, including the fluorescent-yellow jackets worn by cyclists, runners, security guards, builders, and the French ‘gilets jaunes’ (yellow vests) protestors. It is all about being visible, being noticed, or drawing attention to something or someone, out of necessity or desire, for safety reasons, to promote something (yellow stickers on reduced items in supermarkets, anyone?), or for more sinister reasons.

I have fond childhood memories of being given a bright yellow cap on my first day at school, something we were expected to wear on our way to and from the school for the first year, clearly identifying us as i-Dötzchen (literally: the dot on the letter i) and, importantly, making us more visible to motorists. In advertising and branding, yellow is sought after and sometimes fought over. Recently a high court found that Tesco had infringed Lidl’s trademark logo of a yellow circle on blue ground, using it in certain promotions to associate it with lower prices.

Of the more sinister examples of using the colour yellow, there is nothing more shocking in history than the Nazis forcing Jewish people from September 1941 onwards to wear a yellow star badge on their clothing, the so-called ‘Judenstern’.

Another example of racism was the gradual association in Western culture of Asian people with the colour yellow, ostensibly on account of their skin colour (which is, of course, not yellow), but with the aim of colour-coding them as threatening, evil and dangerous. This western fear of Chinese and other Asian immigrants peaked in the late19th century, with the German Emperor Wilhelm II allegedly coining the phrase ‘die Gelbe Gefahr’ (the yellow peril) in 1895, tapping into the long history of skewed, unscientific, and unacceptable Western racial theory.

The yellow avant garde

Around the time Wilhelm II coined his corrosive phrase, yellow was embraced and loved by progressive and transgressive groups. In France, Vincent van Gogh and Paul Gauguin were tearing up the rule book of colour in figurative representation, offering pots of glowing sunflowers, and almost neon-yellow images of the crucified Christ, while in England the 1890s were called the ‘Yellow Decade’, in reference to the use of yellow by avant-garde artists and writers. Yellow became associated with decadence, dandyism, the Aesthetic Movement, and anti-Victorianism. Oscar Wilde, one of the figureheads of the movement, was arrested in London in 1895 [see ROSA #3] allegedly clutching a ‘Yellow Book’, a British literary journal that ran from 1894 to 1897, which had a bright yellow cover. Brighton’s own Aubrey Beardsley was the art editor and designer of this ground-breaking publication, which must have looked shockingly modern to late-Victorian society. In Brighton Museum’s collection is one of Beardsley’s cover designs for The Yellow Book, and a copy of the journal is currently on display alongside it.

Vincent van Gogh’s love of yellow, which he associated with the sun and sunlight, is closely related to the gradual move in the use of colour in art from representational and naturalistic to expressive and symbolic. His use of yellow in combination with other primary and complementary colours shows a great awareness of 19thcentury colour theory and the laws of colour contrast, and was aided by the invention and commercialisation of new pigments and readymade paints. His paintings in which yellow features prominently are emotionally powerful, for example The Night Café from 1888 (mentioned in ROSA #4), or one of his last works, the unsettling Wheatfield with Crows (1890). This intensity partly derives from use of brilliant synthetic or synthesized colours, such as Cadmium and Chrome Yellow, available at the time. The glowing beauty of his Sunflowers series owes much to his liberal use of both those colours, straight from the tube, but it also caused the flowers to wilt, as some of the paints he bought were poor quality, and Chrome Yellow has a tendency to darken quickly. The physicality and materiality of yellow and other colours in Vincent’s life and work are highly significant, and I wonder how this aspect of his art will translate into the immersive Van Gogh Alive at The Dome in Brighton (until Sept 3).

Historic yellows

Earth pigments were among the earliest colours humans sourced, of which ochres yield a dull, brownish-yellow range. Nature has provided us with a fair few pure yellow pigments and dyes, but with no other colour is there a greater difference between organic and mineral, or between natural and chemical. The Ditchling weaver and dyer Ethel Mairet listed a lovely range of natural dyestuffs from around the world in A Book of Vegetable Dyes (first published in 1918 by The Ditchling Press): among others, weld, Old Fustic, lichen, quercitron, heather, privet, and onion skin. A copy in Brighton’s Jubilee Library contains samples of wool (presumably from Sussex sheep) dyed by a reader following Mairet’s recipes.

Other historic organic pigments include the intriguing Indian Yellow, made from distilled urine of Indian cows that were supposedly fed mango leaves, in an attempt to yield the brightest possible yellow colour. The pigment was closely linked to the East India Company trade, and arrived in Europe as compressed lumps, with a distinctive pungent smell. For obvious reasons, it never caught on in interior decoration. Unrelated to pigment production but connected to its changeable appearance, urine was also the base of one of the first attempts to order colour in the form of a wheel: from the early 16th century onwards, we find several uroscopic colour wheels in illustrated manuscripts, depicting different shades of urine. These were used to diagnose medical conditions.

An ancient inorganic pigment that produced a rich canary yellow is Orpiment, a natural arsenic sulphide that was widely used in Ancient Egypt, Persia and Asia. The arsenic content is the cause of its brilliance, but also of its toxicity, and it does not mix well with other colours. Because of its brilliance it was popular as a heraldic colour. Many yellows we see in Western medieval and Renaissance paintings contain lead-based pigments. Lead-tin yellow can be golden and luminous, but, like most brilliant pigments, it is toxic and dangerous to produce. It is evident in the work of many of the great masters, including Vermeer, Rubens, Giotto, Titian, and Rembrandt, but from the later 18th century it was replaced by modern yellows.

Imperial yellows in the Royal Pavilion

Of the new, manufactured yellows, Chrome Yellow, as later used by van Gogh, was a game-changer. It was discovered and commercialised in George IV’s lifetime, and because he was a man of eccentric tastes and careless spending habits, we have one of the greatest examples of the use of this new artificial yellow in Sussex. George embraced new, powerful pigments to complement the Chinese-inspired interiors. Yellow played a very special role, as it was associated with the Emperor of China, something he would surely have been aware of.

Two new European yellows have been identified in the Royal Pavilion: Turner’s Patent Yellow (in small quantities) and Chrome Yellow (in large quantities). The former pigment has nothing to do with the painter JMW Turner, although he was known to use it and was so fond of the colour yellow in painting that critics poked fun at him and suggested he was suffering from yellow fever (examples of Turner’s yellowinfused paintings can be seen at Petworth House in West Sussex). It was a pigment patented by London colourman James Turner in 1781. He marketed it in 1787 as his ‘Patent Mineral Yellow’ and you can see an example in the Yellow Drawing Room of Sir John Soane’s Museum, London. In the Pavilion, Patent Yellow was found on some painted canvas decorations and carved ornaments on the upper floor.

While yellow was a popular colour in fashion and, to an extent, in upholstery and interior decoration, it was unusual and controversial to choose highly saturated yellows, that tended towards orange, for interiors until well into the 1830s. This, of course, did not deter George from embracing the new, intense Chrome Yellow for the interiors of Carlton House (his London palace) and the Royal Pavilion. Chrome Yellow, or lead chromate, had been discovered in 1797 by the French chemist LN Vauquelin and was first made available commercially in Britain by the German Dr Bollman between 1814 and 1820. In 1829 the colourman TH Vanherman commented: ‘chrome yellow surpasses every other yellow, for brilliancy, beauty, and intensity of colour, either as a full, or in its gradations when lowered with white’. The interior decorator and colour theorist David Ramsay Hay described it in his 1845 Nomenclature of Colours as ‘the purest of yellows’. It famously became the colour of New York taxis and US school buses.

Chrome yellow was used extensively on the upper floor of the Royal Pavilion, in the suite of Bow Rooms at the north-east end, almost as soon as it had become available commercially, and was possibly also used to create some greens in the building, by mixing it with blue pigment (most likely Prussian blue). It is a good example of how George embraced new technologies and fashions, with little concern for the costs involved.

Faded glory: yellow from the East

There is another wonderful yellow in the Royal Pavilion, hiding in plain sight, which came from the other side of the world. Many walls of the Pavilion were once hung with Chinese wallpaper, created in studios near Canton in around 1800, specifically for the export market. These came with different ground colours and varying motifs and styles, such as Asian birds, plants and insects, or narrative, mythological scenes. One of the ground colours of a near-complete set of Chinese wallpaper is yellow. In the last few years this has been restored and rehung in Queen Victoria’s bedroom in the Pavilion, with some missing sections digitally recreated. It is breathtakingly beautiful, and some of the flowers seen on the paper were also planted in the Pavilion Garden, including peonies and chrysanthemums.

The yellow ground colour looks very pale, almost off-white in parts, but it was once much more saturated and vivid, with the stylised flowers, trees and birds forming an eyepopping contrast. The yellow used by the Chinese artists was Gamboge, an organic colour created using gum resin from evergreen trees in South-East Asia. Its name is a derivation of Camboja, the old name for Cambodia, one of the places where the pigment was sourced. Being an organic pigment, it would have looked luminous when first applied to the paper, but it has faded to a very mellow yellow over the last 200-odd years. It is possible that the once vivid yellows of the Chinese wallpaper and other export-ware encouraged George IV to use Chrome Yellow in such an emphatic way. It seems Turner was not the only one suffering from aesthetic yellow fever in the early 19th century.

Alexandra Loske is a curator at Royal Pavilion & Brighton Museums and the author of Colour: A Visual History (Tate 2019).