The unbearable whiteness of being

Alexandra Loske on the colour that is all hues and none.

James McNeill Whistler Symphony in White, No. 1: The White Girl, 1862, portrait of Joanna Hiffernan. The National Gallery of Art, Washington DC

I came to Sussex partly for its colour. When deciding where to settle, I wasn’t interested in glowing Mediterranean light, I wanted the subtle shades of this waterlogged country. I was tempted by the dramatic blues and greys of Scotland, and the purples and browns of the Yorkshire moors, but in the end, Sussex won me over. It was the almost prismatic quality of the gentle greens of the Downs, with their contrasting chalk paths drawing patterns into the thin layer of grass, and the dramatic chalk cliffs.

I waited eagerly for the first snowfall. I wasn’t disappointed. After even just a sprinkling of snow on the Downs, Sussex becomes one of the most beautiful landscapes anywhere, any time. I am biased, of course, but I challenge you to find something more gently textured than the Sussex hills and valleys after snowfall or during a rare hoar frost. I am sure Eric Ravilious and many other artists thought the same: perhaps it was Ravilious who had the most intimate understanding of the chalk-based shapes and textures of Sussex.

Later, when I became a colour historian, I learnt that chalk was also one of the earliest pigments used by humans, simply because it is so easy to source and hardly needs any intervention. Chalk is old in many respects: it is essentially a form of limestone, a mineral calcite – a compressed form of organisms – formed around 100 million years ago. Until recently, most of us wrote, drew, taught and learnt with chalk on blackboards.

I developed a somewhat heightened sense for white through porcelain, having spent many childhood holidays in the 1970s in East Germany. I had family in Dresden, and their houses were filled with porcelain from the nearby Meissen manufactory. The story of how this ‘white gold’ was invented by trying to imitate

Chinese porcelain fascinated me, but the Meissen vases, plates and bowls that have accumulated in my own home are also a part of German post-war history. You had to spend the large amounts of East German currency that, as a Western visitor, you were forced to obtain, and my parents spent it on spaceage Meissen. I learnt to love the colour of Meissen long before I loved the objects themselves. To this day, I can tell that shade of porcelain from a distance, and sometimes shout at the television when I see a Meissen cup on the Antiques Road Show.

Light, entirely and perfectly white

But is white a colour? Or is it the opposite of colour, the absence of colour, just a medium for ‘real’ colour? It is missing on many classic colour wheels, but very much present in threedimensional concepts of colour. Scientifically speaking, there is every reason to lift white above all other colours because, as Isaac Newton proved by unpicking and reassembling the rainbow in the late 17th century, pure white light can be split into all colours on the visible spectrum, and, in turn, all optical colours combined create whiteness.

I have just finished a small book on the first woman who published an illustrated book on colour, Mary Gartside. In her beautiful 1805 Essay on Light and Shade, on Colour… she presents a sequence of colours for painters, and places white in first position. She had read Newton, of course, and succinctly captured the physical and conceptual meaning of white: ‘The true primitive colour of light, unmixed with any other substance, is white. I shall therefore speak of this colour first. Its contrast or opposite is of course black, or darkness.’ In her illustration – a gorgeous, freely painted abstract blot – she combines white with its ‘harmonising tint’ green, ‘from its full to its palest gradation’. This is close to the chromatic make-up of the Sussex Downs.

Yet, white isn’t many people’s favourite colour. It is often dismissed in colour history, and few books have been written about it. However, the latest in a series of monographs by the great colour historian Michel Pastoureau is about white. It follows blue, black, green, red, and yellow. I would like to have a chat with him about his colour order.

Snowy peaks of pigment

For artists, designers and scientists, white is of course a colour, and in Patrick Syme’s 1821 edition of Werner’s Nomenclature of Colours, the list of whites is one of eight tainted versions of Newton’s perfect white: snow white, reddish white, purplish white, yellowish white, orange coloured white, greenish white, skimmed milk white, greyish white. It seems that there is a co-dependency between white and chromatic colours.

Whites from Patrick Syme’s Werner’s Nomenclature of Colours (1821). Courtesy of Alexandra Loske.

Substances from which to create white pigment and paint are abundant, unlike in the cases of blue or green. Chalk is a good, cheap allrounder, but the history of white pigments is long, brilliant, and often toxic. Lead white is one of the most important and notorious colours in history. It has been in use since antiquity and was one of the earliest pigments to be produced synthetically. Lead whites are thick, heavy, durable, have a high tinting power, and dry quickly. They were often used as a ground colour by artists to lighten a composition or depict light itself. Its strength and versatility came at a high price, especially for those producing it, as it is highly toxic. White facial make-up containing lead killed many a fashion-conscious person in the 18th century. Lead white comes in many linguistic guises, such as flake white, Berlin white, ceruse, Dutch white, blanc d’argent (silver white), Vienna white, or Cremnitz white. It can be found in some of the original wallpaper in the Royal Pavilion, dating from the late 1820s or early 1830s: as long as you don’t lick it, you’ll be perfectly fine.

In the 19th century, lead white was gradually being replaced with less toxic alternatives, among them the semi-opaque zinc white (first manufactured in the 1780s), which is cooler and lighter, but responds very differently when mixed with oil. When used too thickly, it easily turns brittle. Zinc white was often marketed as ‘Chinese white’. The most recent in this trio of popular whites is titanium white. It was invented simultaneously in Norway and the United States in the first decades of the 20th century and is a common pigment in contemporary art and design, largely due to its affordability and high reflectiveness. It is one of the brightest colours available commercially.

Some artists couldn’t quite let go of the punchier lead white, though. A visitor to Monet’s studio in Giverny in 1918, when he was working on the Nymphéas, noticed the ‘mountains of white snowy peaks’ of lead white on Monet’s palette.

The horrors of white

White has a multitude of symbolic meanings, many of them connected to its perceived purity: it can stand for divinity, innocence, the beginning of life, hygiene, clarity, high status, virginity, lightness, elegance, and sophistication. Yet, many of these positive associations can be turned on their heads: white is also the colour of emptiness, absence, the unknown, ghosts and apparitions, artificiality, and soullessness.

Image: A detail from the John Piper window in Firle church.

This inherent contradiction makes white fascinating: in many cultures brides wear white, babies are christened in white, but the shrouds of the dead are white, too. Associated with bleached bones, it is the colour of death and mourning in many parts of the world. Hospitals, art galleries and Modernist interiors want to reassure and entice us through their whiteness, yet the wide-open white-out spaces of the two Poles are associated with white deaths in snow and ice.

Image: Fergus Hare, Ink Moon #2, 2014 Ink on paper.

One of the most famous literary descriptions of how white can trigger strong emotions is in Herman Melville’s Moby Dick (1851) in which white is synonymous with the sublime, and fear of the unknown. An entire chapter of the novel, The Whiteness of the Whale, lists the symbolic meanings of white through history and in many cultures, before associating the white colour of the whale with terror, death, ghostliness, and snowbound landscapes. Melville’s narrator muses that it is the ‘elusive quality … which causes the thought of whiteness, when divorced from more kindly associations, and coupled with any object terrible in itself, to heighten that terror to the furthest bounds.’ Melville’s final lines in the ‘white chapter’ read like an excursion into colour theory, with the narrator pondering the inherent nature of the colour white: ‘Or is it, that as in essence whiteness is not so much a colour as the visible absence of colour, and at the same time the concrete of all colours?’

The association of white with purity, sophistication and perfection is closely linked to our idea of the Classical ‘white’ world. This is now known to be a misconception, as many of the pale architectural surfaces, ornaments and sculpture of Ancient Rome and Greece were originally painted in vivid colours, now faded. The Classical ideal of whiteness has been peddled and promoted for many centuries and was perhaps at its peak at the time when places like Brighton and London flourished in the 18th and early 19th century. Buildings, ornament, art, and fashion were echoing the fascination with white, Classical culture. In my work at the Royal Pavilion, I see countless images of Regency ladies dressed in white. It was considered the peak of elegance and sophistication, but was also a symbol of wealth and privilege. You could only wear those gauzy white dresses if you did not have to do any manual, messy work, and had someone to clean them for you.

One gorgeous mass of nothingness: white in art Personally, I like the notion of white as nothingness, or an absence, a visual and mental pause, a zen-like achromatic state. In art, this can work in many ways, for example by using the thickest, most tinting pigment available, or by doing the opposite: using nothing at all. The latter is more common than you might think, and it is fun looking for examples of white nothingness in art. A potent example is a small watercolour by Thomas Girtin, in Tate Britain, with a small house as its focal point, the titular White House at Chelsea (1800). It’s a landscape with lovely colour harmonies, but the little house steals the show. Perhaps its visual power lies in the purity of absence: the house is not actually painted but is a part of the composition left blank, the paper untouched. The house is really only the outline of the colour areas around it. The various hillside figures in Sussex and elsewhere in the country work on the same principal: the Long Man of Wilmington was originally cut from the landscape, revealing the chalk under the skin of the turf.

The use of white in art almost always relies on the colours that surround it, from highly saturated tints to the subtlest of earthy browns, greys and blues, as in the eerily quiet paintings of Vilhelm Hammershøi (1864-1916). They almost all appear white, or grey at most, but are highly complex tonal arrangements of many colours. In stained glass, contrasts are particularly strong, as we can see in the sickle moon of John Piper’s 1985 window in Firle Church. Here, the white lifts the inky blue that surrounds it – and links itself chromatically to the flock of sheep depicted below. The moon as motif in human culture embodies much of the symbolism related to the colour white, but is of course not white. I admire artists who can paint the reflective and ever-changing colours of the moon and give them the appearance of whiteness. Fergus Hare (see ROSA #1) is among them, and one of his deceptively not-quite-white moons hangs above my writing desk.

But what if white becomes the topic of an artwork? I was pleased, but not surprised that Pastoureau chose James Abbott McNeill Whistler’s Symphony in White, No. 1: The White Girl (1861-62) as the cover image for his tome on white. That painting has played a part in my life since I was very young. I was mesmerised, but not disturbed by its whiteness when I first saw it, unlike many critics at the time it was painted. While Whistler himself described his work as ‘one gorgeous mass of brilliant white’ (except for the model’s auburn hair), the public went wild with speculation about the iconography of the painting, leading to it being rejected by the Royal Academy. This had everything to do with the symbolism of white: could this be a virginal bride about to lose her innocence? Was this an illustration of novelist Wilkie Collins’ troubled fictional Woman in White? Whistler himself rejected deeper meaning and resorted to white nothingness: ‘My painting simply represents a girl dressed in white standing in front of a white curtain.’

Alexandra Loske is the Curator of The Royal Pavilion.