One of the star exhibits of the Regency Colour and Beyond display in the Royal Pavilion is a treatise on colour by Moses Harris (1730 – c.1788) from 1811, first published in London sometime between 1769 and 1776. Harris was an entomologist (a scientist dedicated to the study of insects) and an engraver. He wrote several books on British insects, illustrated with stunning hand-coloured engravings. The necessary accurate colouring of entomological illustrations probably educated Harris’s eye and inspired him to write this short treatise on colour in general, The Natural System of Colours. It is only ten pages long, but became hugely influential in British culture.
Harris was the first to introduce detailed colour wheels in English literature on colour. He illustrated his work with engraved and hand-coloured plates, one showing prismatic and the other one compound colours in gradation. As the overlapping triangles in the centre indicate he was mostly concerned with paint colour, unlike Isaac Newton’s Opticks from 1704, which dealt with insubstantial colour in the form of coloured light. Harris also included examples of the effects of mixing and layering semi-transparent paint.
The full title of the book is impressive in its length and detail, and reveals Harris’s concern with the application of colour in painting and illustration. Sadly, it was too long to include it in full on the label: The Natural System of Colours Wherein is displayed the regular and beautiful Order and Arrangement, Arising from the Three Primitives, Red, Blue, and Yellow, The manner in which each Colour is formed, and its Composition, The Dependance they have on each other, and by their Harmonious Connections Are produced the Teints, or Colours, of every Object in the Creation, And those Teints, tho’ so numerous as 660, are all comprised in Thirty Three Terms. The first edition was dedicated to Sir Joshua Reynolds, who had just become the first president of the newly founded Royal Academy.
Only a few copies of the first edition are known to have survived. One is in the library of the Royal Academy, London, and might well be Reynolds’s own copy; another one is in the Faber Birren collection of colour books at Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut. The American colour writer Faber Birren decided to recut the copper plates in 1963 and published a facsimile edition of what he called ‘perhaps the rarest known book in the literature of color’.
Like many other eighteenth century writings on colour the book was re-published in the early nineteenth century. The copy on display in the Pavilion is the second edition from 1811, edited by Thomas Martyn and dedicated to the second President of the Royal Academy, Benjamin West. West was known to have a great interest in colour theory and even composed his own treatise on colour. The 1811 edition is almost as rare as the first edition, and the coloured plates are much brighter than in the 18th century copies. Harris’s short book and his colour wheels continued to influence many other colour writers, artists and scholars in the 19th century, in both Britain and other countries.
We borrowed our copy from the largest library dedicated to publications on colour in Britain, the Colour Reference Library at the Royal College of Art, London. As part of my research for my doctoral thesis and this exhibition I have tried to see as many copies of the book in the flesh as possible, to compare the various stages of deterioration of the paints used: you can see the plates from the Royal Academy copy.
The Faber Birren copy shows serious discolouration, probably caused by mixed pigments reacting with each other, but it is interesting to see that it once belonged to a Liverpool library, as a small stamp mark on the plate reveals:
Harris also produced an interpretation of his own colour wheel and included it as a reference plate to his book An Exposition of English Insects, which went into several editions in the 1770s and 1780s. Faber Birren owned a copy of this, too. The frontispiece of Exposition is a charming self-portrait of Harris, in which he depicts himself surrounded by the tools and subjects of his trade, including butterflies, nets and a painter’s palette. To me, Moses Harris’s books are among the most beautifully designed and illustrated publications of the Georgian era and it is very special to have a copy of his Natural System of Colours in the Royal Pavilion for a while.
Alexandra Loske, Guide and Researcher at the Royal Pavilion