16th August 2017: Colours of Burlington House – A Chronicle

Published on 16th August 2017

RHS Display

Last Friday 11 August, the Royal Academy of Arts, the Society of Antiquaries, the Royal Astronomical Society, The Geological Society, the Royal Society of Chemistry and the Linnean Society partnered in the celebration of the second Burlington House Courtyard Summer Late. 

After a successful kick-start in 2016, the six organisations decided to join forces once again under the common theme of colour. It proved a unique opportunity to meander around the Courtyard discovering the activities each Society had to offer. 

The Linnean Society had the pleasure of having Paul Henderson FLS who gave a short lecture on the use of colour by the influential James Sowerby. The talk was complemented by an exhibition on the development of colours in natural history books from the 16th to the 20th centuries. 

From unevenly hand-painted editions of 16th century herbals to printed colour nomenclatures of the 20th century, the display traces the standardisation of colours used by naturalists and illustrators, which revolutionised natural history works in the late 18th and early 19th century. One such work was John Sibthrop’s Flora Graeca (1806–1840), illustrated by the botanical artist Ferdinand Bauer, and engraved by James Sowerby.

Paul Henderson

Sowerby devised a method for obtaining a scale of colours with the only assistance of a triangular prism and daylight. The 'chromatometer' was his attempt to represent colours for natural history Illustration. Visitors were able to test it themselves to find the colours of the spectrum, as Sowerby explained in his book A New Elucidation of Colours (1809), also on display.

Making paints

Members of the public particularly enjoyed making badges with images derived from natural history books in our collections. Dr John David FLS, from the Royal Horticultural Society, brought the latest RHS colour charts and discussed colour nomenclatures and their uses in plant identification.

To conclude, visitors were able to express their creativity by making their own ‘do it yourself’ paints using natural ingredients while learning the chemistry behind the process. 

The Library exhibit, as well as Sowerby’s chromatometer, will be on display until Monday 11 September. Members of the public are welcome to drop in, but please be aware that the Library is sometimes closed for functions. Contact the Library for more details (+44 (0)20 7434 4479 EXT 223). Opening hours: Monday–Friday, 10am–5pm  

Alicia Fernandez, Events and Communications Manager & Isabelle Charmantier, Deputy Collections Manager / Librarian