Rare copy of Moses Harris’s Natural System of Colours on display at the Royal Pavilion

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:

The Faber Birren copy of the first edition (Yale University)
The Faber Birren copy of the first edition (Yale University)

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

5 Responses

  1. A Morning Down Town – 5th August 2013 | Roundhillrob's Blog

    […] So a plan was born – up early on Monday and at the Royal Pavilion before the throngs of summer visitors, and spend a bit of time studying Alex’s exhibition.  Some very pleasing old books full of hand-coloured illustrations clearly showing that enthusiasm for and understanding of colour was a big thing in the later stages of the 18th and first half of the 19th centuries.  In terms of our Royal Pavilion this comes over as a shift from Chinese-based designs and colours in the early 19th century designs of Frederick Crace, to the richer coloured designs of Robert Jones which came in just a few years later and made great use of early synthetic colours such as chrome yellow and Prussian blue.  See more at this site. […]

  2. Christopher Harrington

    Great Stuff. I am a historian of entomology who thinks that Harris’ system of colours probably can be dated by looking at Dru Drury’s abusive letters to Harris telling him to get the colours of his insects right. This would be 1771,2 or 3. Can’t they do some paper version of a dendro-test to find the date out? I want to know the exact date! Circumstantial evidence, but one could also look at Harris’ earlier works in colour and find a change. The colour is magnifico in his Exposition, but not so good in the Aurelian. Still look at Drury’s preface to his Illustrations, he had a jolly old rant about the problems of colour, and the letter are very direct: get it right or no money.

    • Alexandra Loske

      Dear Christopher, yes, it would be great to pin down the exact publication date. Many scholars have tried but failed. One could go through advertisements and reviews in magazines, but I’m sure someone would have found a reference if there was one. It all becomes so much easier in the late 18th and early 19th century. Yes, I know the Drury/Harris correspondence, but only from being quoted in essays. And I think you are right about the early 1770s being the most likely year of publication of the System of Colours. Best, Alexandra

  3. siobhan campbell

    Thank you so much for highlighting this extraordinary work! I present an art appreciation course called the Power of Colour which describes the history of art through pigment, so far after 2 years no one has ever heard of Moses Harris it is always a ‘WOW’ moment in the class when I discuss this.

  4. Gerrit van Rijn

    I have the same experience as Siobhan Campbell .
    I am writing also the describion of historical pigments including the etymology of the names. But I do this in the Netherlands language with the same names in English, French, German and Latin e.g.
    Pigment Blue 30, PB 30, het natuurlijke en het synthetische pigment hebben beide CI-nummer 77420. Als het op koper of zijn lege-ringen ontstaat wordt het verdigrisgroen genoemd, het ontstaat dan door de inwerking van koolstofdioxide en water op koper. In het Frans wordt naast carbonate de cuivre(II) of carbonate de cui-vre, ook namen als bleu azur, azur d’Allemagne (Azurro Della Magna), bleu de montagne, pierre d’arménie, cendre bleue chrysocolle verte, cuivre carbonaté vert, cuivre soyeux, fleurs de cuivre vertes, oxyde vert de cuivre, vert de cuivre, vert de cuivre ferrugineux, vert de montagne of ocre bleue gebruikt. Het Duits kent het als Bergblau en met Schultz-nummer 1437 en Engels basic copper carbonate, zuni blue of mountain blue.
    Gerrit van Rijn

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *