Last chance to see one of the rarest and most unusual books about colour ever published: Mary Gartside’s An Essay on Light and Shade from 1805

Mary Gartside’s red taken from An Essay on Light and Shade
Mary Gartside’s red taken from An Essay on Light and Shade

A rare and beautiful book on colour, published in 1805 in London by the flower painter Mary Gartside, is on display at the Royal Pavilion as part of the Regency Colour and Beyond display, but only until 18 September.

Only around fifteen copies of the book are recorded in libraries and collections worldwide. The book is on loan from a private collection and its illustrations have recently been photographed for the Royal Pavilion. It will have to be removed from the display earlier than other exhibits, but there is a chance to see it up close on 10 October at the special event The picturesque book – Books about colour in the 19th century in the Red Drawing Room of the Royal Pavilion.

Very little is known about the author Mary Gartside’s life. It is not known where or when she was born, but she probably grew up near Manchester in the latter part of the eighteenth century and retained an address there until 1808. She taught painting in watercolour, probably in London, and exhibited botanical drawings at the Royal Academy in 1781 and at a number of other art societies until 1808. A number of letters written by Gartside survive in the records of the Associated Artists in Water-Colours, where Gartside exhibited in 1808. She published three books between 1805 and 1808, all dealing with colour theory and its application in the art of painting in watercolour: An Essay on Light and Shade (1805) Ornamental Groups, Descriptive of Flowers, Birds, Shells, Fruit, Insects etc. from 1808; and the second edition of the former with a new the title: An Essay on a New Theory of Colour, also published in 1808. Gartside’s books were owned by either George IV’s mother Queen Charlotte or his sisters Augusta, Sophia and Elizabeth. She probably died suddenly in or around 1809, bringing her thriving career as an author to abrupt end.

The copy on display in the Royal Pavilion is Gartside’s first book, privately published and printed in London by T. Gardiner in 1805. At first glance it appears to fit the mould of a typical manual on the art of drawing and watercolour painting, with particular emphasis on the genre of flower painting. In the preface Gartside addresses her students and thus appears to stay within what was acceptable and achievable for a woman to write and publish in the early nineteenth century. Its quarto format was standard for this type of illustrated artists’ manual up to the late 1830s. It comprises fifty-four pages, an engraved title page, two pictorial engraved plates (soft ground etchings), two coloured tables, a coloured engraving and eight coloured plates.

What makes Gartside stand out amongst the wealth of illustrated books on colour and painting published in her period are the eight coloured plates which illustrate her ideas of the arrangement of harmonising and contrasting tints. The tints roughly follow Newton’s prismatic spectrum in terms of division into seven tints, albeit with different names. To these  Gartside adds white, which she places first in the sequence of coloured plates. These plates are not based on line engravings but are individual, freely painted watercolour ‘blots’ with a high degree of abstraction. Gartside’s aim was to reduce examples of harmonious compositions to their colours and degrees of brightness. In the mid-twentieth century a scholar described Gartside’s illustrations as “very fantastic and modern, suggesting paintings by the Swiss artist, Giacometti, or even a Walt Disney film”, acknowledging their “fascinating beauty”. A late painting by Turner, inspired by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s writings on colour, Light and Colour (Goethe’s Theory), bears a striking resemblance to Mary Gartside’s yellow and orange colour blots, suggesting Turner might have been aware of her work. The striking visual quality of Gartside’s blots was recognised more recently by Raphael Rosenberg, who included her book in an exhibition on early abstract art at the Kunsthalle in Frankfurt in 2007/8. A digitised version of that copy is available on the website of Heidelberg University.

Mary Gartside’s blue taken from An Essay on Light and Shade
Mary Gartside’s blue taken from An Essay on Light and Shade

Our copy is on display in the Yellow Ante Room outside the King’s Apartments on the ground floor of the Pavilion. It is opened on the page showing Gartside’s blue blot.

A Regency Colour curator’s tour takes place on 16 September.
Alexandra Loske, Guide and Researcher at the Royal Pavilion

3 Responses

  1. M. Bauer

    Thank you for this post on an under-recognized painter.
    This offers a far more advanced relation between colour theory and painting practice, unique for its time.

  2. Siobhan Leachman

    I came across this blog post while researching Mary Gartside as I am looking for confirmation that she is the artist of two plates in Dru Drury’s “Illustrations of natural history. Wherein are exhibited upwards of two hundred and forty figures of exotic insects, according to their differt genera” See and Unfortunately I haven’t been able to find any confirmation but I’ve very much enjoyed learning more about Mary Gartside. Thank you for the very informative blog.

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