Wednesday, 25 November 2009

Colours and taste

It's funny how secure we are in our belief as to what's in good taste and what's in bad. It's only when we're in a transitional phase between one empire of taste and another that you experience for yourself how contingent it all is. Everything from colours and trouser bottoms to landscape.

I'm experiencing one such moment now. I can clearly remember why I thought those Farrow and Ball colours were tasteful and quite attractive. And yet I've decided they look somehow dated, even somehow quite revolting. We do this and we feel it's one of those things that marks us out as individuals: "I love this"; "I hate this"; "I just do, I'm like that". But when we express our taste preferences about something that is so widely consumed as paint we are usually at our least individual; more often than not, we're a mere cipher for the culture.

There are a couple of places that always bring home to me how specific is our appreciation of colour. I enjoy colour anyway and these are places where it's inescapable. However, the palette seems rather outlandish to our eyes and might even, perhaps, be considered in bad taste. My guess is that to contemporaries they would have been unsettling initially but then matured into the epitome of good, mainstream taste.

The wonderful picture below (from here) is a great reminder of how the old days were a lot less drab than we tend to assume. It's the Victorian-era Smithfield market which was re-painted in its original vibrant colours a few years ago. It's a combination we would never dream of putting together today. In good taste or bad?

Here's another favourite place of extreme colour: the upstairs drawing room at the Sir John Soane Museum. It's south-facing (I think) and when the sun's in the right spot, the room envelopes you in sunshiny, lemon yellow. The scheme dates from the early-nineteenth century and has recently been restored: the shade is called Patent Yellow. Again probably something not considered terribly tasteful today. But how could Sir John Soane be lacking in taste?

Finally, one that I thought that was of a piece with the others, but apparently not. Worth looking at anyway just because it's so ususual. I thought Albert Bridge was another example of a Victorian structure being restored to its original - and, to our eye, quite strange - colours following its restoration in the early 1990s. However, it turns out the current scheme was an innovation designed to protect the fragile structure from collisions by making it more visible to river traffic. The purely functional justification makes its exuberant cake-icing appearance even more extraordinary.


worm said...

I stand by my comments in your previous post! A judicious use of bright colours is a very good thing, painting everything the colour of porridge is not.

worm said...

just needed to add though - I HATE Pugin colours!! YUCK

Brit said...

Remember back in the mid 90s when everything was bright orange?

It started with the Trainspotting poster and then all the (shortlived) dotcom businesses with monosyllabic names used it.

Sophie King said...

Some colours were great wealth-signifiers. In the first half of the eighteenth century green velvet was just about the most opulent fabric you could buy - its scarcity was due to the difficulty of the dyeing process. There is a vast bed at Houghton Hall designed by William Kent for Robert Walpole which is draped in the stuff, enhanced by liberal use of silver thread.

Our pre-Reformation churches were full of colour - polychrome statues, great gilded and painted altarpieces, fabulous wall paintings.

Times and tastes do indeed change. The concept I have most difficulty with is the pristine white marble friezes of the Parthenon covered in bright colours. The cool, clean, pale lines of the neo-classical revival of the eighteenth century were, in reality, a partial con which we have propagated ever since.

Gaw said...

Worm: your comment on the last post anticipated this one very nicely.

I don't like the fussy details of Pugin but think his colours can be really very lovely. Take a look at the blue and brown in these tiles.

Brit: EasyJet orange - really quite horrible. Not bright enough to be citrus and fresh but bright enough to be objectionable.

Sophie: I do like a bit of velvet - a multi-sensation experience - and that bed with the silver thread sounds extraordinary.

Re the churches, as these would have been one of the few sources of colour and spectacle in a drab world they would have had a huge impact on your peasant.

Today we appreciate the austereness of churches not only as it appeals to our residual puritanism but also because they still provide a contrast, this time with our overly-colourful world.

A scandal of world-historical proportions, the supposed 'cleaning' of the marbles. And I guess the sensibility displayed is of a piece with our appreciation of bare churches.

worm said...

the tiles are very nice, although quite 'versace' don't you think?

and brit - don't forget the corresponding lime green and also baby blue that went with it!

Although too young/stupid/drunk to realise it at the time, I suppose on reflection that the last time Pugin's palette was in fashion was during the grunge era of the early 90's. Although not a fan of the music or the style, I recall having quite a few purple, wine red and deep velvet green coloured clothes.

oh the shame