The Collation

Research and Exploration at the Folger

An early modern color guide

As I was answering a reference question yesterday relating to heraldic funeral processions in Folger MS V.a.447—a heraldic miscellany written by John Guillim shortly after he was made Portsmouth Pursuivant of Arms—my eyes snagged on a subsection near the end titled, “The names of all Coloures pertaining to Lymminge.”

Detail from Folger MS V.a.447, leaf xxr.
Detail from Folger MS V.a.447, leaf 47r.

The list of names immediately made me think of the colors that J. Crew and other clothing companies come up with each season (see this recent Huffington Post article) or the thousands of nearly-identical interior paint hues at Home Depot and Lowes, each with a unique name: sangria, ballet slipper, arctic, etc. These names are descriptive and confounding at the same time, requiring an image or a description to truly make sense. In early modern Europe, the names mostly relate to pigments, minerals, and place of origin, but even these names can be evocative and mysterious, such as ultramarine (a brilliant blue that comes from beyond the seas), [black]smith’s coal, and Spanish brown. And then there’s sanguis draconis, or dragon’s blood, a blood-red resin used mostly for medicinal purposes but listed here by Guillim.

So, here for your amusement is a 400-year-old list of colors used for limning (that is, painting with watercolor-type paint). Many of these colors appear in Henry Peacham’s The art of drawing (London, 1606) and in an earlier anonymous treatise, A very proper treatise, wherein is briefly sett forthe the arte of limming (London, 1573), but not all of them. Guillim’s list of colors is on the left of the page shown, and transcribed below. (On the right of the page is a list of the primary gums that were ground with some of the colors (others were strained): gum armoniac, gum hedera, gum lake, and gum arabic.)

List of colors for limning in Folger MS V.a.447, leaf xxr. (click to enlarge)
List of colors for limning in Folger MS V.a.447, leaf 47v. (click to enlarge)

Blewes: Vltra marine, Blewe byce, Smalte, Litmose, Inde blewe, English Inde, florye
Greenes: Severe greene, Greene byce, Verditer, Verdigrece, Sape greene, flowrdeluce greene
Yellowes: Masticot, Orpiment, Generall, Saffron, Berry yellow, Oker de Rowse, or Spanish ocker
Reddes: Vermilion, Redleade, Synaper lake, Roset, Synaper Toppes
Sangwines: Sanguis Draconis, Turnsole
Brownes: Spanish browne, Bole Armoriak, Oker burnte
Whites: Ceruse white, White leade, Spanish white, Chalke
[Blacks]: Lampblacke, Smythes Cole, Cherry stone, Blacke Chalke

Not only does Guillim list the colors, but he describes their composition in the pages following his list. For example, he provides detailed instructions on the gathering and processing of lillies to make the color “fleur de lis green,” as pictured and transcribed below:

To make fflowrdeluce greene. Folger MS V.a.447, leaf xxr.
To make fflowrdeluce greene. Folger MS V.a.447, leaf 49r.

Gather your fflorredeluces ffortnight before mydsummer & havinge
a faire glasse in redynesse gather your flowres when the
deawe is of them, & that the svnne hath somwhat bleached
Then take the blewe leaves & purple leaves & nippe
it from the stalke, takinge no parte of the flowre, but
only of the fairest of the blewe & of the purple. Let your
glasse be wyde mowthed, & put your fflowres therinto
Lett your fflowres be full blown before you gather them
gatheringe asmany as you can get, for many of them make
but a little Color. You must stoppe your glasse contynually very
close settinge it in a shadowe place, lest the force of the
Sune drye vp the moisture therof. And so keepinge them
fast stopped let them consvme & rotte tyll they become water
& the liquor a darke greene. Then strayne it through in lynen

On another page, he provides further instructions for tempering the fleur de lis green after it has been prepared: use fair water, rather than gum water.

As a pursuivant, John Guillim would have had a strong interest in knowing how to make the colors for blazoning coats of arms. This image from a ca. 1590 armorial (Folger MS V.b.74, leaf 201r) illustrates the colors used in coats of arms in early modern England:

Armorial of English Families, ca. 1590. Folger MS V.b.74, leaf 201r.
Armorial of English Families, ca. 1590. Folger MS V.b.74, leaf 201r.

But some of the colors are not true heraldic colors, and I assume he would have been interested in them for illustrating pedigrees and decorating the elaborate borders of grants of arms, such as the one below.

Grant of arms from Clarenceux King of Arms to Edward Lyster, Esq., doctor of physick of London, 1602 April 20. Folger MS Z.c.22 (1).
Grant of arms from Clarenceux King of Arms to Edward Lyster, Esq., doctor of physick of London, 1602 April 20. Folger MS Z.c.22 (1).

I’m imagining cherry stone black leggings with a turnsole sweater, and an accent wall in the living room of berry yellow…


  • I love this sort of thing beyond measure. I love colors, the names of colors, knowing what substances were used to produce them, and what substances lent their own names–for being considered the very type of a color.
    I love trying to understand how the eye perceives things, and why we revel in some.
    I love the minutely specific terms used by those most involved with what is being named—Once everyone would have known multiple terms for the many kinds of geographical landscapes because humans were of the land & needed to describe places, and traveling between them, by land-mark rather than maps or sign-posts.
    There’s not just sadness, but danger in losing such precise terms because of the loss of attention to things in their sacred specificity.
    “Just as language has no longer anything in common with the thing it names, so the movements of most of the people who live in cities have lost their connexion with the earth; they hang, as it were, in the air, hover in all directions, and find no place where they can settle.” Rilke
    I think that now any depth of vocabulary belongs to experts who need the specialisation for tools of their trade—-which can also be fun. Like color for artists.
    And I like lists.
    I wonder whether I might quote a lot of this article in a post on my blog?
    [Where I’ve stored up little bits of such knowledge:
    Goethe defined color as “the deeds and sufferings of light”

    • I’m delighted you liked Heather’s post–it’s so evocative for just the reasons you name. And you’re more than welcome to quote excerpts from it, as long as you attribute it to Heather and link back to it on The Collation. We license the blog under a Creative Commons Attribution–Non-Commercial license for precisely these reasons!

    • Wonderful—- I think I might have seen that image before, but what was going on, and who was involved, make it not just significant but exciting.
      I love the mixing of disciplines there was when everyone was so eager to understand the world (what a radical difference with today; first scientists became isolated–and them, somehow, scorned!)
      It was a physician who wrote the ‘Observations made by a young Gentleman, who was born blind, or lost his Sight, so early, that he had no Remembrance of ever having seen’ in the post I linked to above: “Scarlet he thought the most beautiful of all colours”

  • I am very excited by early modern attitudes to colour and am half way through my PhD looking at colour in Shakespeare as a means to express emotion. The reproductions of the manuscripts are amazing and are provoking many fascinating thoughts for my research. Many thanks

  • I love this post more than I can say. I spent two or three days during my time at the Folger this past summer trying to figure out what color “hair coloured” was, as I was working on hair lace bracelets and it had come up in descriptions of textiles (i.e. “A suite of hair-colored veluet”. I couldn’t figure out whether it was a grayish brown (i.e. “hare” color) or the color of human hair. I finally found the answer in Jane Lawson’s glossary to Elizabethan New Years’ Gift exchange: beige, supposedly the color of flaxen hair.

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