Monday, 9 June 2014

When the world was black and white... Anne Rooney

In the Middle Ages, the world was all in colour.

This is the period I first wrote about, many years ago. The rich brilliance of medieval colours is startling, a feast for the eyes.There is a lot blue, the colour of heaven (and also a relatively common paint pigment - it might not have been an accurate representation of reality.)

Even when things were going badly, as in this illustration of plague victims receiving a blessing, the world was gloriously coloured.

All aspects of life, grand or mundane, are depicted in vivid manuscript illuminations, stained glass windows, wall paintings, tapestries and (abroad) mosaics.

Later, I wrote about the Renaissance. Renaissance Venice was another colourful place.  This time it was huge paintings that provided most of the information I neeeded. Tintoretto, Titian, Veronese and their schools worked with vibrant pigments.

But then the world became black and white. I'm researching Victorian London for the story I'm writing at the moment. And last year I was hanging out with Amy Johnson in the 1920s-1940s. That's a black and white era, too.

The only colourful resource I'm using for the Victorian age is Booth's coloured-coded poverty map. Black shows the most deprived areas - that's where my story takes place.

Crawlers, John Thomson, 1877

The people and their lives are recorded only in sombre monotone. With the emergence of photography, and the ability easily to print engravings in books, the main method of recording the world around moved from hand-coloured depictions to monochrome images.

I really don't have a feeling for the nineteenth century in colour. The past is a foreign country; they did things in black and white there.

Nor do I think of most of the twentieth century in colour. Almost all the iconic images of the last century are in black and white.

If you imagine the trenches, aren't they grey? There is no vivid blood, the uniforms are grey, not green, and the sky is never blue.

How strange, then, to find colour photos of those long-ago times and see that the world was not, in fact, black and white.

A French soldier, photographed during World War I, looks like someone dressed up to play the part, so unfamiliar is the colour. Did you even know they wore blue uniforms? I didn't. 

Here is Leo Tolstoy, photographed by the Russian photographer Sergey Mikhaylovich Prokudin-Gorsky in 1908. It's not colourised - it really was a colour photo.

And here are some peasant girls - it looks more like travel photography than a historical image.
 (You can see more of his stunning work on flickr.)

I am struggling to bring colour to my Victorian London. I realised when I came across Prokudin-Gorsky's photos again that my story is grey, and it's grey not jujst because most of it takes place in the slums, but because that's how we see the 19th century. Because I had done all my research with Thompson's photos (such as Crawlers, above) and Doré's pictures of London, I have imagined a world without colour. Without intending to, the scenes where there should be most colour, I have set at night-time, in the dark!

Time to reimagine the past, but this time with colour.

Anne Rooney
aka Stroppy Author
Latest book: Mega Machine Record Breakers, Carlton, May 2014


Quentin Stafford-Fraser said...

A lovely post, Anne.

But time and technology may help recolour the past, too.


Susan Price said...

Please, miss, why is the photo called 'Crawlers?'

C.J.Busby said...

The photo of the trenches was eye-opening! I agree, looked like a modern recreation... Startling to realise how much of one's perception of that era has been coloured (ahem!) by black and white photographs!

Stroppy Author said...

Susan: It's the photographer's caption, and here is his explanation: "The Crawlers have not the strength to struggle for bread, and prefer starvation to the activity which an ordinary mendicant must display. ‘Crawlers’ were women too proud to beg. Weakened by hunger and lack of sound sleep they literally crawled on hands and knees to fetch hot water to make the weak tea that was their chief nourishment."

Penny Dolan said...

I agree with you about our perception of the 19th & early 20C, Anne, We see it "coloured" by b&w photographs, as well as films & cinema newsreels, so thanks for these.

The mid-Victorian age was full of colour. The newly discovered chemical dyes produced a variety of bright and often garish colours: purple, mauve, red, magenta, green, yellow and shades between, and rich ladies would vie for the brightest colours (and the new true black) and men would have resplendent waistcoats. However, when the new dyes and machines made such clothes possible for the masses, the upper classes fell in love with pale dresses & clothes.

Mystica said...

I prefer the colors.

Clémentine Beauvais said...

Brilliant post. I know it's not OK to say that, but I have to admit I always prefer colour films (inc Technicolor) to B&W. Apart from half a dozen exceptions ('M', 'Psycho', and others where the B&W really really brings something to the atmosphere), I find that it just lacks something crucial. I love those illuminated manuscripts...

Maeve Friel said...

Very interesting post. You are right about so many black and white icons of the 20th century _ Picasso´s Guernica or Capa´s photographs of the Spanish Civil War.
But the 19th century was also depicted gloriously in colour by William Morris, Burne Jones et al. in tapestries, stained glass and painting.

Stroppy Author said...

True, Maeve, but the Preraphaelites often depicted the Middle Ages, not the 19th century. And they didn't show urban scenes, or the Crimean, or all those normal things.
Clem - 'M' is one of my favourite films!

Nicola Morgan said...

Very interesting post, Anne. Thanks for opening my eyes.