The Colors of History – Clive Gifford

Illustrations – Marc-Etienne Peintre

This book takes you on a whirlwind trip around the world and through time to teach you the origin stories and fun facts about colour. Each group of colours includes a brief introduction that includes what it has represented over time. For example, yellow is the colour of sunshine but it can also represent illness and cowardice.

The story of yellow contains yellow ochre, chrome yellow, gamboge, Inca gold, saffron and orange.

The reason saffron is the most expensive colour is because to harvest a pound (453.6 grams) of it, you need between 55,000 and 85,000 flowers.

The story of red contains cochineal, vermillion, pink, red ochre and mummy brown.

In some societies in the 19th and early 20th centuries, pink was reserved for young boys, not girls. Red was thought of as a strong, manly color, and as pink came from red mixed with white, it was not thought of as suitable for delicate girls.


The story of purple contains puce, Tyrian purple and archil.

The king walked in on Marie one day to see her trying on yet another expensive gown. It was made of silk in a purple-pink-brown color. The king tried to put her off the purchase by declaring it to be couleur de puce – the color of a flea after it had been squashed! Marie-Antoinette wasn’t put off. She insisted that every lady in her court wear puce or subtly similar shades known as dos de puce (flea’s back) or ventre de puce (flea’s belly).

The story of blue contains indigo, Prussian blue, Egyptian blue, ultramarine and woad.

A plant called woad grows throughout Europe. Its pretty yellow flowers bloom in fields and meadows, but its crushed leaves make a strong blue dye. It was used to color cloth, and some people – such as Celts in ancient Britain – applied it as a war paint.

The story of green contains verdigris, Irish and Kelly green, and Scheele’s green.

Scheele, a German pharmacist working in Sweden, enjoyed conducting chemistry experiments. In 1775, he invented a new green. It contained copper and arsenic. It was cheap to make, popular and accidentally deadly.


Then we wrap it up with kohl black and graphite, and lime and lead white.

Kohl was first used more than 5,000 years ago in ancient Egypt, where men and women drew thick lines of kohl around their eyes. It kept their eyes from being dazzled by the sun, but they also believed it had magical protective powers.

I’m always keen to store up some new fun facts and enjoyed this journey through the rainbow. Kid me wouldn’t have read this book for fun but definitely would have used it for a school project.

Thank you so much to NetGalley and QEB Publishing, an imprint of Quarto Publishing Group, for the opportunity to read this book.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Once Upon a Blurb

A truly unique approach to history and a fascinating read that is guaranteed to keep boredom at bay.

Why did Roman emperors wear purple? Which colour is made from crushed beetles? What green pigment might be used to build super-fast computers of the future? Find out the answers to these and many more questions in this vibrant exploration of the stories behind different colours, and the roles they’ve played throughout history. From black to white, and all the colours in between, every shade has a story to tell. Each colour group is introduced with a stunning and interpretive double-page spread illustration, followed by illustrated entries exploring the ‘colourful’ history of particular shades. With vivid, thought-provoking illustrations and engaging bite-sized text, this book is a feast for the eyes and the mind, ready to enthral budding artists and historians alike.

One thought on “The Colors of History – Clive Gifford

  1. This is cool! It’s interesting to see how things evolve and color isn’t something most would think about. When I first watched Gone With the Wind I was surprised when everyone called him Ashley.

    Liked by 1 person

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