The man who put the colour back into Victorian lives


September 1, 2000

The natural world could breathe a sigh of relief when William Perkin stumbled across mauve - or "morv", as fashionable Victorians preferred to pronounce it. Until he did, shellfish, insects and plants had been sacrificed in vast quantities to add an exclusive splash of artificial colour to an otherwise ordinary garment. Perkin's decision in 1856, aged 18, to experiment with the dark, oily sludge produced during the distillation of coal led to the creation of more than 2,000 of the artificial colours we are familiar with today. Yet apart from a few plaques in university departments and medals awarded by chemistry societies, Perkin has gone largely unacknowledged.

Simon Garfield sets out to introduce this forgotten figure. He cleverly weaves together Perkin's life with history and 20th-century developments into a lively account of the impact mauve has had across a wide spectrum of industries, from perfume to photography to pharmaceuticals.

The first chapter may be called "Celebrity" but it is soon clear that Perkin's fame was obstructed by the failure of the patent system to prevent the exploitation of his work overseas. As a result, German and French print works soon unleashed a flood of variations on Perkin's "mauveine" after foreign chemists had visited British factories. Garfield's choice of "Fingerprints" as a title for the final chapter is a sad reminder of Perkin's faint grasp on his creation.

His unprecedented success as a manufacturing chemist helped to forge a new relationship between science and industry, one that convinced others that the cross-over from pure to applied science was well worth the gamble.Although August Wilhelm von Hofmann, first director of the Royal College of Chemistry, was initially appalled by Perkin's decision to abandon theoretical science "in pursuit of a colour" - an opinion he shared with Perkin's father who wanted him to be an architect - Hofmann too realised the potential academic and financial benefits that a career in industrial chemistry could bring.

Garfield pays keen attention to social and historical detail, such as the outbreaks of "mauve measles" in London's fashionable circles, as well as the very real fears that mauve could contain arsenic, which allows him to flesh out the few known facts of Perkin's life. To his horror, Garfield discovers that Perkin's cottage laboratory is now a car park used by the employees of a major chemical company, while his gravestone has disappeared from a churchyard without trace.

The National Portrait Gallery has stored Perkin's portrait in a crate somewhere in South London, "alongside hundreds of men and women who are no longer trusted to excite the public imagination", as Garfield notes with some regret. Perhaps his illuminating resurrection of Perkin will encourage the gallery to restore Perkin to the position he deserves.

Jennifer Currie is a reporter for The THES .


Author - Simon Garfield
ISBN - 0 571 20197 0
Publisher - Faber
Price - £9.99
Pages - 202

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