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The original world nomad "Real knowledge is to know the extent of one's ignorance." - Confucius.

Once when I was a boy ...

AUSTRALIA | Tuesday, 13 March 2007 | Views [3560] | Comments [1]

Which red was that?

Which red was that?

Once when I was a boy growing up in the south of England in the 1960's the hedgerows and gardens would support a wonderful butterfly every summer called a Red Admiral. I have no idea if this still exists or if it is now, sadly, almost extinct, but it is memorable to me almost 40 years later because of it's colour.


It has always fascinated me since I was a child. The red of the Red Admiral was a very particular and memorable kind of red. A deep, dark, rich crimson. Except it wasn't just deep or dark or rich it was, well, Red Admiral red. Of course, this is only helpful to people who have seen a Red Admiral but 'Red Admiral red' is the perfect description of the colour.

But of course, memory is also a peculiar thing. Searching around Flickr for photo's of said winged creature, all sorts of oranges and reds appear, enough for a whole species of red. So was the red in my mind a trick of memory or are there so many actual species of Red Admiral that the colour range is wide and the deep crimson I remember from my youth was limited to a rew hedgerows and gardens around Romsey and Winchester in Hampshire in 1967?

Whilst I will never know, one anecdote suggests it is my memory since this is remarkably poor and when I first arrived here in Australia and went diving on the Great barrier Reef I was astonished that so many of the corals were pastel shades until you got up really close. I had clearly remembered them as brilliant bright colours, I'm sure I did. I saw them on TV with Jacque Cousteau, again in the late 1960's and was enthralled. And we only had a black and white TV I realised!

The power of a child's imagination can be remarkable.

From the mysterious origins of Stradivari's orange to the connection between the Impressionists and the invention of the tin paint tube (without which there would have been no impressionists!) for anyone remotely interested in art, colour, travel, history, culture and how they all relate to each other, Victoria Finlay's remarkable 'COLOUR: Travels through the paintbox' is a delight and she brings a wonderful charm to her topic. This is the best read I have had in a very long time.

However her wonderful book ends with an anecdote about the famous Mr Herbert, the creator of the Pantone colour charts, who had just abolished the names of colours in favour of a number in the belief that descriptions of colour such as Lipstick Red or Sky Blue left far too much to interpretation.

But the names of colours are so full of culture and history they are all entwined in the experience of a colour not to mention the minor fact that colour is light, not a paint on a piece of paper and the wings of a Red Admiral sparkle with translucency and reflection and other less tangible qualities that an exact pantone colour will never match. There are numerous terms in the Japanese language for moss colours but while I have visited many fine temples in Kyoto and love the wonderful Japanese design aesthetic, these terms are bound to the experience of moss not just the colour.

it is unlikely I can fully appreciate such greens the way people in Japan can just as it is unlikely Yuki will ever really know Red Admiral red.

And that mystery is rather fine.

Tags: books, childhood, colour, memories



Simon, the venerable Red Admiral is alive and kicking here in the good old UK. We see them every few days more or less from late spring to mid autum (depending on the rain of course). Th red varies from a deep red to a mid orange - no idea why!. Coem vist us and see them for your self! Dave.

  dave taylor Jun 28, 2007 2:03 AM

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