Thursday, July 12, 2007

Thinking About Colors

Newlands Valley by Beatrix Potter

I think that one subject that our feminine forebearers thought about a lot more than we do today is color, not as in interior decorating but color as a phenomenon in itself. I was reminded of this when I read a description that Beatrix Potter wrote of the landscape around her when she was a young woman.

Notice her concentration on color and naming a color in this description: "In summer, the distant landscapes are intensely blue.... Not less beautiful is the winter. When the oaks are clothed in a delicate tracery of snow and hoar-frost, they sometimes look quite orange-coloured in the sunshine against the sky, and yet the hoar-frost scarcely drips... Have you ever noticed what a peculiar blue the snow is during a white frost? I know no colour like it, except that milky lemon-blue which you find in the seed of wild balsam. At such times of frost and snow, the two great cedars on the lawn look their best. The snow lies in wreaths on their broad outstretched arms, or melting, trickles down the dusty green bark and red stains."

Of course, Beatrix Potter was an artist from a young age. However, the ways of my own great-grandmother (pictured here) suggest that color may have been a preoccupation of ladies of the late 19th century.

Born in 1893, my great-grandmother was an invalid for the last four years of her life and stayed mostly in bed. For some periods of time, she lived with our family. One day my mother asked me to take some lunch up to her in the bedroom where she was staying. I went into her room and there she was lying on her side in the bed. I asked her if I had wakened her, and she said, "Oh no, I've been awake for a long time. I've had a lovely morning." And intrigued since I could not see any evidence of activity, I asked her, "What were you doing?" and she replied, "Oh, I was thinking of all the different colors there are in the world." I found this amazing.

I always admired my great-grandmother, who had been a schoolteacher before she married the town doctor and raised four children. Although she was not an artist herself, she was a descendant of the painting family of Charles Willson Peale, with her mother a Peale from three separate family lines. Like Beatrix Potter, she was a naturalist as a hobby. She kept notebooks in which she pressed plants labeled with their English and Latin names. Before she took sick, she would take us on long walks through the woods and was able to tell us the names of every kind of moss, plant, and tree. I do not know if this was the norm for ladies of her day, but nature and all of its wonders were an unending source of joy for her, even as she lay as an invalid in her last years and could only imagine colors.


Anonymous said...

Hi Linda

I am a huge Potter fan (that is Beatrix), and the watercolour is beautiful. The photograph of your great-grandmother is equally delightful. Is she knitting, I can't quite make it out?

Linda said...

Hi. Thank you for your comment. I think my great-grandmother is opening a present. I think this was a birthday picture taken in our home while she was staying there. She was a delightful person.