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Colour Pioneer: Robert F Wilson

Unimpressed with so-called primary hues, one man made it his life’s mission to create the language of colour

british colour council dictionary of colour standards, british standards institution schedule 543, by the british colour council, london, 1934
Aimee Hollands/ The Science Museum

Although Robert F Wilson and colour would go on to have a faithful and life-long (in his case) relationship, their first encounter was not quite so auspicious. At school, he was given just three shades to work with. ‘Gamboge, Crimson Lake and Prussian Blue, and I was told that these were the primary colours,’ he recounted at a 1945 meeting of the Royal Society of Arts, decades later. ‘I was also told that I could obtain any colour from the correct mixture of these hues.’ But try as he might, Wilson found areas of the visible spectrum he could not replicate with his paint set.

Luckily for colour lovers, Wilson had an ordered and disciplined mind, and wasn’t about to let the matter rest there. He attended art school in Nottingham, where he spent innumerable hours grinding pigments with gum by hand and learning ‘the true meaning of the juxtaposition of colours and how precious pure or intense colours were’. After a four-year hiatus fighting in World War I, Wilson found himself in the job market in post-war Britain, which, it turned out, didn’t have much use for artists. This is how Wilson found himself setting out on his uniquely quixotic vocation: to catalogue, standardise and chart the rainbow.

Wilson himself produced numerous publications filled with samples of hues, tints and shades

Wilson, through his work at the British Colour Council (BCC), spent a lifetime ‘doing’, as he put it in 1933, ‘what the great Oxford Dictionary has done for words’. Working out of dingy offices near Piccadilly Circus, the BCC and Wilson himself produced numerous publications filled with samples of hues, tints and shades — from Chianti and Smalt to Crushed Strawberry. These could then be distributed among buyers, designers, manufacturers, horticulturalists and private individuals all over the world, ensuring everyone was speaking the same colour language, and that this language was British.

That national pride was at stake can be divined from some of the names — Royal Mail Red, Pigeon, Crock o’ Gold. But Wilson had other motives. One was a profound dislike of the chaos that colour could create. He ploughed 18 months of research into creating the 1934 British Standard Colour Card. Collecting numerous samples of goods and paints with the same code name, deciding ‘which sample is the truest representation of the colour’, before checking if this tint had ever had the temerity to exist under an alias, which Wilson would then dispatch.

the british colour standard colour wheel 
The British Colour Standard Colour Wheel

But if this sounds rather passionless, even brutal, fear not. At a meeting about industrial design in 1945, he spent several minutes rhapsodising about ‘the sheer beauty of the greys – the pearly greys of flesh, the misty greys of early summer morning or autumn afternoons, the greys of wet roofs and smoke’. With Wilson and colour, it was always a love match.

This article appeared in ELLE Decoration April 2020

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