We earn a commission for products purchased through some links in this article.

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
StyleShoots

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.


THE PALETTE
Chosen from the spectrum of hues found on Robert F Wilson’s British Standard Colour Council Card

Sixth Avenue ‘L’ (mural, Williamsburg Housing Project, NewYork; below) was painted in 1937 by American artist FrancisCriss and utilises Wilson’s palette.

criss, francis 1901 1973 sixth avenue "l" mural, williamsburg digitale 1ahousing project, new york 1937 oil on canvas, 72 x 84 18in1829x2134cm transfer from the newark museum 1966313washington dc, smithsonian american art museum © 2020 photosmithsonian american art museumart resourcescala, florence
Sixth Avenue ‘L’ (mural, Williamsburg Housing Project, New York) 1937 by Francis Criss
Sixth Avenue ‘L’ (mural, Williamsburg Housing Project, New York) 1937 by Francis Criss

To translate this to a decorating scheme, choose saturated pastels and offset them with heavier hues such as forest green, mahogany red and royal blue. Avoid primary colours – the brilliance of his card proves there are more complex choices – opt for slightly murky, sophisticated tones, which are having a moment.

photography lucky by sharp edited by kiera buckley jones
1 ‘Viaduct’ fabric in ‘Green’, £110 per m, Imogen Heath (imogenheath.com) 2 ‘Flame Pineapple’ flooring, £80 per sq m, Missoni Home x Bolon (bolon.com) 3 ‘Adamo & Eva’ cotton velvet in ‘Rose Thé’, £132.50 per m, Dedar (dedar.com) 4 ‘Carnival Pancho’ tile, £79.20 per sq m, Fired Earth (firedearth.com) 5 ‘Wave’ linen, £130 per m, Fermoie (fermoie.com) 6 ‘Geo’ tile, £270 per sq m, File Under Pop (fileunderpop.com) 7 ‘Bark’ wallpaper in ‘Zest and Chalk’, £43 per roll, Scion (stylelibrary.com/scion) 8 ‘Hippie’ fabric in ‘Coral’, £110 per m, Christopher Farr Cloth (christopherfarrcloth.com) 9 ‘Zelliges’ tile in ‘Col.26 Jaune Or’, £182 per sq m, Emery & Cie (emeryetcie.com) 10 ‘Dandelion’ tile in ‘Pea Green/White’, £76.95 for a box of 16, Marrakech Tiles (marrakechdesign.se) 11 ‘Juno’ fabric in ‘Wedgwood’, £41 per m, Zoffany (stylelibrary.com/ zoffany) 12 ‘Orissa’ silk in ‘Hyacinth’, £36 per m, James Hare ( james-hare.com) 13 ‘Mantegna’ tile designed by Cristina Celestino for Mantegna, £52.59 per sq ft, Clé Tiles (cletile. com) 14 ‘Corda’ fabric in ‘Duck Egg’, £55 per m, Designers Guild (designersguild.com) 15 ‘Circus’ piping in ‘Dark Indigo’, £25 per m, Christopher Farr Cloth (christopherfarrcloth.com) 16 ‘Zambales’ fabric in ‘Ember’, £120 per m, Zinc Textile (zinctextile.com)
Photography: Lucky By Sharp Edited by: Kiera Buckley-Jones


This article appeared in ELLE Decoration April 2020

Like this article? Sign up to our newsletter to get more articles like this delivered straight to your inbox.

SIGN UP

Keep your spirits up and subscribe to ELLE Decoration here, so our magazine is delivered direct to your door.

This content is created and maintained by a third party, and imported onto this page to help users provide their email addresses. You may be able to find more information about this and similar content at piano.io
Advertisement - Continue Reading Below
More From Decorating