I write having spent far longer than I ought on the Farrow & Ball website under the auspice of finding a primer for a pair of handsome but sallow-coloured metal tables that I’ve been meaning to refurbish. Metal primer located, colour pegged (Smoked Trout, No.60), I accidentally trip and fall into the room inspiration page on my way to the checkout and consequently spend an hour - who am I kidding, longer - of my sunny Sunday morning fanastising about the painterly conversion of every piece of furniture I own. The names of course are very emotional, evocative - String, Slipper Satin, Brinjal. Babouche. Arsenic. Borrowed Light - they read like poetry.
I’ve been thinking a lot about colour lately. Why we are attracted to certain colours, how our tastes change with the weather and season, how trends develop and why. How some people have token colours that almost come to represent them as a person. My grandmother, for example, adored blue. Pale blue, periwinkle, specific shades of icy or even sugary blues that when I encounter them always make me remember her. My mother, whether her favourite or not, has a colour that I firmly associate with her. It is a sort of ginger, a rust, maybe even nutmeg. Tellingly perhaps, it is a colour that is hard to pin down, to categorize, which is just like her. I’m not sure that it’s even a colour she wears, would wear, I don’t know why I associate her with it, and it with her, but there it is. My husband likes grey. Unless I intervened everything in our house would be grey. My sister has a strong dislike of almost every single shade of red, save for three very specific tones, for reasons known only to herself.
I do not have a signature colour. If you asked me to name a few favourites, I’d reel off eighteen, or one, depending on my mood. When I think about it, that is very reflective of who I am; greedy, indecisive, mercurial to a fault, all or nothing. Colour is important to me, but I don’t consider that I am particularly good at it. I began really studying colour a few years ago, when starting out with flowers. I still vacillate. I have said repeatedly that I cannot abide yellow. But is this true? No, not always. I like strong colour, impudent combinations of colour. I also like watery neutrals, fragile nuances that shift with the light. If you look my home, where in the last few years I’ve adopted a Bloomsbury-inspired interior - you'll see that against a neutral canvas, eclectic prints abound. Patterned upholstery, clashing florals, a lot of Ikat. I have a fondness for slightly mad Manuel Canovas fabrics that feature anything from oriental pastoral scenes to Grecian pots, to stag hunting. I collect pottery and ceramics, the former patterned and colourful, the latter earthy. Perhaps I do this because I am unconfident with colour and this is a way to combine everything that I love, with books and prints, paintings and porcelain.
Lately, one colour in particular has been plaguing me. I can’t identify the pinpoint moment I fell for it, because I suspect it is sort of a trend, and so who knows, it’s probably been creeping up for a while. It’s another one that’s hard to define - you might say peach, but that wouldn’t be exact. A peachy, pinky brown. A paler, pinker terracotta. It is the colour of the walls at the Birmingham Botanic Gardens, the colour of a Joshua Tree cabin. Mojave desert pink. Setting plaster. There is something somehow retro about it, 1950s about it, and yet elegantly boudoir, and yet incisively, uncompromisingly modern (which, of course, is the fashion part). I love it. I want to wear it with gold, and red lipstick. I’d like a bathtub this colour, stationery this colour, my flowers this colour. I search through the salmon ranunculus to find one that has faded to the exact shade. Drifting to sleep one night I think about how it would look in velvet upholstery, and then I can’t sleep.
This phase will doubtlessly pass. Colours obsess me for periods of time in my life. Momentary curiosities or jolting affections that last years and then one day are gone. Objects in colours that I can’t quite figure out torment me - the yellow-gold of straw, the pale shade of a hop husk. The colour of smoke. The colour of a conference pear.
Other times it’s a whole palette that I get stuck on, usually from a shoot or a film. I’ll freeze the frame and stare at it for a long time as though it were a painting, symbolic, trying to decode the mise-en-scène, the silhouettes, the balance and symmetry, the combinations of colour. Why does this blend with that, this clash with that, but in the right way, this here, this here. It’s uncomfortable, distracting. I’ve seen Sophia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette a great many times but I can’t watch it with anyone else in the room; I have to keep pausing, rewinding, zooming in. Soufflé-light, melting candy shades that ordinarily I would find dislocating together but here they are, wild, lavishly beautiful. Pale blue and primrose yellow, pink, lavender, apricot. Soft-hued satin, over and over. Dresses, and wigs and shoes and corsets and cream cakes and heavy brocade.
I was once given a box of Ladurée macarons, tied with blue ribbon, by a Swiss woman who wanted to thank me for something insignificant. Startlingly tall, cool blonde hair, she dripped diamonds all over my office and handed me a pale green box. The film Marie Antoinette reminds me of that. Every scene is like pulling away the ribbon and the lid and peeling back the tissue to be hit by rows of achingly sweet biscuits in every intoxicating shade of every beautiful colour in the world, the colours of luxury and the frivolity that only the very rich can afford. One day soon I will replicate everything I feel about this film in a flower arrangement. It will be an explosion of silken roses and saccharine sweet peas in something ornately baroque.
Then there are paintings. Milton Avery paintings, in particular. I think his work is impeccable on so many levels, but as a colourist Avery was surely a master. His flat renders of colour, heavy impasto, the thick, syrupy planes of paint emphasizing the values of the contrasting shades - the arbitrariness of them, the hit-or-miss collision. They are concrete and yet mist. Colours deployed for their sheer visceral power like missiles; they are very violent in their directness. And yet placid, domestic. They make me want to un-learn everything I know about colour and start over.
Last night I dreamt of wet, gleaming olives on a branch. The branch was long and forked and the leaves were silvery and dry, yet the olives were slick, as though they had been glossed with their own oil. I clean the house, make breakfast, look out of the living room door into the sun-dappled yard, watch the cockerel strutting around making a racket, the pine tree billowing in the wind. All the time I am thinking about the glittering colours of the olives, the ancient purple, and the green.