Compiled by Edinburgh artist Patrick Syme, Werner’s Nomenclature of Colours was the first truly portable guide to identifying, communicating and replicating colours in the natural world. This small, leather bound volume was published in 1821 – a second edition to replace the original 1814 publication. Its pages are lined with thumbnail-sized, hand-painted squares of colour, each accompanied by a colour name, and an example from the Animal, Vegetable and Mineral Kingdoms on which that exact hue can be found. These include Orpiment Orange, found on the “Neck Ruff of the Golden Pheasant”, and the “Belly of the Warty Newt”; Reddish Black, the colour of the “spots on the large wings of the Tiger Moth”, and the “berry of Fuschia Coxinea”; and Auricula Purple, the exact hue of a blue-bottle’s egg.
The list of colours was based on a system for mineralogical identification written by the German mineralogist Abraham Gottlob Werner in 1774. To illustrate the common geologically occurring colours, Werner included fifty-four distinct hues, or “varieties”, organised into eight chromatic “species”: white, grey, black, blue, green, yellow, red and brown. Although widely used in mineralogical circles, the practical use of Werner’s list was kerbed by the lack of a visual reference for its colours – the absence of colour samples or charts.
As official artist to the Wernerian Natural History Society in Edinburgh, Patrick Syme became familiar with Werner’s colour nomenclature though the society’s president Robert Jameson, himself a student of Werner from 1800 to 1804. Seeing the value in Werner’s system, Syme transformed the list of colours, extending his small suite of colours to one-hundred-and-eight, and adding a coloured swatch to each. Syme was well-qualified for the task, as a prominent Edinburgh artist, natural history illustrator, art master and successful author.
This new format made Werner’s Nomenclature extremely useful to contemporary physicians, horticulturists, painters and zoologists, the most famous being Charles Darwin, who carried a copy of the second edition on-board the HMS Beagle in 1831. Syme’s book also provided a model for subsequent influential chromotaxonomies (or colour order systems), including Robert Ridgway’s A Nomenclature of Colors for Naturalists from 1886 – itself a precursor to more familiar modern colour systems, the likes of Pantone and Munsell.