Early into his five-year voyage on the HMS Beagle, Charles Darwin found himself captivated by the colors of cuttlefish, which switched rapidly to match their environments. “These changes were effected in such a manner that clouds, varying in tint between a hyacinth red and a chestnut-brown, were continually passing over the body,” the young biologist wrote in his notes, published in 1839. He added a brief footnote, citing the billowing colors as “named according to Patrick Symes’s nomenclature.”
Like other Western naturalists working before the dawn of photography, Darwin relied on one particular guide to identify colors he observed and record them for posterity. Werner’s Nomenclature of Colours, published in 1814 by the Scottish painter Syme, was a slim book filled with color descriptions and charts. It represents one of the earliest efforts to systematically classify and describe colors that commonly appear in nature, from pearl grey to broccoli brown. Syme identified a total of 110 tints, divided into color families; for each tint, he also provided examples of animals, vegetables, and minerals that exhibited that particular shade. The chestnut-brown Darwin saw in water, for instance, was observed by Syme in, of course, chestnuts, but also in the “neck and breast of red grouse.”
Recently, Smithsonian Books published a facsimile of Syme’s guide, presenting an opportunity to revisit its author’s vivid, neatly handwritten descriptions of color over two centuries later. This slim volume is inspired by the first and second editions of Syme’s book, and replicates the color swatches as closely as possible to the originals.
As its title suggests, Syme’s guide pieces together the work of another color taxonomist. Abraham Gottlob Werner, a German minerologist, had developed a standardized color scheme in the late 18th century to identify various shades in his geological specimens with precise and consistent language. Syme, who often painted flowers for Scotland’s national horticultural society, built on Werner’s research by adding floral and faunal references to describe the tints. He also added about 30 colors to those Werner highlighted, which he credited in the book by marking them with a “W.”
Having long worked with color, Syme understood the need to standardize a thing so subjective and help train others to better distinguish between various tints. In his guide’s introduction, he emphasizes the importance of color specificity in understanding an object, writing: “Description without figure is generally difficult to be comprehended; description and figure are in many instances still defective; but description, figure, and color combined form the most perfect representation, and are next to seeing the object itself.”
Indeed, his careful language paints vivid pictures for his reader’s imagination: Prussian blue can be identified in the “beauty spot” on a mallard drake’s wing; blackish green, in the “dark streaks on leaves of cayenne pepper”; orpiment orange, in the “neck ruff of the golden pheasant” or the “belly of the warty newt.”
Syme envisioned his system be used, in particular, by those in working the fields of zoology, botany, mineralogy, chemistry, and morbid anatomy. In its day, the guide was used widely by both naturalists, such as Darwin, and artists, like Syme himself. Of course, it’s less practical now, when we have color systems like Pantone that are much more sophisticated and precise. (Pantone, incidentally evolved out of another 19th-century color system, based on birds.) After all, just as Darwin’s specimens would have discolored over time — thereby requiring the naturalist to use words to record colors in the first place — so have many of the pigments Syme used to paint his swatches. Still, in a world where we largely use hashtags, letters, and numbers to distinguish between colors, it’s refreshing to revisit language replete of code and reminiscent of poetry snippets — brief, yet evoking form, texture, and even movement.