I saw an old lady standing at a bus stop the other day. She was wearing a shabby purple coat, the sort that old ladies wear, with a bright pea green sweater and deep pink trousers. I doubt she had very much money or that life had been very kind to her. She looked fabulous. Beautiful colour combinations can happen anywhere and when they do they are a gift for the brain. They stay lodged, stored in some recess, to be recalled years later when one reminisces about a time and a place, or used immediately next time you choose a bunch of flowers or place a cushion on a chair.
My mind is full of, among other things, a myriad of colour combinations. Things I’ve mixed together in my head and things I’ve seen, sometimes remembered exactly as they were and sometimes re-imagined as better versions of themselves.
I’ve been thinking about Italian Renaissance colours for a while, the type one sees in paintings. That particular red that might be pink, a green that is more green than green can be and of course, that gorgeous blue that seems to be made of cornflowers and lapis lazuli.
The National Gallery’s recently staged an exhibition “After Caravaggio”. The first time I attempted to see it was sold out, undeterred and having made the effort to haul myself into the centre of town on a Friday evening, I decided to have a look around the permanent collection anyway. One forgets how lucky we are to have such wonderful places on our doorstep for free, we should all make more of an effort to visit them and not just queue for the blockbuster exhibitions. I focused on the High Renaissance Galleries. All the colours I wanted to see were there. I knew them already, of course, they were in my head and I could visualise them, but it was wonderful to see them in front of me, together.
The blue, the pink red and the green are all in Titian’s Bacchus and Ariadne (dated 1520-23, top left image), a painting that positively dazzles. Bronzino’s monumental ‘Allegory with Venus and Cupid’ (dated 1540-46 Right Image) has them too.
As a child I loved Bronzino’s paintings. I was given a book and found them mesmerising. I was a quiet, bookish sort of boy, alone in my own little world.The National Gallery has his ‘Portrait of a Young Man’ (dated 1550-55), an unidentified sitter portrayed in front of a pinkish red curtain; this was close to the shade I’d been thinking of. By way of a slight detour, but continuing on the drapery theme, Hans Holbein the Younger’ ‘The Ambassadors’ (1533, Image Below) has the most beautiful green curtain as a backdrop, of a shade so unique that it is impossible to accurately describe. The gentleman on the left of the painting, Jean de Dinteville, French ambassador to England, is resplendent in silk of pinkish red and against the green the effect is brilliant.
So, I had my colours, I had my combination, now, what to do with them?
I wanted to create window displays for Guinevere using this Renaissance palette, but re-interpreted in a fresh modern way. The last thing I wanted was some sort of historical pastiche, all trompe l’oeil painted draperies and bunches of grapes with bits of marble. We may be an antique shop but, perversely; I always want us to look new.Could the paint take on a life of it’s own? Initially applied by the artist in a careful, considered manner and then left free, unconstrained by rules to run and drip and splash and pool on the floor? That would be a different and interesting thing to do with this bunch of shades that was living in my head.
I had paint especially mixed, water based gloss that behaved just as I hoped, first neat in broad bands of vertical stripes, then slipping and sliding as we left it to drip.
The colours, deliberately splashed and splattered onto the floor, took on a new energy and proved to be the perfect backdrop to bold red Chinoiserie furniture, (53391) a French Empire daybed with a green chartreuse silk seat, (52654) a Cheval mirror shaped like an artist’s palette (50917), coloured glass and Italian modernist cabinets of steel and brass (53268). A strong backdrop is a great way to display strong pieces.
I don’t know whether other people see the colours of the Italian Renaissance metamorphosing into C21st century randomness when they look at the windows. Maybe they just think “oh, that’s fun and jolly for spring”.
That’s the wonderful thing about colour; it’s filtered through the individual’s eyes and imagination and means something different to everyone. Never let anyone ever tell you there are rules, it’s as subjective as taste.
Look for colour wherever you are and in all that you see. Load it to your visual bank or put it away somewhere in your memory. Remember the shades you like and the mixtures that entrance. Imagine the possibilities.
Then, when life is quiet or grey recall, think of it, visualise it and let it take you to another time or place.