Crimson is one of those colours that appeals to something archaic deep within us. In my novel, The Crimson Bed, it is a colour that dominates the story and has a meaningful significance. When Ellie is first taken to meet Henry Winstone in his studio, her immediate thought is to ask if she can be painted wearing her mother’s ruby-red dress.
"Turning to the artist, Ellie said, ‘My mother’s dress is very special, Mr Winstone. Crimson is a colour that I love more than anything.’
‘I agree. That would be truly stunning. Ruby- red is one of my favoured colours. Is this the shade you have in mind?’
He brought over a jar of crimson madder paint and she looked at it and nodded.
Tipping a small amount into a dish, he regarded it pensively. ‘It’s a good choice, because this colour actually intensifies with time. It was used a lot by the old masters. Yes, a very good choice. I shall have to see how you look in the dress to decide how we shall apply it. Possibly it might need to be made even more intense by adding a little carmine. But you like it – this is what you refer to?’
‘I do, that is the colour. It was my mother’s favourite colour, too. We have an heirloom – a bed with coverings of this shade and when I think of her, I think of this bed. Our crimson bed.’
‘In my case I love the vibrant emerald green,’ said Henry, taking another jar from the windowsill and showing it to her. ‘This green is special, made from oxide of chrome by a secret process and it’s a costly colour, not so much so as ultramarine, but near enough. So you see how precious it is.’
He paused, held the jar up to the light, and waxed lyrical all of a sudden. ‘But that’s not why I love it. I love it because it represents the green of nature; fresh leaves and grass in the sunlight or the most precious of stones, rare, fragile and exquisite in its depths of beauty. It soothes me to the core of my soul to look into this colour and try to reproduce it. I would have liked to see you in this green. But I also adore the ruby red. It’s the feminine colour, the colour of passion, of the womb . . . and blood. Not your scarlet common-or-garden blood. It is the feminine blood with its intimations of birth and death . . . or arterial blood, deep hidden blood, the blue blood of the kings and queens.’
Ellie stared at him. ‘Passionate . . . the blood of kings and queens,’ she murmured. ‘I like that notion very much.’"
It may seem as if Henry was wrong to think the crimson madder was a colour that would get better with time as Crimson Madder is a ‘lake’ pigment and these were considered as notoriously ‘fugitive’ colours. In other words they could fade away in light unless treated with special binders and mixes of other red shades that could ‘hold’ the colour. But it has to be said the reds of the Pre-Raphaelites have held their colour well due to the painting techniques which they used. However, the fading madder pigment has led to loss in the shading of some pictures such as Rossetti’s ‘Girlhood of Mary Virgin’ where the grapes, probably once more purple shades of madder, have faded greatly.
Even during their lifetimes, Rossetti, Millias and Hunt saw changes in the original colours of their pictures. Millais admitted that the greenery in his ‘Opehlia’ had turned almost blue. But it can still be said that their paintings have so far stood the test of time well.
The original ‘lakes’ were said to have been invented by the ancient Egyptians. The madder plant was cultivated as a dyestuff in Asia and Egypt since about 1500 BC. Cloth dyed with madder root pigment was found in the tomb of Tutankhamen and in the ruins of Pompeii and Old Corinth. These’lakes’were made from plant and tree bark and the powder thus obtained fixed on an inert transparent base such as Barium White, gypsum, chalk and so on,to hold and deepen the colour. A stronger and true r shade, called Crimson Madder, was made from the insect kermes vermilio or Kerria laca (now sadly an endangered species) while Carmine, another deep red colour, was made from the cochineal beetle and used as food colouring for many years. Alizarin Crimson is another red used mainly as a dye and for years coloured the uniforms of the British army, leading to the nickname of 'the redcoats’, and is still used by the Canadian Mounted Police for their uniforms.
In 1806 the lovely shade of Rose Madder Genuine was formulated by the renowned chemist, George Field who mixed it with alum and an alkali into a Madder Lake which achieved a far more stable and permanent effect than the previous old colours. This would have been the colour used by The Pre-Raphaelite painters who obtained their colours and painting equipment from the colourman, Roberson, at that time. The recipes for colours made by Field are now exclusive to the Winsor and Newton range of colours. Apparently on visiting the Winsor and Newton stand at the Crystal Palace exhibition, Dickens said with delight, ‘ has anyone seen anything like Winsor and Newton’s cups of Carnations and Crimsons loud and fierce as a war cry and Pinks tender and loving as young girl?’ This exclamation of Dickens sums up the associations we have with these colours, the sense of blood, war, vitality on the one hand and the softer,more tender feminine meanings when diluted with white and rendered less fierce and violent.
The old crimson colour taken from the roots of the madder plant was made of alazarin and purpurin, the latter being especially unstable and liable to fade with time, espcially if kept in the light. The great painters of the past had their own special recipes for dealing with this problem, crimson being a special favourite then as now not only for effect but also symbolically. According to Culpepper’s Herbal, the plant was ruled by Mars, the God of War and red has always been associated with violence, blood, agressive energy, anger, warlike instincts and sexuality. Yet, because of the costliness of making the colours red and purple, it was used by Kings and Queens and later by the Church, thus symbolic of both temporal and spiritual power. Reds were much employed by the Pre-Raphaelite artists too, again with symbolic intent, but also to add richness and sensuality to their pictures. Thus Henry’s comment that it was used greatly by the old masters and appeared to darken and intensify with time due to the secret mixing techniques of the old masters..
This means of preserving their paints were kept secret and only passed on by the masters to their prominent and trusted pupils. William Blake was a great fan of Rose Madder. Murillo and Michaelangelo also used it widely. These great men would have intended a deeper, spiritual significance of the colour and were interested in the idea of alchemy and all its symbolism. Thus the use of Rose could also be connected with the idea of heart-felt,romantic, courtly love in a spiritual rather than carnal, sensual sense. The Rose was an allegory of Venus and later of Mary, the mother of Christ, who in older paintings is almost always seen in red robes with a cloak of deep blue, the traditional blue of the starry sky. Many churches have a Rose Window and the precious and costly red colour was widely and richly used in stained glass, particulary by Burne Jones whose magnificent red, flaming windows decorate the church of St.Philip's Cathedral in Birmingham.
Rose is also the beloved in a more earthly sense, the 'fedeli d’amore'. The five petals of the rose were considered symbolic with the five senses. And, of course, corresponded to that inner place, the heart - both the organ that pumps our blood around and also the true 'heart' where all our feelings and emotions from many lifetimes are said to be stored.
‘It seems as though the rose-coloured blood of the alchemical redeemer was another symbolic idea which derived from a rose mysticism that penetrated into alchemy and that, in the form of the ‘red tincture’ expressed the healing or whole making effects of a certain kind of Eros.’ From ‘Alchemical Studies ch. 5 The Philosphical Tree’: Carl Jung
Eros in this sense is a conscious, inward-looking erotic love. ‘Loving oneself’ it may be called. Not the egotistical love of a false and vain self-love, but the true sense of acceptance and love of all that one is, imperfections and all. A love that gives meaning to the commandment, ‘Thou shalt love thy neighbour as oneself’. How few of us truly love ourself or know how to heal ourselves?
It is this redeeming process that I attempt to portray in ‘The Crimson Bed’ as the protagonists face their inner darkness, come to terms with it and through the process of pain and suffering (which has to become conscious, acknowledged, confessed and understood) eventually emerge once more into the light and are healed. The ancient concept of the coniunctio, the mystical marriage, is important here, the uniting the Masculine and Feminine. Although in alchemical terms this is an inner process, in the sacrament of marriage we undertake both the inner and outer union so that a man and woman may become as 'one';a fact lost in these modern times of turbulent relationships where the true meaning of marriage has been forgotten and despised. To my mind, all romantic stories, however badly written, sentimental or foolish they may seem to some, have the 'coniunctio'as the end in view. They could all be called alchemical studies!
Pictures: John Waterhouse: 'The Crystal Ball'(detail): Rosetti 'A Vision of Fiametta':Murillo: 'The Virgin of the Rosary': Rubia Tinctorum (Madder root plant) Burne Jones: stained glass window 'The Ascension'