Colours are the smiles of nature” said the English writer Leigh Hunt, and I couldn’t agree more. It fascinates me how something as simple as catching a glimpse of a certain colour can induce a happy mood, bring up a dear memory, or remind you of a good friend. I am a visual person, that’s for sure!

You can imagine my enthusiasm when I heard on the radio about the contest* organized by Radio France Internationale Romania in collaboration with Baroque Books & Arts, offering as prize The Secret Lives of Colour by Kassia St Clair. I knew I had to participate, and luckily I won the book! ❤

secret lives of colour readers high tea
This beautiful book accompanied me to the beach

The Secret Lives of Colour in a nutshell

The book is a historical exploration of the world of colours, telling the stories of 75 shades and hues. Expect to be amazed by the peculiar tales about colours that you might have not heard of before. For example, does woad, orchil, puce, cerulean or heliotrope sound familiar?

To illustrate what kind of interesting stories you can expect while reading this beautiful book, I will briefly present some bits of information I read about two colours: cochineal and indigo.

Cochineal is obtained using a pigment from Dactylopius coccus (a tiny bug that lives on cacti). It was a sign of power for the Aztecs, who were claiming as tribute from their workers 40 bagfuls of cochineal per year. When the pigment was commercialized to China (around 1700), the colour was named “yang hong“, meaning foreign red. The food industry still uses cochineal (officially named E120) in foods such as M&M and cherry coke. In 2012, Starbucks dropped E120 as the main dye for its strawberry Frappucinos after a vehement protest from vegetarians and Muslims.

Indigo … Yes, you might have heard of this colour before 🙂 But did you know that its name comes from the Greek word indikon, which means “substance from India”? (for a long time it was considered that the seeds of the plant used to obtain indigo came from India, which is not true). Indigo is the most resistant to fading of all natural dyes, Japanese denim producers say “it ages beautifully“. In the 1500s, in Rome, the indigo pigment was so pricey (one kilogram cost 15x the average salary per day) that some merchants tried to sell a fake product made out of pigeon poop.

readers high tea secret lives of colour

Pretty interesting, right? I hope these two examples illustrated what kind of things you can find out from this book, and that they raised your appetite for discovering the rest of the stories.

The look & feel

Before wrapping up this review, I would like to mention three more things. First of all, the whole design of the book fits 100% with its topic. The hardcover book is gorgeous, each sheet of paper having a colourful margin that illustrates the colour discussed. Secondly, I noticed that all references are very well documented, which pleased my inner geek. Thirdly, the Romanian edition was printed on 100% recycled paper, reducing the environmental impact with 4.000 kg of wood, 2.462 kg of waste and 364 kg of carbon dioxide.

All colours discussed in the book, in a nutshell 🙂 Image from


The Secret Lives of Colour by Kassia St Clair is a beautiful chronicle of colours’ history, accompanied by funny facts and witty comments. It illustrates how important colours were along the way and how they influenced the course of history as we know it. I recommend it for people who are interested in design and colours, in finding out “hidden” gems of history or simply want to explore a more colourful view on past events.

If you would like to buy books or other (non)bookish things, please consider using one of these links: Amazon | Waterstones | Carturesti. Thank you!

‘Till next time … happy reading!


Images:| All the other pictures are taken by me.

* Anyone could participate in the contest. Winning the book did not imply that I have to write a book review about it, I am writing the review at my own initiative.


One thought on “The Secret Lives of Colour by Kassia St Clair (book review) – a chronicle of colours’ history

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s