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Saffron and oranges

Orange is one of the brightest colours on the spectrum so obviously it has always captured the human imagination.

Pommes and oranges

It may not stun you to learn that the colour orange derives its name from the fruit of the same title, but where that word comes from is quite the globetrotting story.

Orange derives from Old French, in which the fruit was known as pomme d’orange, which in turn came from the Italian word arancia. Here’s where it gets confusing. Arancia is actually an adapted version of the Arabic word nāranj, which in itself is taken from the Sanskrit word naranga. Breathe.

The first recorded use of orange in the English language is in a will from 1512 which is now kept in the Public Record Office. Prior to the introduction of orange to the English language, saffron was in common use and described the colour. Most common though was the use of the words ġeolurēad and ġeolucrog which referred to a reddish orange and a yellowish orange respectively.

The King of Carrots

As well as its namesake citrus fruit, orange is a colour that in nature we often associate with autumn and tubers. Carrots, pumpkins, and sweet potatoes are all orange and their colouration is thanks to a chemical called carotene. Carotenes are pigments that are used by plants to convert light energy into the chemical energy they need to grow. The leaves of deciduous trees turn orange in the autumn as the production of green chlorophyll ends leaving the orange pigmentation of carotene only.

Although carotene derives its name from carrots, prior to the 18th-century carrots were not orange at all. European carrots were usually white or red and carrots from Asia were purple. Orange carrots were actually bred by Dutch farmers to pay tribute to William I of Orange who had helped lead the Dutch in their independence struggle against the Spanish Habsburgs.

One side-effect of orange entering the lexicon so late is that a number of animals that are distinctly orange in colouration are often referred to as red such as foxes and squirrels. Orange may not seem an ideal colouration for these animals given they spend a lot of their time amongst green leaves, but it still provides useful camouflage amongst the brown of wooded areas.

Worth its weight in saffron

For a very long time it was difficult for orange pigments to be produced by humans in great quantities safely. From ancient times through to the middle ages, orange dyes were produced using realgar, orpiment, minium, and massicot, but these minerals are highly toxic.

Saffron was a natural source of orange pigment but proved far too expensive to be used to produce large quantities. Saffron is best known as a spice derived from the Crocus sativus (saffron crocus) and has been highly prized since the era of the Minoans at least. Saffron has always been highly prized throughout Europe and Asia for use as a spice, in perfumes, as pigment, and as medicine.

Saffron is so highly valued as it’s quite simply a case of there being too little to go around. Saffron itself is the stigma of the saffron crocus’ flower, with each flower only producing three stigmas. To put that in perspective – a pound of saffron is at least 70,000 threads. This rarity means that even in the modern day with all our intensive farming a pound of saffron can cost as much as US$5000.

As science progressed and orange pigments such as chrome orange could be made synthetically the colour took on importance for a number of artistic movements. Orange was highly popular with the Pre-Raphaelites of Britain inspired by the flowing red-orange hair of Elizabeth Siddal, a model and wife of Dante Gabriel Rossetti.

The Impressionists and Post-Impressionists such as Monet, Van Gogh, and Gaugin, were also keen adopters of orange in their work. Colour theory dictated that placing orange next to blue brought out that vibrancy of both colours and so it is common to find these colours in many of the best known paintings of these movements.

  • Flaming June, Flaming June by Sir Frederic Leighton, a Pre-Raphaelite painter, Public Domain
    Flaming June by Sir Frederic Leighton, a Pre-Raphaelite painter, Public Domain

A "Glorious" colour

Due to the House of Orange-Nassau, one of the most important European royal houses in history, the political connotations of Orange are still felt across the continent. Although they are now known as the ancestors of the royal family of the Netherlands, the House of Orange-Nassau originated in the 12th century in the Principality of Orange in southern France.

The principality was not named for the fruit but rather took its name from a Roman city founded in 35BC called Arausio, for a local Celtic river god.

The Principality of Orange was inherited by William I, the son of the Count of Nassau, in 1544, who would unite the titles upon his father’s death to create the House of Orange-Nassau. William would become a particular favourite of the Habsburgs who ruled the Holy Roman Empire and was installed as governor of Holland, Zeeland, and Utrecht. However, outraged at the violence the Habsburgs were perpetrating against the Protestant population of the Netherlands, William would turn against his masters and lead the fledgling nation in its fight for independence during the Eight Years’ War.

  • William I, William I, Prince of Orange, Public Domain
    William I, Prince of Orange, Public Domain

Due to the actions of William of Orange, orange is now a colour associated with both the Netherlands and Protestantism. This connection between the colour orange and Protestantism in time spread to the British Isles as William’s descendant and namesake, William III of England, would depose the Catholic King James II alongside Queen Mary II during the Glorious Revolution.

To commemorate William and Mary’s victories, Protestants in Ireland adopted orange as their colour to honour the Dutchman. The orange of the Republic of Ireland’s flag represents the Protestant communities of the nation and in Northern Ireland, the Loyal Orange Institution, or Orange Order as it is more commonly known, is a Protestant and British unionist society named for William.


It is not just Protestants though who place specific importance on the colour orange. It is a hugely significant colour in both Buddhism and Hinduism too, and it is common to see monks of both religions wearing saffron robes across Asia.

In Hinduism, it is common to see Krishna adorned in saffron clothing, and the colour is associated with sacrifice, abstinence, and a search for salvation. The flag of India includes a saffron sash to represent the Hindus of the multicultural nation.

For Buddhists, saffron and orange is the colour of illumination and it was decreed by the Buddha himself that monks should wear saffron robes. Monks of the different branches of Buddhism have adopted different coloured robes, and it is the monks of Theravada Buddhism that is mainly practiced in southeast Asia that have chosen orange as their colour.

  • Buddhist Monks, Buddhist monks dye their robes not with saffron but most often with turmeric
    Buddhist monks dye their robes not with saffron but most often with turmeric

Safety first

For many of us, orange will be a colour associated primarily with safety.

Orange is the colour most easily seen in dim light or against water making it a colour that is commonly used when high-visibility is required. This has seen it used to colour lifeboats, life jackets, bridges, prisoner uniforms, and even astronaut suits.

Even black boxes used to record flight data on aeroplanes are actually coloured orange so they are easy to spot with the naked eye.

Playlist ORANGE

In recent years plenty of musical artists have turned to shades of orange for inspiration, check out our orange-themed Spotify playlist to see what we're talking about.

Whether it's Frank Ocean's debut "Chanel ORANGE" or R.E.M's more sinisterly named "Orange Crush", it's a great leaping off point for you to find out plenty more about this fascinating colour.


Don't forget though that you can learn plenty more about a whole spectrum of colours at our exhibition Colour: The Rainbow Revealed.

Exploring Colour with Jaz

Our Gardens volunteer and Horniman Youth Panel member Jaz has let us know what he enjoys the most about our exhibition Colour: The Rainbow Revealed and he hopes you'll enjoy it too.

In July 2017 I started my Bronze Arts Award when I volunteered with Chocolate Films taking photographs of museum visitors during filming for the Wall of Voices in our new World Gallery.

Recently, I visited the Colour exhibition with the Horniman Youth Panel. I played the games, tried on the camouflage costumes, and sat in the Mood Room with my shoes off. I am sharing my favourite areas of the exhibition which made me feel calm. 

  • Jaz03, The colours in the room make me feel calm and excited, Jaz
    The colours in the room make me feel calm and excited, Jaz

  • Jaz02, I like doing this as it makes me feel calm and I like water, Jaz
    I like doing this as it makes me feel calm and I like water, Jaz

  • Jaz01, This is my favourite colour, Jaz
    This is my favourite colour, Jaz

  • Jaz04, I am standing between the coloured arches because it looks nice, Jaz
    I am standing between the coloured arches because it looks nice, Jaz

  • Jaz05, The red colour gave me blurry eyes, Jaz
    The red colour gave me blurry eyes, Jaz

  • Jaz06, The green colour reminds me of being in the garden, Jaz
    The green colour reminds me of being in the garden, Jaz

By showing what I like about the exhibition, I hope other people will want to visit – it’s both exciting and calming. Even though it’s mainly for children, the exhibition still makes a 23-year-old like myself feel calm. 

The Colour Wheel

Inspired by Colour: The Rainbow Revealed, horticulturist Nick Gadd has devised a planting scheme to recreate a colour wheel using bedding plants in our Sunken Garden. We caught up with him to find out how.

With nature offering so many colourful plants, how did you choose which ones to include?

We had to choose plants to match particular tones of the colour wheel – the challenge is to achieve the right shade of yellow, not just any yellow for instance. We’ve also chosen plants with a long flowering season, or those that flower repeatedly.

  • Colour wheel planting june 2018 cchurcher (9), Connie Churcher
    , Connie Churcher

How did you cope with green? Are there green flowers?

For the green and yellow-green segments we’re using two plants chosen for the colour of the foliage rather than their flowers – Carex comans ‘Phoenix Green’ and Solenostemon scutellarioides ‘Wizard Golden’.

How many individual plants make up each slice?

Because we’ve applied the colour wheel design on to a rectangular area the segments vary in size. The larger corner segments will take about 590 plants each, while we’ll only need around 340 plants in the smaller segments. It’s about 30 plants per square metre.

How many of them were grown on site?

We’ve had to grow the plants for the two green segments on site as they aren’t conventional bedding plants which means they’re not easily available commercially in the size and quantity we need.

Will all the colours flower at the same time? When will the garden be at its best?

There’ll be a good period when all the flowers will bloom simultaneously – roughly from the end of June once it has had a chance to establish itself and then throughout the summer. Some will flower sooner, so we’ll keep deadheading them to encourage more flowers while we wait for the other plants to ‘catch up’.

  • Colour wheel planting june 2018 cchurcher (4), Connie Churcher
    , Connie Churcher

Thank you to The Metropolitan Public Gardens Association for funding this display.

Think Pink

Time for perhaps the most divisive of the colours. We take a look at Pink.

How did pink get its name?

We are used to thinking about pink as a colour in its own right, but it is a paler shade of red and as such is the only hue we’re covering in this series.

The word pink was first used related to colour around the 1680s prompted by a type of Dianthus flower known as pinks. These flowers got their name due to their frilly edges, which was known as pynken in Middle English – finishing an edge of cloth with a patterned, cut or scalloped effect, as is done with pinking shears.

  • Dianthus-plumarius - pinks, Pinks or Dianthus-plumarius, Sten CC BY SA 3.0
    Pinks or Dianthus-plumarius, Sten CC BY SA 3.0

In Europe, pink is often referred to as rose relating it closely to another type of flower, and going back to Homer’s “Rosy-fingered dawn” in the Odyssey.

In nature

Pink is very common in nature, mainly in flowers although lots of other species sport the colour. Bright, vibrant colours attract insects and pollinators which are crucial to plants fertilising, or in the case of fruits like raspberries or strawberries, may offer great opportunities for seed dispersal when eaten. Their pigment comes from anthocyanins which are pigments that can appear to be shades of red, purple or blue.

  • Roses in the Horniman Gardens, Roses in the Horniman Gardens, Connie Churcher
    Roses in the Horniman Gardens, Connie Churcher

There are lots of pink animals too. From flamingos to dolphins, pigs to moths. Some animals get their colour from a diet rich in carotenoids, which we looked at in our yellow blog. Other animals, like pigs, have been selectively bred this way or use it as part of their rich plumage like hummingbirds.

  • Elephant hawk moth from our collections, An elephant hawk moth from our collections
    An elephant hawk moth from our collections

There are several pink minerals, including rose quartz, rhodochrosite, and pink topaz. There are rare pink beaches, coloured by years of coral erosion, and pink brick or sandstone buildings can be seen from India to Argentina.

Popular and powerful

According to a study by Eva Heller in 2009, pink is most closely associated with sensitivity, childhood, femininity, sweetness, and romance, in Europe and the US. The association with pink as feminine stems from just before World War I but didn’t become established until the 1940s and the baby boomer generation. Previously, boys were pictured in pink because red was associated with activity and aggression, and pink was a hue of red, deemed to be a stronger colour compared to blue.

Commerce has had a role to play in pink or blue being associated with gender.

In the past, lots of clothes were white, as these could be bleached easily when stained or dirty, and white was (and still is) associated with innocence, particularly in children's clothes. By pushing consumers towards a new colour code for children, shops could sell more products as you would buy different clothes for boys and girls, rather than reusing clothes multiple times across families or generations. Toys aimed at girls featuring pink packaging is also a more recent trend, coming into prominence in the 1980s and 1990s.

  • Gendered toys, An aisle of pink toys, Josh Puetz via CC BY-NC 2.0
    An aisle of pink toys, Josh Puetz via CC BY-NC 2.0

Although is it not uncommon to see men wearing pink, it is still not very popular with men. Only 1% of men would choose it as their favourite and only 7% of women.

In Thailand, pink is associated with the day Tuesday, while in France, a reddish-pink is the colour of medicine in academic dress. In Japan, pink is associated with spring because of the cherry blossoms, but it is also the colour of ‘off-colour’ jokes. In China pink is associated with westernisation, and is considered a foreign colour.

Pink is often used as a symbol of sexuality, particularly in LGBTQIA communities and the original pride flag had a pink stripe to represent sex. Women wore pink pussy hats in the 2017 Women’s March. In Japan, erotic movies are called pink films and recently, Janelle Monáe sang about female sexuality in her song Pynk.

Because of the way the colour has been applied to gender, there is some pink backlash, with campaigns like Pinkstinks opposing the ‘pinkification’ of girlhood. ‘Pink tax’ refers to the higher costs paid by women and girls in products from dry cleaning to bicycle helmets.

Pink in the arts

The phrase ‘in the pink’ means being in good health and dates back to the sixteenth century, meaning to be the very pinnacle of something. It is used by Mercutio in Romeo & Juliet (Act 2, Scene 4):

Nay, I am the very pink of courtesy.

Pink was most commonly used for flesh tones of white people in European art, and features as the colour of male infant dress. It really got trucking in the 18th century with Madame de Pompadour, who made pink and blue fashionable colours at the French court, and the hue Rose Pompadour is named for her.

  • Portrait of Marquise de Pompadour, Portrait of Marquise de Pompadour, Francois Boucher (via Wikimedia)
    Portrait of Marquise de Pompadour, Francois Boucher (via Wikimedia)

In the early twentieth century, Elsa Schiaparelli created shocking pink and used it across her designs, lending the name to her perfume. Marilyn Monroe wore a now iconic pink dress when singing that Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend, Mr. Pink rallied against the name in Reservoir Dogs and Mean Girls wore pink on Wednesdays.

From Kay Thompson to The Pink Panther, The Psychedelic Furs to Nicki Minaj, pink pops up in music just as much as film, fashion, and art. Listen to our playlist of pink-influenced songs.

Learn more about colour in our family-friendly exhibition, Colour: The Rainbow Revealed.

The green, green colour of the natural world

When leaves are budding and the Gardens are getting green again, what better time to have a look at the colour so closely associated with nature?

It's Only Natural

Green and nature go hand in hand. The colour conjures up growth, freshness, vitality and fertility. In fact, the word green comes from the old English grene, which has the same origins as grass and grow. If you enjoy gardening, you are considered to be ‘green-fingered’ or as having a ‘green-thumb’ due to its dominance in nature. 

For this reason, the colour is closely associated with medicine and healing, but this connection goes beyond symbolism. Studies have shown that green is the most restful colour for the human eye, reducing fatigue, with the wavelength of green overlapping with the area of greatest sensitivity in our eyes.

The biggest contributor to green in nature is chlorophyll, which is a green pigment that helps the plant or algae absorb energy from light (photosynthesis).

Green is a very dominant colour in birds, animals, and insects, as they have adapted to camouflage to their surroundings.

  • NH.27.7-IG, Green is a common colour amongst birds, especially amongst those that live in the rainforest. The green colour allows them to blend in with their surroundings.
    Green is a common colour amongst birds, especially amongst those that live in the rainforest. The green colour allows them to blend in with their surroundings.

Going Green

Green is associated with safety and trust as can be seen in traffic lights and escape signs, although the choice of this colour seems to have been related to it being clearly discernible from red. 

It has associations with vivacity and youth, through its abundance in the natural world, and this association with life, health and growth make it a natural choice for those who want to align themselves with green-focused messaging. Aside from some obvious organisations like Greenpeace and the Green Party, you will also find BP, Starbucks, and Landrover, who want to promote their associations with health and nature.

In terms of public perception, it is an equal choice, with 14% of both sexes choosing it as their favourite colour, although more women identify with green being their least favourite colour (6% to 2% of men).

Green Eyed Monsters?

Most of us know of the association of green with jealousy or envy, but why did this come about? The phrase green-eyed monster may have been coined first by Shakespeare, who uses it in Othello:

Oh, beware, my lord, of jealousy!
It is the green-eyed monster which doth mock
The meat it feeds on.
Iago, Othello, Act 3, scene 3

Green has more than a passing association with the supernatural than the green-eyed monsters of jealousy. Fairies and dragons are often shown as green or wearing green clothing, and green gods are often related to rebirth and spring.

Green Men

Green men (not so much women) appear in lots of different cultures as important figures, whether they are gods, prophets or are integral to celebration.

The Green Man appears to have pagan origins, perhaps connected to ‘wild man of the woods’ figures who, in turn, are linked to satyrs or fauns. Despite this, Green Men frequently appear in church decorations and it is a common name for a pub.

Jack-in-the-Green is another green character from British folklore, who takes part in revels around May Day as a person (traditionally a chimney sweep) is dressed as a 3m tall bushy tree.

  • Jack in the Green, A chimney sweeps' Jack in the Green dances with the "Lord and Lady of the May" (probably both played by men) in 18th-century London.
    A chimney sweeps' Jack in the Green dances with the "Lord and Lady of the May" (probably both played by men) in 18th-century London.

Outside of the UK, Khidr (or al-Khidr) from the Quran is a messenger or prophet dressed in Green, the Egyptian god of the underworld Osiris has green skin because of its links to good health and rebirth, and Tlaloc, and Aztec god of earthly fertility and water, who also had green skin.

Dyes and Pigments

Green pigments that first appear in artwork originate from malachite or from green earth, found around southern Europe. Green dyes are rare, although did use ferns, plantain, nettles, lichen, leeks and others as accessible alternative, but these faded or changed colour quickly. Better dyes could be created by first dying the yarn or garments blue and then yellow, but this was more expensive.

Verdigris, the pigment created through weathered copper or bronze, was first used by the Greeks and is considered the first artificial green. Other green minerals include emerald and cobalt green.

  • statue-of-liberty-267948_1920, The Statue of Liberty owes its green colouration to Verdigris
    The Statue of Liberty owes its green colouration to Verdigris

In Artwork

Green in ancient artwork was closely associated with nature and rebirth, and was seen positively by the ancient Egyptians and the Romans in this regard.

In early modern Europe Green was associated with wealth and well-to-do merchants or gentlemen outside of the nobility, which had an association with red. Paintings like the Mona Lisa and the Arnolfini Portrait are good examples of this.

  • Van_Eyck_-_Arnolfini_Portrait, The Arnolfini Portrait features a woman in a green dress which at the time would have been a symbol of this family's position in the merchant classes
    The Arnolfini Portrait features a woman in a green dress which at the time would have been a symbol of this family's position in the merchant classes

This aligns with the modern association with money, which comes from the colour green in US dollar bills which was originally chosen to deter counterfitters.

In the 18th and 19th century the advent on new synthetic pigments saw a greater uptake of the colour, particularly by the romantic movement.

I sought to express with red and green the terrible human passions. The hall is blood red and pale yellow, with a green billiard table in the center, and four lamps of lemon yellow, with rays of orange and green. Everywhere it is a battle and antithesis of the most different reds and greens.
1888, Van Gogh about The Night Cafe

Learn more about green in our exhibition – Colour: The Rainbow Revealed

The many sides of yellow

What comes to mind when you think of yellow. The sun? Spongebob? Lemons?

The colour yellow is all around us, in our food, our clothes, our waste. As most kids can tell you, it is a secondary colour, created by mixing red and green.

It is considered a cheerful colour – conjuring up images of sunflowers, buttercups and sunny days. However it is also closely associated sickliness and cowardice. In China, it is associated with pornography, while in Russia it has associations with mental illness.

We look into the multi-faceted nature of yellow.

So what makes things yellow?

There are a few origins.

Carotenoids are pigments that create bright colours like yellow (as well as orange and red) in foods. You find them in organic material like plants, bacteria and algae, and they play a really important role in absorbing light for photosynthesis, and protecting chlorophyll in a plant. Carotenoids are behind the yellow of lemons, autumn leaves, egg yolks, daffodils and much more.

  • Yellow blog, A daffodil which contains carotenoid
    A daffodil which contains carotenoid

There are quite a few different minerals behind yellow pigments in paint, but one of the oldest found used in art is yellow ochre.

In fact, yellow was one of the first colours ever used in art, as ochre (a mix of ferric oxide, clay and sand) was very accessible and could be found in many places all over the world.

Engraved ochre was found in the Blombos Cave in South Africa that dates from around 75,000 years ago. A bit closer to home, ochre has been found in paintings of animals in French caves  from 25,000 years ago, and in Spain, from around 15-16,000 BC.

  • Yellow blog, An Ancient Egyptian coffin cover painted with yellow ochre
    An Ancient Egyptian coffin cover painted with yellow ochre

But ochre is not confined to history. If you are wondering if yellow ochre is used in any of your paints, have a look for PY-43 on the label.

Yellow dyes were about as widely available as ochre, and the colour can be taken from saffron, safflower, gorse bushes, as well as the bark of the Eastern black oak and Dyer’s mulberry. Find out more about yellow dyes in our Dye Garden.

  • Yellow blog, A Gorse bush in our Dye Garden
    A Gorse bush in our Dye Garden

What do we think of the colour?

It is a vibrant colour that is used to create an emotional or energetic response.

Yellow is thought to increase cheerfulness and optimism when used in marketing, but can apparently make babies cry.

That emotional energy makes it an ideal colour to draw in shoppers and prompt impulse activity. There is a reason why it is the colour of choice for fast food outlets like Burger King and McDonalds, stores like Ikea and toy companies like Play-doh and Nerf.

However, when it comes to picking our favourite, the colour yellow falls very low for both men and women gaining only 1% and 3% of responses respectively.

Sickness or royalty?

This lack of love for yellow may have something to do its association with illness and disease. Yellow is the colour of jaundice, pus and bile, and it has associations with cholera, which shares etymological routes (Khloros). Bruises turn yellow and no one wants to get Yellow Fever.

Yellow had negative associations in the Middle Ages, when repentant cathars were forced to wear yellow crosses on their clothes. Hundreds of years later, Jewish people persecuted by the Nazis had to wear a yellow star on clothes or display the sign on their houses. Heretics were forced to wear yellow during the Spanish Inquisition.

  • Yellow blog, Yellow badge made mandatory by the Nazis in France, kitkatcrazy thanks to Wikimedia Creative Commons
    Yellow badge made mandatory by the Nazis in France, kitkatcrazy thanks to Wikimedia Creative Commons

In the late 18th century the phrase yellow-belly was first identified as a derogatory term, as set out in Grose’s A provincial glossary (1787):

Yellow bellies. This is an appellation given to persons born in the Fens, who, it is jocularly said, have yellow bellies, like their eels.

But despite all this, we prize gold which is of a yellowish hue.

Yellow was associated with gold in Ancient Egypt. The bones of gods were believed to be made of gold, enforcing the belief that it was eternal and indestructible.

It was also associated with the Pope in the early days of the Christian church and royal yellow is the colour of the robes of the Emperors of China, because of its links to the sun. Jing Han writes,

Just as there cannot be two suns in the sky, there cannot be two emperors in a nation. Thus from then on, yellow was regarded as the costume colour used exclusively by emperors.

Ribbons, roses, a submarine and a big yellow taxi

Lots of other musicians have featured yellow in their songs.

Tie a Yellow Ribbon Round the Ole Oak Tree sung by Dawn featuring Tony Orlando is about signalling that a prisoner of war is still welcome by his sweetheart when he arrives back home. Songs or poems with similar themes crop up from early in the 1900s, but the first copyrighted version was in 1917 by George A. Norton, which he titled Round Her Neck She Wears a Yeller Ribbon (For Her Lover Who Is Far, Far Away).

The yellow ribbon gained popularity in the US during the Gulf War as a way of supporting troops, and are still displayed in some towns and cities on this basis today. Yellow ribbons are still identified with POWs in Italy and Kuwait. 

  • Yellow blog, A yellow ribbon
    A yellow ribbon

Two famously yellow songs, Mellow Yellow and Yellow Submarine are linked, as Paul McCartney is one of the people heard in the background of the Donovan track, and Donovan helped McCartney with the lyrics for Yellow Submarine.

Listen to these and some other famous tracks associated with the colour yellow.

Both China and Vietnam had music genres called yellow music, both with separate origins.

In China, yellow music or songs described early popular music between the 1920s to 1940s, as a reference to pronography, and this term was used up until the Cultural Revolution.

It also referred to music created in South Vietnam during the Vietnam War, as opposed to red music from the North. The content of the songs were considered “decadent” and were banned in 1975.

Liked reading about yellow? Find out about the colour blue in our earlier post and stayed tuned for more colours throughout the year.

What’s in a colour? Blue

As part of our exhibition Colour: The Rainbow Revealed we will be learning about a colour each month.

First up, one of the primary colours: Blue.

Top choice

Blue is one of the most popular colours in the spectrum. It comes out on top as the most preferred colour for both men and women across many countries. This could be because we see it in blue skies and clear water.

This relationship to the sky and sea gives blue an association with calming and soothing environments in our homes, where it prompts feelings of dependability.

  • The blue sky with our Totem Pole, We see blue daily, whether it is a blue sky or water. Our Totem Pole against a blue sky
    We see blue daily, whether it is a blue sky or water. Our Totem Pole against a blue sky

In business and marketing the colour blue engenders a sense of security and trust. You will often see it associated with medical (Blue Cross, Oral B) or tech companies (Facebook, Twitter, IBM).

Both of these sectors depend on customer confidence in the ability of the company to look after their wellbeing or their records, so blue branding is a subtle nod to this. However, you will start to notice lots of other brands which rely on the trust of their customers use it in their logos.

More recently, Blue has come to mean something else in modern society – a link. Blue is the predominant colour for hyperlinks in documents and online.

Feeling blue

It is quite strange that, despite blue’s associated with dependability, this colour is closely associated with sadness. There are blue notes in music, often played in blues songs which evoke feelings of melancholy harking back to the origin of the blues in the US Deep South. 

This is the first commercial recording of vocal blues by an African-American singer: Mamie Smith's performance of Perry Bradford's "Crazy Blues" in 1920:

Some people think the association of blue with sadness came from ships showing blue colours when the Captain or officers were lost during the voyage.

Washington Irving is credited with first using the term “the blues” in 1807, as a synonym for sadness. He was shortening the phrase “blue devils” which was a synonym to describe a menacing presence or a hangover.

Creating blue

Blue has placed an important role in our society as a pigment.

Blue pigments were created from azurite and Lapis lazuli. It was an expensive colour to create, due to scarcity of the mineral deposits, so it is no surprise that you will frequently see it used in older artwork relating to those of high status in Europe, such religious paintings (think the Virgin Mary’s scarf) or stained glass windows, while cobalt blue has long featured in the Middle East and Chinese porcelain.

  • Azurite, A sample of the mineral Azurite, Rob Lavinsky iRocks.com
    A sample of the mineral Azurite, Rob Lavinsky iRocks.com

The first official blue synthetic pigment came from Egypt in the form of calcium copper silicate. The earliest evidence is from around 3250 BC.

Before synthetic blues were developed, plants True Indigo (Indigofera tinctoria) and Woad (Isatis tinctoria) were used to make blue dye for clothing, dating back at least 4,000 years.

The Indigo plant has also been used for food colouring, although many manufacturers have now switched to using spirulina. If you are wearing jeans, you are likely to be wearing indigo now.

You can see some of the plants used to make blue dyes in our Dye Garden.

Blue in nature

While we think of ourselves as being surrounded by blue in nature, with the sea and sky, there is far less when it comes to animals.

The blue you see in animals (particularly mammals and insects) comes often from the structure of their feather or scales, rather than a pigment.

When you think of the blue in a peacock feather, or on our Blue Morpho butterflies in the Butterfly House, the structure of the scale or feather has been created so that it absorbs all other colours, leaving you with the blue light reflected, which is why there is an iridescence when they move.

  • Blue Morpho butterflies, Blue Morpho butterflies from our Natural History Collection
    Blue Morpho butterflies from our Natural History Collection

Joe Hanson explains this really well in his series Its ok to be smart.

When it comes to plants and flowers, there are more blues that you would see in animals, but less than 10 percent of the 280,000 species of flowering plants produce blue flowers, and blue foliage is very rare.

Found these facts about blue interesting? Learn more about colour in our exhibition Colour: The Rainbow Revealed.

A Horniman Rainbow Flag

February is LGBT History Month and as we have just opened our new exhibition Colour: The Rainbow Revealed, what better time to look at the Rainbow Flag, which has been a symbol of LGBTQI pride since the 1970s.

The Rainbow Flag is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year. The flag was originally created by artist Gilbert Baker in the 1970s. Baker had been tasked by Harvey Milk to create a symbol of pride for the gay community and the original flag flew in the San Francisco Gay Freedom Day parade in June 1978.

“Flags are about power,” Baker told ABC in 2017, “Flags say something. You put a rainbow flag on your windshield, you’re saying something.”

This original flag contained eight colours but was modified to six in 1979, and we have used this six-colour flag to create our own rainbow from our collections.


The red stripe in the flag symbolises life and the colour evokes blood – a symbol of life. As a colour it is at the end of the visible light spectrum which is why it is the first colour in the rainbow.

This is a wax seal from the mid-1800s. Wax seals are still commonly used to secure the padlocked doors and gates of important cabinets, offices and buildings in India and Pakistan. The inscription gives the name Narsinghadev, an official of an 'emperor' Bhagvant Singha, and dates that are equivalent to AD 1838-39 and 1859-60. 


The orange stripe represents healing. Orange is considered to be a friendly, cheerful colour combining the energy of red and the happiness of yellow.

This is a clownfish from our Aquarium. Most anemonefish are protandrous hermaphrodites, meaning they alternate between the male and female sexes at some point in their lives.


The yellow represents sunlight. It is a warm colour and the association with the sun evokes feelings of optimism and clarity.

This is a painted, carved wooden mask of 'El Tigre' from Mexico and is part of our Handling Collection.


The green represents nature, which is natural when green are the colours we associate with spring, growing and life.

Unsurprisingly we’ve gone outside to the Gardens for this part of our flag for a picture from a sunny day under the trees.


The blue stripe represents serenity, harmony or peace. Blue is used commonly by brands to evoke trust, as it is the most popular colour for both men and women.

We’ve gone for a Blue Morpho for this part of the flag, because they are just stunning. This specimen is part of our Natural History Collection, but you can also see them in our Butterfly House.


The final stripe at the opposite end of the light spectrum is violet which represents spirit. According to surveys in Europe and the United States, violet is most often associated with extravagance, individualism and the unconventional, which aligns with spirit well.

This circular embroidered fan case came from China in the early 1900s. It is decorated with an embroidered scene of a young woman dressed in blue in a boat surrounded by lilies. Beside her is an overhanging willow and a bird, probably a crane, flying overhead.

There you have it, a Horniman version of the Rainbow Flag.

As Baker said,

I like to think of those as elements as [being] in every person; everybody shares that.

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