Pink Shirts and Pugin
Timothy Brittain‐Catlin My sister tells me that one of my young nieces dislikes ‘princess‐pink’ outfits and accessories and immediately discards presents if that is their colour. On the other hand, I read somewhere recently that men who wear pink shirts to work – smartly ironed ones, with sober but contrasting ties – are considered better looking, more professional and more successful, and consequently are paid more. They look, apparently, more masculine: not because of some complicated and emotional Ruskinian reason about the contrast between strength and delicacy, but simply because the colour pink operates simply as an associational flag, in the way that the Union Jack or the Tricolour does. The same thing could no doubt be said about the colour gold. Yet all colours are in truth neutral phenomena with no fixed significance one way or the other. Attempts to classify them with anthropomorphic qualities are irrational and inconsistent, not just between cultures but between individuals as well. But that doesn’t stop people from deploying them as weapons. And here they stack up quite a record. This piece looks at the use of colour as a symbol of defiance. There are big‐picture things one can say about the use of colour, and likewise there are small vignettes. The big‐picture things are to do with joining a revolt against a puritanical culture, and the vignettes are to do with personal statements. Either way, the use of colour can be a tool. An engaging illustration of this came in the form of the recent disclosure from the singers of the Swedish pop group Abba that they had devised outrageous costumes for their performances so that their national tax authorities could not under any circumstances claim that these had been acquired for everyday, rather than professional, use. People in Sweden could not go about their everyday business, whether traffic police, teachers or bank clerks, dressed in skin‐tight fluorescent silver or lilac outfits, or for that matter even in simple but bold red‐and‐white or blue‐and‐white stripes. Outfits like these were, it emerges, being deployed as tools to achieve a series of aims, which as it turns out were as much fiscal as much as they were proclamatory: they were worn to signal probity to tax inspectors as much as they were waved as pennants, as red rags, as signals that their wearers were looking for an audience amidst the tinsel and perfunctory gaudy tat of the theatre. It’s a successful alliance, don’t you think? The idea that the passions of young camp or gay men for the Eurovision Song Contest, and for musicals, might have been be ignited as a result of decisions that owe their origins to sober and legitimate tax avoidance strategies is an agreeable one. It is an example of what you might call The Producers syndrome, after the Mel Brooks musical, where one set of circumstances for one set of people leads to another and apparently unrelated set altogether for others, with different values and different contexts, some real and lasting but some entirely transient, and furthermore does it all simultaneously, and for a long time to come. 1
‘A furnishing scheme showing a successful use of pinks’
A painting by W.B.E.. Ranken from Basil Ionides, Colour and Interior Decoration, 1926
Some of this is to do with pattern, but mostly it is colour. Sometimes it is obvious that a protest is being made, and sometimes it is not. Sometimes – perhaps most often – it is not clear which it is, or it is both simultaneously. In my third year of my Architecture degree, at Cambridge in early 1982, I designed a small house as part of a one‐day or one‐week project in which all the rooms were to be painted in vivid colours. This seemed to me perfectly reasonable at the time, both as a composition in watercolour on a page and also as a realistic solution, a background for hanging a large number of pictures and placing furniture. The tutor at the crit told me however that even looking at it gave him a headache and he was not prepared to talk about it. You will I am sure know that at the time the usual method of drawing for student presentations was to act as a kind of miserable harbinger to the automated plotters of the future, as my near contemporary the New York architect Peter Pennoyer put it to me so well the other day, using Rotring pens on tracing or cartridge paper. I like powerfully coloured rooms and that is the way I live now, but what I haven’t worked out yet is whether this grew out of a revolt against the puritanism of the time, or whether it would have been there anyway. If it was the latter, which seems the most likely, then maybe most other people with their tasteful monochrome schemes must have been consciously repressing a similar urge; or maybe, in fact, they constituted an enemy. Terry Farrell’s Clifton Nurseries building, the first sign of where he was heading, had gone up the year beforehand, and was followed by splashes of colour from him all over the place and almost everyone claimed to have been appalled by it. I began to realise that 2
this enemy of mine was vulnerable, and as Farrell’s architecture regularly crossed old barriers of tatse I realised I was right. Although there were some dull theories about the place on the use of colour generally, the sort of phoney or near‐phoney science that had come out of the Bauhaus, you never saw anything that came near to explaining or expressing what the explosive use of colour must have meant to people as different as me and Terry Farrell. If I put together the things that interest me I can see in retrospect that colour plays a large part in most of them. My historical interests then lay in the gothic revival: then, as now, it was not so much the appearance of it but its explosive effect, and the weird way in which its vast significance had been consistently underrated, that fascinated me. I cottoned on early to something that does now appear to be historically correct: that A.W.N. Pugin was an odd and difficult character for most mid‐century Victorian architects to be able to digest, and that he had, to some extent, been consciously written out, for example by the Ecclesiologists: William White’s articles on domestic architecture, published in the Ecclesiologists’ journal a few years after Pugin’s death, are pure Puginism, and would have been impossible but for Pugin, but the name itself is not mentioned. I thought that this was fascinating as a phenomenon. The one thing that Pugin both proclaimed and achieved above all else was the extension of the architectural profession into every aspect of the built environment, and with that came the probing of materials and the experimentation and exploitation of colour: in stained‐glass windows, in tiles, in bricks, on walls. Pugin had come as a detonation of colour. Georgian England has none: Victorian architecture is full of it. And so in time I saw that English cultural politics sits along the battle line between the colourists and the non‐colourists. If you are bored by the dreariness and hostility of everyday life, you take refuge in colour. If you are happy as things are, you do not. Those young men who started collecting Victorian artefacts from stalls in the Portobello Road in that largely dreary era of the late 1950s and early 1960s, before anyone else did, could set them up as totems about their houses, to the extent that some interiors became forests of tiny and not so tiny coloured objects. It came as a revelation to discover recently that John Scott, the Victorian collector par excellence, had been an early and adventurous client of Farrell and Grimshaw, before Farrell became Farrell, and has remained a friend of Farrell’s ever since. If you look about yourself you can begin to determine broad alliances that are made between the different colourists from all walks of life, and these surface in waves: in the 1840s; the 1870s; the 1960s; the 1980s. So that is big‐picture about colour: the anti‐dreary brigade, who are often mourning churches and monuments vandalised by Cromwell, or the Victorian monuments demolished for road‐widening schemes. If Cromwell’s pikestaffs smashed through stained‐glass windows, the anti‐dreary pick their weapons to smash back. Their fervour is often shared of course by English catholic converts, who, like for example the contemporary Victorians Pugin and Frederick William Faber, have nothing in common with each other whatsoever as people (and even as Catholics) except for a yearning for richly decorated and furnished church interiors and a deeply held belief that they were important. Catholics were sometimes called ‘deviants’, and there is always some new kind of deviant around for the majority to sneer at, often deploying colour as a defence and as a weapon. 3
Andrew Sullivan, writing of growing up as a homosexual in the 1960s and 1970s, in his book Virtually Normal, wrote that he developed mannerisms as a way of expressing himself: ‘a ridiculous piece of clothing’, for example. A coloured one? Very likely: his book closes with the observation that ‘there is beauty in the wild flowers that grow randomly among our wheat’.
‘A dining‐room with stippled blue walls’
A painting by W.B.E.. Ranken from Basil Ionides, Colour and Interior Decoration, 1926
So beyond the big picture stuff, what about the personal acts of defiance through colour? Let’s move onto things. Architects and deviants like things and some deploy them brilliantly. The more deviant these people are, the better concealed is the strategy (perhaps even to them) behind the moves in colour that they deploy. You might have thought that for Pugin a monstrance was a piece of sacred church furniture. A monstrance is the object that looks like the face of the sun, all golden rays, with a transparent disc in the centre to display the host from the sanctuary of a church. But surely for him it was also a vehicle, a device created so that a brightly coloured designed object could be waved in the faces of the faithful, as could all the other things that he wanted to see at an altar and which are illustrated in a memorable plate in his Apology for the Revival of Christian Architecture. If these things were in shade of white or cream they would be scarcely noticeable; as it is, Catholics can wave them defiantly at evangelical protestants, in they sit about in their dingy grey preaching boxes. Pugin’s monstrance in other words is like Abba’s clothing: it does different things at once, it does them effectively, and it does them through colour. Architects, like deviants, can be close to fetishistic about objects they like and with certain design histories, as we all know. I’d like you to tease out this fetish and see what it relies on and where it comes from. My advice is this: have a look at what interior designers are up to and learn from them. They have more potentially fetishistic objects to invest in, because unlike architects, they are not ‘building forever’. They may even be building, if ‘building’ is what we call it, for a matter of months. They may be looking forward to ‘creating’ (as they amusingly put it) coffee tables or side tables overflowing with perfunctory junk, like one of Faber’s altars, but a shrine to a passing personal fad or indulgence rather than to the Deity. The famous decorator John Fowler was famous for the loaded tables he set up: it was enough to make him a reputation. Have a close look at what these people are are up to. In a year’s time all their pretty stuff may be in the bin. In fact the point may even have been the photograph, rather than the actuality: it often is in the rooms designed as advertisements for themselves by interior decorators, the primary aim of which is not to house anyone but to end up in the pages of House & Garden. That’s quite defiant in itself, isn’t it? From shiny objects to shiny paper: who cares? But whether or not that’s the case, the string of coloured objects on their laden tables in their beautiful rooms might as well be a sequence in semaphore: HALLO I AM HERE ARE YOU READING ME? HALLO I HAVE NO CHILDREN. HALLO I AM UPPER‐MIDDLE CLASS. When you have transmitted the message, you can take down the symbolic bunting, as it were. In these professionally decorated houses, it is not specific objects but a certain genre of object which is the tool, more often than not chosen one by the designer rather than by any clients, which is part of an overall strategy to make a specific point. Look at the magazines again and see what messages you can pick up from the colour sequences on the page. For me the interior designer’s strategy is thus demonstrated best of all by the most prescriptive of interior design books – the ones that determine the position of
every object. Basil Ionides’ Colour and Interior Decoration of 1926 is the best
‘A little yellow drawing‐room’
A painting by W.B.E.. Ranken from Basil Ionides, Colour and Interior Decoration, 1926
of all of these, not least because it is organised in the form of chapters each of which is dedicated to a different colour. Ionides had trained with Leonard Stokes: no one would call the latter a frivolous person. What did Ionides learn from him, I wonder, and what did he react against? In his book, he presents very strong opinions on different shades of colour – one type of pink might be acceptable, for example, and another outrageously vulgar. The chapters gradually progress through all the acceptable possibilities, one by one; once Ionides has explained 6
how to arrive at an overall effect, he then provides helpful charts to dictate the rest of the details: the frames and the mounts of the pictures; the fringes and tassels of curtains and cushions; pictures frames; ornaments. In the days before paint companies ready‐mixed large colour ranges, the eventual tone of the walls themselves would be arrived at by applying one over another, in layers of different opacity. There is so much going on here that it is hard to know where to start to explain it. There is a large measure of defiance expressed here simply in the time and money that are expended in order to arrive at a coloured effect which presumably had so little practical benefit to anyone – a massive wind‐up to all the puritans and their whites, off‐white, sub‐whites, and creams, their cheap tubs of budget emulsion. (‘I don’t mind these gays having rights. But I don’t like them flaunting it in front of my face. Or in front of the children’. But then on the other hand, maybe the completely controlled environment does in fact have a real effect: I’m pretty sure that my bright yellow bedroom does; and the green kitchen gives visitors something to say. Do these things matter? These are anyhow effects beyond the reaches of, say politicians and managers.) And then there are the enactment and enforcement of little rules about colour, the creation of the alternative universe, with terrible threats for those who ignore them: clashings; social solecisms; vulgarity; bad taste. Colours, their combinations and their shades, can quite adequately make up an alternative judicial system as effective as one from, say, Star Wars or The Lord of the Rings. Road engineers in Malmo once told me that they chose sites for their traffic calming schemes not on the basis of need, or the number of accidents, but on the basis of which area contained the most residents in need of a project to bring them together; so maybe bringing colours together too, to form an imaginary kingdom of the interior, is a way of organising and calming civilised people, an alternative kind of army. Ionides, deploying designed and coloured objects in a room as carefully as he might with pieces on a chessboard, knew that he is playing a hand at poker, deploying an army that has spies and generals as well as footsoldiers: in his later book Colour and Everyday Rooms, of 1934, he attacks the enemy forces, the majority with no idea of how to use colour. There are very many people . . . who hate dark walls in any place. For these I would recommend that they use a slightly orange yellow on the walls, ceiling and woodwork, or else an orange pink on the walls and pale yellow on the ceiling . . . it would be very nice to have a scarlet painted floor with either of these schemes.
Well, try that one out: to do so is to plant a sleeper in the house of the person who thinks they ‘hate’ ornamental schemes. The orange and pink yellows will teach them a lesson over time. This is sophisticated colour knowledge and not to be sneered at: Ionides is for me the Lord High Field Marshal of all colour armies. One of the things that always strikes me about the (usually) determinedly and weirdly heterosexual interiors depicted in the daily newspapers, for example the interior decoration features in the weekly Homes and Property section of the Evening Standard, is the lack of a satisfactory or even defiant coordination between the colours in the rooms. Surely these people should be doing something other than ‘designing’ rooms? No one put it better than Great Aunt Alicia, in the Lerner and 7
Loewe musical Gigi: ‘Only those who have no taste at all / Understate, understate’. It’s the reason why interiors like those ones never really catch on in style: militarily speaking, they are incoherent as mercenaries, the equivalent of a rabble.
A colour chart for blue rooms, from Basil Ionides, Colour and Interior Decoration, 1926
Ionides’ book manages to do a great deal: it probes class distinctions through choice of colour; it thinks about orientation, season, and time of day. It also takes an interest in the relationship between colours, and building and furnishing materials. It seems to me that if you are going to fight your war of defiance through colour against the white and cream of everyday people, their long‐term plans and their tidy projects, you have an astonishing range and scale of weapons with which to do it. You have all of these, and you have the ability to annoy people also through simple manoeuvres, the placing of a shocking colour where it is not expected; the repeating of a colour so that it drumbeats into the heads of the enemy and drives them crazy: dirty warfare, as it were, perhaps with dirty colours. Or dirty ones mixed with clean ones. Or colours one might associate with one purpose being used for another. Or colours that do several things at once, or trick their way in, like Abba’s outfits. You are the head of your private army. Like a great general you see each of your soldiers as an embodiment of your ideals. Each private is, as it were, a little England. You mass your troops. You invade. You fight. In your heart you win your own battle, even if no one else agrees with you. Just keep fighting with the colours. All the worthwhile people have been on your side.
One doesn’t tend to think of interior designers as being natural terrorists, but in common with artists of other kinds they can deploy colou...