Spotlight on: Permanent Mauve

Mauve has a remarkable story that ties together an accident in chemistry, artistic dreams, high fashion, Oscar Wilde, an Empress and a British Queen.

The colour mauve was born from the ambition, curiosity and dreams of a teenager named William Henry Perkin. William was trying to synthesize quinine from coal tar at the direction of his tutor at the Royal College of Chemistry (now Imperial College London), the renowned chemist August Wilhelm von Hofmann. Quinine was valuable because it was the only treatment for malaria, but it was very expensive therefore Hofmann was looking for a synthetic quinine. Unfortunately, William failed in this endeavour but, luckily, he had originally dreamed of being an artist. As a result, he was fascinated when he noticed, when wiping out the black residue from his latest failure to produce quinine in his beaker, that his cloth turned purple. He quickly suspected that he had inadvertently made a wash-proof purple dye.

Since he had been experimenting during his school break at his family home on Cable Street in East London, he kept the discovery a secret from Hofmann. He saw the potential for his colour in the industrial age and he called it mauveine, later to become mauve. William first conducted experiments to be sure that, when it dyed silk, it was stable when washed or exposed to light. When satisfied with his experiments, he sent some samples to a dye works in Scotland to confirm his findings. When his results were verified, William filed for a patent in 1856 when he was only 18. By 21, he was a very wealthy man with his own dye manufacturing facility where he carried on experimenting with anilines to discover new colours.

Mauve was a fashionable and in demand colour in its day, every woman wanted mauve coloured fabric for a dress. This intensified when Napoleon III’s wife, the Empress Eugénie, decided the colour matched her eyes and ordered her dresses made in mauve, as did Queen Victoria. London fashion was totally consumed with this colour for a time but it died out amongst the younger crowd, leading it to be said older women were like ‘mauve measles on London’. Then Oscar Wilde wrote cuttingly in The Portrait of Dorian Gray, ‘Never trust a woman who wears mauve. It always means they have a history.’

As an art material, Permanent Mauve has never gone out of fashion. Our modern formulation is a lightfast, semi-transparent single pigment colour that artists have enjoyed for decades.

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