Ella (of Box of Books) has released her latest Absent Classic installment, A Guide to Lost Colors, and it’s another delightful creation. It’s the story of Augustus Pigeon and his apprenticeship to art scholar Dr. Voorhies. Voorhies was known for his work in colors and had written the Voorhies Register, a complete catalogue of all colors in use in Dutch art between 1500 and 1700. It becomes Augustus Pigeon’s job first to compare laboratory-created colors to those used in paintings and then to investigate possible new colors, ones left out of the register. This quest for lost colors takes him to some odd and unexpected places and requires that he confront an entire cast of interesting characters. In each episode he discovers a new color and in each one that color proves more elusive than he expected.
The story itself is wonderful, written in what I think of as Ella’s trademark amusing and gently ironic tone. But as always with these Absent Classic books, the ancillary material — the introductions and notes and illustrations — provide their own pleasure. The introduction to this book tells us that poor Augustus Pigeon, in spite of his early promise as an art scholar and the success of his book The Encyclopedia of Manufactured Pigments, came to somewhat of a bad end. A scandal erupted when it was revealed that his encyclopedia was written after his eyesight had begun to degenerate. How could an expert in color not be able to see? After the scandal, Pigeon refused to allow his encyclopedia to be reprinted, but, in the hope that it might salvage his reputation, he did agree to let the Absent Classic series editor publish an appendix to the great work, and this is what is available to us today.
The introduction casts Pigeon’s story in an entirely different light. The book is no longer the story of a young man at the beginning of a promising career, but instead is a sad tale of hopes dashed and promise lost. But the fact that The Guide exists offers some consolation. As the introduction says:
Pigeon’s work on color theory and pigment analysis may well be discredited forever, but in this Guide we have a treasure — an Edwardian coming-of-age memoir, lightly sketched, full of absurd and delightful little stories.
The book’s footnotes, written by Dr. Yardlie, author of Was Rembrandt Colorblind?, offer an amusing counterpoint to the main tale. My favorite note explains that:
…the immediate and most widespread use of the Voorhies Register was in art forgery. Within five years of its publication, a formal complaint was filed with Scotland Yard, linking the Register with a sudden glut of forged Vermeers and Rembrandts.
The Guide to Lost Colors, with all its examples of good plans gone awry, seems to be saying that things never turn out as one expects and that life is sure to be a jumble of missed opportunities and lost chances.
The illustrations are wonderfully done, each one looking a little like the illustrations you might see in certain editions of nineteenth-century novels; in fact, they look like the illustrations in the Oxford edition of the Trollope novel I’m reading now. They are dark with heavy crosshatching, and they reinforce the mood of earnestness and seriousness that can be so charming in earlier literature.
If you are interested in the project, make sure to check out Ella’s blog. I’m already looking forward to the next installment!