Colourful Rare Books from Trinity’s Library Collection on Display at Ashmolean Exhibition

19 September 2023

Rare books from Trinity College will feature in a new exhibition at the Ashmolean Museum.

Colour Revolution: Victorian Art, Fashion & Design shows how the breakthroughs of the Industrial Revolution allowed Victorians to become increasingly revolutionary in their use of colour, with new hues greeted with both excitement and suspicion. This explosion of colour was embraced by artists, designers and many others in all walks of 19th-century life. It reveal the important role that colour has played in shaping art and culture through fashion, jewellery, art and printed objects. Trinity has loaned a complete set of the Yellow Book periodical, together with two other yellow books from the college’s Danson Erotica collection.

The exhibition is part of a research project funded by the European Research Council –called  Chronotype – whose team includes Trinity Fellow Librarian Stefano Evangelista and Visiting Fellow Charlotte Ribeyrol.

Charlotte Ribeyrol is Professor in 19th century British Literature at Sorbonne Université in Paris and a Visiting Fellow at Trinity College. She says: ‘The aim of this exhibition is to focus on the changes that took place in attitudes to colour in the second half of the 19th century, particularly in Victorian England, then in the vanguard of the industrial revolution. 

‘Britain’s industrial supremacy is often perceived through a black-and-white filter, as the “funereal” age of coal pollution and bleak, working-class slums reflected in the dark, supposedly “gothic”, tones of the films, T.V. series, and video-games set in that period. And yet, the industrial revolution actually transformed colour. As a result of a number of crucial chromatic innovations people began to see colour in new terms: the new technique of chromolithography for instance transformed the art of book illustrating and advertising. 

‘As both the production and the perception of colour became objects of growing scientific interest, the status of colour changed radically. No longer simply perceived as feminine, deceitful, and subjective, mass-produced and mass-consumed colour suddenly became a key signifier of the “modern” in the second half of the 19th century. It is this multifaceted “colour revolution” which the exhibition brings to light, revealing how colour became central to artistic, scientific, political and religious debates during this period.’

The exhibition ‘Colour Revolution, Victorian Art, Fashion and Design’ is the main outcome of the ERC project CHROMOTOPE (2019-2024) which brings together art historians, curators, conservators, anthropologists and specialists of Victorian literature from Sorbonne Université, the University of Oxford and the Conservatoire National des Arts et Métiers in Paris.

Colour Revolution at the Ashmolen Museum opens on 21 September and runs until 18 February 2024.