Gartside’s essay, modestly titled Essay, was followed three years later in 1808 by a revised version that she boldly rechristened “An Essay on a New Theory of Colours & on Composition in General”. This book predates Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s 1810 celebrated treatise Theory of Colours. In it, the renowned German poet, critic and poet sought to correct fundamental errors in Isaac Newton’s understanding of how we experience colour in the world. Gartside, like Goethe who had been working on his ideas for decades seemed quiet determined to reevaluate Newton’s concept of the spectrum that comprises white light. This was something the English mathematician discovered as a student in 1666 during the Great Plague. He sought to give it an artistic urgency and purpose.
Loske told me that Loske calls it a theory. She puts it in a more serious context. It is interesting to see how she adapts Newtonian ideas to painting. Newton was all about immaterial colours – about splitting the rainbow and about coloured lights. It was necessary to apply all of this knowledge to material color, and she does so beautifully.”
The spectrum of colours that Newton famously unweaved with his carefully angled prisms seemed to many more staged than natural – hues of an obsessive intellect under artificially controlled conditions rather than the dishevelled shades of messy reality. Newton’s determination to bend the rainbow to allow indigo to sit beside blue is often seen as proof of his ability to shape what he saw in an artificially controlled environment. The century between his eventual publication of Opticks: A Treatise of the Reflexions, Refractions, Inflections and Colours of Light – in which Newton formally presents his ideas – and Gartside’s and Goethe’s volumes on colour theory in the first decade of the 18th Century, would witness a flurry of publications by writers and artists keen to reconcile Newton’s clinical notions of colour with the practicalities of actually mixing pigments on a palette.
Refashioning of the Colour Wheel
Central to each of these efforts – undertaken by everyone from the French painter Claude Boutet in 1708 to the British entomologist Moses Harris in 1766 to the Austrian entomologist Ignaz Schiffermüller in 1772 – was a reimagining of Newton’s seminal, if curiously colourless, colour circle which he presented in his Opticks. Goethe believed that Newton’s inability to recognize the essential role that darkness plays for shaping the colours that we see every day was the reason for his own refashioning the colour wheel. Friedrich Schiller, a playwright and Goethe collaborated to create a complicated diagram called the “roseof temperaments”. It contained the concentric orbits for twelve colours and their corresponding traits. The diagram’s center is a dark abyss that yawnings at the centre. This elaborate wheel was eventually replaced by Goethe’s simpler, more popular colour circle in 1809. He published it in his Theory of Colours the next year.