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The Colours of the Past in Victorian England

Periodic Reporting for period 1 - COPAST (The Colours of the Past in Victorian England)

Reporting period: 2016-03-01 to 2018-02-28

The project entitled ‘The Colours of the Past in Victorian England’ (COPAST) analysed the reception of the chromatic material culture of Antiquity and the Middle Ages in the works of writers and artists from William Morris’s close circle, including the chromophile architect William Burges. The Victorian age (1837-1901) was indeed a chromatic turning point following the scientific discovery of new chemical colours, such as coal-tar based synthetic dyes, against which many artists strongly reacted. Charlotte Ribeyrol specifically investigated ideological approaches to ancient polychromy in the context of the Greek and Gothic Revivals which affected industrialized England in the second half of the 19th century. Working on rare archival resources in London and Oxford in close collaboration with the teams at the Ashmolean Museum, she contrasted these ancient hues with the new chemical aniline dyes which were mainly devised for the expanding textile industry.

During the course of this two-year Fellowship, Dr. Ribeyrol pursued three innovative and interrelated objectives:

- to explain how colour became a central cultural concern in 19th century England due to major scientific innovations relating to both the fabrication and perception of colour.
- to highlight the importance of chromatic materiality in Victorian literature, by confronting writers' and artists’s actual practice of colour with the list of pigments and dyes as well as the ancient recipes which they referred to in their lectures, correspondence or poetry.
- to analyse the complex relationship the Victorians entertained with the past – in particular two key colourful periods: Antiquity and the Middle-Ages.
The results of COPAST have exceeded the Fellow’s expectations. Not only did she publish 3 edited volumes, 4 articles in international peer-reviewed journals and 4 book chapters, she also received 16 invitations to discuss her results during and after the project – including two as keynote. If the first year of her Fellowship was mainly devoted to archival research, these invitations intensified in the second year, which was also when she organised two major international conferences : one at the Ashmolean Museum on 2nd June 2017 on ‘The Changing Colours of 19th century art and literature’ and one in Florence on the materiality of fin-de-siècle objects on 28-29th September 2017. These two events highlighted the international and interdisciplinary dimension of the Fellow’s project, as well as the excellence of EU funded research.
Charlotte Ribeyrol’s innovative focus on chromatic materiality in the field of Victorian art history and literature has shed a crucial light on the artistic impact of this colour revolution which radically unsettled the way certain avant-garde Victorian writers and artists related to chromatic terminology and used traditional, organic pigments. By enabling the Fellow to develop a pioneering methodology articulating the material conditions of artistic creation with the visual perception and social reception of artworks, this project has fostered new transdisciplinary forms of research linking literature, art history and the material sciences.
Throughout her Fellowship, Charlotte Ribeyrol has also been fully engaged in various outreach activities in order to disseminate her results to a wider, non-academic audience. In Novembre 2017, she was, for instance, interviewed to answer the following ‘big’ societal question ‘Do we all see colour in the same way ?’ by the OXPLORE team, a new digital outreach portal sponsored by Oxford University encourages 11 to 18 year-olds to address questions that go beyond what is covered in the classroom.
Moreover, as a direct outcome of her Fellowship, she plans to organise a major exhibition on Victorian colour at the Ashmolean Museum in 2022 which will further strengthen the societal implications of her research on colour.