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Red: The History of a Colour by Michel Pastoureau

Red: The History of a Colour by Michel Pastoureau
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£32.95

Michel Pastoureau, a professor at the Sorbonne, “knows a good formula when he sees one”, said Michael Prodger in The Times. Having examined blue, black and green in previous books, he has now turned his attention to the “many meanings of red”. Red, he reveals, was the first colour used in cave painting: 30,000 years ago, the pigment was laboriously extracted from an iron ore called haematite. It was the Romans’ favourite colour – “they defined 15 shades of it, but only two or three shades of blue and green”. Its fortunes began to decline under Christianity because of its link, through blood, with “crime, sin and menstruation”. Today, while red has been “superseded” as Europe’s favourite colour by blue, it retains a multitude of associations – from socialism to luxury to sexual adventure – which Pastoureau explores in this “readable” compendium.

What has caused red to lose its lustre, asked Kevin Jackson in Literary Review. Perhaps it is because the “colour of Father Christmas, balloons” and “toy fire engines” now suggests “embarrassingly childish things”. Pastoureau’s book, while “crammed with informative matter”, is not always as wide-ranging as it could be. He misses a trick, for example, in not investigating the “deep, if seldom articulated, link between Britishness and redness”.