In 1831, Charles Darwin set out on a five-year voyage that would change science forever. During his time as the HMS Beagle’s naturalist, the young scientist immersed himself in nature, collecting more than 1,500 animal and plant specimens and taking endless notes. His observations, especially in the Galapagos, honed him as a scientist and informed his theory of evolution.
Nowadays, he would have taken a camera and possibly a Pantone color guide — a book that identifies colors so they can be reproduced accurately — along. But back then, photography was less than a decade old, color photos hadn’t come along yet and Pantone didn’t exist.
Luckily, Darwin had an ally to help pinpoint the colors of the dizzying spectrum of wildlife he witnessed: Werner’s Nomenclature of Colours.
The 1814 color guide, inspired by German geologist Abraham Gottlob Werner and written by Scottish artist Patrick Syme, was a taxonomy of the colors found in the natural world. It contained hand-tinted swatches of 108 colors along with names and examples of where they could be found in nature. Darwin used the color names to precisely record his observations of phenomena like a “primrose yellow” snake he spotted in Chile.
Darwin wasn’t the only scientist to prize the guide, which featured colors like “campanula purple” and “celandine green” and used things like “the white of the human eyeballs” to help readers pinpoint colors. It and other color dictionaries of the time were used by other scientists until photography, and Pantone, made it easier to standardize color references.
Werner’s Nomenclature is still relevant today, inspiring a new collection, Colour by Nature, from Farrow & Ball paint. Andrea Hart, the head of the special collections library at London’s Natural History Museum, talks about why the book is so precious in an interview at bit.ly/wernersnomenclature.