On the invention of the colour purple – and the saving of sea snails

There’s a painting of Sir William Henry Perkin by Sir Arthur Stockdale Cope hanging in the National Portrait Gallery. It dates from 1892 and is not necessarily one of the most paused over pieces in the vast gallery, but the story behind its subject is interesting if colour is a topic close to your heart. Perkin was a Scientist who in 1856, when he was just 18 and still a student at the Royal College of Chemistry, accidentally invented the colour purple – or mauve – when he was instead trying to invent a cure for Malaria. We’ve mentioned  him before in our nod to this century’s most famous embracer of the colour, but we wanted to find out a bit more about the creation of the dye itself.

Sir William Henry Perkin by Sir Arthur Stockdale Cope. National Portrtait Gallery

Perkin joined London’s Royal College of Chemistry in 1853 where he began assisting the great scientist August Wilhelm Hofmann. They experimented with synthesising quinine for the treatment of malaria and three years later during Easter break from school, Perkin was carrying out his own experiments at home in his makeshift bedroom lab.

He added hydrogen and oxygen to coal tar and his concoction left a black residue in his glass jars – it was only while cleaning them out with alcohol that the solid dissolved to give a purple coloured solution, the first ‘aniline dyestuff’. Perkin carried out more trials – apparently in a hut in his garden and in secret from Hofmann.

Sir William Henry Perkin after Elliott & Fry photogravure, National Portrait Gallery Photographs Collection

Until his discovery, purple could only be made using natural dyes and expensively so – hence it was an extremely coveted shade and one associated with only the most wealthy and powerful. The scientist initially named his colour Tyrian Purple in reference to its ancient roots. Tyrian purple was made from the mucous of sea snails in Tyre, a Phoenician city on the Mediterranean Sea that’s now in Lebanon, and vast amounts were required to yield just a tiny amount of dye. The sea snails still live there today – presumably less fearful for their lives.

Perkin patented his new dye – renaming it mauve – and opened a dye works on the banks of the Grand Union Canal in London. His timing couldn’t have been better. England was in the middle of the Industrial Revolution and coal tar, the major source of his raw material, was being produced in large quantities as a waste product of coal gas and coke. His synthetic purple made him both famous and rich and his work led to the existence of 2,000 artificial colours. We owe a lot to the colour purple and its inventor’s bedroom experiments.

Jill Macnair


Jill Macnair has worked as an interiors journalist for 13 years, contributing to titles including Elle Decoration, The Sunday Times and The Guardian. She set up cult interiors blog My Friend’s House in 2009 with Ros Anderson and continues to run the forum daily.

The Chromologist 2019 | Farrow & Ball

The Chromologist