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An essay by Richard Le Gallienne

The Boom In Yellow

Title:     The Boom In Yellow
Author: Richard Le Gallienne [More Titles by Le Gallienne]

Green must always have a large following among artists and art lovers; for, as has been pointed out, an appreciation of it is a sure sign of a subtle artistic temperament. There is something not quite good, something almost sinister, about it--at least, in its more complex forms, though in its simple form, as we find it in outdoor nature, it is innocent enough; and, indeed, is it not used in colloquial metaphor as an adjective for innocence itself? Innocence has but two colours, white or green. But Becky Sharp's eyes also were green, and the green of the aesthete does not suggest innocence. There will always be wearers of the green carnation; but the popular vogue which green has enjoyed for the last ten or fifteen years is probably passing. Even the aesthete himself would seem to be growing a little weary of its indefinitely divided tones, and to be anxious for a colour sensation somewhat more positive than those to be gained from almost imperceptible _nuances_, of green. Jaded with over-refinements and super-subtleties, we seem in many directions to be harking back to the primary colours of life. Blue, crude and unsoftened, and a form of magenta, have recently had a short innings; and now the triumph of yellow is imminent. Of course, a love for green implies some regard for yellow, and in our so-called aesthetic renaissance the sunflower went before the green carnation--which is, indeed, the badge of but a small schism of aesthetes, and not worn by the great body of the more catholic lovers of beauty.

Yellow is becoming more and more dominant in decoration--in wall-papers, and flowers cultivated with decorative intention, such as chrysanthemums. And one can easily understand why: seeing that, after white, yellow reflects more light than any other colour, and thus ministers to the growing preference for light and joyous rooms. A few yellow chrysanthemums will make a small room look twice its size, and when the sun comes out upon a yellow wall-paper the whole room seems suddenly to expand, to open like a flower. When it falls upon the pot of yellow chrysanthemums, and sets them ablaze, it seems as though one had an angel in the room. Bill-posters are beginning to discover the attractive qualities of the colour. Who can ever forget meeting for the first time upon a hoarding Mr. Dudley Hardy's wonderful Yellow Girl, the pretty advance-guard of _To-Day_? But I suppose the honour of the discovery of the colour for advertising purposes rests with Mr. Colman; though its recent boom comes from the publishers, and particularly from the Bodley Head. _The Yellow Book_ with any other colour would hardly have sold as well--the first private edition of Mr. Arthur Benson's poems, by the way, came caparisoned in yellow, and with the identical name, _Le Cahier Jaune_; and no doubt it was largely its title that made the success of _The Yellow Aster_. In literature, indeed, yellow has long been the colour of romance. The word 'yellow-back' witnesses its close association with fiction; and in France, as we know, it is the all but universal custom to bind books in yellow paper. Mr. Heinemann and Mr. Unwin have endeavoured to naturalise the custom here; but, though in cloth yellow has emphatically 'caught on,' in paper it still hangs fire. The ABC Railway Guide is probably the only exception, and that, it is to be hoped, is not fiction. Mr. Lang has recently followed the fashion with his _Yellow Fairy Book_; and, indeed, one of the best known figures in fairydom is yellow--namely, the Yellow Dwarf. Yellow, always a prominent Oriental colour, was but lately of peculiar significance in the Far East; for were not the sorrows of a certain high Chinese official intimately connected with the fatal colour? The Yellow Book, the Yellow Aster, the Yellow Jacket!--and the Yellow Fever, like 'Orion' Home's sunshine, is always with us' somewhere in the world.' The same applies also, I suppose, to the Yellow Sea.

Till one comes to think of it, one hardly realises how many important and pleasant things in life are yellow. Blue and green, no doubt, contract for the colouring of vast departments of the physical world. 'Blue!' sings Keats, in a fine but too little known sonnet--

'... 'Tis the life of heaven--the domain
Of Cynthia--the wide palace of the sun--
The tent of Hesperus, and all his train--
The bosomer of clouds, gold, grey, and dun.
Blue! 'Tis the life of waters ...
Blue! Gentle cousin of the forest green,
Married to green in all the sweetest flowers.'

Yellow might retort by quoting Mr. Grant Allen, in his book on _The Colour Sense_, to the effect that the blueness of sea and sky is mainly poetical illusion or inaccuracy, and that sea and sky are found blue only in one experiment out of fourteen. At morning and evening they are usually in great part stained golden. Blue certainly has one advantage over yellow, in that it has the privilege of colouring some of the prettiest eyes in the world. Yellow has a chance only in cases of jaundice and liver complaint, and his colour scheme in such cases is seldom appreciated. Again, green has the contract for the greater bulk of the vegetable life of the globe; but his is a monotonous business, like the painting of miles and miles of palings: grass, grass, grass, trees, trees, trees, _ad infinitum_; whereas yellow leads a roving, versatile life, and is seldom called upon for such monotonous labour. The sands of Sahara are probably the only conspicuous instance of yellow thus working by the piece. It is in the quality, in the diversity of the things it colours, rather than in their mileage or tonnage, that yellow is distinguished; though, for that matter, we suppose, the sun is as big and heavy as most things, and that is yellow. Of course, when we say yellow we include golden, and all varieties of the colour--saffron, orange, flaxen, tawny, blonde, topaz, citron, etc.

If the sun may reasonably be described as the most important object in the world, surely money is the next. That, as we know, is, in its most potent metallic form, yellow also. The 'yellow gold' is a favourite phrase in certain forms of poetry; and 'yellow-boys' is a term of natural affection among sailors. Following the example of their lord the sun, most fires and lights are yellow or golden, and it is only in times of danger or superstition that they burn red or blue. And, if yellow be denied entrance to beautiful eyes, it enjoys a privilege which--except in the case of certain indigo-staining African tribes, who cannot be said to count--blue has never claimed: that of colouring perhaps the loveliest thing in the world, the hair of woman. Hair is naturally golden--unnaturally also. When Browning sings pathetically of 'dear dead women--with such hair too!' he continues:--

'What's become of all the _gold_
Used to hang and brush their bosoms'--

not 'all the blue' or 'all the brown,' though some of us, it is true, are condemned to wear our hair brown or blue-black. But such are only unhappy exceptions. Yellow or gold is the rule. The bravest men and the fairest women have had golden hair, and, we may add, in reference to another distinction of the colour we are celebrating, golden hearts. Hair at the present time is doing its best to conform to its normal conditions of colour. Numerous instances might be adduced of its changing from black to gold, in obedience to chemical law. 'Peroxide of hydrogen!' says the cynic. 'Beauty!' says the lover of art.

And it might be argued, in a world of inevitable compromise, that the damage done to the physical health and texture of the hair thus playing the chameleon may well be overbalanced by the happiness, and consequent increased effectiveness, of the person thus dyeing for the sake of beauty. Thaumaturgists lay much stress on the mystic influence of colours; and who knows but that, if we were only allowed to dye our hair what colour we chose, we might be different men and women? Strange things are told of women who have dyed their hair the colour of blood or of wine, and we know from Christina Rossetti that golden hair is negotiable in fairyland--

'"You have much gold upon your head,"
They answered all together:
"Buy from us with a golden curl."'

Whether Laura could have done business with the goblin merchantmen with an oxidised curl is a difficult point, for fairies have sharp eyes; and, though it be impossible for a mortal to tell the real gold from the false gold hair, the fairies may be able to do so, and might reject the curl as counterfeit.

Again, if in the vegetable world green almost universally colours the leaves, yellow has more to do with the flowers. The flowers we love best are yellow: the cowslip, the daffodil, the crocus, the buttercup, half the daisy, the honeysuckle, and the loveliest rose. Yellow, too, has its turn even with the leaves; and what an artist he shows himself when, in autumn, he 'lays his fiery finger' upon them, lighting up the forlorn woodland with splashes--pure palette-colour of audacious gold! He hangs the mulberry with heart-shaped yellow shields--which reminds one of the heraldic importance of 'or,'--and he lines the banks of the Seine with phantasmal yellow poplars. And other leaves still dearer to the heart are yellow likewise; leaves of those sweet old poets whose thoughts seem to have turned the pages gold. Let us dream of this: a maid with yellow hair, clad in a yellow gown, seated in a yellow room, at the window a yellow sunset, in the grate a yellow fire, at her side a yellow lamplight, on her knee a Yellow Book. And the letters we love best to read--when we dare--are they not yellow too? No doubt some disagreeable things are reported of yellow. We have had the yellow-fever, and we have had pea-soup. The eyes of lions are said to be yellow, and the ugliest cats--the cats that infest one's garden--are always yellow. Some medicines are yellow, and no doubt there are many other yellow disagreeables; but we prefer to dwell upon the yellow blessings. I had almost forgotten that the gayest wines are yellow. Nor has religion forgotten yellow. It is to be hoped yellow will not forget religion. The sacred robe of the second greatest religion of the world is yellow, 'the yellow robe' of the Buddhist friar; and when the sacred harlots of Hindustan walk in lovely procession through the streets, they too, like the friars, are clad in yellow. Amber is yellow; so is the orange; and so were stage-coaches and many dashing things of the old time; and pink is yellow by lamplight. But gold-mines, it has been proved, are not so yellow as is popularly supposed. Hymen's robe is Miltonically 'saffron,' and the dearest petticoat in all literature--not forgetting the 'tempestuous' garment of Herrick's Julia--was 'yaller.' Yes!--

''Er petticoat was yaller an' 'er little cap was green,
An' er name was Supi-yaw-lat, jes' the same as Theebaw's Queen.'

Is it possible to say anything prettier for yellow than that?

[The end]
Richard Le Gallienne's essay: Boom In Yellow