Green has to be the most chameleon-like of all colours, having gone the full spectrum from being a sign of potentially lethal items in the home, to being the universally accepted adjective for environmentalists.
The colour of leaves, grass and all things new – even newbies – green is associated with growth, new life and spring. In nature it is the result of chlorophyll, which enables plants to convert sunlight into energy. It is sacred in Islam as the Prophet was said to have worn a green cloak, and for the Irish it is the colour of Saint Patrick, who used the three-leaf shamrock to explain the divine concept of the Holy Trinity.
In more recent years, green has taken on a whole new meaning and is now used to describe a wide array of practices, gadgets and ideas, be it recycling, the reduction of carbon emissions or growing your own food. As for these practices and ideas, they are nothing new. In ancient China, Peru and India precautions were taken to prevent soil erosion, and Buddhism has always advocated compassion for all living beings, not only humans.
The Industrial Revolution of the 18th and 19th centuries and its devastating effects sparked a wave of environmental awareness, and Romantic poets and artists bemoaned the destruction of nature in their work. In the 1970s ‘green’ political movements took root (so to speak) and became kindred spirits with other, equally new global movements for peace, social justice and democracy.
Closer to home, Kenya’s Green Belt Movement was established by Wangari Maathai in 1977, and has to date planted over 51 million trees. The best known, and most powerful, of these groups, though, has to be Green Peace that, according to its website, campaigns for the ‘the earth’s ability to nurture life in all its diversity’. This globally powerful organisation began when a few likeminded people decided to take on US nuclear-weapons testing on the Alaskan island of Amchitka with their boat, Greenpeace. (The term ‘green peace’ already existed but it was a Canadian journalist who first used it as one word when reporting on the campaign.)
It is therefore perhaps ironic that some of the shades of green in this sizeable family of colours were once not only fashionable, but also deadly. In the 18th and 19th centuries the most popular pigments were Paris Green and Scheele’s Green – named after the Swedish creator of the colour. With the European craze for all things Chinese at an all time high, green dyes were used for dress fabrics, in the paint used to decorate wallpaper, the paper and silk flowers that adorned dresses and hats, even in the wax stoppers for wine bottles. Yet green paint contained dangerous quantities of arsenic and frequently was the cause of illness and death. In fact, some believe the bright green walls of Napoleon Bonaparte’s room on St Helena contributed to his death and a posthumous analysis of his hair did reveal substantial levels of arsenic. Eventually doctors prevailed and Paris Green became better known as a key ingredient in pesticides.
On the other side of the Atlantic, George Washington asked for a much safer shade of green for his home. Not many would have figured the first president of the USA for a keen interior designer, but he kept abreast of English design trends through his London contacts. In letters to workmen at his home dating from the 1780s and ’90s, he had given detailed instructions, including that the dining room be painted a deep emerald verdigris and the grand ‘New Room’ a pale pistachio verditer with verdigris borders. These greens were expensive to apply and costly to maintain – perhaps chosen to show off his good taste and ample budget – as they were made from copper which gradually oxidised and turned black, thus requiring regular repainting.
Judging by comments in Washington’s visitors’s book, the refurbishment was a great success and one could well imagine some of them being, well, green with envy. For this expression, by the way, we have to thank William Shakespeare who, in Othello had Iago saying
Oh, beware, my lord, of jealousy! It is the green-eyed monster.
Of all the colours, green has possibly undergone the biggest makeover and we may well have to disagree with Kermit the Frog’s plaintive ‘It’s not easy being green!’.
Currently completing her PhD, Annemi Conradie is an artist and writer who shares insight into the history of a colour in every issue of ELLE Decoration. Annemi feels that everyone should be reading more, be it books or blogs. ‘We need to broaden our minds. We also need to make more time for exploration and doing what we enjoy.’