Paula Bailey

September 6, 2010

Arsenic Green

‘Arsenic Green’ is not an easy colour to describe but for many years it was the very green which, according to John Lloyd and the late Douglas Adams was “supposed to make you feel comfortable in hospitals, industrious in schools and uneasy in police stations” (from The Meaning of Liff, 1983).  I’m not entirely sure it is even called arsenic green – but that is what I call it (and so do a company called Farrow & Ball it seems – actually check out their paint colour names, they have one called Dead Salmon too).

Pantone call it 557 U.

Many years ago, copper acetoarsenite was used to colour things green.  The resulting greens were variously called emerald green, Paris green or Scheele’s green (which is, in turn, also known as copper arsenite).  It was used to colour many things including wallpaper, clothing, paints, even children’s toys and as a face makeup to reduce redness. Of course it was very poisonous.  People died and often in quite alarming ways, frequently in green rooms, and usually by inhaling the toxic fumes that were emitted, particularly in damp conditions.  It has even been suggested that this green pigment was the cause of the death of Napoleon Bonaparte.

And we were worried about lead in paint?

For me, this colour (or more correctly range of colours) sums up dusty old school rooms and sensible books, soft furnishing materials and old biscuit tins at my grandmother’s house, and the thick layers of green paint peeling off my grandfather’s old zinc shed, showing the faded versions of the same colour below.  It’s a definite nostalgia colour – not only for my own childhood, but also for the earlier childhoods I read about in my story books. Faded summers.

In design work I would use it to convey a ‘classic’ feel, particularly in book cover design.

What does it mean to you?

Arsenic Green

I’ve curated a Flickr Gallery to accompany this post.

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