Spring 2012

Colors / Madder Lake

Fierce blood to pale wash

Lytle Shaw

“Colors” is a column in which a writer responds to a specific color assigned by the editors of Cabinet.


Forget about madder lake’s role in Egyptian tomb painting. Forget Tutankhamun. Forget its place in Greek and Roman art where, diluted with gypsum, it would produce a gorgeous pink hue. Forget Corinth and Pompeii. Madder lake found its calling when, in the seventeenth century, it became the color of the British army’s red coat. As Britain expanded its colonial outposts globally throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, madder lake grew into the color of empire. In this way, it was also a brand, perhaps comparable to imperial purple fifteen centuries earlier but now extended over a far-broader geographical area. European merchants might have glimpsed madder lake vests through palm trees in the Bahamas, coming into focus over sand dunes in Egypt, or popping out of the Canadian tundra as a trader landed his boat in the Northwest Territory. Long before Coca-Cola’s cursive logo or the golden arches of McDonald’s reminded you, in a fraction of a second, that the United States could extend a tiny tentacle even to that remote spot across the globe where you happened to encounter them, the madder lake red coat sought to tame foreignness with its familiarity—even if you were a sworn enemy of the empire.

But if the red coat was an early global brand, it was not merely an empty sign that was gradually filled with meaning through repetition in new contexts. Rather, the coat also sought to be a literal embodiment of something essentially British—blood, and its attendant overdetermined symbolism of hardiness, bravery, and valor. The blood that coursed through the soldiers’ veins was manifest on their jackets. Nor was this merely a cover for the inevitable real gore that would soon spatter those same jackets: this would stain the red coat dark brown.

Still, the red coat also evoked the powers of blood in a less direct way—through its association with British aristocracy. The red coat implied that even the common soldier partook, in some small way, of the vast grandeur of royal blood. But this also introduced lingering questions both about the extent of royal blood available in England and its preparation for battle. Had all these soldiers just wandered in from fox hunting or risen from the card table to empty a few rounds into the natives? Were Washington’s troops really aiming their muskets at the clientele of London’s most fashionable clubs, owners of hallowed country piles? One facet of this question was managed, prior to 1870, by assigning officers a deeper scarlet red—presumably in acknowledgment of the greater thickness or weight of their blood.

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