Moses Harris’s Natural System of Colours, was the first book to set out the primary, secondary and tertiary colours lucidly in complementary circles and it remains the rarest book on colour theory: surviving in four recorded copies (two incomplete) of the first edition (n.d. but c.1769-76) and six (including the present previously unrecorded copy) of the second edition.
Harris expounded a system, drawn from his observation of nature, that showed how three colours can be intermixed, tinted and shaded to create 660 colours ‘materially, or by the painters art.’ As such, this remarkable, beautifully presented book is one of the fundamental texts of modern colour theory. This, the second edition, published in 1811 and dedicated to the second President of the Royal Academy, Benjamin West. This exceptionally well-preserved copy belonged to West himself and has remained with his descendants.
Moses Harris (1730 – c.1788) was an entomologist and engraver who published a series of important works on insects, particularly butterflies. In observing nature, he evidently became interested in colour theory. It was from his observation of nature that he designed a system of three primary colours, or ‘primitives’ (red, yellow and blue), three ‘mediates’ (orange, green and purple), and their various combinations. Harris noted that in flora: ‘nature seems to have given preference by far to the three first or grand primitives, and most commonly dresses them in red, blue or yellow, especially those which grow naturally wild.’ He illustrated his work with copper plates showing two concentric circles, which each comprised eighteen sectors of ‘prismatic’ and ‘compound’ colours at varying degrees of intensity. The overlapping triangles of primaries and secondaries sit prominently in the centre of each circle. As this system could not be adequately represented by the mechanical colouring techniques available at the time, Harris himself engraved the copper plates and hand-coloured them. The purpose of the book was largely practical, conceived as a vital tool of empirical, scientific investigation, Harris conceived the plates to be used as a guide for the accurate description of colour in nature. As such, Harris’s book should be seen as a vital text of the Enlightenment, produced at the intersection of scientific investigation and artistic endeavour.
The present edition of Harris’s text did not appear until after his death. It was published by another entomologist, Thomas Martyn, who founded a remarkable ‘academy’ at 10 Marlborough Street, Westminster for the accurate hand colouring of scientific books. There is significant evidence that his ideas were widely discussed, and supported, by leading Academicians. In his original 1766 text the dedication notes that Joshua Reynolds: ‘swept away those doubts which hung on my mind, as sensible of my own fallibilities, and encouraged me to bring that forth to the world, which otherwise might have remained for ever in oblivion.’ This edition was dedicated to Reynolds’s successor, indeed this copy was West’s own and there is considerable evidence to suggest West was not only aware of Harris’s theories, but shared them. West made a series of remarks on colour in 1784 to his fellow-American painter, John Trumbull:
‘Nature has but three primitive colours, Yellow, Red & Blue, from which all others arise by Composition… Yellow, Red & Blue produce Black, which is privation of Colour by darkness & Yellow, Orange, Red, Purple, Blue & Green produce White, which is a privation of Colour by Light.’
This almost certainly explains West’s encouragement for Martyn’s edition of Harris’s text, which was undoubtedly hand-coloured by his assistants. This beautifully preserved copy was presented to West himself and remained by descent within his family.
In the period before accurately printed colour plates, this edition of Harris’s text evidently had a significant role, offering an accurate guide to colour. Alexandra Loske has argued that the fact that many of the surviving copies of the book have had their plates removed, points to the practical application of the work. This copy is therefore a rare and significant survival.
Recorded copies of Moses Harris, Natural System of Colours
First edition, not dated but published between 1769 and 1776
1. Royal Academy, London (incomplete, missing plate 3)
2. Yale Libraries, New Haven (incomplete, missing plate 3, surviving plates deteriorised, formerly with Faber Birren, publisher of the 1963 facsimile)
3. Bayerersche Staatsbibliothek, Munich (incomplete, missing plate 3)
4. Werner Spillmann collection, Basel, Switzerland
Second edition, 1811
1. The present copy (the dedicatee’s copy)
2. National Art Library, Victoria & Albert Museum, London
3. Colour Reference Library, Royal College of Art, London
4. Werner Spillmann collection, Basel, Switzerland
5. British Library, (King’s Library), London
6. Wellcome Library, London
Facsimile of 1st edition, published in a privately printed limited edition, New York 1963
We are grateful to Alexandra Loske for making her checklist of copies available to us.