Moses Harris, Prismatic Colour Wheel

The Natural System of Colours

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The Natural System of Colours by Moses Harris 1766,

“A Facsimile Edition of What is Perhaps the Rarest Known Book in the Literature of Colour”
with historical notes by Faber Birren
privately printed in a Limited Edition 1963; distributed by the Whitney Library of Design New York


One of the rare books from the UTS Library Special Collections, on display for Colour on the Concrete. This publication was originally part of the Sydney College of the Arts Information Resource Centre Collection, and transferred to UTS after the Design School of SCA joined the NSW Institute of Technology to form the new University in 1988.

Dedicated to Sir Joshua Reynolds, who had recently been appointed President of the Royal Academy, The Natural System of Colours (c.1766) was a milestone work in the literature about colour. Moses Harris was an engraver and entomologist who published several volumes on the subject of British insects. His short but influential book on colour features two engraved plates, delicately hand-coloured with overlapping tints of semi-transparent paints. It represents not only the first known publication of a colour circle in full hue, but also the first attempt to organise colours into a system that included not only prismatic (pure) colours but modified (muted) colours as well.

Harris’s work built on the work of Sir Isaac Newton on the nature of light and colour, who in 1666 was the first to pull together the ends of the spectrum to form a colour circle. In his 1704 work Optiks Newton chose the seven colours red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, and violet “proportional to the seven Musical Tones or Intervals of eight sounds” to represent his system of colours.

Another important predecessor to Harris was Jacques-Christophe Le Blon, credited with the discovery of the primaries in paints as the basis for all other hues through intermixtures. In 1730, his reduction of colour to the three basic primaries red, yellow and blue was a groundbreaking discovery that had far-reaching consequences in art and industry.

There are two known copies of the original edition of Moses Harris’s book in Library Collections: one at the Royal Academy (possibly Reynolds own copy), and the other in the Faber Birren Collection of Books on Color, a Special Collection at Yale University that began with donation of over 200 books and an endowment for its development by Birren in 1971. Birren’s life-long study of colour and colour systems started at the Chicago Art Institute and Chicago University, where he studied Colour Theory. In 1929 he established an early colour consultancy business, first in his native Chicago, then in New York, tracking colour trends and advising industry on the effects and impact of colour. He wrote and published extensively on colour and colour theories, and gained renown as a leading expert in the field.


Main Image:

Prismatic colour wheel from Moses Harris The Natural System of Colours, facsimile edition produced by Faber Birren in 1963, UTS Library Special Collection



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