MAUVE by Simon Garfield
Kirkus Star


How One Man Invented a Color That Changed the World
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The life, times, and enduring influence of pioneering chemist Sir William Perkin, who at 18 discovered a substance that yielded a most lovely color.

Garfield (The End of Innocence, not reviewed) has fashioned a stylish compound of biography, cultural and scientific history, and literary detection. He begins in 1906 with Perkin, now 68, attending celebrations in the US for the jubilee of his 1856 discovery of mauve, the serendipitous consequence of his unsuccessful attempt to synthesize quinine. The scientists who gathered to honor him all wore bow ties dyed mauve for the occasion. Garfield first whisks us to the London neighborhood of Shadwell, where Perkin was born (and where virtually nothing remains from his day), and then farther into the past. Perkin’s grandfather had been an alchemist, and young William, a bright, industrious student with his grandfather’s interests, attended lectures by Michael Faraday and pursued a course of study in the tiny Royal College of Chemistry. Soon, he was working as an assistant to the influential Professor August Wilhelm von Hoffman. An amateur painter, Perkin was prepared to see value in the color of his failed experiment, but his subsequent audacity astonishes. While still a teenager, he decided to approach dyers with his discovery and, after some initial resistance, succeeded so grandly that he was able to leave his formal chemical studies and convince his family to join him in the dyeing business, an enterprise that enriched them all—especially after Queen Victoria wore mauve to her daughter’s wedding. The Perkins eventually sold their business (the Germans were dominating the market), and Perkin himself spent the rest of his life conducting private research and supporting philanthropic causes. Garfield leaps gracefully back and forth in time, as comfortable in the Victorian past and he is in the brave new world of petrochemicals and biochemistry. And for dessert—a recipe for the pudding served at the 1906 honorary banquet.

Mauve-lous. (8 pages color illustrations, not seen)

Pub Date: April 1st, 2001
ISBN: 0-393-02005-3
Page count: 224pp
Publisher: Norton
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 15th, 2001


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