British Association for Modernist Studies (BAMS) Conference

Activity: Participating in or organising an event typesParticipation in conference


‘so difficult to render in colourless words’: Modernism and Colour Vision

My title quotation, taken from Conrad’s Lord Jim (1900), expresses the trickiness involved in trying to faithfully represent, via textual means, the specificity of distinct (literal and figurative) shades of colour. In keeping with the conference theme, this paper considers the trouble of translating from the visual to the textual and the trouble inherent in representing variances in colour vision.

During the late-19th and early-to-mid-20th centuries, colour perception featured prominently in discussions on economics, public safety, employment, medicine, philosophy, anthropology, and genetics. Maynard Keynes analysed the patterns of heredity in red-green colour blindness and William Rivers published on colour perception within ‘primitive’ populations. In 1890, the Royal Society’s Committee on Colour-Vision reported that many shipping and railway accidents were caused by colour-blind drivers being unable to distinguish between red and green signals.

This multifaceted fascination with colour vision is reflected in literary texts, in works by Dickens, Conrad, Woolf, and Joyce. Dickens’ and Conrad’s texts engage, albeit indirectly, with debates about shipping and railway accidents – with Conrad also alluding to ‘primitive’ colour vision. Woolf’s and Joyce’s texts are more abstracted, though Woolf is known to have discussed colour blindness with Keynes, and Joyce regularly conversed with his own opticians.

By discussing canonical modernists alongside writers on the margins of modernism, as well as those usually labelled ‘Victorian’, this paper demonstrates how colour vision troubled different writers in different ways. As well as analysing texts, I draw upon collections-based research conducted as part of my fellowship at the Science Museum.
Period20 Jun 201922 Jun 2019
Event typeConference
Degree of RecognitionInternational


  • modernism
  • twentieth-century
  • literature