Seeing Red (or maybe green): Colour Blindness in Literature and Culture, c. 1860-1940

Activity: Participating in or organising an event typesInvited talk


Seeing Red (or maybe green): Colour Blindness in Literature and Culture, c. 1860-1940

The Science Museum, London, holds a variety of fascinating objects relating to colour blindness and colour vision. Many of these objects are part of the Bickerton Collection – the personalia of Liverpool-based ophthalmologist Thomas Herbert Bickerton (1857 - 1933), originally donated to Wellcome in 1934.

In 1891 Bickerton declared: ‘COLOUR-BLINDNESS has now passed from the category of ailments denominated interesting, and is recognized as a visual infirmity the importance of which cannot be over estimated’ (‘Colour-Blindness Generally Considered’, NATURE). Indeed, during the late-19th and early-20th centuries, colour vision acted as a keystone in discussions on economics, public safety, employment, medicine, philosophy, anthropology, and genetics.

This multifaceted fascination with colour vision is reflected in literary works across the late-Victorian and modernist periods, including those by Charles Dickens, Joseph Conrad, Virginia Woolf, and James Joyce. Dickens’ and Conrad’s texts engage, albeit indirectly, with the debates about shipping and railway accidents – with Conrad also alluding to ‘primitive’ colour vision. Woolf’s and Joyce’s texts are more philosophical and abstracted in their engagements with colour perception.

Drawing upon my object-based research in the Bickerton Collection and my analysis of the literary texts above, my paper will provide an overview of the changing cultural status and signification of colour blindness, c. 1860-1940.
Period2 Jul 2019
Event typeSeminar
LocationLondon, United KingdomShow on map
Degree of RecognitionNational


  • colour blindness
  • modernism
  • Victorian literature and culture
  • medical humanities
  • history of science
  • sensory engagement
  • sensory experience