Saturday 12 September 2015

Review: Red: A Natural History of the Redhead

You cannot be a fan of Pre-Raphaelite art without, at some point, noticing that one hair colour seems rather prevalent.  Whether you say 'russet' or 'Titian' or just plain 'ginger', the one hair colour that seems to be forever linked to Pre-Raphaelite art, rightly or wrongly, is red...

The 'natural history' of red hair is the subject of a brand spanking new book by Jacky Colliss Harvey, which I was sent as a jolly review pressie.  The front, as you can see is emblazoned with La Ghirlandata, reflecting the thread of the book that explores the cultural significance of red hair, but that is not all.  Starting 50,000 years ago, Harvey traces the origins and spread of russet tresses across the globe with the origins of man and the migration of the first tribes from Africa.  The recessive gene and its behaviour is the subject for the first fascinating chapters, showing how the characteristic can appear full strength, or in part, or in freckles, and predominantly in northern Europe.  Early on Harvey mentions albinism (which again I have an interest in) and there are links in the physical development and issues due to photosensitivity which I found very relevant to the Walker Household (which numbers one albino, one redhead and one chestnut glaze).  It's not only that which Harvey touches on; she also mentions things believed about redheads in history, from witchcraft, mind-reading and all manner of other magical powers.  I have informed Mr Walker that with his magical powers and Lily's mind-reading, we should go on the road...

The heavenly Joan Holloway from Mad Men
The cultural side of the book runs from Jesus to Joan Holloway covering all points in between.  The allure of a red-headed woman (and the conversant repel of a red-headed man) seems heavily linked with sin, temptation and temper.  One splendid quote runs 'God gives a woman red hair for the same reason he gives a wasp stripes.' Lovely.

...the 'redde-headed' queen
Elizabeth I...
The description of 'red' hair comes from Elizabethan time, according to Harvey, when the term 'redde-headed' was coined in Thomas Cooper's Thesaurus Linguae Romanae et Britannicae.  The bright tresses of the queen gave way to a fashion for the colour, but stories of her temper and caprice were wide-spread and enduring.  Her independence, stubbornly holding out against attacks from abroad and at home, not to mention her unmarried status all added to the Virgin Queen's reputation and her red hair was just a part of that character.

The Biblical redheads, Judas and Mary Magdalene, find their full expression in art, as covered in the chapters on red hair in art.  This is obviously where we all come in, as the Pre-Raphaelites get a thorough going over as well as Whistler and Courbet.  Rather than concentrating on that well known ginger, Elizabeth Siddal, Harvey follows the life and career of Alexa Wilding...

La Bella Mano (1875) Dante Gabriel Rossetti
Harvey states Alexa's hair was somewhere between copper and marigold, which is an interesting claim.  On the whole I feel that Rossetti had a mono-mania about hair colour and everyone got rouged up, even poor brunette Jane on occasions. Anyway, along with Alexa, Harvey looks at Jo Hiffernan...

Symphony in White No.1: The White Girl James McNeill Whistler
Jo, the beautiful Irish girl, was mistress to Whistler, and then model and mistress to Gustav Courbet, notoriously sitting (or should that be reclining) for L'Origine du Monde...

Look, I'm not posting a picture of The Origins of the World on here.
If you are of stout moral persuasion, google it
and then have a stiff drink and remember you're English.
Here instead is a lovely picture of a pussy
 and not the sort that will get you an adults-only rating.
Anyway, there is a very interesting discussion of the lady-garden in The Origins of the World, which is very determinedly not red, and is very, very dark.  If Jo was a natural redhead that is not her lower levels, and in fact the woman's head portrait that was recently matched to The Origins seems to bear this out.  Sorry Miss Hiffernan, that's not your bits and pieces.

Detail of Beethoven Frieze (1901) Gustav Klimt
In Gustav Klimt's Beethoven Frieze he characterizes the blonde woman as Debauchery, the brunette as Intemperance and the redhead as Lust.  This connection of red hair with sex is arguably what linked Jo Hiffernan with such an explicit image, and lingers still in figures such as Jessica Rabbit, referencing back to the ever-russet-y Mary Magdalene.  By contrast Harvey brings us up to date with heroines full of grit and determination, such as The X-Files' Agent Scully and Disney's Merida from Brave.  The duality of the redhead, both horribly fallen and steadfastly upright will rage on, no doubt.

Beata Beatrix (1864-70) Dante Gabriel Rossetti
To conclude, if you want a book about the meaning of red hair in Pre-Raphaelite art, then this probably isn't the book for you as that is only one part of what is on offer here.  However if you are after a full and fascinating account of the origins and cultural meanings of being a bit of a ginger, then you will be both impressed and entertained.  The subject spans ethnography, geography and science, all the way to art and pop cultural and is always understandable and thoughtful. 

For the record, I always found red haired men very attractive.  As Mr Walker knows well.

To buy Red: A Natural History of the Redhead visit Amazon UK (here) or US (here) or visit your local bookshop...


  1. And then there is the red-headed orphan - Anne of Green Gables and Little Orphan Annie come to mind.

  2. This looks a most interesting book. I am not a redhead but have on occasion become one, and been endlessly interested in how red hair has been seen through the eyes of artists and history. Like you find red haired men attractive too.

    1. I have a weakness for a redhead, hence the russet-y Mr Walker, who is the least hot-tempered person I know!

      Thanks for the comment.

  3. Nice! I live near Nuenen, a village where VIncent van Gogh painted his ' Potato eaters'. He payed his models some 20 cts to sit for him. But one day it became apparent that the unmarried girl Gordina (of Sien) was pregnant. By Van Gogh, the local pastor claimed. From that time on, the pastor payed the wages for the models, asking to ignore Van Gogh.
    Van GOgh left Nuenen and Gordina gave birth to a boy, a red head just like Vincent...

    A nice tale to share, I heared it in a televisionshow that's tracking Van GOgh .
    Thank's for your nice posts Kirsty, I love'm ;)

    1. Thanks m'dear, that's fascinating. I was convinced that Lily would pop out with red hair but genetics had other ideas and she came out platinum blonde...

  4. It comes as a surprise that red-haired men are supposed to be unattractive. I've always thought the opposite. Also, I'd like to know what part henna played in making some of those beauties red-headed, as it was commonly used in Victorian times, even to make your nails red.

  5. I think red or ginger hair is gorgeous on people regardless of sex. My other half's hair is "strawberry blonde" as he insists on referring to it, but it's really a mixture of bronze, copper, gold and now the odd steely grey hair at the sides. I tried painting him once; it was an interesting thing, trying to get his hair right!

    There are a good few contemporary Gothic models with very Pre-Raphaelite looks, especially Ophidia, and Sheridan's Art in Belgium did some incredible photographs that bring to mind Rosetti paintings, with her modeling (I suggest you look them up) and I had to buy prints.


Many thanks for your comment. I shall post it up shortly! Kx