Pity poor yellow. In studies on people’s favourite color, it consistently scores the lowest, with under 6% of the population selecting it as their preferred shade of the rainbow. This is somewhat surprising since it’s one of the most positive of colours, with warm associations – think of buttery snacks taken in golden sunlight among yellow flowers. John Hertz opted for yellow as the colour of his taxicabs in Chicago in 1914 after he read a survey indicating that it was the easiest colour to spot. The tradition carries on in many parts of the world, the same reason for which school buses, post boxes in many countries, and fire hydrants are painted thus. Despite these optimistic links, it’s rarely been fashionable in the west at all, during any point in history. There are exceptions, such as yellow neckties and bow ties on men and Queen Elizabeth II looks particularly agreeable in it, wearing a vibrant canary-yellow ensemble to the wedding of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge in 2011, below. It is has many associations with Asian monarchies. It was reserved for the emperor alone in long periods of imperial China, and it is still the symbolic colour of the monarchies of Thailand and Malaysia today.
At the same time as being the hue of power, as Victoria Finlay points out in her excellent study Color: A Natural History of the Palette, it also denotes declining power as in the decay of autumnal leaves. No matter how vivid the foliage display might be, it indicates the death of the leaves, lacking light and chlorophyll. Yellow pigment for artists was often sourced from saffron and for many decades Indian yellow was particularly prized, being obtained from force-feeding cows vast quantities of mango leaves in India, then boiling their urine. The shades of yellow have some interesting names, including Chartreuse yellow, amber, jonquil, and, my personal favourite, Mikado yellow. Believe it or not, both mellow yellow and unmellow yellow are also officially recognized shades.
For me, yellow will always and steadfastly be associated with a fictional ursine creation, Rupert Bear, whose annual I received every Christmas. The little bear, who was, naturally, ageless and timeless, was always bedecked in yellow trousers and a scarf, even in the height of summer. The strip had a format geared to different ages -and temperaments- of readers. You could simply follow the images and have a pictorial adventure or you could read the rhyming couplets situated beneath each cartoon. Serious readers could follow a lengthy narrative at the bottom of the page, as above, though there was something seriously suspect about children who did. I was a couplet lad. I loved Rupert and the tales often involved magic and wonderful fantasy kingdoms. The fatal flaw in the comic strip was the fact that all of Rupert’s friends were the same dimensions as he was, even an elephant. Children can accept supernatural occurrences and they might even suspend their disbelief at a talking bear partial to yellow, but they draw the line at such imaginative bestial sizing and I count the day on which my childhood innocence disappeared to be the same day on which it dawned on me that a badger, pig, elephant, and bear couldn’t all be exactly the same height.
Yellow enjoyed a brief surge in popularity during the Renaissance, a relic of which may be seen in the uniforms of the Papal Swiss Guard, above. Swiss mercenaries enjoyed huge prestige for many centuries not only because of their reputation but also because there was a ready supply of young men ready to quit their impoverished and overpopulated Helvetian Federation. Yellow has become more acceptable in recent years thanks to Kate Moss who wore a one-shoulder citrine-lemon cocktail dress to a party during fashion week in New York. Sometimes it takes just one person to buck the trend in order to kickstart another one. Orange might be the new black, but yellow will always be the choice of the brave, despite the colour’s traditional use of depicting cowards.
Today’s cufflinks were made by a pair of artists from Quebec, Micheline and Yves de Passillé-Sylvestre. This married couple was active for a couple of decades from 1960 and they specialized in enamel jewellery creations. The base of the relief pattern is dark-chocolate brown with golden-yellow highlights, the enamel being over copper. They’re a spectacularly beautiful pair and date almost certainly from the 1970s. The shapes suggest, to me, phases of a harvest Moon and I’m pleased to have a little dash of yellowness in my life.