Cracking the Color Code

 A sampling of Elizabeth Lawrence’s daylilies that still brighten her summer borders.

A sampling of Elizabeth Lawrence’s daylilies that still brighten her summer borders.

Elizabeth Lawrence is said to have been "obsessed" with color.  Nowhere is that more apparent than in her research notes, a part of which are contained on handwritten 3.5”x5” index cards in her “card catalog.”  When documenting details about every flowering plant she ever grew, Elizabeth noted very specific colors which she matched from one or two (or both) color charts she used throughout her lifetime. 

The first color chart she acquired and used - and the one she referenced most often - was Robert Ridgway's "Color Standards and Color Nomenclature." In 1912, Robert Ridgway, an ornithologist and then Curator of the Division of Birds at the Unites States National Museum (I think Elizabeth Clarkson would love that!), devised, created and self-published a book of 53 colored plates containing 1,115 named colors. His goal was to create a standardized color chart.  (Think of it as the Pantone of its day.) 

The other color chart Elizabeth used was Robert F. Wilson's  "Horticultural Colour Chart," issued in 1938 by the British Colour Council in collaboration with the Royal Horticultural Society. Wilson further refined Ridgway’s idea, and even created a cross-reference with three other color charts, including Ridgway’s. (To purchase a complete set of Wilson’s “Horticultural Colour Chart” in good condition, be prepared to shell out $800-$1,000.)

  Robert F. Wilson’s “Horticultural Colour Chart”… who uses color charts anymore? A garden curator desperately seeking the positive identity of plants in the 1/3 acre garden in which she works… that’s who!

Robert F. Wilson’s “Horticultural Colour Chart”… who uses color charts anymore? A garden curator desperately seeking the positive identity of plants in the 1/3 acre garden in which she works… that’s who!

I began cracking the color code of Elizabeth's notes in 2015, when I discovered, tucked within a very large and incredibly generous donation of books (from the library of one of Elizabeth’s dear friends, Dr. Susan Richardson Whisnant Carpenter), a copy of Wilson's "Horticultural Colour Chart," Volumes I and II.  A light bulb didn’t just go off — it burst — inside my head as I read the title aloud. Until that moment, I never knew what "H.C.C." (always followed by some strange number or fraction, like “H.C.C. 8/1”) meant in Elizabeth’s notes. EUREKA! I finally had something concrete to match up with actual petals of actual flowers of the actual plants she grew (and still grow) in her garden! That moment was, as the kids say, a major “game changer.” As if that wasn’t enough, I also suddenly knew what “R.” meant in her notes… it meant Ridgway.


Here’s a fun little intermission to this story… one night in 2014, as my husband, three dogs and I were all watching “Antiques Roadshow” on PBS, my ears pricked up when I heard the woman on the screen talk about a book she picked up at a local library’s sale. It was some sort of study of colors, and she was intrigued by it, and it was old… published in 1912… and she collects old books. “Color” and “1912” got me at full attention. Sure enough, there it was, in amazing condition: Robert Ridgway’s "Color Standards.” I shrieked for someone in the room to “Turn it up! Turn it up!” not even realizing I was holding the remote. Mr. Appraiser stated that “the Ridgway color system never caught on” and surmised there were “certainly less than 500 copies, and probably closer to 300” ever made. He gave a value estimate of between $700-$800. And how much did the woman pay for it? $1. No fooling. I was shell-shocked. How could I possibly get my hands on a Ridgway color chart? I resigned myself to one answer: I couldn’t.


Fast-forward to a recent Elizabeth Lawrence House & Garden Advisory Council meeting — September 7, 2018. Elizabeth Lawrence's nephew Warren shared with the group that he had "Aunt's" color chart at his house in Fayetteville, and never really knew what it was or what to do with it.  Several of us pounced at him with exhilaration, “Which one is it? Is it Wilsons’? Is it Ridgway’s?!” “Ridgway sounds right.” [aaaand… fade to black.]

After several of us around the table regained consciousness from the sudden thrill of this amazing revelation, Warren calmly and somewhat nonchalantly stated that he would "be glad to return it... that is, if it would be of any use."  (You might imagine, I nearly passed out at this point, because… YES!!! OH MY GOSH YES!!!)

So here's the thing… the single biggest mystery for me to date that could possibly be solved with color chart intervention: Elizabeth’s daylilies. Almost all of them in the garden today are still original to her; none but one of them are available in the trade, and it is impossible to find definitive information, much less photographs, of many of these historic/heirloom cultivars. Old books and nursery catalogs help, but they only get you so far. The best shot I have of absolutely, positively identifying flowering plants in Elizabeth's garden is to match them up with her index cards - her research notes - and thus, these color charts.

Warren and his wife Fran made a special stop in Charlotte on September 25, on their way to the mountains, to deliver Aunt’s cherished — and obviously well-worn — copy of Ridgway’s color chart. I’m still swooning with elation.

Let the color code cracking BEGIN!

 Robert Ridgway’s “Color Standards and Nomenclature” (1912) is bringing Elizabeth Lawrence’s records to light and life!

Robert Ridgway’s “Color Standards and Nomenclature” (1912) is bringing Elizabeth Lawrence’s records to light and life!