Writer and broadcaster Dan Jones is best known as a medieval historian; presenter of Channel 5 series "Britain’s Bloodiest Dynasty: The Plantagenets" and the author of bestselling epic history The Templars. But now he has ventured forward several centuries to collaborate on The Colour of Time: A New History of the World 1850–1960 with 23-year-old Brazilian artist Marina Amaral.
The Colour of Time charts the rise and fall of empires, the tragedies of war, and the lives of men and women who have made history from the Steam Age to the Space Age. It features text by Jones, alongside contemporary photographs, painstakingly rendered in authentic colour by Amaral who has made the colourisation of historical photographs her speciality. The visual impression it makes on the reader to see, for example, the Great Exhibition of 1851 or the aftermath of the 1854 Charge of the Light Brigade in full colour is extraordinarily powerful.
Speaking to me on the phone, Jones explains how Amaral’s work first captured his attention on social media (she tweets @marinamaral2) with one particularly arresting shot. "It was of Lewis Powell, one of the conspirators in the Lincoln assassination. It’s the most astonishing photo: it looks like it could be from a modern-day Calvin Klein shoot or something. And then you find out it was taken in 1865! I was captivated." Jones got in touch with Amaral, and subsequently introduced her to his publisher, Head of Zeus, and then chairman and c.e.o. Anthony Cheetham suggested that they collaborate on a book. While still primarily a medieval historian, Jones saw it as an opportunity to "spread his wings a little bit". "Marina’s work is so appropriate to the environment we’re in now: it’s shareable and trends very well online, so it’s a great way to engage people who wouldn’t normally be interested in history. And that’s something that’s becoming increasingly important to me."
Love’s labour’s won
Compiling the book was a two-year labour of love, during which Jones and Amaral looked at 10,000 photographs from a variety of sources in search of material for the book. As they explain in the introduction to The Colour of Time, in selecting just 200 of these, they tried to "spread out gaze across continents and cultures, and to commingle the famous with the forgotten. We have tried to honour the dead and do justice to their times." The result is not a comprehensive history but rather a "new way of looking at the world during a time of monumental change".
When I speak to Amaral down the line to her home in Belo Horizonte, Brazil, she explains in fluent English that she came to her very particular art form by accident. "I’ve always enjoyed learning alone and taught myself to use Photoshop when I was 12 years old. Since then I have not stopped exploring the software. So, when I discovered a collection of coloured Second World War photographs on the internet, I decided I would try and reproduce the effect. I didn’t know what I was doing at first but eventually I was able to develop my own techniques. I never imagined I would become a professional, but here I am."
Another piece of the puzzle
Amaral’s work, which now sells around the world, is driven by her passion for history. "Historical authority is my top priority," she tells me. "For me it’s mental torture to publish a photo without being sure that the colours I use are correct. The craft of adding colour is similar to the work of a historian. I spend hours researching to assemble the puzzle. The process is very time-consuming, and everything is always done with the ultimate care and respect. For the book, we have had the help of many respected historians to ensure we are telling history that is not only beautiful but in colours that are historically accurate."
The photo in the book which took most work is "Nine Kings" (above) which depicts nine European monarchs, including King George V, gathered in one room for the funeral of King Edward VII. "I spent three days colourising it because of the military uniforms: each person in the photo is wearing different medals. And the carpet is also very complex! It’s not easy but it’s very enjoyable. I think I am really lucky to be able to do something that I love so much."
The period covered by the book might appear artificial, spanning as it does the decades from the invention of black and white photography to the advent of coloured images. But Jones believes that the period is appropriate for a history of the making of our modern world. "It’s a time of the most astonishing technological innovation, with common themes running through it. One of them is the way the world is organised, from the old European empires ruling the waves, to the era of the Superpowers and the Cold War. And there’s also a great human story here, an everyman story of the ways in which people’s lives have changed through urbanisation and the availability of technology for example. These sorts of societal changes are, for me, what make a historical period interesting."
Why does he think Amaral’s colourised photographs are so arresting to the imagination? "I think human beings respond very powerfully to very simple stimuli. And one of them is colour. The whole thing about history, whatever medium or discipline you’re working in, is that it’s always about trying to create a connection to a world that’s gone. And I personally haven’t come across any more immediate way of doing this. Colourised photos are a sort of trick, an artifice. But they’re also the hook that draws you in."