Please upgrade your browser

For the best experience, you should upgrade your browser. Visit our accessibility page to view a list of supported browsers along with links to download the latest version.

Colour Reference Library

The Colour Reference Library (CRL) at the Royal College of Art is one of the largest and most comprehensive collections of colour-related publications in the world. Containing well over a thousand books, together with pamphlets, swatches and journals, the library covers numerous aspects of the vast field of colour-based studies, encompassing art and science, theory and practice.

The Collection’s many strengths include sections on colour and human psychology, the history of dyestuffs, and the 19th-century study of decorative ornament, with tangential subjects ranging from colour healing to camouflage. The greatest colour theorists, from Newton and Goethe to Chevreul and Albers, are well represented through their key works, alongside other significant, if lesser-known, figures such as Mary Gartside and Maxwell Armfield. The CRL also includes a wide selection of published colour systems and standards, ranging in subject from lead paint to the pigmentation of human skin. 

Despite its apparent focus on a single subject, the span and application of the collection is considerable: it is at once historical and contemporary, practical and theoretical, arcane and accessible. Representing more than six centuries of study, the Colour Reference Library binds the history of art to the history of science.

CRL History

The core works in the Colour Reference Library (CRL) were assembled originally by Donald Pavey, an alumnus of the Royal College of Art who had intended to use the collection to write the histories of colour expression and colour symbolism. The library was later divided and sold to antiquarian book dealers, but was reunited on the open market by design historian Stuart Durant, another RCA alumnus. Durant substantially augmented the collection, with the aid of book dealer Ben Weinreb, before it was eventually sold again. 

It finally arrived at the Royal College of Art in 1977, largely intact, following a successful campaign by RCA librarian Hans Brill to acquire the collection for the College with the support of the Colour Group (Great Britain), the Society of Industrial Artists and Designers, the Inner London Education Authority, the Society of Dyers and Colourists, and many benefactors from industry. 

The CRL has developed with subsequent acquisitions, such as the purchase of the library of the Chemists’ Club of New York. On arrival at the RCA, the collection was originally housed in the former Yugoslavian embassy but moved to a purpose-built, climate-controlled space within the RCA Library in the 1990s, when it also received a HEFCE grant to undertake cataloguing and conservation. In 2009, many works in the collection were loaned to Tate Liverpool for the exhibition Colour Chart: Reinventing Colour, 1950 to Today.

CRL Organisation

The Colour Reference Library (CRL) is organised according to the Dewey Decimal system of subject classification. 

Colour swatches are treated as individual monographs and integrated with the main book collection. An oversize collection contains many of the lavish, colourfully illustrated works, from Owen Jones’s Grammar of Ornament (1856) to Josef Albers’sInteraction of Color (1963), the latter in its original edition with silkscreen plates. Runs of periodicals are grouped and filed with the main collection of books. The collections of press cuttings, pamphlets and ephemera are arranged by subject.

CRL Catalogue

The Colour Reference Library (CRL) is fully catalogued and items from the collection will appear in search results on the RCA Library catalogue. Searches may be restricted to the CRL, or the entire contents may be browsed here: RCA Library catalogue (CRL).

CRL Access, Location and Appointments

RCA Special Collections is located on the top floor of the Library in the Common Room Block of the Royal College of Art, Kensington Gore, London, SW7 2EU. 

Download map.

The department is open all year round to all bona fide researchers, but access to the collections is by appointment only. Please email [email protected] or telephone +44 (0)20 7590 4234 to arrange a visit.

Appointments are usually offered in either morning or afternoon slots, Monday to Friday (subject to staff availability), allowing a slot of up to 2.5 hours per visitor, which will usually suffice. As reading room space is limited, only one party at a time may be accommodated, although group visits are possible. On arrival, you will need to show a form of identification (e.g. bank card, passport) and sign a disclaimer form regarding copyright and handling regulations.

Donating Material to the CRL

Offers of donations of archival material, or publications to add to the Colour Reference Library, are welcomed and are considered in line with the RCA Library’s Collections Policy, which takes into account any implications for resources, such as preservation and storage issues.


+44 (0)20 7590 4234 

[email protected]

Please note, access to the collection is by appointment only.

"Containing well over a thousand books, together with pamphlets, swatches and journals, the library covers numerous aspects of the vast field of colour-based studies, encompassing art and science, theory and practice."
Colour Reference Library
Colour Reference Library