On one of her trips in 1871 North visited Frederic Church, the American Luminist painter, at his ornate home in Olana, upstate New York. She recalls how Church had recently acquired two white asses from Damascus, which he was keen to show her. I try to think of American white – is it luminous, as are the paintings of Church himself? – but cannot fix it. That is, not in any broad sense, say, as in the way that Dutch white is strait-laced, Italian white of the Holy Ghost, or Spanish white knife-edge sharp. Rather like the dew of English white in Constable’s work which seems to fleck and fade away, American white’s emphasis on surface slips and slides, gives distance to the specifics of place.
Stepping into the bathroom, four white walls, all painted the same brilliant white, except not now. One, the one lit by the full glare of the sun, is luminescent; the wall to the right less bright, its white tinged by the green of the landscape outside.
Opposite, the wall half in shadow feels like a white relaxed, whilst the wall in which the window sits, in full shade, gives life to the others. The ceramic tiles of the shower modulate their white as if the colour were singing, whilst the shampoo, poured out, reacts like the colour of the albumen of a poaching egg as it turns from fluid to white form.
The rough and smooth sides of the towel give different whites, one withholding, whilst the smooth side spreads its white with pride. A porcelain hand basin holds its white slowly, and as water fills it goes from a certain white to white seen at a glance. Whilst the bar of soap shelters its white the same way a candle does, as if within it there is an inner light, a profound white, which with each washing, as the bar wears down, one will get closer to seeing and touch, but of course one never does. The toothpaste tube and its cap are two different whites, the cap a harder, cleaner white, the tube white softer and more greyed, showing something of its purpose to be squeezed to reveal the full refreshing white of paste.
On the windowsill a white orchid stands, its full petals set against the daylight. A single petal as white as perhaps any white can be, through which the light glows, is translucent with life, breathing light and white as one. And where one petal overlays another, a white so dense and rich is formed that one has to remind oneself that this colour is simply named white.