This colourful advertisement for paint from Lewis Berger and Sons appeared in the appropriately titled British periodical ‘Colour’ in March 1918. The paints promoted here promised more than to just spruce up drab wartime interiors: they were part of an experimental colour therapy treatment to aid the recovery of wounded soldiers. Mr. Howard Kemp-Prosser(also spelt Kemp Prossor in other sources) was one who championed this ‘Colour Cure’ treatment for shellshock, and other wartime neurological disorders. Kemp-Prosser believed that certain colours had certain effects on a patient’s mental health, and sympathetic treatment through the colour of their surroundings could aid recovery.
The ‘Colour Cure’ Ward was an area re-designed by Kemp-Prosser out of his own pocket in 1917 at the McCaul Hospital for Officers, a military convalescent home based on Welbeck Street in central London, not far from Bond Street. The colour of the paint was one way in which the environment was made more harmonious, as the advertisement relates “The sense of confinement from which patient suffer is done away with my painting the ceiling firmament blue, walls sunlight yellow, woodwork Spring Green and floor and furniture primrose yellow.” Every effort was made to bring a sense of sunshine and early spring to the surroundings of the officers, and to avoid the feeling of confinement suggested by autumn colours of decay and death.
The British Journal of Nursing reported on the ‘Colour Cure’ ward on 7th September 1918, describing how, “Mr. P. H. Kemp Prosser, who, having studied ‘colour-medicine’ and the influence of colour on children and adults, is so convinced a believer in its benefits that he has closed down half his house, given up his motor car, and is devoting himself to arranging and supervising colour wards in military hospitals…Imagine the change of being transported from the tortured battle-grounds of Europe, desolate, and reeking with the carnage of war, to these wards where ‘all the air is thrilling with the Spring,’ for that is the message of Mr. Kemp Prossor’s colour wards.” Beyond the choice of paint, this article reveals the great attention to detail that was shown in other aspects of the interior, with features such as a mauve couch with reversible cushions (primrose for dull days and mauve for those too bright); even the crockery and diet trays were matched to the therapeutic colour scheme.
‘Flight’ magazine(the ‘First Aero Weekly in the World’), published 14th February 1918, also enthused about the potential of Kemp-Prosser’s findings, but instead for their beneficial effect on airmen requiring hospital treatment for “nervous affections” after long periods of active service. The effectiveness of colour therapy was unproven, but whilst acknowledging some reservations, Flight magazine at least was open minded as to its possible therapeutic qualities. “But every other consideration apart, we simply cannot afford to ignore any method of treatment, or any theory which can be seen to rest on anything like a basis of ascertained fact, which promises to assist in the alleviation of the terrible toll of nervous disorders the war is taking from the officers and men of our fighting services.”
Following the perceived success of the ‘Colour Cure’ ward the McCaul Hospital, in 1918 Section IV of the Maudsley Neurological Clearing Hospital at Denmark Hill also adopted the Kemp-Prosser system, and by 1919, St John’s Hospital for Diseases of the skin, also in London, had followed suit.
Nearly one hundred years later, the five storey building that once was home to Kemp-Prosser ‘Colour Cure’ Ward in Welbeck Street still stands, but today it houses offices, not officers. Perhaps somewhere beneath the layers of modern wall paper and paint, there is still a layer of ‘sunlight yellow’ on the walls, or the ghost of ‘firmament blue’ on a ceiling. Though images showing actual shell shock are rare for World War One, through just a single advertisement from the archive, we can catch a glimpse of one experimental and perhaps overlooked treatment for this condition. Kemp-Prosser’s bold and cheerful use of colour is a strong contrast to the often invisible psychological legacy of World War One, and adoption of his colours by paint manufacturer such as Lewis Berger and Sons also serves as a reminder of the commercial and entrepreneurial opportunities that sprang from war.