In Living Colour

Franklin D. Roosevelt Junior, Harvard Junior Varsity Crew, c.1936. Unfortunately, the person who ‘colourised’ the original black and white picture did not make the Harvard strip crimson.

14 December 2020

By Tim Koch

Tim Koch joins the colours.

For their first hundred plus years, photographs were, of necessity, black and white (or, more properly, monochrome). Thus, we have come to associate such pictures with ‘the past’ and the result is that we find it difficult to empathise with them. Strangely, this even applies to images of places, subjects and people that we are familiar with. The past is a foreign country partly because it largely exists in grayscale, not in our actual world of colour.

Today of course, we have the technology to ‘colourise’ historical monochrome pictures. This process can be very powerful, particularly when applied to images of people, it humanises the shadowy figures and they become flesh and blood – particularly in the case of real blood. For example, colourising black and white pictures of dead soldiers turns them from historical casualties into mothers’ sons. Colourisation forces us to see history as something that happened to real people.

Colourisation is not without its critics and some say it rewrites history, but others see it as a complement rather than a replacement. Also, the effectiveness of a particular piece of colourisation is often determined by how well it is done – the standard of the results of this complex work varies enormously.

The first known ‘selfie’, Robert Cornelius, 1839. Colourised by Zahulie.

When moving pictures are colourised, the result can be particularly effective. They Shall Not Grow Old is a 2018 documentary by Peter Jackson (director of the Lord of the Rings films) created using original film footage of the First World War digitally colourised and improved. I was particularly fascinated by the rotten teeth now clearly on display. Audio post-production added sound effects, lip-synced actor’s voices to the silent pictures using regional accents appropriate to the regiment’s recruiting area and included voice-over archive interviews with ex-servicemen. The three-minute trailer below demonstrates the result.

I know of no old rowing films that have been colourised but there are a few still photographs of crews on the Internet that have been digitally brought to life.

Even before it was colourised, this picture of freshman rowers of Syracuse University at dinner during the 1908 IRA Regatta at Poughkeepsie, N.Y., watched by coach, James A. Ten Eyck, was a favourite of mine. It recalled memories of living in a rented house near Henley with my crew while in the final stages of training for the Royal. Picture: Library of Congress.
The charming colourised picture reminds me of a typical Norman Rockwell painting showing a sentimentalised portrayal of American life – but it is no worse for that. Colourised by EggsAckley/Reddit.
Winning Oarsmen, Waterford Boat Club, Waterford City, Munster, Ireland, c.1885.
Colourised by John Berslin, the man behind ‘Old Ireland in Colour’. In an interview here, he says that the process ‘highlights aspects that the human eye often just glosses over in monochrome’.
Cornell Varsity Crew, 1911. Picture: Library of Congress.
This is a particularly good illustration of John Berslin’s observation that colourisation highlights things that are not obvious in monochrome. The things that stand out when colour is added to this picture include the problems of sports clothing in the days before artificial fibres, the lower standards of personal hygiene in times past and that the kit is less modest that we would perhaps expect for the time. Colourisation: Ryan Urban/Reddit.
FC Zürich wins the Diamonds, the Stewards’ and the Grand at Henley in 1936.
Colourisation: @henleyregatta
The splendid gym onboard the doomed liner “Titanic”, 1912.
Colour makes the double sculling machine something that you could imagine actually using.

Finally, below is a picture that I think begs to be colourised. It is a high-resolution shot of the Leander crew that won the Olympic Eights in Stockholm in 1912. If anyone can do this, remember that the caps, scarves, socks, tie, hat band and piping on the dirty white vests are cerise in colour. The cox sitting in the front, Ben Wells, is wearing his Oxford blazer, dark blue with a dark blue trim. Ewart Horsfall (third from the right) seems to be wearing socks of a darker colour than the others – they could be his dark blue Oxford hosiery. Leslie Wormald (third from left) does not seem to be wearing a Leander cap. He rowed for Eton, OUBC and Magdalen College. Most likely it is an Eton cap, though not the famous light blue of the First Eight, Wormald was only in the second boat. A chance to rewrite history perhaps?

Picture from the Stockholm City Archives,


  1. I was interested to learn here that the BBC film “They Shall not Grow Old” was shown in American cinemas in December 2018. Here in the UK it was broadcast to the nation on BBC TV first on Remembrance Day, 11 November 2018 and many times since. It also attracted a lot of comments about the teeth! It wasn’t that they were rotten, but most working class lads had crooked or missing teeth in those days. Even more haunting are the recently colourised portraits of Auschwitz victims which went viral a couple of years ago. On a happier note I am sure one of your thousands of readers will have the skills to take on the challenge of colourising your last photo, and I look forward to seeing the result!

    • It was with great interest I saw “They Shall Not Grow Old” with a friend, who is a writer for history magazines, at my local cinema here in Connecticut. The cinema, though not big, was packed with people. / Göran

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