Christopher Dresser.

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[Illustration: Decorative Design]

PRINCIPLES OF Decorative Design.



Author of "The Art of Decorative Design," "Unity in Variety," etc.


Cassell, Petter, Galpin & Co.:
London, Paris & New York.


My object in writing this work has been that of aiding in the
art-education of those who seek a knowledge of ornament as applied to
our industrial manufactures.

I have not attempted the production of a pretty book, but have aimed
at giving what knowledge I possess upon the subjects treated of, in a
simple and intelligible manner. I have attempted simply to instruct.

The substance of the present work was first published as a series of
lessons in the _Technical Educator_. These lessons are now collected
into a work, and have been carefully revised; a few new illustrations
have been inserted, and a final chapter added.

As the substance of this work was written as a series of lessons for
the _Technical Educator_, I need not say that the book is addressed to
working men, for the whole of the lessons in that publication have
been prepared especially for those noble fellows who, through want of
early opportunity, have been without the advantages of education, but
who have the praiseworthy courage to educate themselves in later life,
when the value of knowledge has become apparent to them.

That the lessons as given in the _Technical Educator_ have not been
written wholly in vain I already know, for shortly before I had
completed this revision of them, I had the opportunity of visiting a
provincial town hall which I had heard was being decorated, and was
pleasingly surprised to see decoration of considerable merit, and
evidences that much of what I saw had resulted from a consideration of
my articles in the _Technical Educator_. The artist engaged upon the
work, although having suffered the disadvantage of apprenticeship to a
butcher, has established himself as a decorator while still a young
man; and from the manifestation of ability which he has already given,
I hope for a brighter future for one who, as a working man, must have
studied hard. If these lessons as now collected into a work should
lead to the development of the art-germs which doubtless lie dormant
in other working men, the object which I have sought to attain in
writing and collecting these together will have been accomplished.

















There are many handicrafts in which a knowledge of the true principles
of ornamentation is almost essential to success, and there are few in
which a knowledge of decorative laws cannot be utilised. The man who
can form a bowl or a vase well is an artist, and so is the man who can
make a beautiful chair or table. These are truths; but the converse of
these facts is also true; for if a man be not an artist he cannot form
an elegant bowl, nor make a beautiful chair.

At the very outset we must recognise the fact that the beautiful has a
commercial or money value. We may even say that art can lend to an
object a value greater than that of the material of which it consists,
even when the object be formed of precious matter, as of rare marbles,
scarce woods, or silver or gold.

This being the case, it follows that the workman who can endow his
productions with those qualities or beauties which give value to his
works, must be more useful to his employer than the man who produces
objects devoid of such beauty, and his time must be of higher value
than that of his less skilful companion. If a man, who has been born
and brought up as a "son of toil," has that laudable ambition which
causes him to seek to rise above his fellows by fairly becoming their
superior, I would say to him that I know of no means of his so readily
doing so, as by his acquainting himself with the laws of beauty, and
studying till he learns to perceive the difference between the
beautiful and the ugly, the graceful and the deformed, the refined and
the coarse. To perceive delicate beauties is not by any means an easy
task to those who have not devoted themselves to the consideration of
the beautiful for a long period of time, and of this be assured, that
what now appears to you to be beautiful, you may shortly regard as
less so, and what now fails to attract you, may ultimately become
charming to your eye. In your study of the beautiful, do not be led
away by the false judgment of ignorant persons who may suppose
themselves possessed of good taste. It is common to assume that women
have better taste than men, and some women seem to consider themselves
the possessors of even authoritative taste from which there can be no
appeal. They may be right, only we must be pardoned for not accepting
such authority, for should there be any over-estimation of the
accuracy of this good taste, serious loss of progress in art-judgment
might result.

It may be taken as an invariable truth that knowledge, and knowledge
alone, can enable us to form an accurate judgment respecting the
beauty or want of beauty of an object, and he who has the greater
knowledge of art can judge best of the ornamental qualities of an
object. He who would judge rightly of art-works must have knowledge.
Let him who would judge of beauty apply himself, then, to earnest
study, for thereby he shall have wisdom, and by his wise reasonings he
will be led to perceive beauty, and thus have opened to him a new
source of pleasure.

Art-knowledge is of value to the individual and to the country at
large. To the individual it is riches and wealth, and to the nation it
saves impoverishment. Take, for example, clay as a natural material:
in the hands of one man this material becomes flower-pots, worth
eighteen-pence a "cast" (a number varying from sixty to twelve
according to size); in the hands of another it becomes a tazza, or a
vase, worth five pounds, or perhaps fifty. It is the art which gives
the value, and not the material. To the nation it saves

A wise policy induces a country to draw to itself all the wealth that
it can, without parting with more of its natural material than is
absolutely necessary. If for every pound of clay that a nation parts
with, it can draw to itself that amount of gold which we value at five
pounds sterling, it is obviously better thus to part with but little
material and yet secure wealth, than it is to part with the material
at a low rate either in its native condition, or worked into coarse
vessels, thereby rendering a great impoverishment of the native
resources of the country necessary in order to its wealth.

Men of the lowest degree of intelligence can dig clay, iron, or
copper, or quarry stone; but these materials, if bearing the impress
of mind, are ennobled and rendered valuable, and the more strongly the
material is marked with this ennobling impress the more valuable it

I must qualify my last statement, for there are possible cases in
which the impress of mind may degrade rather than exalt, and take from
rather than enhance, the value of a material. To ennoble, the mind
must be noble; if debased, it can only debase. Let the mind be refined
and pure, and the more fully it impresses itself upon a material, the
more lovely does the material become, for thereby it has received the
impress of refinement and purity; but if the mind be debased and
impure, the more does the matter to which its nature is transmitted
become degraded. Let me have a simple mass of clay as a candle-holder
rather than the earthen candlestick which only presents such a form as
is the natural outgoing of a degraded mind.

There is another reason why the material of which beautiful objects
are formed should be of little intrinsic value besides that arising
out of a consideration of the exhaustion of the country, and this
will lead us to see that it is desirable in all cases to form
beautiful objects as far as possible of an inexpensive material. Clay,
wood, iron, stone, are materials which may be fashioned into beautiful
forms, but beware of silver, and of gold, and of precious stones. The
most fragile material often endures for a long period of time, while
the almost incorrosible silver and gold rarely escape the ruthless
hand of the destroyer. "Beautiful though gold and silver are, and
worthy, even though they were the commonest of things, to be fashioned
into the most exquisite devices, their money value makes them a
perilous material for works of art. How many of the choicest relics of
antiquity are lost to us, because they tempted the thief to steal
them, and then to hide his theft by melting them! How many unique
designs in gold and silver have the vicissitudes of war reduced in
fierce haste into money-changers' nuggets! Where are Benvenuto
Cellini's vases, Lorenzo Ghiberti's cups, or the silver lamps of
Ghirlandajo? Gone almost as completely as Aaron's golden pot of manna,
of which, for another reason than that which kept St. Paul silent, 'we
cannot now speak particularly.' Nor is it only because this is a world
'where thieves break through and steal' that the fine gold becomes dim
and the silver perishes. This, too, is a world where 'love is strong
as death;' and what has not love - love of family, love of brother,
love of child, love of lover - prompted man and woman to do with the
costliest things, when they could be exchanged as mere bullion for the
lives of those who were beloved?"[1] Workmen! it is fortunate for us
that the best vehicles for art are the least costly materials.

[1] From a lecture by the late Professor George Wilson, of Edinburgh.

* * * * *

Having made these general remarks, I may explain to my readers what I
am about to attempt in the little work which I have now commenced. My
primary aim will be to bring about refinement of mind in all who may
accompany me through my studies, so that they may individually be
enabled to judge correctly of the nature of any decorated object, and
enjoy its beauties - should it present any - and detect its faults, if
such be present. This refinement I shall attempt to bring about by
presenting to the mind considerations which it must digest and
assimilate, so that its new formations, if I may thus speak, may be of
knowledge. We shall carefully consider certain general principles,
which are either common to all fine arts or govern the production or
arrangement of ornamental forms: then we shall notice the laws which
regulate the combination of colours, and the application of colours to
objects; after which we shall review our various art-manufactures, and
consider art as associated with the manufacturing industries. We shall
thus be led to consider furniture, earthenware, table and window
glass, wall decorations, carpets, floor cloths, window-hangings, dress
fabrics, works in silver and gold, hardware, and whatever is a
combination of art and manufacture. I shall address myself, then, to
the carpenter, the cabinet-maker, potter, glass-blower, paper-stainer,
weaver and dyer, silversmith, blacksmith, gas-finisher, designer, and
all who are in any way engaged in the production of art-objects.

But before we commence our regular work, let me say that without
laborious study no satisfactory progress can be made. Labour is the
means whereby we raise ourselves above our fellows; labour is the
means by which we arrive at affluence. Think not that there is a royal
road to success - the road is through toil. Deceive not yourself with
the idea that you were born a genius - that you were born an artist. If
you are endowed with a love for art, remember that it is by labour
alone that you can get such knowledge as will enable you to present
your art-ideas in a manner acceptable to refined and educated people.
Be content, then, to labour. In the case of an individual, success
appears to me to depend upon the time which he devotes to the study of
that which he desires to master. One man works six hours a day;
another works eighteen. One has three days in one; and what is the
natural result? Simply this - that the one who works the eighteen hours
progresses with three times the rapidity of the one who only works six
hours. It is true that individuals differ in mental capacity, but my
experience has led me to believe that those who work the hardest
almost invariably succeed the best.

While I write, I have in my mind's eye one or two on whom Nature
appeared to have lavishly bestowed art-gifts; yet these have made but
little progress in life. I see, as it were, before me others who were
less gifted by Nature, but who industriously persevered in their
studies, and were content to labour for success; and these have
achieved positions which the natural genius has failed even to
approach. Workmen! I am a worker, and a believer in the efficacy of

* * * * *

We will commence our systematic course by observing that good
ornament - good decorations of any character, have qualities which
appeal to the educated, but are silent to the ignorant, and that these
qualities make utterance of interesting facts; but before we can
rightly understand what I may term the hidden utterance of ornament,
we must inquire into the general revelation which the ornament of any
particular people, or of any historic age, makes to us, and also the
utterances of individual forms.

As an illustration of my meaning, let us take the ornament produced by
the Egyptians. In order to see this it may be necessary that we visit
a museum - say the British Museum - where we search out the mummy-cases;
but as most provincial museums boast one or more mummy-cases, we are
almost certain to find in the leading country towns illustrations that
will serve our present purpose. On a mummy-case you may find a
singular ornament, which is a conventional drawing of the Egyptian
lotus, or blue water-lily[2] (see Figs. 1, 2, 3), and in all
probability you will find this ornamental device repeated over and
over again on the one mummy-case. Notice this peculiarity of the
drawing of the lotus - a peculiarity common to Egyptian ornaments - that
there is a severity, a rigidity of line, a sort of sternness about it.
This rigidity or severity of drawing is a great peculiarity or
characteristic of Egyptian drawing. But mark! with this severity there
is always coupled an amount of dignity, and in some cases this dignity
is very apparent. Length of line, firmness of drawing, severity of
form, and subtlety of curve are the great characteristics of Egyptian

[2] This can be seen growing in the water-tanks in the Kew Gardens
conservatories, and in the Crystal Palace at Sydenham.

[Illustration: Fig. 1.]

[Illustration: Fig. 2.]

[Illustration: Fig. 3.]

What does all this express? It expresses the character of the people
who created the ornaments. The ornaments of the ancient Egyptians were
all ordered by the priesthood, amongst whom the learning of this
people was stored. The priests were the dictators to the people not
only of religion, but of the forms which their ornaments were to
assume. Mark, then, the expression of the severity of character and
dignified bearing of the priesthood: in the very drawing of a simple
flower we have presented to us the character of the men who brought
about its production. But this is only what we are in the constant
habit of witnessing. A man of knowledge writes with power and force;
while the man of wavering opinions writes timidly and with feebleness.
The force of the one character (which character has been made forcible
by knowledge) and the weakness of the other is manifested by his
written words. So it is with ornaments: power or feebleness of
character is manifest by the forms produced.

The Egyptians were a severe people; they were hard task-masters. When
a great work had to be performed, a number of slaves were selected for
the work, and a portion of food allotted to each, which was to last
till the work was completed; and if the work was not finished when the
food was consumed, the slaves perished. We do not wonder at the
severity of Egyptian drawing. But the Egyptians were a noble
people - noble in knowledge of the arts, noble in the erection of vast
and massive buildings, noble in the greatness of their power. Hence we
have nobility of drawing - power and dignity mingled with severity in
every ornamental form which they produced.

We have thus noticed the general utterance or expression of Egyptian
drawing; but what specific communication does this particular lotus
make? Most of the ornaments of the Egyptians - whether the adornments
of sarcophagi, of water-vessels, or mere charms to be worn pendent
from the neck - were symbols of some truth or dogma inculcated by the
priests. Hence Egyptian ornament is said to be symbolic.

The fertility of the Nile valley was chiefly due to the river annually
overflowing its banks. In spreading over the land, the water carried
with it a quantity of rich alluvial earth, which gave fecundity to the
country on which it was deposited. When the water which had overspread
the surrounding land had nearly subsided, the corn which was to
produce the harvest was set by being cast upon the retiring water,
through which it sank into the rich alluvial earth. The water being
now well-nigh within the river-banks, the first flower that sprang up
was the lotus. This flower was to the Egyptians the harbinger of
coming plenty, for it symbolised the springing forth of the wheat. It
was the first flower of spring, or their primrose (first rose). The
priesthood, perceiving the interest with which this flower was viewed,
and the watchfulness manifested for its appearance, taught that in it
abode a god, and that it must be worshipped. The acknowledgment of
this flower as a fit and primary object of worship caused it to be
delineated on the mummy-cases, and sarcophagi, and on all sacred

We shall have frequent occasion, while considering decorative art, to
notice symbolic forms; but we must not forget the fact that all good
ornaments make utterance. Let us in all cases, when beholding them,
give ear to their teachings!

Egyptian ornament is so full of forms which have interesting
significance that I cannot forbear giving one other illustration; and
of this I am sure, that not only does a knowledge of the intention of
each form employed in a decorative scheme cause the beholder to
receive a special amount of pleasure when viewing it, but also that
without such knowledge no one can rightly judge of the nature of any
ornamental work.

There is a device in Egyptian ornament which the most casual observer
cannot have failed to notice; it is what is termed the "winged globe,"
and consists of a small ball or globe, immediately at the sides of
which are two asps, and from which extend two wings, each wing being
in length about five to eight times that of the diameter of the ball
(Fig. 4). The drawing of this device is very grand. The force with
which the wings are delineated well represents the powerful character
of the protection which the kingdom of Egypt afforded, and which was
symbolised by the extended and overshadowing pinions.

[Illustration: Fig. 4.]

I know of few instances where forms of an ornamental character have
been combined in a manner either more quaint or more interesting than
in the example before us. The composition presents a charm that few
ornaments do, and is worthy of careful consideration. But this
ornament derives a very special and unusual interest when we consider
its purpose, the blow which was once aimed at it, and the shock which
its producers must have received, upon finding it powerless to act as
they had taught, if not believed, it would.

The priesthood instructed the people that this was the symbol of
protection, and that it so effectually appealed to the preserving
spirits that no evil could enter where it was portrayed. With the view
of giving a secure protection to the inmates of Egyptian dwellings,
this device, or symbol of protection, was ordered to be placed on the
lintel (the post over the door) of every building of the Egyptians,
whether residence or temple.

It was to nullify this symbol, and to show the vain character of the
Egyptian gods, that Moses was commanded to have the blood of the lamb
slain at the passover placed upon the lintel, in the very position of
this winged globe. It was also enjoined as a further duty that the
blood be sprinkled on the door-post; but this was merely a new duty,
tending further to show that even in position, as well as in nature,
this winged globe was powerless to secure protection. This device,
then, is of special interest, both as a symbolic ornament and as
throwing light on Scripture history.

Besides the two ornamental forms mentioned - _i.e._, the lotus and the
winged globe - we might notice many others also of great interest, but
our space will not enable us to do so; further information may,
however, be got from the South Kensington Museum library,[3] where
several interesting works on Egyptian ornament may be seen; - from the
"Grammar of Ornament" by Mr. Owen Jones, - the works on Egypt by Sir
Gardiner Wilkinson; and, especially, - by a visit to the Egyptian Court
of the Crystal Palace at Sydenham, and by a careful perusal of the
hand-book to that court.[4] Much might also be said respecting
Egyptian architecture, but on this we can say little here; yet, as the
columns of the temples are of a very ornamental character, we may
notice that in most cases they were formed of a bundle of papyrus[5]
stems bound together by thongs or straps - the heads of the plant
forming the capital of the column, and the stems the shaft (Fig. 5).
In some cases the lotus was substituted for the papyrus; and in other
instances the palm-leaf was used in a similar way; these modifications
can be seen in the Egyptian Court at Sydenham with great advantage,
and many varieties of form resulting from the use of the one plant, as
of the papyrus, may also there be observed.

[3] Any person can have admission to the South Kensington Museum Art
library and its Educational library, for a week, by payment of

[4] A hand-book to each of the historic courts erected in the Sydenham
Palace was prepared at the time the courts were built. These are still
to be got in the Literary department, in the north-east gallery of the
building. They are all worthy of careful study.

[5] The papyrus was the plant from which Egyptian paper was made. It
was also the bulrush of the Scriptures, in which the infant Moses was

[Illustration: Fig. 5.]

We have here an opportunity of noticing how the mode of building,
however simple or primitive in character, first employed by a nation
may become embodied in its ultimate architecture; for, undoubtedly,
the rude houses first erected in Egypt were formed largely of bundles
of the papyrus, which were gathered from the river-side - for wood was

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