The Study Of Ornaments

Decoration is the science and art of beautifying objects and rendering them more pleasing to the eye. As an art, individual taste and skill have much to do with the perfection of the results; as a science, it is subject to certain invariable laws and principles which cannot be violated, and a study of which, added to familiarity with some of the best examples, will enable any one to appreciate and understand it, even if lacking the skill and power to create original and beautiful designs.

The study of decoration offers many advantages. It cultivates the imagination and the taste; it develops our capacity for recognizing and enjoying the beautiful in both nature and art; it adds to the pleasure and refinement of life. Practically, its importance can hardly be overestimated, as it enters into almost all the industrial pursuits. We can think of but few classes of objects, even the most simple, in which some attempt at ornamentation is not made.

Ornament is one of the principal means of enhancing the value of the raw material. A piece of carved wood, or an artistically decorated porcelain vase, worth perhaps many hundred dollars, if reduced to the commercial value of the material of which they are composed would be valued at but a few dollars or cents. The higher the ornamentation ranks, from an artistic point of view, the greater becomes the value of the article to which it is applied. Knowledge of good designs is thus evidently important, to the purchaser of the object ornamented as well as to the designer who planned it. This can only be attained by cultivation.

To know and appreciate the best ornament should be an aim set forth in any scheme of general education. This knowledge and appreciation can be obtained by studying the application of the laws and principles of ornamental art as exemplified in the works of masters, and also by endeavoring to apply these principles in designs of our own creation.

Principles Of Ornament

We can only arrive at a knowledge of these principles by a consideration of the object. In other words, nature and history must be studied. First, nature, for she is the primary source and origin of all good ornament, whether ancient or modern; and if, as in everything else, we would not become servile imitators and weak copyists, we must go to the fountain head. Second, history, for by the study of the ornament of past ages we will not only become acquainted with the highest developments of which ornamental art is capable, but will moreover broaden our views as to its object and scope, and will stimulate our own imagination and invention, by leading us to the contemplation of the myriad beautiful and protean forms it has assumed, when surrounding conditions, such as religion, climate, temperament, nationality, etc., have been different.

Knowledge of historic ornament will also prevent the imposition on the public, so common in our day, of weak and unworthy productions which claim to be based on classic originals, and which constitute a great stumbling block to the progress and appreciation of good art. The result is somewhat analogous to that produced upon conscientious but ill-informed minds, who make every effort to appreciate and enjoy the spurious productions of a great author, not knowing that they are not genuine.

“All good ornamental art should possess fitness, proportion, harmony, the result of all which is repose.”
“All ornament should be based upon geometrical construction.”
“Harmony of form consists in the proper balancing and contrast of the straight, the inclined, and the curved.”
“All junctions of curved lines with each other, or with straight lines, should be tangential to each other. Natural law.” 
Owen Jones, Grammar of Ornament

Historic Ornament

The origin of all attempts at decorating or beautifying objects lies in the universal love of mankind for the beautiful. Once the necessaries of life provided for, man instinctively, the world over, turns his attention toward gratifying this feeling, by improving and decorating the forms around him - his arms, utensils, dwelling, or his own person.

 The history of every nation proves this, and no matter how rude, and even ugly, their efforts may seem to us, we are bound to recognize in them the same motives that actuated the builders of the Parthenon or of St. Peter’s at Rome. This awakening and gratification of the aesthetic sense seems to be the first advance from a condition of mere animal existence, in which food, shelter, and comfort are the only considerations, to tastes and desires that are higher and, consequently, more impersonal.

The term historic ornament is applied to the various styles of ornamental art which have flourished at various periods in the world’s history, from the Egyptian, dating from the 14th century B.C., to those that exist at the present day. Their number is, consequently, almost unlimited, and we will confine ourselves to the consideration of a few of the principal ones only - those that have achieved the most enduring fame, or those that exercised the most marked influence upon succeeding styles.

In considering the various styles, we must always bear in mind that, with the exception of the Egyptian, all show very markedly the influence of the styles that preceded them, being very often merely an outgrowth or development of a preceding one. Thus the Greeks borrowed many forms from the Egyptians. The Romans simply adapted and elaborated the Greek style, etc. So that while each style is usually known by certain prominent characteristics, it does not follow that these characteristics are peculiar to it alone.

They may be found in other styles, though not to such a great extent. While similar features will thus be seen to run through many styles, each will usually be found to possess an individuality of its own. Every nation, like every individual, possesses different wants and capabilities, and will develop itself accordingly. Differences in religion, climate, manners, customs, etc., will cause differences in their art and literature, the most lasting monuments of their morals, taste, and feelings.

It is rather by the study of the art and literature of a people that we arrive at a true knowledge of them than from the perusal of mere historic facts concerning them - when they lived, who conquered them, etc.

Material of Ornament

The two great sources of ornament are geometry and nature. The latter includes the former; for not only must natural forms, in order to be available as material for ornament, be first conventionalized, or reduced to regular, symmetrical, geometric outlines, but any and all designs, whether the unit of repetition be geometric or conventional, must be founded upon geometric construction. This refers to the regularity, repetition, and distribution of parts; so that every good design, if reduced to its principal lines of construction, would exhibit but a few geometric lines and inclosing spaces. Many designs are not only geometric in their basis or plan, but make use of geometric figures as the units or materials of design. Such designs, however, rank lower than those in which natural forms conventionalized are taken as the subjects of repetition; and as the ornament rises in the scale toward perfection, even the geometric basis becomes less and less apparent, and sinks into a decidedly subordinate position; so that in many of the most perfect specimens it can be traced only in a few leading lines of the composition. Its presence, however, is necessary, and is the foundation, if not the most important element, of beauty in the design.

Relation Between Nature And Ornamental Art

While the natural world, including leaves, flowers, animals, etc., is the greatest source of ornament, it is generally the opinion of the best authorities, derived from the study of the best styles and by a consideration of the principles of fitness and propriety which underlie the entire physical and moral world, that natural forms in ornamental and decorative art should not be literally copied or imitated. That is the aim of painting, sculpture, and the other representative arts, where the object is to present something to the eye which will suggest at once the actual presence of the object. To produce that effect, the object, whether animal or vegetable, is represented as much as possible in the actual circumstances of its existence, surrounded by the necessary conditions of its well-being and growth. A frame is placed around it, to shut it off as much as possible from other surroundings, and thus help us delude ourselves that we are in the presence of the real thing, either as it would impress us through our senses or our imagination.

But in ornamental art the case is entirely different. As it is to be applied and consequently subordinated to something, and does not exist for itself, it would be impossible, except in very rare instances, to introduce in a design a natural object in a realistic manner and not violate some important law of its growth or the conditions of its well-being. For instance, to exactly repeat a certain rose, with all the accidents of its growth, many times in a carpet is not natural. Nature never repeats herself. Moreover, to tread on that which is supposed to suggest to us real roses is barbarous. It would really be outraging and distorting nature while pretending to be her faithful disciple and imitator.

We not only derive from nature the most important materials for our designs, but also the various modes of arranging this material. Various modes of repetition—radical, bilateral, etc.—were all probably suggested by some natural arrangement observed in flowers, leaves, etc. Of these different arrangements it is curious to note that the bilateral is more characteristic of the higher forms of nature and the radiating of the lower.

The leading principles of ornament—symmetry, proportion, rhythm, contrast, unity, variety, repose, etc.—are all exemplified in natural forms. The latter have also suggested many of the most important architectural forms. The Gothic cathedral, with its clustered columns branching and forming pointed arches overhead, was probably suggested by a grove of trees with overarching branches and boughs. The idea of the column was derived from the papyrus plant, a species of reed growing in the river Nile. The bud or flower suggested the capital of the column; the stalk, the shaft; and the bulbous root, the pedestal.

Object of Ornamental Art

The object or purpose of ornament, as in the other fine arts, is to please. In music and poetry this enjoyment is conveyed to the mind through the ear; in the decorative and pictorial arts, through the eye. Generally, the meaning that we find in such productions, the appeal that they make to the understanding or feelings, is as great a source of interest to us as their intrinsic beauty. Poetry and vocal music are greatly dependent for their effect upon the meaning they convey in words; painting and sculpture, upon the ideas or sentiments they suggest. In all four, however, and most decidedly in music unaccompanied by words, the appeal is frequently made almost exclusively to the aesthetic sense, the mind or intellect remaining almost dormant under the impression.

Gems of rhythmical verse, such as Poe’s “Bells,” “The Raven,” Whistler’s “Symphonies in Color,” nameless forms in statuary, expressionless save in the mere beauty of their proportions and curves, and, as has been stated, nearly the entire field of instrumental music, are cases in point. In the ornamental and decorative arts, as well as in architecture (from which they are indeed inseparable), beauty alone, in like manner, should be the principal aim and purpose.

In the former, of course, it is indispensable that such should be the case, as they are entirely subordinate and accessory in their nature, their only raison d’etre being to beautify or render more agreeable objects already created for some purpose.

It must not be imagined that such artistic impressions - viz., where the appeal is made almost solely to the aesthetic sense, regardless of the reason, judgment, or feelings - are necessarily of a lower order. Their effect is almost analogous to that which nature herself produces upon us - the starry heavens, the mighty ocean, the tender flower. The impression, whether the object belongs to the domain of nature or art, may be a merely sensuous one; and if it stops there, as it certainly does for the majority of people, it ranks without doubt far below productions where the aesthetic element is only used to stimulate and heighten the appeal to the mind or the feelings. But if it extend beyond, and makes the sensuous impression but the parting link to the contemplation of ideal, abstract beauty, without the intermediate aid of the heart or the reason, it is the shortest and quickest road toward the realization of the infinite, and makes us indeed feel that it is but a short step “from nature up to nature’s God.”

Thus architecture, which embodies, more than any other of the space arts, principles of abstract beauty, has been with reason called the noblest of them all.

However, ornamental and architectural forms frequently do convey a meaning, which we term symbolism in art. If this symbolism does not detract from the first object of ornament …to beautify - it is perfectly legitimate and proper. It is impossible to fully appreciate many phases of art, as, for instance, the Egyptian and the early Christian, if we leave out of sight the symbolism which pervades them.

While beauty, or capacity for pleasing the eye, may be very definitely said to be the aim of ornamental art, it is difficult to arrive at a universal standard as to what constitutes beauty. What pleases one person will not always please another. The child loves glittering objects and gaudy combinations, which the mature taste of the man declares extravagant and unharmonious. Savages decorate their weapons, utensils, and their own persons with ornaments that appear uncouth and barbarous to civilized people…

Notwithstanding these differences, … those that achieved the greatest and most lasting popularity - will reveal the fact that they are all based upon certain fundamental laws and principles, and that all are good, bad, or indifferent according as they conform to or violate these principles. These essentials having been preserved, the opportunities for the exercise of individual or national taste are almost boundless.

Position of Ornament

The position that ornament occupies is necessarily a secondary one, as it cannot exist independently, but is always applied to objects created for some purpose entirely independent of their capacity for pleasing. This gives us one of the great underlying principles that should characterize all ornament, viz., it must be subordinate to the object which it adorns, and must not detract from its use. We often see this rule violated in personal, household, and architectural decoration - windows so overloaded with projecting cornices and lattice work as to almost exclude light and air; knife handles carved so elaborately that it is impossible to grasp them firmly; styles of dress in form or color that impede the motions of the wearer, and make the clothes, rather than the personality of the wearer, the most noticeable feature. From this principle there is but a step to another: All ornament should be modest and moderate. It must not obtrude itself, and a great profusion and ostentation in its application is always a sign of degeneracy and bad taste. Of course some objects, from their nature, position, and use, will admit of greater and more elaborate ornament than others.

Ornament, being entirely subordinate, should not conceal the construction of the object. In architecture it should follow the leading lines of the building, and should emphasize, or at least suggest, the construction. If architectural in character, it should so enter into the construction of the building that it could not be taken away without injuring it.”

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