Arts and Crafts Essays/Design

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DESIGN


"Drink waters out of thine own cistern, and running waters out of thine own well." — Solomon.

"Produce; produce; be it but the infinitesimallest product, produce." — Carlyle.

For the last sixty years, ever since the Gothic Revival set in, we have done our best to resuscitate the art of embroidery. First the Church and then the world took up the task, and much admirable work has been done by the "Schools," the shops, and at home. And yet the verdict still must be "the old is better."

Considering all things, this lack of absolute success is perplexing and needs to be explained. For we have realised our ideals. Never was a time when the art and science of needlework were so thoroughly understood as in England at the present moment. Our designers can design in any style. Every old method is at our fingers’ ends. Every ingenious stitch of old humanity has been mastered, and a descriptive name given to it of our own devising. Every traditional pattern — wave, lotus, daisy, convolvulus, honeysuckle, "Sacred Hom" or tree of life; every animal form, or bird, fish or reptile, has been traced to its source, and its symbolism laid bare. Every phase of the world’s primal schools of design — Egyptian, Babylonian, Indian, Chinese, Greek, Byzantine, European — has been illustrated and made easy of imitation. We are archæologists: we are critics: we are artists. We are lovers of old work: we are learned in hstorical and æsthetic questions, in technical rules and principles of design. We are colourists, and can play with colour as musicians play with notes. What is more, we are in terrible earnestness about the whole business. The honour of the British nation, the credit of Royalty, are, in a manner, staked upon the success of our "Schools of Needlework." And yet, in spite of all these favouring circumstances, we get no nearer to the old work that first mocked us to emulation in regard to power of initiative and human interest.

Truth and gallantry prompt me to add, it is not in stitchery but in design that we lag behind the old. Fair English hands can copy every trick of ancient artistry: finger-skill was never defter, will was never more ardent to do fine things, than now. Yet our work hangs fire. It fails in design. Why?

Now, Emerson has well said that all the arts have their origin in some enthusiasm. Mark this, however: that whereas the design of old needlework is based upon enthusiasm for birds, flowers, and animal life,[1] the design of modern needlework has its origin in enthusiasm for antique art. Nature is, of course, the groundwork of all art, even of ours; but it is not to Nature at first-hand that we go. The flowers we embroider were not plucked from field and garden, but from the camphor-scented preserves at Kensington. Our needlework conveys no pretty message of

"The life that breathes, the life that lives,"

it savours only of the now stiff and stark device of dead hands. Our art holds no mirror up to Nature as we see her, it only reflects the reflection of dead periods. Nay, not content with merely rifling the motifs of moth-fretted rags, we must needs turn for novelty to an old Persian tile which, well magnified, makes a capital design for a quilt that one might perchance sleep under in spite of what is outside! Or we are not ashamed to ask our best embroideresses to copy the barbaric wriggles and childlike crudities of a seventh-century "Book of Kells," a task which cramps her style and robs Celtic art of all its wonder.

We have, I said, realised our ideals. We can do splendidly what we set ourselves to do — namely, to mimic old masterpieces. The question is, What next? Shall we continue to hunt old trails, and die, not leaving the world richer than we found it? Or shall we for art and honour’s sake boldly adventure something — drop this wearisome translation of old styles and translate Nature instead?

Think of the gain to the "Schools," and to the designers themselves, if we elect to take another starting-point! No more museum-inspired work! No more scruples about styles! No more dry-as-dust stock patterns! No more loathly Persian-tile quilts! No more awful "Zoomorphic" table-cloths! No more cast-iron-looking altar cloths, or Syon Cope angels, or stumpy Norfolk-screen saints! No more Tudor roses and pumped-out Christian imagery suggesting that Christianity is dead and buried! But, instead, we shall have design by living men for living men — something that expresses fresh realisations of sacred facts, personal broodings, skill, joy in Nature — in grace of form and gladness of colour; design that shall recall Shakespeare’s maid who

"... with her neeld composes
Nature’s own shape, of bud, bird, branch, or berry,
That even Art sisters the natural roses."

For, after all, modern design should be as the old — living thought, artfully expressed: fancy that has taken fair shapes. And needlework is still a pictorial art that requires a real artist to direct the design, a real artist to ply the needle. Given these, and our needlework can be as full of story as the Bayeux tapestry, as full of imagery as the Syon Cope, and better drawn. The charm of old embroidery lies in this, that it clothes current thought in current shapes. It meant something to the workers, and to the man in the street for whom it was done. And for our work to gain the same sensibility, the same range of appeal, the same human interest, we must employ the same means. We must clothe modern ideas in modern dress; adorn our design with living fancy, and rise to the height of our knowledge and capacities.

Doubtless there is danger to the untrained designer in direct resort to Nature. For the tendency in his or her case is to copy outright, to give us pure crude fact and not to design at all. Still there is hope in honest error: none in the icy perfections of the mere stylist. For the unskilled designer there is no training like drawing from an old herbal; for in all old drawing of Nature there is a large element of design. Besides which, the very limitations of the materials used in realising a design in needlework, be it ever so naturally coloured, hinders a too definite presentation of the real.

For the professional stylist, the confirmed conventionalist, an hour in his meadows, a dip into an old herbal, a few carefully-drawn cribs from Curtis’s Botanical Magazine, or even — for lack of something better — Sutton’s last Illustrated Catalogue, is wholesome exercise, and will do more to revive the original instincts of a true designer than a month of sixpenny days at a stuffy museum. The old masters are dead, but "the flowers," as Victor Hugo says, "the flowers last always."

JOHN D. SEDDING.


  1. ^ A strip of sixteenth-century needlework in my possession (6 ft. by 2 ft. 6 in.) figures thirty different specimens of plants, six animals, and four birds, besides ornamental sprays of foliage.