Arts and Crafts Essays/Of Decorative Painting and Design

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Arts and Crafts Essays edited by William Morris
Of Decorative Painting and Design by Walter Crane


THE term Decorative painting implies the existence of painting which is not decorative: a strange state of things for an art which primarily and pre-eminently appeals to the eye. If we look back to the times when the arts and crafts were in their most flourishing and vigorous condition, and dwelt together, like brethren, in unity—say to the fifteenth century—such a distinction did not exist. Painting only differed in its application, and in degree, not in kind. In the painting of a MS., of the panels of a coffer, of a ceiling, a wall or an altar-piece the painter was alike—however different his theme and conception—possessed with a paramount impulse to decorate, to make the space or surface he dealt with as lovely to the eye in design and colour as he had skill to do.

The art of painting has, however, become considerably differentiated since those days. We are here in the nineteenth century encumbered with many distinctions in the art. There is obviously much painting which is not decorative, or ornamental in any sense, which has indeed quite other objects. It may be the presentment of the more superficial natural facts, phases, or accidents of light; the pictorial dramatising of life or past history; the pointing of a moral; or the embodiment of romance and poetic thought or symbol. Not but what it is quite possible for a painter to deal with such things and yet to produce a work that shall be decorative.

A picture, of course, may be a piece of decorative art of the most beautiful kind; but to begin with, if it is an easel picture, it is not necessarily related to anything but itself: its painter is not bound to consider anything outside its own dimensions; and, indeed, the practice of holding large and mixed picture-shows has taught him the uselessness of so doing.

Then, too, the demand for literal presentment of the superficial facts or phases of nature often removes the painter and his picture still farther from the architectural, decorative, and constructive artist and the handicraftsman, who are bound to think of plan, and design, and materials—of the adaptation of their work, in short—while the painter seeks only to be an unbiassed recorder of all accents and sensational conditions or nature and life,—and so we get our illustrated newspapers on a grand scale.

An illustrated newspaper, however, in spite of the skill and enterprise it may absorb, is not somehow a joy for ever; and, after all, if literalism and instantaneous appearances are the only things worth striving for in painting, the photograph beats any painter at that.

If truth is the object of the modern painter of pictures—truth as distinct from or opposed to beauty—beauty is certainly the object of the decorative painter, but beauty not necessarily severed from truth. Without beauty, however, decoration has no reason for existence; indeed it can hardly be said to exist.

Next to beauty, the first essential of a decoration is that it shall be related to its environment, that it shall express or acknowledge the conditions under which it exists. If a fresco on a wall, for instance, it adorns the wall without attempting to look like a hole cut in it through which something is accidentally seen; if a painting on a vase, it acknowledges the convexity of the shape, and helps to express instead of contradicting it; if on a panel in a cabinet or door, it spreads itself in an appropriate filling on an organic plan to cover it; being, in short, ornamental by its very nature, its first business is to ornament.

There exist, therefore, certain definite tests for the work of the decorative artist. Does the design fit its place and material? Is it in scale with its surroundings and in harmony with itself? Is it fair and lovely in colour? Has it beauty and invention? Has it thought and poetic feeling? These are the demands a decorator has to answer, and by his answer he must stand or fall; but such questions show that the scope of decoration is no mean one.

It must be acknowledged that a mixed exhibition does not easily afford the fairest or completest tests of such qualities. An exhibition is at best a compromise, a convenience, a means of comparison, and to enable work to be shown to the public; but of course is, after all, only really and properly exhibited when it is in the place and position and light for which it was destined. The tests by which to judge a designer's work are only complete then.

As the stem and branches to the leaves, flowers, and fruit of a tree, so is design to painting. In decoration one cannot exist without the other, as the beauty of a figure depends upon the well-built and well-proportioned skeleton and its mechanism. You cannot separate a house from its plan and foundations. So it is in decoration; often thought of lightly as something trivial and superficial, a merely aimless combination of curves and colours, or a mere réchauffé of the dead languages of art, but really demanding the best thought and capacity of a man; and in the range of its application it is not less comprehensive.

The mural painter is not only a painter, but a poet, historian, dramatist, philosopher. What should we know, how much should we realise, of the ancient world and its life without him, and his brother the architectural sculptor? How would ancient Egypt live without her wall paintings—or Rome, or Pompeii, or Mediæval Italy? How much of beauty as well as of history is contained in the illuminated pages of the books of the Middle Ages!

Some modern essays in mural painting show that the habit of mind and method of work fostered by the production of trifles for the picture market is not favourable to monumental painting. Neither the mood nor the skill, indeed, can be grown like a mushroom; such works as the Sistine Chapel, the Stanzi of Raphael, or the Apartimenti Borgia, are the result of long practice through many centuries, and intimate relationship and harmony in the arts, as well as a certain unity of public sentiment.

The true soil for the growth of the painter in this higher sense is a rich and varied external life: familiarity from early youth with the uses of materials and methods, and the hand facility which comes of close and constant acquaintanceship with the tools of the artist, who sums up and includes in himself other crafts, such as modelling, carving, and the hammering of metal, architectural design, and a knowledge of all the ways man has used to beautify and deck the surroundings and accessories of life to satisfy his delight in beauty.

We know that painting was strictly an applied art in its earlier history, and all through the Middle Ages painters were in close alliance with the other crafts of design, and their work in one craft no doubt reacted on and influenced that in another, while each was kept distinct. At all events, painters like Albert Dürer and Holbein were also masters of design in all ways.

Through the various arts and crafts of the Greek, Mediæval, or Early Renaissance periods, there is evident, from the examples which have come down to us, a certain unity and common character in design, asserting itself through all diverse individualities: each art is kept distinct, with a complete recognition of the capacity and advantages of its own particular method and purpose.

In our age, for various reasons (social, commercial, economic), the specialised and purely pictorial painter is dominant. His aims and methods influence other arts and crafts, but by no means advantageously as a rule; since, unchecked by judicious ideas of design, attempts are made in unsuitable materials to produce so-called realistic force, and superficial and accidental appearances dependent on peculiar qualities of lighting and atmosphere, quite out of place in any other method than painting, or in any place but an easel picture.

From such tendencies, such influences as these, in the matter of applied art and design, we are striving to recover. One of the first results is, perhaps, this apparently artificial distinction between decorative and other painting. But along with this we have painters whose easel pictures are in feeling and treatment quite adaptable as wall and panel decorations, and they are painters who, as a rule, have studied other methods in art, and drawn their inspiration from the mode of Mediæval or Early Renaissance times.

Much might be said of different methods and materials of work in decorative painting, but I have hardly space here. The decorative painter prefers a certain flatness of effect, and therefore such methods as fresco, in which the colours are laid on while the plaster ground is wet, and tempera naturally appeal to him. In the latter the colours ground in water and used with size, or white and yolk of egg, or prepared with starch, worked on a dry ground, drying lighter than when they are put on, have a peculiar luminous quality, while the surface is free from any gloss. Both these methods need direct painting and finishing as the work proceeds.

By a method of working in ordinary oil colours on a ground of fibrous plaster, using rectified spirit of turpentine or benzine as a medium, much of the quality of fresco or tempera may be obtained, with the advantage that the plaster ground may be a movable panel.

There are, however, other fields for the decorative painter than wall painting; as, for instance, domestic furniture, which may vary in degree of elaboration from the highly ornate cassone or marriage coffer of Mediæval Italy to the wreaths and sprays which decked chairs and bed-posts even within our century. There has been of late some revival of painting as applied chiefly to the panels of cabinets, or the decoration of piano fronts and cases.

The same causes produce the same results. With the search after, and desire for, beauty in life, we are again driven to study the laws of beauty in design and painting; and in so doing painters will find again the lost thread, the golden link of connection and intimate association with the sister arts and handicrafts, whereof none is before or after another, none is greater or less than the other.

Walter Crane.