Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 5/Misapplied ornamentation

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The decorative arts are, without doubt, making great progress in our country, and people are no longer satisfied with the plain humdrum style of ornamentation that satisfied our fathers. There was room for improvement, no doubt; clumsiness of old was the characteristic feature of all our designs—a clumsiness only second to that prevailing among the Dutch and German nations. But where is our modern fever for ornamention leading us? Entering my old parish church the other day after the restoration, I scarcely knew where I was. There used to stand in the chancel the Tables of the Law, done in very old-fashioned white letters on a black ground. When a child, I used to remark upon the plethoric character of the P’s, and the B’s, and the R’s; but, with all those little old-fashioned imperfections, I could at least read the Commandments plain enough. But now all was altered. In place of the old turnpike-looking board, there was a page from some ancient missal—at least it looked like it. Each Commandment had its illuminated initial letter, and each letter was as unlike the old Roman character as a herald is from a Quaker. Here the tail of an R twisted itself round some distant member of the alphabet with the tenacity of a ring-tailed monkey; there something that looked like an S shot up into the air like a Gothic sky-rocket. It is, no doubt, very fine, and I can readily conceive that the letters are an exact copy of that invaluable MS. which St. Etheldreda spent her life in illuminating in the fifth century; but there was one little difficulty,—I could not read the Commandments thus got up in masquerade. The light was none of the brightest, it must be confessed, and Joseph done in deep purple, together with the Magi in ruby, standing on their toes in the true Byzantine style, as the curate informed me, probably had something to do with my want of clearness of vision. But, why should this over-ornamentation extend also to the service? There was a time when it was read in plain English, but we suppose that, with a love of uniformity, the vicar had ordered it to be intoned to match the illuminated Commandments; at all events, the flourishes and queer intonation given to the fine old English words were so successfully accomplished, that I really could not understand what was said. It was certainly a drawback to public worship, neither to be able to use my eyes nor my ears as I used to do; but, at least, I may pray in my old fashion, I said to myself; but I was reckoning without my host. The roomy old pews had given place to Gothic sittings, in which the agony of kneeling was so great that I could not help suspecting our worthy vicar contrived it with the idea of giving an expression to his congregation that should match the old gurgoyles that grinned upon us from the porch—at all events, prayer under such circumstances was totally out of the question, and I could not help thinking that the services of our modern church ornamenters had resulted in rendering impossible the service of God. But the evils of over-ornamentation are by no means confined to ecclesiastical furniture and decorations; it is spreading to our literature. Happening to take up Gray’s “Elegy in a Country Churchyard,” that lay upon the table of a lady upon whom I was making a morning call, I was horrified to find it was printed in black-letter type, and was surrounded with an illuminated border, by Owen Jones, of so elaborate a character, that it was evident it was not intended that the poem should be read. The charming elegy which breathed the sacred calm of English life was stifled with oriental surroundings, which drive the mind far away from the text. What should we think if we saw one of Millais’ heart-searching pictures plastered round with high-flown descriptions of its beauties? Why, that they were intolerable impertinences. I have the very highest respect for the genius of Owen Jones, but I fear even his artistic excellence will fail to add one charm to such a poem as the immortal “Elegy” of Gray. The sudden craze that has come upon us for decoration has, I fear, placed in the background that good sense for which at least Englishmen have been conspicuous. For a moment, we are losing that first canon of all beauty, the sense of fitness. Why is it that a piece of good English machinery is always pleasing to the eye of the artist? Because every part of it is designed with exquisite simplicity to perform its given function. We never see strong beams and pillars covered over with gilding and painting, and scrolled with Louis Quatorze work, as we do in American machinery; for the object is not to impress the mind with a sense of prettiness, but with that of strength; and this our English good sense obtains by simply not striving to make the thing look what it is not. What we wish to see preserved in the midst of the arts of design, now making such progress throughout the land, is this appreciation of the sense of fitness. Not many years ago the Society of Arts gave a prize for a set of tea things. The design was classical, and certainly very pretty, but usefulness was entirely sacrificed to it. The milk-jug was so narrow in the neck, that the hand never could get inside it to wash it out. The sugar-basin was a charming little object, but it required filling two or three times for a moderate company: the cups again were too small and fragile for English habits; and so the prize model got laughed at, and had no earthly influence in reforming the old designs for our tea services, which, however inelegant, had at least the merit of suiting the habits of the people; and there is a good deal in this. We shall never take to Greek designs, simply because we do not possess the old Greek appreciation of the beautiful to the exclusion of other qualities. We shall never take to a French style, as it is too frivolous for the national character. A few petit maîtres may rave about the lightness and elegance of the taste of our neighbours across the Channel, but the nation will never adopt their filigree work.

Moreover, there is a tendency in French designs to misapply ornament in a marked degree. How our collectors swear by Sévres China. I was looking at a set the other day in the Soulages Collection, at the South Kensington Museum, and could not help being struck with the beauty of its form, colour, and texture; but there was a dessert service meant to be covered either with a D’Oily, or with fruit, enriched with the most exquisitely enamelled portraits of princes, warriors, and other famous men of France. If the reader will for a moment consider these little enamels as exquisite works of art, he will recognise the absurdity of making them the receptacle of melon rinds or peach skins. Pictures are intended to be looked at, and it is a gross violation of taste to make them subservient to an ignoble purpose. I have seen picture galleries on tea services from the same royal source, alike testifying to the perversion of taste which obtains in the most artistic atmosphere of that country, which boasts that it leads Europe in all refinements. Look again at the famed Pallissy ware. We see dishes filled with snakes, fish, and reptiles of all kinds. Now here we see an article of use so constructed that it cannot possibly be used. It would have been very simple to produce Pallissy china, of an artistic character, without associating it with culinary apparatus—it was a misapplication of art which cannot be defended.

Gavarni once observed to me, that what struck him on coming to this country was the size of its men and beasts, and the substantiality of all our appurtenances. Physically, as well as morally, we are a solid, large-limbed, large-thoughted people, and our art, to be national, must be in keeping with these manifestations of mind and matter. Our Elizabethan architecture was a very barbarous thing compared with the Cinque-cento style, its Italian contemporary, but we contend that it was a truer style for Englishmen, because it reflected the florid, large, rough manners of the period better than would the delicate subtle spirit that ran through the Italian work of the same age. The various schools of design, now educating our young people in the ornamental arts, very properly direct their pupils’ attention to copying Nature. By this means we shall, in the course of time, work out a style of our own which is truly national. In painting and poetry, the drama and gardening, we possess an individuality which other nations recognise, but as yet we have possessed no natural style of ornamentation, for the sole reason, as far as we can see, that we have never systematically devoted our attention to the subject, but have been content to copy those of other nations in the most servile manner. At the very foundation of all national design, lies strongly marked national character, and this we possess. We also possess the imaginative qualities in the highest degree as witness the famous roll of our poets; and to say that we cannot impress these qualities on inanimate nature is to assert an absurdity. The English of the next century will, we believe, be an art-loving people, and the demand will call forth the supply with certainty. Meanwhile we must, we suppose, submit to see taste outraged by the extravagances called forth as a reaction from that old Quakerish baldness of ornamentation which has satisfied us for so many generations.

A. W.