The Two Paths/Lecture III
MODERN MANUFACTURE AND DESIGN.
A Lecture delivered at Bradford, March, 1859.
It is with a deep sense of necessity for your indulgence that I venture to address you to-night, or that I venture at any time to address the pupils of schools of design intended for the advancement of taste in special branches of manufacture. No person is able to give useful and definite help towards such special applications of art, unless he is entirely familiar with the conditions of labour and natures of material involved in the work; and indefinite help is little better than no help at all. Nay, the few remarks which I propose to lay before you this evening will, I fear, be rather suggestive of difficulties than helpful in conquering them: nevertheless, it may not be altogether unserviceable to define clearly for you (and this, at least, I am able to do) one or two of the more stern general obstacles which stand at present in the way of our success in design; and to warn you against exertion of effort in any vain or wasteful way, till these main obstacles are removed.
The first of these is our not understanding the scope and dignity of Decorative design. With all our talk about it, the very meaning of the words "Decorative art" remains confused and undecided. I want, if possible, to settle this question for you to-night, and to show you that the principles on which you must work are likely to be false, in proportion as they are narrow; true, only as they are founded on a perception of the connection of all branches of art with each other.
Observe, then, first—the only essential distinction between Decorative and other art is the being fitted for a fixed place; and in that place, related, either in subordination or command, to the effect of other pieces of art. And all the greatest art which the world has produced is thus fitted for a place, and subordinated to a purpose. There is no existing highest-order art but is decorative. The best sculpture yet produced has been the decoration of a temple front—the best painting, the decoration of a room. Raphael's best doing is merely the wall-colouring of a suite of apartments in the Vatican, and his cartoons were made for tapestries. Correggio's best doing is the decoration of two small church cupolas at Parma; Michael Angelo's of a ceiling in the Pope's private chapel; Tintoret's, of a ceiling and side wall belonging to a charitable society at Venice; while Titian and Veronese threw out their noblest thoughts, not even on the inside, but on the outside of the common brick and plaster walls of Venice.
Get rid, then, at once of any idea of Decorative art being a degraded or a separate kind of art. Its nature or essence is simply its being fitted for a definite place; and, in that place, forming part of a great and harmonious whole, in companionship with other art; and so far from this being a degradation to it—so far from Decorative art being inferior to other art because it is fixed to a spot—on the whole it may be considered as rather a piece of degradation that it should be portable. Portable art—independent of all place—is for the most part ignoble art. Your little Dutch landscape, which you put over your sideboard to-day, and between the windows tomorrow, is a far more contemptible piece of work than the extents of field and forest with which Benozzo has made green and beautiful the once melancholy arcade of the Campo Santo at Pisa; and the wild boar of silver which you use for a seal, or lock into a velvet case, is little likely to be so noble a beast as the bronze boar who foams forth the fountain from under his tusks in the market-place of Florence. It is, indeed, possible that the portable picture or image may be first-rate of its kind, but it is not first-rate because it is portable; nor are Titian's frescoes less than first-rate because they are fixed; nay, very frequently the highest compliment you can pay to a cabinet picture is to say—"It is as grand as a fresco."
Keeping, then, this fact fixed in our minds,—that all art may be decorative, and that the greatest art yet produced has been decorative,—we may proceed to distinguish the orders and dignities of decorative art, thus:—
I. The first order of it is that which is meant for places where it cannot be disturbed or injured, and where it can be perfectly seen; and then the main parts of it should be, and have always been made, by the great masters, as perfect, and as full of nature as possible.
You will every day hear it absurdly said that room decoration should be by flat patterns—by dead colours—by conventional monotonies, and I know not what. Now, just be assured of this—nobody ever yet used conventional art to decorate with, when he could do anything better, and knew that what he did would be safe. Nay, a great painter will always give you the natural art, safe or not. Correggio gets a commission to paint a room on the ground floor of a palace at Parma: any of our people—bred on our fine modern principles—would have covered it with a diaper, or with stripes or flourishes, or mosaic patterns. Not so Correggio: he paints a thick trellis of vine-leaves, with oval openings, and lovely children leaping through them into the room; and lovely children, depend upon it, are rather more desirable decorations than diaper, if you can do them—but they are not quite so easily done. In like manner Tintoret has to paint the whole end of the Council Hall at Venice. An orthodox decorator would have set himself to make the wall look like a wall—Tintoret thinks it would be rather better, if he can manage it, to make it look a little like Paradise;— stretches his canvas right over the wall, and his clouds right over his canvas; brings the light through his clouds—all blue and clear—zodiac beyond zodiac; rolls away the vaporous flood from under the feet of saints, leaving them at last in infinitudes of light—unorthodox in the last degree, but, on the whole, pleasant.
And so in all other cases whatever, the greatest decorative art is wholly unconventional—downright, pure, good painting and sculpture, but always fitted for its place; and subordinated to the purpose it has to serve in that place.
II. But if art is to be placed where it is liable to injury—to wear and tear; or to alteration of its form; as, for instance, on domestic utensils, and armour, and weapons, and dress; in which either the ornament will be worn out by the usage of the thing, or will be cast into altered shape by the play of its folds; then it is wrong to put beautiful and perfect art to such uses, and you want forms of inferior art, such as will be by their simplicity less liable to injury; or, by reason of their complexity and continuousness, may show to advantage, however distorted by the folds they are cast into.
And thus arise the various forms of inferior decorative art, respecting which the general law is, that the lower the place and office of the thing, the less of natural or perfect form you should have in it; a zigzag or a chequer is thus a better, because a more consistent ornament for a cup or platter than a landscape or portrait is: hence the general definition of the true forms of conventional ornament is, that they consist in the bestowal of as much beauty on the object as shall be consistent with its Material, its Place, and its Office.
Let us consider these three modes of consistency a little.
(A.) Conventionalism by cause of inefficiency of material.
If, for instance, we are required to represent a human figure with stone only, we cannot represent its colour; we reduce its colour to whiteness. That is not elevating the human body, but degrading it; only it would be a much greater degradation to give its colour falsely. Diminish beauty as much as you will, but do not misrepresent it. So again, when we are sculpturing a face, we can't carve its eyelashes. The face is none the better for wanting its eyelashes—it is injured by the want; but would be much more injured by a clumsy representation of them.
Neither can we carve the hair. We must be content with the conventionalism of vile solid knots and lumps of marble, instead of the golden cloud that encompasses the fair human face with its waving mystery. The lumps of marble are not an elevated representation of hair—they are a degraded one; yet better than any attempt to imitate hair with the incapable material.
In all cases in which such imitation is attempted, instant degradation to a still lower level is the result. For the effort to imitate shows that the workman has only a base and poor conception of the beauty of the reality—else he would know his task to be hopeless, and give it up at once; so that all endeavours to avoid conventionalism, when the material demands it, result from insensibility to truth, and are among the worst forms of vulgarity. Hence, in the greatest Greek statues, the hair is very slightly indicated—not because the sculptor disdained hair, but because he knew what it was too well to touch it insolently. I do not doubt but that the Greek painters drew hair exactly as Titian does. Modern attempts to produce finished pictures on glass result from the same base vulgarism. No man who knows what painting means, can endure a painted glass window which emulates painter's work. But he rejoices in a glowing mosaic of broken colour: for that is what the glass has the special gift and right of producing.
(B.) Conventionalism by cause of inferiority of place.
When work is to be seen at a great distance, or in dark places, or in some other imperfect way, it constantly becomes necessary to treat it coarsely or severely, in order to make it effective. The statues on cathedral fronts, in good times of design, are variously treated according to their distances: no fine execution is put into the features of the Madonna who rules the group of figures above the south transept of Rouen at 150 feet above the ground; but in base modern work, as Milan Cathedral, the sculpture is finished without any reference to distance; and the merit of every statue is supposed to consist in the visitor's being obliged to ascend three hundred steps before he can see it.
(C.) Conventionalism by cause of inferiority of office.
When one piece of ornament is to be subordinated to another (as the moulding is to the sculpture it encloses, or the fringe of a drapery to the statue it veils), this inferior ornament needs to be degraded in order to mark its lower office; and this is best done by refusing, more or less, the introduction of natural form. The less of nature it contains, the more degraded is the ornament, and the fitter for a humble place; but, however far a great workman may go in refusing the higher organisms of nature, he always takes care to retain the magnificence of natural lines; that is to say, of the infinite curves, such as I have analyzed in the fourth volume of "Modern Painters." His copyists, fancying that they can follow him without nature, miss precisely the essence of all the work; so that even the simplest piece of Greek conventional ornament loses the whole of its value in any modern imitation of it, the finer curves being always missed. Perhaps one of the dullest and least justifiable mistakes which have yet been made about my writing, is the supposition that I have attacked or despised Greek work. I have attacked Palladian work, and modern imitation of Greek work. Of Greek work itself I have never spoken but with a reverence quite infinite: I name Phidias always in exactly the same tone with which I speak of Michael Angelo, Titian, and Dante. My first statement of this faith, now thirteen years ago, was surely clear enough. "We shall see by this light three colossal images standing up side by side, looming in their great rest of spirituality above the whole world horizon. Phidias, Michael Angelo, and Dante,—from these we may go down step by step among the mighty men of every age, securely and certainly observant of diminished lustre in every appearance of restlessness and effort, until the last trace of inspiration vanishes in the tottering affectation or tortured insanities of modern times." ("Modern Painters," vol. ii., p. 253.) This was surely plain speaking enough, and from that day to this my effort has been not less continually to make the heart of Greek work known than the heart of Gothic: namely, the nobleness of conception of form derived from perpetual study of the figure; and my complaint of the modern architect has been not that he followed the Greeks, but that he denied the first laws of life in theirs as in all other art.
The fact is, that all good subordinate forms of ornamentation ever yet existent in the world have been invented, and others as beautiful can only be invented, by men primarily exercised in drawing or carving the human figure. I will not repeat here what I have already twice insisted upon, to the students of London and Manchester, respecting the degradation of temper and intellect which follows the pursuit of art without reference to natural form, as among the Asiatics: here, I will only trespass on your patience so far as to mark the inseparable connection between figure-drawing and good ornamental work, in the great European schools, and all that are connected with them.
Tell me, then, first of all, what ornamental work is usually put before our students as the type of decorative perfection? Raphael's arabesques; are they not? Well, Raphael knew a little about the figure, I suppose, before he drew them. I do not say that I like those arabesques; but there are certain qualities in them which are inimitable by modern designers; and those qualities are just the fruit of the master's figure study. What is given the student as next to Raphael's work? Cinquecento ornament generally. Well, cinquecento generally, with its birds, and cherubs, and wreathed foliage, and clustered fruit, was the amusement of men who habitually and easily carved the figure, or painted it. All the truly fine specimens of it have figures or animals as main parts of the design.
"Nay, but," some anciently or mediævally minded person will exclaim, "we don't want to study cinquecento. We want severer, purer conventionalism." What will you have? Egyptian ornament? Why, the whole mass of it is made up of multitudinous human figures in every kind of action—and magnificent action; their kings drawing their bows in their chariots, their sheaves of arrows rattling at their shoulders; the slain falling under them as before a pestilence; their captors driven before them in astonied troops; and do you expect to imitate Egyptian ornament without knowing how to draw the human figure? Nay, but you will take Christian ornament—purest mediaeval Christian—thirteenth century! Yes: and do you suppose you will find the Christian less human? The least natural and most purely conventional ornament of the Gothic schools is that of their painted glass; and do you suppose painted glass, in the fine times, was ever wrought without figures? We have got into the way, among our other modern wretchednesses, of trying to make windows of leaf diapers, and of strips of twisted red and yellow bands, looking like the patterns of currant jelly on the top of Christmas cakes; but every casement of old glass contained a saint's history. The windows of Bourges, Chartres, or Rouen have ten, fifteen, or twenty medallions in each, and each medallion contains two figures at least, often six or seven, representing every event of interest in the history of the saint whose life is in question. Nay, but, you say those figures are rude and quaint, and ought not to be imitated. Why, so is the leafage rude and quaint, yet you imitate that. The coloured border pattern of geranium or ivy leaf is not one whit better drawn, or more like geraniums and ivy, than the figures are like figures; but you call the geranium leaf idealized—why don't you call the figures so? The fact is, neither are idealized, but both are conventionalized on the same principles, and in the same way; and if you want to learn how to treat the leafage, the only way is to learn first how to treat the figure. And you may soon test your powers in this respect. Those old workmen were not afraid of the most familiar subjects. The windows of Chartres were presented by the trades of the town, and at the bottom of each window is a representation of the proceedings of the tradesmen at the business which enabled them to pay for the window. There are smiths at the forge, curriers at their hides, tanners looking into their pits, mercers selling goods over the counter—all made into beautiful medallions. Therefore, whenever you want to know whether you have got any real power of composition or adaptation in ornament, don't be content with sticking leaves together by the ends,—anybody can do that; but try to conventionalize a butcher's or a greengrocer's, with Saturday night customers buying cabbage and beef. That will tell you if you can design or not.
I can fancy your losing patience with me altogether just now. "We asked this fellow down to tell our workmen how to make shawls, and he is only trying to teach them how to caricature." But have a little patience with me, and examine, after I have done, a little for yourselves into the history of ornamental art, and you will discover why I do this. You will discover, I repeat, that all great ornamental art whatever is founded on the effort of the workman to draw the figure, and, in the best schools, to draw all that he saw about him in living nature. The best art of pottery is acknowledged to be that of Greece, and all the power of design exhibited in it, down to the merest zigzag, arises primarily from the workman having been forced to outline nymphs and knights; from those helmed and draped figures he holds his power. Of Egyptian ornament I have just spoken. You have everything given there that the workman saw; people of his nation employed in hunting, fighting, fishing, visiting, making love, building, cooking—everything they did is drawn, magnificently or familiarly, as was needed. In Byzantine ornament, saints, or animals which are types of various spiritual power, are the main subjects; and from the church down to the piece of enamelled metal, figure,—figure,—figure, always principal. In Norman and Gothic work you have, with all their quiet saints, also other much disquieted persons, hunting, feasting, fighting, and so on; or whole hordes of animals racing after each other. In the Bayeux tapestry, Queen Matilda gave, as well as she could,—in many respects graphically enough,—the whole history of the conquest of England. Thence, as you increase in power of art, you have more and more finished figures, up to the solemn sculptures of Wells Cathedral, or the cherubic enrichments of the Venetian Madonna dei Miracoli. Therefore, I will tell you fearlessly, for I know it is true, you must raise your workman up to life, or you will never get from him one line of well-imagined conventionalism. We have at present no good ornamental design. We can't have it yet, and we must be patient if we want to have it. Do not hope to feel the effect of your schools at once, but raise the men as high as you can, and then let them stoop as low as you need; no great man ever minds stooping. Encourage the students, in sketching accurately and continually from nature anything that comes in their way—still life, flowers, animals; but, above all, figures; and so far as you allow of any difference between an artist's training and theirs, let it be, not in what they draw, but in the degree of conventionalism you require in the sketch.
For my own part, I should always endeavour to give thorough artistical training first; but I am not certain (the experiment being yet untried) what results may be obtained by a truly intelligent practice of conventional drawing, such as that of the Egyptians, Greeks, or thirteenth century French, which consists in the utmost possible rendering of natural form by the fewest possible lines. The animal and bird drawing of the Egyptians is, in their fine age, quite magnificent under its conditions; magnificent in two ways—first, in keenest perception of the main forms and facts in the creature; and, secondly, in the grandeur of line by which their forms are abstracted and insisted on, making every asp, ibis, and vulture a sublime spectre of asp or ibis or vulture power. The way for students to get some of this gift again (some only, for I believe the fulness of the gift itself to be connected with vital superstition, and with resulting intensity of reverence; people were likely to know something about hawks and ibises, when to kill one was to be irrevocably judged to death) is never to pass a day without drawing some animal from the life, allowing themselves the fewest possible lines and colours to do it with, but resolving that whatever is characteristic of the animal shall in some way or other be shown. I repeat, it cannot yet be judged what results might be obtained by a nobly practised conventionalism of this kind; but, however that may be, the first fact,—the necessity of animal and figure drawing, is absolutely certain, and no person who shrinks from it will ever become a great designer.
One great good arises even from the first step in figure drawing, that it gets the student quit at once of the notion of formal symmetry. If you learn only to draw a leaf well, you are taught in some of our schools to turn it the other way, opposite to itself; and the two leaves set opposite ways are called "a design:" and thus it is supposed possible to produce ornamentation, though you have no more brains than a looking-glass or a kaleidoscope has. But if you once learn to draw the human figure, you will find that knocking two men's heads together does not necessarily constitute a good design; nay, that it makes a very bad design, or no design at all; and you will see at once that to arrange a group of two or more figures, you must, though perhaps it may be desirable to balance, or oppose them, at the same time vary their attitudes, and make one, not the reverse of the other, but the companion of the other.
I had a somewhat amusing discussion on this subject with a friend, only the other day; and one of his retorts upon me was so neatly put, and expresses so completely all that can either be said or shown on the opposite side, that it is well worth while giving it you exactly in the form it was sent to me. My friend had been maintaining that the essence of ornament consisted in three things:—contrast, series, and symmetry. I replied (by letter) that "none of them, nor all of them together, would produce ornament. Here"—(making a ragged blot with the back of my pen on the paper)—"you have contrast; but it isn't ornament: here, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6,"—(writing the numerals)—"You have series; but it isn't ornament: and here,"—(sketching a rough but symmetrical "stick-figure" sketch of a human body at the side)—"you have symmetry; but it isn't ornament."
My friend replied:—
"Your materials were not ornament, because you did not apply them. I send them to you back, made up into a choice sporting neckerchief:"
[Illustration: Sketch of a square of cloth decorated with a diagonal grid pattern of stick-figure human forms, with repeated and reflected ink-blot shapes at the corners and the digits 1 through 6 arranged into simple symmetrical shapes and repeated around the border.]
|Symmetrical figure||Unit of diaper.|
"Each figure is converted into a harmony by being revolved on its two axes, the whole opposed in contrasting series."
My answer was—or rather was to the effect (for I must expand it a little, here)—that his words, "because you did not apply them," contained the gist of the whole matter;—that the application of them, or any other things, was precisely the essence of design; the non-application, or wrong application, the negation of design: that his use of the poor materials was in this case admirable; and that if he could explain to me, in clear words, the principles on which he had so used them, he would be doing a very great service to all students of art.
"Tell me, therefore (I asked), these main points:
"1. How did you determine the number of figures you would put into the neckerchief? Had there been more, it would have been mean and ineffective,—a pepper-and-salt sprinkling of figures. Had there been fewer, it would have been monstrous. How did you fix the number?
"2. How did you determine the breadth of the border and relative size of the numerals?
"3. Why are there two lines outside of the border, and one only inside? Why are there no more lines? Why not three and two, or three and five? Why lines at all to separate the barbarous figures; and why, if lines at all, not double or treble instead of single?
"4. Why did you put the double blots at the corners? Why not at the angles of the chequers,—or in the middle of the border?
"It is precisely your knowing why not to do these things, and why to do just what you have done, which constituted your power of design; and like all the people I have ever known who had that power, you are entirely unconscious of the essential laws by which you work, and confuse other people by telling them that the design depends on symmetry and series, when, in fact, it depends entirely on your own sense and judgment."
This was the substance of my last answer—to which (as I knew beforehand would be the case) I got no reply; but it still remains to be observed that with all the skill and taste (especially involving the architect's great trust, harmony of proportion), which my friend could bring to bear on the materials given him, the result is still only—a sporting neckerchief—that is to say, the materials addressed, first, to recklessness, in the shape of a mere blot; then to computativeness in a series of figures; and then to absurdity and ignorance, in the shape of an ill-drawn caricature—such materials, however treated, can only work up into what will please reckless, computative, and vulgar persons,—that is to say, into a sporting neckerchief. The difference between this piece of ornamentation and Correggio's painting at Parma lies simply and wholly in the additions (somewhat large ones), of truth and of tenderness: in the drawing being lovely as well as symmetrical— and representative of realities as well as agreeably disposed. And truth, tenderness, and inventive application or disposition are indeed the roots of ornament—not contrast, nor symmetry.
It ought yet farther to be observed, that the nobler the materials, the less their symmetry is endurable. In the present case, the sense of fitness and order, produced by the repetition of the figures, neutralizes, in some degree, their reckless vulgarity; and is wholly, therefore, beneficent to them. But draw the figures better, and their repetition will become painful. You may harmlessly balance a mere geometrical form, and oppose one quatrefoil or cusp by another exactly like it. But put two Apollo Belvideres back to back, and you will not think the symmetry improves them. Whenever the materials of ornament are noble, they must be various; and repetition of parts is either the sign of utterly bad, hopeless, and base work; or of the intended degradation of the parts in which such repetition is allowed, in order to foil others more noble.
Such, then, are a few of the great principles, by the enforcement of which you may hope to promote the success of the modern student of design; but remember, none of these principles will be useful at all, unless you understand them to be, in one profound and stern sense, useless.
That is to say, unless you feel that neither you nor I, nor any one, can, in the great ultimate sense, teach anybody how to make a good design.
If designing could be taught, all the world would learn: as all the world reads—or calculates. But designing is not to be spelled, nor summed. My men continually come to me, in my drawing class in London, thinking I am to teach them what is instantly to enable them to gain their bread. "Please, sir, show us how to design." "Make designers of us." And you, I doubt not, partly expect me to tell you to-night how to make designers of your Bradford youths. Alas! I could as soon tell you how to make or manufacture an ear of wheat, as to make a good artist of any kind. I can analyze the wheat very learnedly for you—tell you there is starch in it, and carbon, and silex. I can give you starch, and charcoal, and flint; but you are as far from your ear of wheat as you were before. All that can possibly be done for any one who wants ears of wheat is to show them where to find grains of wheat, and how to sow them, and then, with patience, in Heaven's time, the ears will come—or will perhaps come—ground and weather permitting. So in this matter of making artists—first you must find your artist in the grain; then you must plant him; fence and weed the field about him; and with patience, ground and weather permitting, you may get an artist out of him—not otherwise. And what I have to speak to you about, tonight, is mainly the ground and the weather, it being the first and quite most material question in this matter, whether the ground and weather of Bradford, or the ground and weather of England in general,—suit wheat.
And observe in the outset, it is not so much what the present circumstances of England are, as what we wish to make them, that we have to consider. If you will tell me what you ultimately intend Bradford to be, perhaps I can tell you what Bradford can ultimately produce. But you must have your minds clearly made up, and be distinct in telling me what you do want. At present I don't know what you are aiming at, and possibly on consideration you may feel some doubt whether you know yourselves. As matters stand, all over England, as soon as one mill is at work, occupying two hundred hands, we try, by means of it, to set another mill at work, occupying four hundred. That is all simple and comprehensive enough—but what is it to come to? How many mills do we want? or do we indeed want no end of mills? Let us entirely understand each other on this point before we go any farther. Last week, I drove from Rochdale to Bolton Abbey; quietly, in order to see the country, and certainly it was well worth while. I never went over a more interesting twenty miles than those between Rochdale and Burnley. Naturally, the valley has been one of the most beautiful in the Lancashire hills; one of the far away solitudes, full of old shepherd ways of life. At this time there are not,—I speak deliberately, and I believe quite literally,—there are not, I think, more than a thousand yards of road to be traversed anywhere, without passing a furnace or mill.
Now, is that the kind of thing you want to come to everywhere? Because, if it be, and you tell me so distinctly, I think I can make several suggestions to-night, and could make more if you give me time, which would materially advance your object. The extent of our operations at present is more or less limited by the extent of coal and ironstone, but we have not yet learned to make proper use of our clay. Over the greater part of England, south of the manufacturing districts, there are magnificent beds of various kinds of useful clay; and I believe that it would not be difficult to point out modes of employing it which might enable us to turn nearly the whole of the south of England into a brickfield, as we have already turned nearly the whole of the north into a coal-pit. I say "nearly" the whole, because, as you are doubtless aware, there are considerable districts in the south composed of chalk renowned up to the present time for their downs and mutton. But, I think, by examining carefully into the conceivable uses of chalk, we might discover a quite feasible probability of turning all the chalk districts into a limekiln, as we turn the clay districts into a brickfield. There would then remain nothing but the mountain districts to be dealt with; but, as we have not yet ascertained all the uses of clay and chalk, still less have we ascertained those of stone; and I think, by draining the useless inlets of the Cumberland, Welsh, and Scotch lakes, and turning them, with their rivers, into navigable reservoirs and canals, there would be no difficulty in working the whole of our mountain districts as a gigantic quarry of slate and granite, from which all the rest of the world might be supplied with roofing and building stone.
Is this, then, what you want? You are going straight at it at present; and I have only to ask under what limitations I am to conceive or describe your final success? Or shall there be no limitations? There are none to your powers; every day puts new machinery at your disposal, and increases, with your capital, the vastness of your undertakings. The changes in the state of this country are now so rapid, that it would be wholly absurd to endeavour to lay down laws of art education for it under its present aspect and circumstances; and therefore I must necessarily ask, how much of it do you seriously intend within the next fifty years to be coal-pit, brickfield, or quarry? For the sake of distinctness of conclusion, I will suppose your success absolute: that from shore to shore the whole of the island is to be set as thick with chimneys as the masts stand in the docks of Liverpool: and there shall be no meadows in it; no trees; no gardens; only a little corn grown upon the housetops, reaped and threshed by steam: that you do not leave even room for roads, but travel either over the roofs of your mills, on viaducts; or under their floors, in tunnels: that, the smoke having rendered the light of the sun unserviceable, you work always by the light of your own gas: that no acre of English ground shall be without its shaft and its engine; and therefore, no spot of English ground left, on which it shall be possible to stand, without a definite and calculable chance of being blown off it, at any moment, into small pieces.
Under these circumstances, (if this is to be the future of England,) no designing or any other development of beautiful art will be possible. Do not vex your minds, nor waste your money with any thought or effort in the matter. Beautiful art can only be produced by people who have beautiful things about them, and leisure to look at them; and unless you provide some elements of beauty for your workmen to be surrounded by, you will find that no elements of beauty can be invented by them.
I was struck forcibly by the bearing of this great fact upon our modern efforts at ornamentation in an afternoon walk, last week, in the suburbs of one of our large manufacturing towns. I was thinking of the difference in the effect upon the designer's mind, between the scene which I then came upon, and the scene which would have presented itself to the eyes of any designer of the middle ages, when he left his workshop. Just outside the town I came upon an old English cottage, or mansion, I hardly know which to call it, set close under the hill, and beside the river, perhaps built somewhere in the Charles's time, with mullioned windows and a low arched porch; round which, in the little triangular garden, one can imagine the family as they used to sit in old summer times, the ripple of the river heard faintly through the sweetbrier hedge, and the sheep on the far-off wolds shining in the evening sunlight. There, uninhabited for many and many a year, it had been left in unregarded havoc of ruin; the garden-gate still swung loose to its latch; the garden, blighted utterly into a field of ashes, not even a weed taking root there; the roof torn into shapeless rents; the shutters hanging about the windows in rags of rotten wood; before its gate, the stream which had gladdened it now soaking slowly by, black as ebony, and thick with curdling scum; the bank above it trodden into unctuous, sooty slime: far in front of it, between it and the old hills, the furnaces of the city foaming forth perpetual plague of sulphurous darkness; the volumes of their storm clouds coiling low over a waste of grassless fields, fenced from each other, not by hedges, but by slabs of square stone, like gravestones, riveted together with iron.
That was your scene for the designer's contemplation in his afternoon walk at Rochdale. Now fancy what was the scene which presented itself, in his afternoon walk, to a designer of the Gothic school of Pisa—Nino Pisano, or any of his men.
On each side of a bright river he saw rise a line of brighter palaces, arched and pillared, and inlaid with deep red porphyry, and with serpentine; along the quays before their gates were riding troops of knights, noble in face and form, dazzling in crest and shield; horse and man one labyrinth of quaint colour and gleaming light—the purple, and silver, and scarlet fringes flowing over the strong limbs and clashing mail, like sea-waves over rocks at sunset. Opening on each side from the river were gardens, courts, and cloisters; long successions of white pillars among wreaths of vine; leaping of fountains through buds of pomegranate and orange: and still along the garden-paths, and under and through the crimson of the pomegranate shadows, moving slowly, groups of the fairest women that Italy ever saw—fairest, because purest and thoughtfullest; trained in all high knowledge, as in all courteous art—in dance, in song, in sweet wit, in lofty learning, in loftier courage, in loftiest love—able alike to cheer, to enchant, or save, the souls of men. Above all this scenery of perfect human life, rose dome and bell-tower, burning with white alabaster and gold; beyond dome and bell-tower the slopes of mighty hills, hoary with olive; far in the north, above a purple sea of peaks of solemn Apennine, the clear, sharp-cloven Carrara mountains sent up their steadfast flames of marble summit into amber sky; the great sea itself, scorching with expanse of light, stretching from their feet to the Gorgonian isles; and over all these, ever present, near or far— seen through the leaves of vine, or imaged with all its march of clouds in the Arno's stream, or set with its depth of blue close against the golden hair and burning cheek of lady and knight,—that untroubled and sacred sky, which was to all men, in those days of innocent faith, indeed the unquestioned abode of spirits, as the earth was of men; and which opened straight through its gates of cloud and veils of dew into the awfulness of the eternal world;—a heaven in which every cloud that passed was literally the chariot of an angel, and every ray of its Evening and Morning streamed from the throne of God.
What think you of that for a school of design?
I do not bring this contrast before you as a ground of hopelessness in our task; neither do I look for any possible renovation of the Republic of Pisa, at Bradford, in the nineteenth century; but I put it before you in order that you may be aware precisely of the kind of difficulty you have to meet, and may then consider with yourselves how far you can meet it. To men surrounded by the depressing and monotonous circumstances of English manufacturing life, depend upon it, design is simply impossible. This is the most distinct of all the experiences I have had in dealing with the modern workman. He is intelligent and ingenious in the highest degree—subtle in touch and keen in sight: but he is, generally speaking, wholly destitute of designing power. And if you want to give him the power, you must give him the materials, and put him in the circumstances for it. Design is not the offspring of idle fancy: it is the studied result of accumulative observation and delightful habit. Without observation and experience, no design— without peace and pleasurableness in occupation, no design—and all the lecturings, and teachings, and prizes, and principles of art, in the world, are of no use, so long as you don't surround your men with happy influences and beautiful things. It is impossible for them to have right ideas about colour, unless they see the lovely colours of nature unspoiled; impossible for them to supply beautiful incident and action in their ornament, unless they see beautiful incident and action in the world about them. Inform their minds, refine their habits, and you form and refine their designs; but keep them illiterate, uncomfortable, and in the midst of unbeautiful things, and whatever they do will still be spurious, vulgar, and valueless.
I repeat, that I do not ask you nor wish you to build a new Pisa for them. We don't want either the life or the decorations of the thirteenth century back again; and the circumstances with which you must surround your workmen are those simply of happy modern English life, because the designs you have now to ask for from your workmen are such as will make modern English life beautiful. All that gorgeousness of the middle ages, beautiful as it sounds in description, noble as in many respects it was in reality, had, nevertheless, for foundation and for end, nothing but the pride of life—the pride of the so-called superior classes; a pride which supported itself by violence and robbery, and led in the end to the destruction both of the arts themselves and the States in which they nourished.
The great lesson of history is, that all the fine arts hitherto—having been supported by the selfish power of the noblesse, and never having extended their range to the comfort or the relief of the mass of the people—the arts, I say, thus practised, and thus matured, have only accelerated the ruin of the States they adorned; and at the moment when, in any kingdom, you point to the triumphs of its greatest artists, you point also to the determined hour of the kingdom's decline. The names of great painters are like passing bells: in the name of Velasquez, you hear sounded the fall of Spain; in the name of Titian, that of Venice; in the name of Leonardo, that of Milan; in the name of Raphael, that of Rome. And there is profound justice in this; for in proportion to the nobleness of the power is the guilt of its use for purposes vain or vile; and hitherto the greater the art, the more surely has it been used, and used solely, for the decoration of pride, or the provoking of sensuality. Another course lies open to us. We may abandon the hope—or if you like the words better—we may disdain the temptation, of the pomp and grace of Italy in her youth. For us there can be no more the throne of marble—for us no more the vault of gold—but for us there is the loftier and lovelier privilege of bringing the power and charm of art within the reach of the humble and the poor; and as the magnificence of past ages failed by its narrowness and its pride, ours may prevail and continue, by its universality and its lowliness.
And thus, between the picture of too laborious England, which we imagined as future, and the picture of too luxurious Italy, which we remember in the past, there may exist—there will exist, if we do our duty—an intermediate condition, neither oppressed by labour nor wasted in vanity—the condition of a peaceful and thoughtful temperance in aims, and acts, and arts.
We are about to enter upon a period of our world's history in which domestic life, aided by the arts of peace, will slowly, but at last entirely, supersede public life and the arts of war. For our own England, she will not, I believe, be blasted throughout with furnaces; nor will she be encumbered with palaces. I trust she will keep her green fields, her cottages, and her homes of middle life; but these ought to be, and I trust will be enriched with a useful, truthful, substantial form of art. We want now no more feasts of the gods, nor martyrdoms of the saints; we have no need of sensuality, no place for superstition, or for costly insolence. Let us have learned and faithful historical painting—touching and thoughtful representations of human nature, in dramatic painting; poetical and familiar renderings of natural objects and of landscape; and rational, deeply-felt realizations of the events which are the subjects of our religious faith. And let these things we want, as far as possible, be scattered abroad and made accessible to all men.
So also, in manufacture: we require work substantial rather than rich in make; and refined, rather than splendid in design. Your stuffs need not be such as would catch the eye of a duchess; but they should be such as may at once serve the need, and refine the taste, of a cottager. The prevailing error in English dress, especially among the lower orders, is a tendency to flimsiness and gaudiness, arising mainly from the awkward imitation of their superiors. It should be one of the first objects of all manufacturers to produce stuffs not only beautiful and quaint in design, but also adapted for every-day service, and decorous in humble and secluded life. And you must remember always that your business, as manufacturers, is to form the market, as much as to supply it. If, in shortsighted and reckless eagerness for wealth, you catch at every humour of the populace as it shapes itself into momentary demand—if, in jealous rivalry with neighbouring States, or with other producers, you try to attract attention by singularities, novelties, and gaudinesses—to make every design an advertisement, and pilfer every idea of a successful neighbour's, that you may insidiously imitate it, or pompously eclipse—no good design will ever be possible to you, or perceived by you. You may, by accident, snatch the market; or, by energy, command it; you may obtain the confidence of the public, and cause the ruin of opponent houses; or you may, with equal justice of fortune, be ruined by them. But whatever happens to you, this, at least, is certain, that the whole of your life will have been spent in corrupting public taste and encouraging public extravagance. Every preference you have won by gaudiness must have been based on the purchaser's vanity; every demand you have created by novelty has fostered in the consumer a habit of discontent; and when you retire into inactive life, you may, as a subject of consolation for your declining years, reflect that precisely according to the extent of your past operations, your life has been successful in retarding the arts,—tarnishing the virtues, and confusing the manners of your country.
But, on the other hand, if you resolve from the first that, so far as you can ascertain or discern what is best, you will produce what is best, on an intelligent consideration of the probable tendencies and possible tastes of the people whom you supply, you may literally become more influential for all kinds of good than many lecturers on art, or many treatise-writers on morality. Considering the materials dealt with, and the crude state of art knowledge at the time, I do not know that any more wide or effective influence in public taste was ever exercised than that of the Staffordshire manufacture of pottery under William Wedgwood, and it only rests with the manufacturer in every other business to determine whether he will, in like manner, make his wares educational instruments, or mere drugs of the market. You all should, be, in a certain sense, authors: you must, indeed, first catch the public eye, as an author must the public ear; but once gain your audience, or observance, and as it is in the writer's power thenceforward to publish what will educate as it amuses—so it is in yours to publish what will educate as it adorns. Nor is this surely a subject of poor ambition. I hear it said continually that men are too ambitious: alas! to me, it seems they are never enough ambitious. How many are content to be merely the thriving merchants of a state, when they might be its guides, counsellors, and rulers—wielding powers of subtle but gigantic beneficence, in restraining its follies while they supplied its wants. Let such duty, such ambition, be once accepted in their fulness, and the best glory of European art and of European manufacture may yet be to come. The paintings of Raphael and of Buonaroti gave force to the falsehoods of superstition, and majesty to the imaginations of sin; but the arts of England may have, for their task, to inform the soul with truth, and touch the heart with compassion. The steel of Toledo and the silk of Genoa did but give strength to oppression and lustre to pride: let it be for the furnace and for the loom of England, as they have already richly earned, still more abundantly to bestow, comfort on the indigent, civilization on the rude, and to dispense, through the peaceful homes of nations, the grace and the preciousness of simple adornment, and useful possession.
- See Appendix II., Sir Joshua Reynolds's disappointment.
- Plate 75 in Vol. V. of Wilkinson's "Ancient Egypt" will give the student an idea of how to set to work.
- I shall endeavour for the future to put my self-contradictions in short sentences and direct terms, in order to save sagacious persons the trouble of looking for them.
- Whether religious or profane pride,—chapel or banqueting room,—is no matter.
- If their superiors would give them simplicity and economy to imitate, it would, in the issue, be well for themselves, as well as for those whom they guide. The typhoid fever of passion for dress, and all other display, which has struck the upper classes of Europe at this time, is one of the most dangerous political elements we have to deal with. Its wickedness I have shown elsewhere (Polit. Economy of Art, p. 62, et seq.); but its wickedness is, in the minds of most persons, a matter of no importance. I wish I had time also to show them its danger. I cannot enter here into political investigation; but this is a certain fact, that the wasteful and vain expenses at present indulged in by the upper classes are hastening the advance of republicanism more than any other element of modern change. No agitators, no clubs, no epidemical errors, ever were, or will be, fatal to social order in any nation. Nothing but the guilt of the upper classes, wanton, accumulated, reckless, and merciless, ever overthrows them Of such guilt they have now much to answer for—let them look to it in time.