Needlework As Art
by Marian Alford
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Therefore fine works of art were then executed by the needle, of which a very few survive, either in description or copied into more lasting materials; and showing that, with the minor arts of mosaic and illumination, it was in a state of higher perfection than the greater arts, which till the twelfth century were all but in abeyance.

In discussing textile art, I am obliged to pass over a part of the dark ages, and to approach the period when it must be studied chiefly in Sicily, which became the half-way house on the high road to the East, and later the resting-place of the Crusaders to and from the Holy Land.

Sicily, which had succeeded to Constantinople as being the great manufacturing mart during the Middle Ages, was in the hands of the Moors, the origin and source of all European Gothic textile art. Yet even at Palermo and Messina this art was long controlled by the traditions of Greece, ancient and modern, while fertilized by Persian and Indian forms and traditional symbolisms.

The next European phase was the Gothic.[65] This was Arab and Moresque steeped in northern ideas; and finding its congenial soil, it grew into the most splendid, thoughtful, and finished style, far transcending anything that it had borrowed from eastern or southern sources.

All its traditions were carried out in the smaller decorative arts—mosaics, ivories, and metal works; and, last and not least, beautiful embroideries, to adorn the altars and the dresses of monarchs and nobles. (Plate 7.)

When taste was imperfect or declined, then the decorations were all rude, and the embroideries shared in the general rudeness or poverty; but as these crafts rose again, adding to themselves grace and beauty by study and experience, then needlework in England, Germany, France, Italy, and Spain grew and flourished.[66]

Then came the Reformation, which, in Germany and England especially, gave a blow to the arts which had reserved their best efforts for the Church; and the change of style effected by the Renaissance was not suited to the solemnity of ecclesiastical decoration.

The styles of the fifteenth and sixteenth century embroideries are better adapted for secular purposes; though their extreme beauty as architectural ornament in Italy, reconciles one to their want of religious character, on the principle that it was allowable to dedicate to the Church all that in its day was brightest and best. (Plate 8.)

We possess much domestic embroidery of the Renaissance which is exceedingly beautiful—Italian, Spanish, and German. English needlework had lost its prestige from the time of the Reformation.[67]

The best efforts of the German schools of embroidery preceded the Reformation, while those of Belgium never lost their excellence,[68] and still hold their high position among the workers of golden orphreys. In Italy they always retained much of the classical element. Probably the ancient frescoes which served as models were originally painted by Greek artists and their Roman imitators. This style flourished for a hundred years. The French adopted and modified it.

The decorative style of that period is sometimes called the Arabesque, and sometimes the Grotesque. The fashion was really copied from the excavated palaces and tombs of the best Roman era. Raphael admired, and caused his pupils to imitate and copy them; and they influenced all decorative art for a considerable period. As long as beautiful forms of flowers, fruit, birds, and animals were adhered to, the Arabesque was a charming decoration, gay and brilliant; but when the beautiful was set aside, and the ugly ideas were reproduced, the style became the Grotesque, which word only means the grotto, cave, or tomb style, and is as undescriptive to us as the word Arabesque, which has nothing to do with the Arabs or their arts.

It would appear that if the beautiful only is permissible in decorative art, and that if without beauty there is no reason that it should exist at all, then the Grotesque should not be allowed, except as a scherzo of the pencil; to be relegated, like all other caricatures, to the portfolio.

A grotesque is something startling, laughable, perhaps ridiculous. A woman with the head of a goose and a flowery tail may be a symbolical, but it never can be an agreeable object. When the idea conveyed is a great one, then it is excusable. The Ninevite bull, with a human head and five legs, is a grotesque, but it is also a symbol of majesty and might. A Satyr is a grotesque, but he has been so long recorded and accepted that he has ceased to surprise us; and the Greeks spent so much genius in making him a graceful creature, that he has become picturesque, if not beautiful.

Arabesques and Grotesques have now so long prevailed in decoration, that we have ceased to criticize them on principle, and accept them gratefully, in proportion to the gay fancy and reticent genius of the designer. Most Arabesques are, in fact, only graceful nonsense.

Vitruvius (writing first century B.C.) says, that "in his time, on the covering of the walls were painted rather monstrosities than images of known things. Thus, instead of columns you will see reeds with crisp foliage, and candlesticks supporting temples; and on the top of these there are rods and twisted ornaments, and in the volutes senseless little figures sitting there; likewise flowers with figures growing out of their calyxes. Here a human head, there an animal's."[69] Evidently Vitruvius did not approve of grotesques, and his contemporary criticism is most valuable and amusing.

In the Louis Quatorze period, a species of vegetable grotesque was the fashion, from which we suffer even now, and it deserves censure. Leaves and flowers of different plants were made to grow from the same stem, as only artificial flowers could do. The Greeks introduced into their decorations sprays and wreaths of bay, olive, oak, ivy, and vine, with their fruits; which are exquisitely composed and carefully studied from nature. It is true that they sometimes invented flowers of different shapes, following each other on the same stem, and untrammelled by any natural laws. These classical freaks of fancy are so graceful that their want of truth does not shock us, but they are more safely copied than imitated.

The Renaissance was particularly marked in Spain and Portugal by the embroideries which the latter drew from their Indian possessions in Goa, whilst we in England were sedulously thrusting from our shores any beautiful Indian textiles that we imagined could injure our own home manufactures. It was, consequently, the worst phase of needlework with us, while Spanish and Portuguese embroideries of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries are especially fine, their designs being European, and their needlework Oriental. Their Renaissance, which went by the name of the Plateresque, is a style apart. (Pl. 9.) The reason of its name is that it seems to have been originally intended for, and is best suited to, the shapes and decorations of gold and silver plate. It is extremely rich and ornate; not so appropriate to architecture as to the smaller arts, and wanting, perhaps, the simplicity which gives dignity. The style called Louis Quatorze following on the Renaissance in Germany, England, Spain, Italy, and France, assumed in each of these countries distinguishing characteristics, into which we have not time to enter now. In this style France took the lead and appropriated it, and rightly named it after the magnificent monarch who fostered it. This was a splendid era; and its furniture and wall decorations, dress, plate, and books shine in all the fertile richness and grace of French artistic ingenuity.[70] The new style asserted itself everywhere, and remodelled every art; but the long reign of Louis Quatorze gave the fashion time to wane and change. Under Louis XV. the defects increased and the beauties diminished. The fine heavy borders were broken up into fragmentary forms; all flow and strength were eliminated; and what remained of the Louis Quatorze style became, under its next phase, only remarkable for the sparkling prettiness which is inherent in all French art.

In Italy this very ornate style was distinguished as the "Sette-cento," and was a chastened imitation or appropriation of the Spanish Plateresque and the French Louis Quatorze. In Germany it was a decided heavy copy of both, of which there are splendid examples in the adornment of the German palaces, royal and episcopal. In England the Continental taste was faintly reflected during the reign of Queen Anne and the first Georges; but except in the characteristic upholstery of the Chippendales, and one or two palaces, such as Blenheim and Castle Howard, we did not produce much that was original in the style of that day.

Under Louis XV., Boucher and Watteau, in France, produced designs that were well suited to tapestries and embroideries. All the heathen gods, with Cupids, garlands, floating ribbons, crowns, and cyphers were everywhere carved, gilded, and worked. It was the visible tide of the frivolity in which poor Marie Antoinette was drowned; though before the Revolution she had somewhat simplified the forms of decoration, and straight lines instead of curves, and delicacy rather than splendour, had superseded, at least at court, the extravagant richness of palatial furniture.

This was followed by the Revolution; and then came the attempt at classical severity (so contrary to the French nature) which the Republic affected.[71] Dress was adorned with embroidered spots and Etruscan borders, and the ladies wore diadems, and tried to be as like as possible to the Greek women painted in fictile art. Napoleon attempted a dress which was supposed to be Roman at his coronation. Trophies were woven and embroidered, and the "honeysuckle," "key," and "egg and anchor" patterns were everywhere. With the fall of the Empire the classical taste collapsed, and the Egyptian, Greek, and Roman furniture were handed over to hotels and lodging-houses. In most of the palaces on the Continent an apartment is still to be seen, furnished in this style. It was the necessary tribute of flattery to the great conqueror, who in that character inhabited so many of them for a short time. But there was no sign of the style being taken up enthusiastically anywhere out of France.

After the fall of the Empire, all pretence of style was in abeyance, and it was then gradually replaced by a general craving for the "antique," the "rococo," and finally the "baroc," as the outcome of that part of a gentleman's education called the "grand tour." Every one bought up old furniture; Italy and Spain were ransacked; and foreign works of all ages were added to the hereditary house furnishings. Every wealthy home became a museum. Now the numerous exhibitions of the last few years, bringing together the works of all Europe and other continents, have enabled us to continue to collect and compare and furnish, without any reference to a particular style.

Meantime "Young England" had become aesthetic. Bohemianism was the fashion, and the studio had to be furnished as a picturesque lounge:—ragged tapestries for backgrounds; antique chairs and bits of colour as cushions and draperies; shiny earthenware pots to hold a flower and to catch a high light. All these bridged the space between the new aestheticism and the old family museums; and from their combination arose the style called by courtesy the "Queen Anne"—a style which can be brought within the reach of the most moderate fortunes. In humble mansions you will be aware of the grouping of the old pieces of furniture, culminating perhaps in "my grandmother's cabinet," and her portrait by Hogarth; or "my great-grandfather's sword and pistols, which he carried at Culloden;" and his father's clock, a relic perhaps of the Scotch Dutch.

The English style of to-day is really a conglomerate of the preceding two hundred years, and it is formed from the debris of our family life. It belongs mostly to the period of the pigtail; but it stretches back, and includes all that followed the Protectorate, and is therefore coeval with the wig. The name of "Queen Anne" would really do as well as any other, only that the style of her reign, which was heavy Louis Quatorze, is looked upon with suspicion, and never admitted for imitation. The "Nineteenth Century" would be a better name, for it has formed itself only within the last thirty years, in the very heart of the century, and is, in fact, a fortunate result of preceding conditions. It owes its existence, as I have said, partly to the archaeological tendencies of the day.

The maimed tables and chairs, which had painfully ascended from saloon to bedroom, nursery, and attic, till they reposed in the garret (the Bedlam of crazy furniture), now have descended in all the prestige of antiquarian and family interest. Their history is recorded; the old embroideries are restored, named, and honoured. What is not beautiful, is credited with being "quaint"—the "quaint" is more easily imitated than the beautiful; and we have elected this for the characteristic of our new decorations. To be quaint, is really to be funny without intending it, and its claim to prettiness is its naivete, which is sometimes touching as well as amusing: this was the special characteristic of the revival in the Middle Ages. To imitate quaintness must be a mistake in art; as in life it is absurd to imitate innocence.

The nineteenth century "Queen Anne" has its merits.[72] It combines simplicity, roominess and comfort, colour, light and shade. Soft colouring to harmonize the new furniture with the tender tints of the faded quaintnesses just restored to society; care in grouping even the commonest objects, so as to give pleasure to the eye; a revived taste for embroidered instead of woven materials, giving scope to the talents of the women of the house;—all these are so much gained in every-day domestic decoration. The poorest and most trivial arrangements are striving to attain to a something artistic and agreeable. This is still confined to the educated classes; but as good and bad alike have to begin on the surface, and gradually filter through to the dregs of society, we may hope that the women who wore the last chignon and the last crinoline may yet solace their sordid lives in flowing or tight woollen garments, adorned with their own needlework; and that the dark-stained floor of the cottage or humble lodging will set off the shining brass kettle, and the flower in a brown or blue pot, consciously selected with a view to the picturesque, and enjoyed accordingly.

From what we know, it would seem that a vital change in a national style is never produced by the inspiration of one individual genius or great original inventor. It invariably evolves itself slowly, by the patient, persistent efforts of generations, polishing and touching up the same motive, and at last reaching human perfection.

The annihilation of a style is oftenest caused by war passing over the land, or revolution breaking up the fountains of social life, and swamping the art and the artist.

But another cause of such an extinction—perhaps the saddest—is that having reached perfection as far as it may, it deteriorates, sickens, corrupts, and finally is thrown aside—superseded, hidden, and overlapped by a newer fashion; and the worst and latest effort discredits in the eyes of men, the splendid successes that preceded its fall. Though the next succeeding phase may be less worthy to live than the last, yet, carrying with it the freshness of a new spring, it is acceptable for the time being.

The moral I should draw from this is, that you cannot force style; you may prune, direct, and polish it, but you must accept that of your day, and only in accordance with that taste can your work be useful. Not accepting it idly or wearily, but cheerfully, on principle, seeking to raise it; refusing by word or deed to truckle to the false, the base, or the lawless in your art, or to act against the acknowledged canons of good taste. Not for a moment should ambition be checked, but it should always be accompanied by the grace of modesty.

To the young decorator or artist who feels the glow of original design prompting him to reject old lines, and follow his own new and perhaps crude ideas, a few words of warning, and encouragement also, may be of use.

In art, as in poetry, we may recognize the Psalmist's experience: "My heart burned within me, and at the last I spake with my tongue."

In small as in great things, crude ideas should not be brought to the front. No one should give his thoughts to the world till his heart has burned within him, and he has been forced to express himself.

Another wise saying, "Read yourself full, and then write yourself empty," also applies to art. Knowledge must first be accumulated before you can originate.

Wait till your experience and your thoughts insist on expression; then subject the expressed idea to cultivated criticism, and profit by the opinion you would respect if another's work, and not your own, were under discussion.

It is true that taste is surprisingly various. Some will dislike your design, because its style is a reflection of the Gothic; another may be objected to as being frivolously Oriental-looking and brilliant, whereas the critic likes only the sober and the dull. Few are sufficiently educated to appreciate style: and we cannot rule our own by anybody's opinion; but we can generalize and find something that shall be agreeable to all—something approaching to a golden mean. The artist for decoration should be sensitively alive to any suggestion from the style of that which he is to adorn, remembering the antecedent motives of its form, its history, and its date. He should try to make his new work harmonize with the old; but of one thing he may be certain—unless he absolutely copies an old design, his own will carry the visible and unmistakable stamp of his day.

Even while suggesting copies this difficulty arises—how can a perfect facsimile be obtained? No reproduction is ever really exact, unless cast off by the hundred, stamped or printed by a machine.

It has been said that the translator of a poem adds to, or takes from the original, that which he has or has not of the same poetical power; and in art the copy requires the same qualities to guide the hand that transmits the original motive to another material. An artist usually carries out his own ideas from the first sketch blocked out on the canvas, or scribbled on the bit of waste paper, to the last finishing touch. It is, as far as it can be in human art, the visible transcript of his own thought. In needlework this can hardly ever be. The designer, whether he be St. Dunstan, Pollaiolo, Torrigiano, or Walter Crane, only executes a drawing which leaves his hands for good, and is translated into embroidery by the patient needlewoman who simply fills in an outline, ignorant of art, unappreciative of its subtleties, and incapable of giving life and expression, even when she is aware that they are indicated in the original design. This is almost always the case; but there are exceptions. Charlemagne's dalmatic, for instance, shows signs of having been either the work of the artist himself, or else carried out under his immediate supervision.


[15] Boyd Dawkins' "Early Man in Britain," p. 285. See also chapter on stitches (post), p. 195.

[16] Some of these styles survive; some are still perceptible as traditions or echoes; some have totally disappeared in our modern art, such as the Primitive or the Egyptian.

[17] See Semper, "Der Stil."

[18] The history of Gaul begins in the 7th, and that of Britain in the 1st century B.C., while the civilization of Egypt dates back to more than 4000 B.C.; therefore the historical overlap is very great. It is probable that a large portion of Europe was in its neolithic age, while the scribes were composing their records of war and commerce in the great cities on the Nile, and that the neolithic civilization lingered in remote regions while the voice of Pericles was heard in Athens, and the name of Hannibal was a terror in Italy.—See Boyd Dawkins' "Early Man in Britain," p. 481.

[19] See chapter on patterns.

[20] In the Troad.

[21] Some of the Egyptian arts we know are pre-Homeric (if Homer really sang 800 B.C.), and Asiatic art was then in its highest development.

[22] See chapter on stitches, cut work (post). This funeral tent is a monumental work, inasmuch as the inscription inwrought on it gives us the name and title of her in whose honour it was made, and whose remains it covered. See Villiers Stewart's "Funeral Tent of an Egyptian Queen."

[23] Herodotus, book ii. c. 182; book iii. c. 47 (Rawlinson's Trans.). See Rock's Introduction, p. xiv.

[24] Homer mentions "Sidonian stuffs and Phoenician skill" (Iliad, v. 170); also "Sidonian Embroidery." Ibid. vi. 287-295.

[25] The Assyrian designs are such as are now still worked at Benares, and being full of animals, they are called Shikurgah, or "happy hunting-grounds." See Sir G. Birdwood's "Industrial Arts of India," p. 236. See also Plate 4.

[26] See Perrot and Chipiez (pp. 737-757); also Clermont Ganneau's Histoire de l'Art, "L'Imagerie Phenicienne," Plate 1, pt. 1. Coupe de Palestrina. He says that certain scenes from the "Shield of Achilles" are literally to be found on Phoenician vases that have come down to us—vases of which Homer himself must have seen some of analogous design.

[27] Homer speaks of Sidonian embroideries, "Iliad," vi., 287-295.

[28] See Egyptian fragments in the British Museum, and the specimens of Peruvian textiles; and Reiss and Stuebel's "Necropolis of Ancon in Peru."

[29] At Cervetri, Dennis' "Etruria," ed. 1878, i. p. 268.

[30] The restless activity of the Phoenicians has often helped to confuse our aesthetic knowledge, and has caused the waste of much speculation in ascertaining how certain objects of luxury, belonging to distant civilizations, can possibly have arrived at the places where we find them.

[31] "The Beautiful Gate of the Temple was covered all over with gold. It had also golden vines above it, from which hung clusters of grapes as tall as a man's height.... It had golden doors of 55 cubits altitude, and 16 in breadth: but before these doors there was a veil of equal largeness with the doors. It was a Babylonian curtain of blue, fine linen, and scarlet and purple; of an admixture that was truly wonderful. Nor was the mixture without its mystical interpretation; but was a kind of image of the universe. For by the scarlet was to be enigmatically signified fire; by the fine flax, the earth; by the blue, the air, and by the purple, the sea;—two of them having their colours for the foundation of this resemblance; but the fine flax and the purple have their own origin for this foundation, the earth producing the one, and the sea the other. This curtain had also embroidered upon it all that was mystical in the heavens excepting the twelve signs of the zodiac, representing living creatures." Josephus (Trans. by Whiston), p. 895.

[32] See also M. E. Harkness and Stuart Poole, "Assyrian Life and History," p. 66.

[33] The visions of Ezekiel and St. John remind us of the composite figures and animals in Ninevite sculptures, and the prophetic poetry helps us to interpret their symbolism.

[34] G. Smith's "Ancient History of the Monuments," Babylonia, p. 33. Edited by Sayce.

[35] In the British Museum. See "Bronze Ornaments of Palace Gates, Balawat," pl. E 5.

[36] See Auberville's "Ornement des Tissus," pl. 1.

[37] The Egyptian queen in question was mother-in-law to Shishak, whose daughter married Solomon. After his son-in-law's death, Shishak plundered the "King's House," and carried to Egypt the golden shields or panels (1 Kings xiv. 26). The golden vessels went to Babylon later, and the golden candlesticks to Rome.

[38] Sir G. Birdwood repeatedly points out that the Vedic was the art that worshipped and served nature. The Puranic is the ideal and distorted. The Moguls, about 700 B.C., introduced their ugly Dravidian art. Through the Sassanian art of Persia, that of India was influenced. Possibly the very forms which in India are copied from Assyrian temples and palaces, may have travelled first to Assyria upon Indian stuffs and jewellery (Sir G. Birdwood's "Industrial Arts of India," i. p. 236).

[39] Ibid., p. 130 (ed. 1884).

[40] Nearchus (Strabo, XV. i. 67) says that the people of India had such a genius for imitation that they counterfeited sponges, which they saw used by the Macedonians, and produced perfect imitations of the real object. See Sir G. Birdwood's "Industrial Arts of India," ii. p. 133 (ed. 1884).

[41] Ibid., ii. p. 131 (ed. 1884).

[42] See Sir G. Birdwood, p. 129 (ed. 1884). If Fergusson is right in suggesting that the art of Central America was planted there in the third or fourth century of our era, it would, perhaps, appear to have taken refuge in America when it was driven out of India by the Sassanians, and was really Dravidian. He gives to the Turanian races all the mound buildings, as well as the fylfot or mystic cross, and he looks in Central India for the discovery of some remains that will give us the secret of the origin of the Indo-Aryan style. He thinks the Archaic Dravidian is allied with the Chinese. See Fergusson's "Architecture."

[43] Etruscan and Indian golden ornaments, including the "Bolla" and the "Trichinopoly" chains and coral, are to be found throughout Scandinavia and in Ireland. See "Atlas de l'Archeologie du Nord," par la Societe Royale des Antiquaires du Nord. Copenhagen, 1857.

[44] Arrian tells us of the Celts, "a people near the Great Ionian Bay," who sent an embassy to Alexander before the battle of the Granicus—"a people strong and of a haughty spirit." Alexander asked them if they feared anything. They answered that they feared the "sky might fall upon their heads." He dismissed them, observing that the Celts were an arrogant nation (Arrian, i. 4, 10).

[45] According to Yates, the merchandise of Eastern Asia passed through Slavonia to the north of Europe in the Middle Ages, without the intervention of Greece or Italy. This may account for certain terms of nomenclature which evidently came with goods transported straight to the north. Yates' "Textrinum Antiquorum," vol. i. p. 225-246.

[46] These northern ideas, spreading over Germany, England, and France, flourished especially on German soil; and Oriental-patterned embroideries for hangings and dress were worked in every stitch, on every material, as may be seen in the museums and printed catalogues of Vienna, Berlin, Munich, &c.

[47] Except, perhaps, the Serpent and Tree cope in Bock's Kleinodien.

[48] The different Celtic nationalities are always recognizable. There was found in a grave-mound at Hof, in Norway, a brooch, showing at a glance that it was Christian and Celtic, though taken from the grave of a pagan Viking. Another at Berdal, in Norway, was at once recognized by M. Lorange as being undoubtedly Irish. There are many other instances of evident Celtic Christian art found on the west coast of Norway under similar conditions—probably spoil from the British Islands, which were subject to the descents of the pagan Vikings for centuries after the time of St. Columba's preaching of Christianity in Scotland. For information on the subject, see G. Stephen's "Monuments of Runic Art," and F. Anderson's "Pagan Art in Scotland."

[49] "Scotland in Pagan Times," by J. Anderson, pp. 3-7.

[50] On a vase in the British Museum, Minerva appears with her aegis on her breast, and clothed in a petticoat and upper tunic worked in sprays, and a border of kneeling lions. On another Panathenaic vase she has a gown bordered with fighting men, evidently the sacred peplos. (Fig. 4.)

[51] See the account of the veil of Here in the Iliad, and that of the mantle of Ulysses in the Odyssey.

[52] See Butcher and Lang's Odyssey.

[53] "Der Stil."

[54] The Greeks collected into one focus all that they found of beauty in art from many distant sources—Egyptian, Indian, Assyrian—and thus fired their inborn genius, which thenceforth radiated its splendour over the whole civilized world.

[55] Homer's Iliad, xviii. 480-617 (Butcher and Lang).

[56] See "Woltmann and Woermann." Trans. Sidney Colvin, p. 64.

[57] Except, perhaps, the keystone arch.

[58] Virg. AEneid iii. Trans. G.L.G.

[59] The Indian Cush.

[60] Except in the art of the Celts, whose Indo-Chinese style shows evidence of Mongolian importation, and later we find traces of a similar influence: for instance, "Yarkand rugs are semi-Chinese, semi-Tartar, resembling also the works of India and Persia. It is easy to distinguish from what source each comes, as one perceives the influence of the neighbouring native art" ("On Japan," by Dresser, p. 322).

[61] See a paper by M. Terrien de la Couperie in the Journal of the Society of Arts, 1881.

[62] "Rome had to be overthrown that the new religion and the new civilization might be established. Christianity did its work in winning to it those Teutonic conquerors, but how vast was the cost to the world, occasioned by the necessity of casting into the boiling cauldron of barbarous warfare, that noble civilization and the treasures which Rome had gathered in the spoil of a conquered universe! Had any old Roman, or Christian father been gifted with Jeremiah's prescience, he might have seen the fire blazing amidst the forests of Germany, and the cauldron settling down with its mouth turned towards the south, and would have uttered his lamentation in plaintive tones, such as Jeremiah's, and in the same melancholy key" ("Holy Bible," with Commentary by Canon Cook, Introduction to Jeremiah, vol. i. p. 319).

[63] Scandinavian art became strongly tinctured with that of Byzantium. The Varangian Guards were, probably, answerable for this, by their intercourse between Greece and their native land, which lasted so many centuries. There have come down to us, as witnesses of this intercourse, many coins and much jewellery, in which all that is Oriental in its style has been leavened by its passage through Byzantine and Romanesque channels. Gibbon, writing of this period, says: "The habits of pilgrimage and piracy had approximated the countries of the earth" (see Gibbon's "Decline and Fall," chap. lv.).

Greek embroidered patterns and Greek forms of dress still linger in Iceland. There was lately brought to England a bride's dress, which might have belonged to the Greek wife of a Varangian guardsman. It is embroidered with a border in gold of the classical honeysuckle pattern; and the bridal wreath of gilt metal flowers might, from its style, be supposed to have been taken from a Greek tomb.

[64] Evidently an imitation of the peplos of Minerva (see fig. 4, p. 32).

[65] The descent from the Persian of Arab or Moorish art, as we generally call it when speaking of its Spanish development, is to be accounted for by the presence of a considerable colony of Persians in Spain in the time of the Moors, as attested by numerous documents still in existence. See Col. Murdoch Smith's "Preface to Persian Art," Series of Art Handbooks of the Kensington Museum.

[66] Ronsard, poet, politician, and diplomatist, compares the Queen of Navarre to Pallas Athene:—

"Elle adonnait son courage A mainte bel ouvrage Dessus la toile, et encor A joindre la soie et l'or. Vous d'un pareil exercise Mariez par artifice Dessus la toile en mainte traits L'or et la soie en pourtraict."

[67] Mary de Medici brought back with her from Italy Federigo Vinciolo as her designer for embroideries.

[68] See "Art Needlework," by E. Maxse, and "Manuel de la Broderie," by Madame E. F. Celnart.

[69] From the Italian translation by Signor Minghetti.

[70] Gaston, Duke of Orleans (died 1660), kept hothouses on purpose to supply models for floral textile designs. Le Brun often drew the embroideries for the hangings in rooms he had himself designed and decorated.

[71] We have all seen the dining-room wine-coolers modelled in imitation of Roman tombs; and there is a drawing-room in a splendid mansion still furnished with cinerary urns covering the walls, while curule chairs most uncomfortably furnish the seats.

[72] In his designs for papers and textiles, Mr. Morris' poetical and artistic feeling—his admiration and sensitiveness for all that is beautiful and graceful (as well as quaint)—his respect for precedent, added to his own fanciful originality,—have given a colour and seal to the whole decorative art of England of to-day. It is a step towards a new school. The sobriety and tenderness of his colouring gives a sense of harmony, and reconciles us to his repetitions of large vegetable forms, which remind us sometimes of a kitchen-garden in a tornado. For domestic decoration we should, as far as possible, adhere to reposing forms and colours. Our flowers should lie in their allotted spaces, quiet and undisturbed by elemental struggles, which have no business in our windowed and glass-protected rooms.



Gorgo. Behold these 'broideries! Finer saw you never.

Praxinoe. Ye gods! What artists work'd these pictures in? What kind of painter could these clear lines limn? How true they stand! nay, lifelike, moving ever; Not worked—created! Woman, thou art clever!

(Scene at a Festival) Theocritus, Idyll xv. line 78.

The word design, as applied to needlework, includes the principles and laws of the art: the motives and their hereditary outcome; the art creating the principles; the laws controlling the art.

Design means intention, motive, and should as such be applied to the smallest as to the greatest efforts of art. That which results from it, either as picture or pattern, is a record of the thoughts which produced it, and by its style fixes the date, of its production.

I will first consider the principles of design, and afterwards, in another chapter, inquire into the origin of patterns; investigating their motives, and using them as examples, and also as warnings.

The individual genius of the artist works first in design, though his work is for the use of the craftsman or artisan, his collaborator; for the two, head and hands, must work together, or else will render each other inoperative or ineffective.

The artisan, by right of his title, claims a part in the art itself; the craftsman, by his name, points out that he, too, has to work out the craft, the mystery, the inner meaning, of the design or intention.

The designer himself is subject to the prejudices called the taste of his day. He is necessarily under the influence which that taste has imposed upon him, and from which no spontaneous efforts of genius can entirely emancipate him. Whether he is conceiving a temple for the worship of a national faith, or the edging for the robe of a fair votaress, or the pattern on the border of a cup of gold or brass, he cannot avoid the force of tradition and of custom, which comes from afar, weighted with the power of long descent, and which crushes individuality, unless it is of the most robust nature.

Of very early design we have most curious and mysterious glimpses. The cave man was an artist. The few scratches on a bone, cleverly showing the forms of a dog or a stag, a whale or a seal, nay, the figure of a man, have enabled us to ascertain and to classify the Palaeolithic cave man; from whom his less civilized successor, the Neolithic man, may be distinguished by his absence of all animal design.[73]

These fragmentary scraps of information, pieced together only in these later years, teach us the value of very small facts which time and care are now accumulating, and which, being the remains of lives and nations passed away, still serve as the soil in which history can be fertilized.

We have no means of judging whether the cave man was an artist on a greater or more advanced scale than is actually shown by the bone-scratchings; the only other relic of his handiwork is the needle.[74]

It is evident that a direct imitation of nature, such as is seen in these "graffiti," and at an immense distance in advance of them, in the earliest known Egyptian sculptures, preceded all conventional art. Some of the earliest portrait statues in the Museum at Boulac exhibit a high degree of naturalistic design before it became subservient to the expression of the faith of the people. As soon as art was found to be the fittest conveyance of symbolism, it became the consecrated medium for transmitting language, thought, and history, and was reduced to forms in which it was contented to remain petrified for many centuries, entirely foregoing the study or imitation of nature.[75] It recorded customs, historical events, and religious beliefs; receiving from the last the impress of the unchangeable and the absolute, which it gave to the other subjects on which it touched. It ceased to be a creative art (if it had ever aspired to such a function), and was never the embodiment of individual thought. This phase prevailed under different manifestations in Assyria and China. Pictorial art had, in fact, become merely the nursing mother of the alphabet, guiding its first steps—the hieroglyphic delineation or expression of thoughts and facts.[76]

In Egypt, the change from the first period of actual imitation of nature was succeeded by many centuries of the very slowest progress. Renouf speaks,[77] however, of "the astonishing identity that is visible through all the periods of Egyptian art" (for you could never mistake anything Egyptian for the produce of any other country). "This identity and slow movement," he says, "are not inconsistent with an immense amount of change, which must exist if there is any real life." In fact, there were periods of relative progress, repose, and decay, and every age had its peculiar character. Birch, Lepsius, or Marriette could at once tell you the age of a statue, inscription, or manuscript, by the characteristic signs which actually fix[78] the date.

Design, unconsciously has a slowly altering and persistently onward movement, which but seldom repeats itself. It is one of the most remarkable instances of evolution. But it also has its cataclysms (however we may account for them), of which the Greek apotheosis of all art is a shining example, and the total disappearance of classical influence in Europe before the Renaissance is another.

I will instance one prevailing habit of Egyptian art.[79] In the long processional subjects, and in individual separate figures, it was usual to draw the head in perfect profile, the body facing you, but not completely—a sort of compromise with a three-quarter view of it—and the feet following each other, on the same line as the profile. This mode of representing the human figure was only effaced gradually by the introduction of Greek art, and continued to be the conventional and decorative method even in the latest days of Egyptian art; and it is curious to observe, that in the Dark ages European design fell into the same habit. We cannot imagine that this distorted way of drawing the human figure could have any intentional meaning, and therefore may simply believe that it had become a custom; and that when art has so stiffened and consolidated itself by precedent and long tradition, as in Egypt and in India, certain errors as well as certain truths become, as it were, ingrained into it. Plato remarked of Egyptian art, that "the pictures and statues they made ten thousand years ago were in no particular better than those they make now."[80]

One day, however, the Greek broke away from the ancient bonds of custom. The body was made to accompany the head, and the feet followed suit. But the strange fact remains that for several thousand years men walked in profile, all out of drawing. Evidently originality was not in much estimation among the Egyptian patrons of art. Design seemed to have restricted itself to effective adaptations in a few permitted forms in architecture and painting, and the illumination of the papyrus MSS.

Egyptian elasticity of design found some scope in its domestic ornamentation, in jewellery and hangings, but especially in its embroideries for dress. Here much ingenuity was shown, and the patterns on walls and the ceilings of tombs give us the designs which Semper considers as having been originally intended for textile purposes. He strains to a point to which I can hardly follow him, the theory that all decorations were originally textile (except such as proceeded in China from the lattice-work motive); though I willingly accept the idea that textile decoration was one of the first and most active promoters of design.

It is not possible for us to trace systematically the different points at which Egyptian and Asiatic art touch, but we can see that they were always acting and reacting on each other in the later centuries before our era, and that Greece profited by them. The first efforts of both to break through this chrysalis stage, resulted in the early Greek archaic style. Its strongly marked, muscular humanity reminds one of all the conflicting impressions struggling in the conception of the great artist who first embodied them. They appear to be breaking out from the trammels of Egyptian and Assyrian styles, which by meeting had engendered life; and Greek art was the child of their union. Then art, having shaken off symbolism as its only purpose, and seeking to represent the forms of men, yet possessed by a guiding spirit, first sought to convey the idea of expression. The worship of humanity, mingling with that of their gods, produced the Heroic ideal; and all the attributes of their heroes—majesty, beauty, grace, and passion—had to be depicted; as well as rage, sorrow, despair, and revenge. These were soon to be surrounded with all the splendours of the arts of decoration.

Greece had prepared for this outburst of excellence and the perfect science of art, by collecting the traditions, the symbols, the experience in colouring, and the knowledge of beautiful forms, human and ideal. All that was needed for the advent of the man who could design and create types of beauty for all ages was thus accumulated, and the man came, and his name was Pheidias. A crowd followed him, all steeped in the same flood of poetry and art; and for several centuries they filled the world with the sense and science of beauty. Then the function of the designer—the artist—was changed and elevated, and he became, through the great days of Greek and Roman Pagan art, and afterwards through the rise of that of Christianity, the exponent of all that was poetical and ennobling in the life of man.

But though the Greek artist had broken the chains of prescribed form, he still adhered to the "motive"—the inner symbolical thought—and strove to express it as it had never been expressed before.[81] New principles were evoked, and the artist, while revelling in the "sweetness and light" of freedom, framed for himself standards of taste and refinement, which he left as a heritage to all succeeding generations.

I fear that I am repeating a platitude when insisting that freedom in all design, but especially that employed in decoration, must be kept within certain boundaries; otherwise it becomes lawless. Rules, like all other controlling circumstances, are of the greatest service to the artist, as they suggest what he can do, as well as decide what he ought not to attempt. All boundaries are highly suggestive; the size of a sheet of paper—the form of a panel—the colours in the box of pigments—even the touch of the brush which comes to hand,—all these help to shape the idea to our ends, and assist us in giving to the original motive the form which is most suitable. These restrictions are often regarded as impediments by the impatient artist; whereas he ought to look on them as hints and suggestions, and claim their assistance, instead of struggling against them. Let us accept the principle that it is good for each of our efforts at decoration that we are controlled by the space allotted to its composition. The relative size (small, perhaps, for a table-cover, but large for that of a book) and the shape to which we are limited, alter all the conditions of a design. Whether it is square or oblong, or lengthened into a frieze; whether it must be divided into parts, including more than one motive, or be grouped round one centre; whether it is to be repeated more than once within the range of the eye, or whether it is to disappear into space upwards or horizontally; and whether it is to stand alone, or be framed with lines or a border,—all these restrictions must govern the design, or, in its highest phase, the composition.

The composition must consist of supporting lines well balanced, and "values" filling up the whole surface of the space, which is to contain it, and beyond which it must not seek to extend. As we have in embroidery no distances—only a foreground—the design must be placed all on one plane. The title of "composition" cannot be granted to a bouquet or a bird cast on one corner of a square of linen, however gracefully it may be drawn. It does not cover the space allotted to it.

If we carefully study the great and guiding principles that have been distinctly formulated by some of the Continental authorities on decorative art, we shall find much help in composing our designs. Nothing is more interesting than to search for the foundation of the structure which centuries have helped to raise, and to dig out, as it were, the original plan or thought of the founder. So it is most instructive to learn the fundamental rules by which such results are secured.

M. Blanc[82] says of the general laws of ornamentation: "There can be no nobler satisfaction to the mind, than to be able to unravel what is beyond measure complicated, to diminish what is apparently immense, and to reduce to a few clear points what has been till now involved in a haze of obscurity. Just as the twenty-six letters of the alphabet have been, and always will be sufficient to form the expression of the words necessary for all human thought, so certain elements susceptible of combination among themselves have sufficed, and will suffice, to create ornament, whose variety may be indefinitely multiplied."

He reduces ornamental design to five principles, Repetition, Alternation, Symmetry, Progression, and Confusion.

First, Repetition. "You may act on the mind, through sight, by the same means as those that will excite physical sensations. A single prick of a pin is nothing, but a hundred such will be intolerably painful. Repetition produces pleasurable sensations, as well as painful ones." An insignificant form can become interesting by repetition, and by the suggestion which, singly, it could not originate. For example, the rolling of the Greek scroll or wave pattern awakens in us the idea of one object following another. "It also suggests the waves of the ocean; or the poet may see in it a troop of maidens pursuing each other in space, not frivolously, but in cadence, as if executing a mystic dance." Change the curves into angular forms, as making the key pattern, and it will no longer flow, but become as severe as the other was graceful. No principle gives greater pleasure than repetition, and next to it, alternation.

Variety is here added to the law of repetition. "There can be repetition without alternation, but no alternation without repetition." Alternation is, then, a succession of two objects recurring regularly in turn; and the cadence of appearance and disappearance gives pleasure to the senses, whether it be addressed to taste, hearing, or sight. Alternate rhymes, and even short and long lines, soothe the ear in verse. In form, the alternations are the more agreeable, the more they differ. Such are, in architecture, a succession of metopes and triglyphs on a Doric frieze, where the circle and the straight lines relieve each other.

Symmetry. The correspondence of two parts opposite to each other is symmetrical. "A living being, man or animal, is composed of two parts, which appear to have been united down one central line. Without being identical, if you folded them down the line, they would overlap and perfectly cover each other. Man is born with the sense of symmetry, to match his outward form; and he appreciates its existence, and instinctively feels the want of it. Symmetry is another word for justness of proportion. The Greeks understood by symmetry, the condition of a body of which the members have a common measure among themselves. We expect the two sides of a living being to correspond, and we look for these proportions in the living body to balance each other, which we do not expect to find in any other natural object. A large leaf at the end of a slender stem may be as appropriate, and give as much pleasure, as a small leaf in the same position; but a huge hand at the end of an arm is not so agreeable to our sense of symmetry as one of the size and outline which we naturally expect to see.

"The mind of man expects to find, outside of himself and his own proportions, something which he feels is proportionate and symmetrical; in fact, he at once detects the want of it. The Japanese, with delicacy and taste, often substitute for symmetry its corollary—balance. The Chinese or Japanese vase will often have an appreciable affinity and resemblance to a Greek one, each preserving a secret balance, even in the extremest whimsicality of its composition. Proportion is another corollary to symmetry, if it is not another word for some of its qualities."

"Progression. In this principle are included long perspectives, pyramidal forms in architecture, and certain processional compositions."

"For pyramidal surfaces, such as pediments, a progressive ornament is the fittest. All the buildings in the East, and in the ancient cities of Central America, which are raised on pyramids of steps, show the tendency to this species of effect in giving dignity to the buildings placed on such platforms."

"Perspectives are highly attractive specimens of progression, which, when made use of in the decorations of a theatre, produce delightful illusions."

M. Blanc quotes Bernardin de St. Pierre, who says: "When the branches of a plant are disposed in a uniform plan of diminishing size, as in the pyramidal shape of a pine, there is progression; and if these trees be planted in long avenues, diminishing in height and colour, as each tree does in itself, our pleasure is redoubled, because progression here becomes infinite. It is owing to this feeling of infinity that we take pleasure in looking at anything that presents progression, such as nurseries in different stages of growth, the slopes of hills retreating to the horizon at different levels—interminable perspectives."

All floral compositions which give the effect or impression of growth may be included in the progressive principle. A composition which, beginning as it were with a stem, spreads and floreates equally on each side; thrusting outwards and upwards, and ending in a topmost twig or bud, is governed by this principle.

Confusion. Boileau is quoted by M. Blanc as saying, "A fine disorder is often the effect of art;" and he adds, "But before he said it, nature had shown it." Here we must observe that the confusions or disorders of nature are all subject to certain laws; and it is in adopting this idea, that an artistic confusion may give us the sense of its being ordered by, and subject to definite rules. These rules act as the frame affects the picture, circumscribing its irregularities, and restricting them to a certain area. "The artist-painter is, in a small space, permitted to employ confusion, because the art of the cabinet-maker will keep the geometrical effect in view." When the Japanese throw their ornaments, apparently without rule, here and there on the japanned box, they reckon on the square shape being sufficiently marked to the eye by its shining surface and sharp corners.

The confusion in a Japanese landscape is so beautiful that one appreciates the innate sense of balance, which modifies the confusion—rules and orders it.

"In the hands of the designer, confusion is only a method of rendering order visible in a happy disorder. Here contraries meet and touch.... Admit these as the principles of all decoration, and you will find that, by following and combining them, you may produce varieties as numberless as the sands of the sea, and that a latent equilibrium will reduce nearly every complication and confusion to perfect harmony."

Each of the five principles we have discussed has its corollary, which adds to the resources of the decorative artist. These are as follows:—To Repetition belongs harmony, or consonance; to Alternation, contrast; to Symmetry, radiation; to Progression, gradation; to balanced Confusion, deliberate complication.[83]

Harmonies in form and in colour are produced in different ways—sometimes by repetition with variation; sometimes by the different parts being rather reflected on each than repeated. This explains the harmony that may be called consonance, if I rightly understand M. Blanc's theory.

Contrast is most generally understood as a common resource in the hands of the artist for producing strong effects; but M. Blanc cleverly expresses the reticence needed to ensure contrast being pleasurable, not painful. "To adorn persons or things," he says, "is not simply for the purpose of causing them to be conspicuous; it is that they may be admired. It is not simply to draw attention to them, but that they may be regarded with feelings of pleasure.... If contrast be needed, let it be used as the means of rendering the whole more powerful, brilliant, and striking. For instance, if orange is intended to predominate in a decoration, let blue be mingled with it, but sparingly. Let the complementary colour be its auxiliary, and not its rival." Contrasts are always unpleasant, if the two forces struggle with each other for pre-eminence, whether it be in form or in colour. The rule to be observed in all ornamental design is this: "that contrasting objects, instead of disturbing unity, should assist it by giving most effect to that we wish to bring forward and display."

Radiation belongs to the principle of symmetry, starting from a centre from which all lines diverge, and to which all lines point. This is to be found throughout nature, from the rays of the sun to the petals of the daisy. All decorative art employs and illustrates it.

"Gradation in colour, as in form, is not quite synonymous with progression, but expresses a series of adroitly managed transitions. The English intermingle in their decoration, colours very finely blended; nor do they find any transition too delicate. This, as in all principles of ornament, has to be employed according to the feelings intended to be produced on the mind of the spectator—whether for absolute contrast or for imperceptible progression, when the tenderest colours are needed."

Complication is illustrated by M. Blanc, by a quotation from "Ziegler."[84] "Complication is another aspect of the art which owns the same sentiment as that expressed by Daedalus in his labyrinth, Solomon in his mysterious seal, the Greeks in their interlacing and winding ornaments, the Byzantines, the Moors, and the architects of our cathedrals in their finest works. Intertwined mosaics, and intersection of arches and ribs, all spring from complication."

To follow the interlacing line of an ornament, gives the mind the pleasure of untying the Gordian knot, without cutting it. It gives the excitement of curiosity, pursuit, and discovery. "When we see these traceries so skilfully plaited, in which straight lines and curves intermingle, cross, branch out, disappear and recur, we experience a high pleasure in unravelling a puzzle which at first, perhaps, appeared to be undecipherable; and in acknowledging that a latent arrangement may be recognized in what at first, and at a distance, seems an inextricable confusion." The Celtic, Moorish, and Gothic styles illustrate and are explained by these remarks; and they are well worthy the attention of the designer.

Having so freely borrowed from M. Blanc's chapter on the general laws of ornamentation, I will finish my quotations with the words with which he concludes: "There is no decoration in the works of nature or the inventions of men which does not owe its birth to one of the original principles here enumerated, viz. Repetition, Alternation, Symmetry, Progression, and Balanced Confusion; or else to one of their secondary causes, consonance, contrast, radiation, gradation, and complication; or lastly, to a combination of these different elements, which all finally lose themselves in a primordial cause—the origin of the movements of the universe—ORDER."[85]

The extracts from M. Blanc's works I have carefully placed between commas, being most anxious to express my obligation to him for his carefully formulated epitome of the laws of design. But though I have largely quoted, there remains still much most interesting and suggestive matter, which I recommend the reader to seek in his book.

Though we should call to our aid the general laws of design for all art, we must select from them what is specially appropriate for the needs of our craft. From the art of needlework we should eliminate as much as possible all ideas of roundness, all variety of surface and effects of light and shadow and contrasting colours. Unity, softness, grace, refinement, brightness, cheerfulness, pleasant suggestions,—these should be the objects in view when we design the panels for the drawing-room or boudoir, the hangings for the bed, or the cover for the table—harmony which will satisfy the eye, thoughts that shall please the mind.

The objects in nature that give us the most unalloyed pleasure—birds and flowers—are those that from all time have served as the materials for decorative design, and therefore have been moulded into the traditional patterns which have descended to us from the earliest times. Design must follow the scientific laws of art, and shape the variations of traditional forms from which we cannot escape. In our present search after these inner truths, I repeat that we have nothing to do with the rules of painting, sculpture, and architecture, or any other of the secondary arts, such as wood carving, metal work, &c.; these having each their own intrinsic principles, which must be worked out as corollaries from the general laws of composition which govern all Aryan art.[86]

It is curious that in drawing on the flat, in ancient frescoes, there appear to be no acknowledged rules of perspective—hardly more in Pompeii, than on early Chinese screens and plates; or than later in the Bayeux tapestries. And yet the Greeks, with their unerring instinct, actually made use of false architectural perspectives to add to the effects of height and depth in their colonnaded buildings.[87] They sensibly diminished the circumference of the columns, and used other means in their designs for this purpose. They understood the principle, but they did not carry it into flat decorative art. They did not attempt, when they painted a landscape on the wall, to do more than recall the idea they were sketching; and never thought of vying in scientific or naturalistic imitation with the real landscape they saw through the window; they did not wish to interfere with the effect of the statue, or the human figures grouped in front of it, to which the wall served as a background. Those threw shadows and cast lights; but in the flat there were no shadows, no perspective—all was flat.[88] We must draw from this the deduction that the Greeks held that flatness was an essential quality of wall decoration (except in friezes) as well as of all textile ornament; and for every reason we must accept this flatness as a general law for designs in embroidery.

In hangings and dress materials, flatness is more agreeable than a complicated shaded design, especially when it is further confused by folds, disturbing and interrupting the flow of the lines of the pattern.

The reader will perceive that the laws of composition for textiles quoted from M. Blanc, apply perfectly to designs on the flat, and to outlined sketches in black and white, as well as to the most elaborate compositions for pictures, either historical or "genre." They are rules which should be understood and employed by the man who draws for a wall-paper or an area railing; and certainly by him who makes patterns for our schools of design.

It may therefore be laid down as a general rule, that all designs for embroidery should be considered first as outlined drawings, covering a flat surface, and then filled in with colour. The outlines should as little as possible overlap one another, as flatness is one of the first objects to be remembered; and this, of course, will be disturbed by the parts passing over or under each other. Indian designs in flowers have invariably a wonderful flatness, in the absence of all light and shadow; joined to a naturalistic suggestion of detail, which is accounted for by their traditional mode of copying from nature. The branch or blossom to be copied, is laid on the ground and pegged down with care, to eliminate every variety of surface, and every branch and twig so arranged that they may not cross or touch each other. This conventional composition is then drawn, and every natural distinction in the form carefully copied. I would suggest that this idea should be accepted as useful for imitation among ourselves in certain conventional compositions of vegetable forms. Perhaps it is our Aryan ancestry that has given us a prevailing taste for such decorations; and it is worth while to consider how best to manipulate them.[89]

Clinging as we do to these floral designs, we can see that they are the only ones that bear repetition, whether covering the surface of the material in the rich irregularity of the flowers in a field, or conventionalized into a form or a pattern.

The eye is never shocked or fatigued by such repetitions in orderly confusion, or trained by the hand into artistic shapes or meanderings of tracery. But when embroidery or weaving attempts to represent animals or typical human figures, repetition immediately becomes tiresome. A Madonna surrounded by angels, comes in badly, repeated over and over again as a pattern, broken up by folds, cut up by a seam, dislocated in the joining, and repeated in tiers. Such a design is figured in Auberville's book.[90] The drawing is beautiful, but by repetition it becomes ridiculous. I therefore deprecate this kind of ornament in textile work. For this reason embroidery, which can be fitted to each space that is to be covered, is preferable to woven designs, however richly or perfectly they may be carried out.

Another class of design, which must be considered apart, is the conventional-geometrical, of which the special distinction appears to be that it consists of echoes or fragments of what we have seen elsewhere. These conventional patterns are often merely the detritus of past styles or motives crushed and placed by time in a sort of kaleidoscope. They remind one of the little wreaths of broken shells and coloured sea-weeds left on the sands by the retiring waves after a storm, and are sometimes full of beauty and suggestion. (Pl. 17.) We trace in these fragmentary patterns forgotten links with different civilizations; and we ponder on the historical events which have brought them into juxtaposition. These kaleidoscope patterns are to be seen in Persian and Turkish carpets of the present day, and we find, on examination, little bits which can only be the remnants of a broken-up motive, probably as much lost now to the designer who inherits the traditional form, as to us who can only see the vague results.

I illustrate this remark by giving the border of a modern Persian carpet which has certainly had Egyptian ancestry. The boat, the beetle, and the prehistoric cross are to be found in it.

Many conventional patterns of to-day are descendants of the lattice-work of Chinese art, and of the zigzags, lines, and discs of barbarous primitive ornamentation.

The traceries in Indian stone windows show some of the most charming geometrical forms, and are akin to the Persian and Russian modes of composing conventional patterns. They appear on very ancient metal work, and are the motives of all the embroideries in the Greek islands and the principalities, and of the linen embroideries of Russia. Their Byzantine origin gave its impress to the European schools of the Middle Ages, and the pattern-books of Germany and Venice of the sixteenth century are full of them. They are best suited for the mosaic stitches, and, kept in their places as decoration, they are useful for carpets and borders.

It should be impressed on our young artists, that, in composing their designs, they must be influenced by the materials to be employed, and the purpose for which the decoration is intended. Thus in textile design for dress and hangings (excepting for tapestries) the fact must never be lost sight of that they will be subject to disturbance by crossing folds and crumplings, which will break up the lines of the pattern. It is therefore evident that a design fitted for a rigid material in a fixed place, such as an architectural decoration in wood, stone, or stucco, must be subject to a treatment different from that which befits an embroidered curtain or panel.

Stone and wood, being materials of uniform colour, require all the help of recessed shadows and projections to catch the light; whereas in textiles, form is assisted by colour, and smoothness of surface is a primary consideration. The strongly accentuated design for wood-carving becomes poor and lifeless when deprived of its essential conditions and raison d'etre, and the pattern which looks charming, outlined and filled in with colour, could be hardly seen incised on a flat stone surface. This seems a truism, but the neglect of these plain axioms causes many mistakes in decorative art. Mr. Redgrave says: "A design must be bad which applies the same treatment to different materials." He further says: "The position of the ornament requires special consideration. The varied quantities, bolder relief, and coarser execution are not only allowable, but absolutely necessary, at heights considerably above the eye. Moreover, each fabric has its own peculiar lustre, texture, &c. Thus, in the use of hangings, curtains, &c., the design might be suitable in silk, and coarse or dull in woollen."[91]

Here I venture to differ from Mr. Redgrave. Perspective is as much to be respected in decoration as in pictures, near to the eye; and the gradation in size and colour, as the ornament travels up into height or fades into distance, is a phase of pleasure which should not be checked by enlargement of form or reinforcement of colouring.

It is hardly necessary to warn our artists against a sort of design which is conventional, yet had its own meaning in the beginning. This is to be found in Indian carvings and embroideries of a certain date, or imitating the works of that distant period. It proceeded from a hideous worship of monstrous Dravidian divinities. Their statues are to be found, surrounded by coarsely designed patterns, in the temple architecture of the first and second centuries. Its characteristics are idols in niches or shrines, distorted in form or attitude; foliage of unnatural, twisted plants, added to the recurring of the lotus and tree of life; or animals destroying each other, or kneeling in worship to the idols. These ugly designs are purely conventional. Fergusson suggests that they were introduced into Mexico in the fourth or fifth centuries A.D. by Buddhism.[92]

Those many-armed, sometimes many-faced divinities drove out the beautiful Aryan types, which, however, resumed their sway when the wave of the Renaissance flowed back to India, and was remodelled by Oriental taste to the lovely designs we find in the Taj Mahal.

In M. Blanc's classification of ornament, he has placed Gothic design under the head of deliberate complication. The whole of the Gothic decorations, which are a gradual growth in one direction, arose from the study of interlacing boughs and stems, employed as the enrichment of the newly-grown forms of the vaulted roofs. The possibilities of great size and height covered these designs and inspired all their decoration; and the effect of reiteration and long recurring lines in perspective was essentially the motive of these avenues in stone.[93]

Here enter the principles of repetition and progression, and you will find how carefully the designers of the twelfth, thirteenth, and fourteenth centuries worked up to these ideas. You will see in their embroideries, shining figures or pictures in gold, silver, and coloured silks, shimmering on dark velvet backgrounds, each design terminating a perspective of architectural forms which enhances their brilliancy. The most effective, probably, were generally employed for the adornment of the high altar, so as to be seen from a great distance. The smaller and less distinct and more delicate ornaments were reserved for the side chapels or for smaller churches, where such distant effects were inappropriate. But the motives of ecclesiastical embroidery will be discussed in a future chapter.

All attempts at pictorial art are a mistake in textiles. It does not enter into such designs; and when by chance it is allowed to be so used, it is an error of judgment, and only exhibits a laborious and useless ingenuity. It is no longer an artistic delineation of a natural object, but becomes an imitation of another way of rendering such objects.

Mr. Redgrave says that pictorial art in our manufactures is one of our great mistakes. "The picture must be independent of the material, the thought alone should govern it; whereas in decoration the material must be one of the suggestors of the thought, its use must govern the design."

Perhaps it will appear to my readers that here I repeat, in different forms, what has been said in a previous chapter on the history of style. I think that it is better to do so, than to omit to show where style and design must accompany each other. Style, without any reference to design, would be but a barren subject; and design, without reference to style, would become lawless, and soon be lost in the mazes of bad taste and mannerism. Both subjects are of so large and important a nature that I do not attempt to do more than point out how, in their history and their influence, they belong to the craft of embroidery.

Such influences belong to all art; and though I am anxious to confine myself to only one section of it, I find it difficult to resist the temptation to generalize and stray from the prescribed path, when large and important views are opened on every side, as I travel on from point to point.

In sketching the history of design, as well as I may in so short a space, it is only considered in the light in which it illustrates our craft.

I repeat that the design should be informed by the motive which suggested it, and by the need which has called it forth; and it must be moulded to the space it has to fill, and the position it will occupy. The design must be modified into different outward forms, according to whether it is to be fitted to the edge of a building against the sky; to a high panelled wall; to be applied as a frieze, or round the capital of a pillar; to the embroidered cover of an altar, or the silken hangings of a bed, or the framed flat spaces on the walls of a saloon. In fact, "intention," "place," and "shape" are necessary motives and limits to a flat design.

Leaving aside all architectural ornamentation, and adhering only to my own subject, embroidery, I will limit my observations to the three purposes here suggested. Firstly, as the central effect of the holiest part of a church; secondly, in the domestic and comfortable room, to be adorned and made cheerful; and thirdly, as decking the refined and gay saloon or banqueting-hall.

To the church we should devote the most splendid and effective contrasts, to blaze unframed against dark empty backgrounds, or amidst stone and marble decorations; something set apart from its surroundings, and asserting that separation, is the desirable effect to be attained.

A totally different set of rules come into play when we have to select the decorations of a bedroom. Here a background does not exist. We are surrounded by four walls very near to the eye, so that perspectives are a secondary interest, if indeed they can claim any consideration; severe and magnificent ornamentation is out of place, except perhaps in that time-honoured institution—to be found in every great house possessing a suite of reception-rooms—the State bedroom, where the display of hangings and embroideries was the first motive of the decoration of the past, clothing and garnishing the bare spaces on the lofty walls. Space and separateness are not the object or aim of the bedroom of to-day; but lightness, snugness, and cheerful comfort, with which the design of the textile ornaments have much to do. This will in a later chapter come under the head of furniture.

For the saloon we may accept any splendour of rich and costly design, and the variously shaped panels assist in suggesting the form of the decoration. The plain or moulded panels, called in Italian "targhe," or shields, seem to be descended from the actual shields of gold which Solomon hung on the walls of the king's house in the Forest of Lebanon.[94] The motive was apparently Tyrian, and traces of it are also to be found in Assyrian sculpture.[95]

The practice of framing the design gives opportunities for change of materials, colour, and pattern, permitting the employment of different flat surfaces laid on each other, and scope for endless enrichment; the framed picture being, perhaps, the central culminating attraction, crowning, as it were, the textile ornamentation.

I merely give these instances as illustrating the rule that we have more than once laid down, that a design cannot fitly be employed except in the position for which the artist has composed it. I will, however, add that though it is right to give due consideration to the preparation of each work for its intended use, yet we often have charming suggestions offered to us, by the chance acquisition of a beautiful artistic specimen, which finds its own place and accommodates itself to the surrounding colours and forms. These are the happy accidents of which the cultivated artistic eye takes advantage, adding them to the experience which may help those who are seeking for the rules of harmony and contrast in design.

Research into the mysteries and principles of design applies to woven arabesques and patterns, and must include machine-made textile ornament, and all decorative needlework. It is, in fact, the fabric for the million which most especially needs the careful study of guiding rules. When a plant sends forth hundreds of winged, wind-blown seeds, like the thistle, it spreads itself over wide fields, and is more mischievous than a more noxious growth, such as the deadly nightshade, which only drops an occasional berry into the earth. So a common cheap chintz or carpet, with a poor, gaudy, motiveless design, carries a bad style into thousands of homes wherever our commerce extends; disgracing us, while it corrupts the taste of other nations.

In addressing our young designers, I would remind them that in art the race is not always to the strong. Prudence and educated powers, thoughtfulness and study, often carry us where unassisted and uncultivated genius has signally failed. Even such facilities as are afforded by the acquirement of freehand drawing, as taught in our schools of art, are not to be despised. The workman should thoroughly master his tools, or they will hamper him. The first step towards design is that you should learn to draw. After this, appreciation and observation are necessary, and due balance in outline and colour should be studied; and all this is as much needed in drawing a pattern as in composing a picture. The difference lies in our art being only decorative, wherein beauty and fitness are to be remembered, and nothing else; whereas the picture may have to record historical facts, or to inspire poetical thoughts—to awe or to touch the beholder. A decorative design is only asked to delight him. Intelligent delight, however, can only be evoked by intelligent art, and to this, decoration must be subjected.


[73] The earliest art we know (the bone-scratching) is naturalistic and imitative. We are unaware of any attempt at a pattern of the prehistoric period. The lake cities are of so vague a date that their ornaments on pottery are puzzling rather than instructive. The earliest Hellenic pottery was scratched or painted. Cuttle-fish, repeated over and over again, are among the earliest attempts at a pattern, by repetition of a natural object. Naturalism soon fell into symbolism, which appropriated it and all art, and the upheaval of a new culture was needed to lift it once more into the region of individual creation. See Boyd Dawkins' "Early Man in Britain;" also General Pitt Rivers's Museum of Prehistoric Art, lately presented to the University of Oxford.

[74] See Boyd Dawkins' "Early Man in Britain."

[75] "I hope, indeed, to enable them" (the members of his class) "to read, above all, the minds of semi-barbarous nations in the only language by which their feelings were capable of expression; and those whose temper inclines them to take a pleasure in mythic symbols, will not probably be induced to quit the profound fields of investigation which early art will open to them, and which belong to it alone. For this is a general law, that supposing the intellect of the workman the same, the more imitatively complete his art, the less he will mean by it, and the ruder the symbol, the deeper the intention."—Ruskin's "Oxford Lectures on Art," 1870, p. 19.

[76] See Isaac Taylor's "History of the Alphabet."

[77] Renouf's Hibbert Lectures, 1879, p. 67.

[78] Now there is a point of view in which we may regard the imitative art of all races, the most civilized as well as the most barbarous—in reference to the power of correctly representing animal and vegetable forms, such as they exist in nature. The perfection of such imitation depends not so much on the manual dexterity of the artist as on his intelligence and comprehension of the type of the essential qualities of the form he desires to represent. See Ch. T. Newton's "Essays on Art and Archaeology," p. 17.

[79] See Wilkinson's "Ancient Egyptians."

[80] Plato's Second Book of Laws, p. 656.

[81] "The religion of the Greeks penetrated into their institutions and daily life. The myth was not only embodied in the sculptures of Pheidias on the Parthenon, and portrayed in the paintings of Polygnotus in the Stoa Poikile; it was repeated in a more compendious and abbreviated form on the fictile vase of the Athenian household, on the coin circulated in the market-place, on the mirror in which the Aspasia of the day beheld her charms. Every domestic implement was made the vehicle of figurative language, or fashioned into a symbol."—Newton's "Essays on Art and Archaeology," p. 23.

[82] "Art in Ornament and Dress," by M. Charles Blanc, formerly Director of the French Institute. Eng. Trans., Chapman and Hall, London.

[83] See Charles Blanc's "Art in Ornament and Dress," p. 31.

[84] Charles Blanc's "Art in Ornament and Dress," p. 43.

[85] Charles Blanc's "Art in Ornament and Dress," pp. 43, 45, 46.

[86] Chinese design shows naturalistic art arrested and perpetuated on totally different principles. Their representations are all equally allied to their art of picture-painting, whether on china with the brush, or on textiles with the needle. The flatness of the picture is still preserved by their ignorance of perspective. When they attempted to express different distances, they did so by placing them one above another, so that in reading the composition the eye first takes in the distant horizon; next below it, the middle distance; and being thus prepared, it comes down to the actual living foreground, on which rests the dramatic action and interest addressed to the spectator. The Chinese understood many of the secrets of art, yet never achieved perspective.

[87] See Mr. Penrose's work on the measurements of the Parthenon at Athens. Published by the Society of the Dilettanti.

[88] Marked outlines in embroidery add to the flatness, and enable us to omit cast shadows. In this it differs entirely from pictorial art, where one of the great objects is to avoid flatness.

[89] Semper's theory, already mentioned, is that textile design was certainly flat; that it was the first form of decoration, and was followed by bas-relief, which could not at once rid itself of the original motive.

[90] Auberville's "Ornamentation des Tissus" (eleventh century).

[91] Redgrave's "Manual of Design," pp. 43-45.

[92] This idolatrous type was introduced into England by the Buccaneers, and reflected on our carvings and embroideries of the time of James I., slightly modified by the Italian Renaissance of that period. As this sort of vulgar ornamentation has once prevailed, let us protect ourselves against its possible recurrence.

[93] While making this passing allusion to the theory that the origin of all Gothic decoration is mainly founded on the motive of interlacing stems and foliage, I wish to guard myself against being supposed in any way to argue against other beginnings, whenever they can be proved. I have said before that most decorations have a mixed ancestry. But when I see single or clustered columns starting from the ground—spreading at the base like the gnarled root, and growing till they culminate in crowns of foliage, forming symmetrical capitals, like the first clusters of leaves on a strong young sapling—then the branches spreading and interlacing, only checked at equal intervals by a lovely leaf or burgeon, till they meet in blossoms on the highest point of the arch,—I cannot but adhere to the old idea that rows of trees meeting overhead suggested Gothic ornament as well as Gothic Architecture. The Spanish or Moresque Gothic was overloaded with leaves and flowers, and the German Gothic was enriched with fantastic trees and flowers, each according to its national taste and fashion. A Gothic tree is a very conventional plant; and generally carries only one leaf on each branch. I have given a specimen of archaic trees from the Bayeux tapestry. They are typical of the Gothic botanical idea and style down to the fourteenth century. (Fig. 13.)

Nor is this interpretation of Gothic design other than a result of its descent from the Egyptian ancestral motive, where the temple columns represented the single stem of the lotus with one large blossom for its capital, or else a bundle of stems of the lotus, palm, and convolvulus flowering together into a beautiful cluster. Even the gigantic columns of the great hypaethral hall at Karnac are only a stupendous exaggeration of the same stalk and flower motive. From these were derived the forms of the early Greek column—soon enriched by substituting the Acanthus for the Lotus, but often retaining the convolvulus.

[94] 1 Kings x.; Ezek. xxvii. 10, 11. See Stanley's "Lectures on the Jewish Church."

[95] Layard's "Nineveh and its Remains," vol. ii. p. 388; Rawlinson's "Ancient Monarchies," vol. ii. p. 2.



In the last chapter on design I have described patterns as the examples or illustrations of the art of decoration, and as being the records of the motives which produced them in different eras. My present object is to class and define patterns as decorative art.

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