The Grammar of Ornament
by Allegra Baggio Corradi
While still a student at the University of Jena in 1819, Friedlieb Ferdinand Runge, performed an experiment in front of a large crowd. He dropped belladonna extract in a cat’s eye, which dramatically enlarged in front of a jaw-dropping audience. Among the by-standers was the German poet Goethe, who struck by Runge’s performance, challenged him to conduct further research on a substance he had become almost addicted to sometime prior, and about which he wanted to know more. It was not long before Runge discovered that it was caffeine.
Following his experiments with belladonna, Runge went on to discovered coal tar dye and paper chromatography, among other things. He was also the first to identify the phenomenon of Liesegang rings. Runge placed drops of reactant solutions on blotting paper and then added a drop of a second reactant solution on top of the first drop. The solutions would react as they spread through the blotting paper, often producing coloured patterns. His results were published in two books: Farbenchemie. Musterbilder für Freunde des Schönen und zum Gebrauch für Zeichner, Maler, Verzierer und Zeugdrucker, dargestellt durch chemische Wechselwirkung and Der Bildungstrieb der Stoffe, veranschaulicht in selbstständig gewachsenen Bilder (1855). The latter included illustrations of Runge’s experiments with Liesegang rings, mostly washed blue, pale pink and beige roundels forming puddles of water around a central kernel. Operating across science and aesthetics, Runge’s volume testifies to the intersection between the arts and the industry in the 19th century.
An approach comparable to Runge was that taken by Charles Woolnough in "The Whole Art of Marbling" (1881). The book provided a detailed account of the methods and materials of the craft of marbling by giving instructions for making approximately thirty traditional and contemporary-looking patterns. Woolnough also instructed the reader on how to use the completed marbled papers in home decoration and how to marble on cloth. The publication responded to the industrial drive of the 19th century, and such was eminently practical. With his work, Woolnough intended to “describe in a lucid, progressive and comprehensive style the way in which the various patterns are manipulated, so that any individual possessing an ordinary share of common sense and understanding, may, without any other aid than practice, perseverance, and careful observation, do it himself.” Woolnough concluded that, despite the research he did in the field, the origins of marble papermaking remained unknow but were most likely attributable to the Dutch, who used marble paper to wrap first toys and then books.
As Runge’s and Woolnough’s work testify, between 1850 and 1930, the arts started to grow closer to the industry. The development of technology went hand in hand with that of aesthetics. In particular, the so-called industrial art emerged from the following four historical occurrences: the foundation of applied arts museums internationally, modelled after the London example of 1857; the education system attached to the museums, such as that activated in 1864 by the Österreichisches Museum für Kunst und Industrie in Vienna; the new phenomenon of world- and international exhibitions, starting from the first one that took place in London in 1855; and the consolidation of societies and guilds devoted to the development of art and industry, the first being the Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufacture and Commerce founded in 1754 in England.
During this time, a sheer amount of pattern books and motif compilations was published, which reflected the growing dependency of the arts on the industry. The first such publication was Owen Jones’ The Grammar of Ornament (1856). Jones, a British architect and designer, was the superintendent of the first Great Exhibition that took place in London in 1851. What distinguished Jones’ work from previous pattern compilations and visually oriented scientific books such as Runge’s and Woolnough’s, was its ambition to cover “all known styles and periods”. Unlike his predecessors, Jones opted for a comparative approach that juxtaposed visual patterns to the historical context in which they were elaborated. Focusing specifically on Antique, Renaissance and Islamic art, Jones accompanied his textual chapters with 112 chromolithographic plates separating ornamentation from the object or place in which they sat originally. Jones’ meticulous thirty-seven propositions outlined the general principles in the arrangement of form and colour in architecture and in the decorative arts. From his text emerged what we nowadays call polychromy, theory of colour, theory of form and principles of design. Runge’s invention of chromolithography therefore proved crucial for the proliferation of pattern compilations in the centuries to come.
Jones was promptly followed by a large cohort of artists and intellectuals, who published pattern and decoration books after his example. The French draughtsman and lithographer Auguste Racinet released his L’Ornement polychrome in two series in 1869-1873 and 1885-1887. As an illustrator, Racinet placed great emphasis on the precision of the decorations reproduced and on the faithfulness of the colours employed, both of which he deemed fundamental for the mutual service of the industry and the arts. Like Jones, Racinet specified his intention to produce “an eminently practical book”, which was “less of a treaty and more of a collection”, unfolding “through examples rather than by way of precepts”. Racinet also laid out some of the stylistic choices behind his work. Notably, the fact that ornamentation was, in his opinion, “a humbler art than sculpture and painting”, but one that precisely because it was discharged from the burden of the meaning and the logic of a specific subject matter, was much freer. As such, rather than soaring high, ornamentation responded to the natural need of human beings to decorate objects.
After Racinet, the third most influential contribution was that of the German architect and restorer Heinrich Dolmetsch, who in 1887 published Der Ornamentenschatz. Dolmetsch’s preface very bluntly stated its core purpose: “The rise of technical education is everywhere accompanied by an increasing interest in the art productions of ancient and modern times, and a thorough knowledge of the different styles of ornament becomes more and more necessary to all designers and Art workers. The aim of this publication is to meet this need. It is not intended to set forth theoretical precepts, but to serve as a practical guide, showing by a series of examples chronologically arranged, how, in succeeding epochs, Ornament, and especially the application of colour to it, developed in various countries. In compiling it my object has been specially directed to the classification of such prominent and characteristic types as are most suitable for systematic study; and to supply Art Workers, from whom the fickle taste of our time constantly requires new forms, with a Treasury in which they can find valuable suggestions for working out original designs.”
All in all, the tradition of pattern compilation continued until the early 19-hundreds; however, chromolithographic illustrations were progressively replaced by offset printing. Most importantly, the initial purpose of serving the industry with reproducible patterns was lost in favour of a didascalic and illustrative function, facilitating art historians and archaeologists to identify consistencies and continuities in the ornamentations produced across the centuries. The phenomenon of pattern cataloguing testifies to the rationalising, encyclopedic and systematising impulse that held sway from the 18th through to the 20th century. A certain teleology underlies the chronological ordering of the material, showing the perfecting possibilities of technologies on art. The eminently practical purpose of the genre points to the need of art workers to gain ever-new inspiration for their mass-produced creations. An increase in demand had to be met by an ever-greater surge in aesthetic stimuli, able to quench the thirst of eclectic consumers with surprising and staggering motifs. The reproducibility afforded by technology could not be fed repetitiousness. As such, pattern compilations offered a colourful antidote to the flatness of technology.