1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Ornament

ORNAMENT (Lat. ornare, to adorn), in decorative art, that element which adds an embellishment of beauty in detail. Ornament is in its nature accessory, and implies a thing to be ornamented, which is its active cause and by rights suggests its design (q.v.). It does not exist apart from its application. Nor is it properly added to a thing already in existence (that is but a makeshift for design), but is rather such modification of the thing in the making as may be determined by the consideration of beauty. For example, the construction and proportions of a chair are determined by use (by the necessity of combining the maximum of strength with the minimum of weight, and of fitting it to the proportions of the human body, &c.); and any modification of the plan, such as the turning of legs, the shaping of arms and back, carving, inlay, mouldings, &c.—any reconsideration even of the merely utilitarian plan from the point of view of art—has strictly to do with Ornament, which thus, far from being an afterthought, belongs to the very inception of the thing. Ornament is good only in so far as it is an indispensable part of something, helping its effect without hurt to its use. It is begotten of use by the consideration of beauty. The test of ornament is its fitness. It must occupy a space, fulfil a purpose, be adapted to the material in which and the process by which it is executed. This implies treatment. The treatment befitting a wall space does not equally befit a floor space of the same dimensions. What is suitable to hand-painting is not equally suitable to stencilling; nor what is proper to mosaic proper to carpet-weaving. Neither the purposes of decoration nor the conditions of production allow great scope for naturalism in ornament. Its forms are derived from nature, more or less; but repose is best secured by some removedness from nature—necessitated also by the due treatment of material after its kind and according to its fashioning. In the case of recurring ornament it is inept to multiply natural flowers, &c., which at every repetition lose something of their natural attraction. The artist in ornament does not imitate natural forms. Such as he may employ he transfigures. He does not necessarily set out with any idea of natural form (this comes to him by the way); his first thought is to solve a given problem in design, and he solves it perhaps most surely by means of abstract ornament—witness the work of the Greeks and of the Arabs. The extremity of tasteless naturalism, reached towards the beginning of the Victorian era, was the opportunity of English reformers, prominent amongst whom was Owen Jones, whose fault was in insisting upon a form of ornament too abstract to suit English ideas. William Morris and others led the way back to nature, but to nature trained in the way of ornament. The Styles of ornament, so-called, mark the evolution of design, being the direct outcome of Greek, Roman, Byzantine, Gothic or other conditions, in days when fashion moved slowly. Post-Renaissance ornament goes by the name of the reigning king; but the character of the historic periods was not sought by artists; it came of their working in the way natural to them and doing their best. “Style,” as distinguished from “the Styles,” comes of an artist's intelligent and sympathetic treatment of his material, and of his personal sincerity and strength. International traffic has gone far to do away with national characteristics in ornament, which becomes yearly more and more alike all the world over. The subsidiary nature of ornament and its subjection to conditions lead to its frequent repetition, which results in pattern, repeated forms falling inevitably into lines, always self-asserting, and liable to annoy in proportion as they were not foreseen by the designer. He cannot, therefore, safely disregard them. Indeed, his first business is to build pattern upon lines, if not intrinsically beautiful, at least helpful to the scheme of decoration. He may disguise them; but capable designers are generally quite frank about the construction of their pattern, and not afraid of pronounced lines. Of course, adaptation being all-essential to pattern, an artist must be versed in the technique of any manufacture for which he designs. His art is in being equal to the occasion.  (L. F. D.)