Humour in Ornament


Christopher Dresser



Some other principles of a less noble character than those which we have already noticed as entering into ornament yet remain to be mentioned. Man will be amused as well as instructed; he must be pleased as well as ennobled by what he sees. I hold it as a first principle that ornamentation, as a true fine art, can administer to man in all his varying moods, and under all phases of feeling. Decoration, if properly understood, would at once be seen to be a high art in the truest sense of the word, as it can teach, elevate, refine, induce lofty aspirations, and allay sorrows; but we have now to notice it as a fine art, administering to man in his various moods, rather than as the handmaid to religion or morals.

Humour seems to be as much an attribute of our nature as love, and, like it, varies in intensity with different individuals. There are few in whom there is not a certain amount of humour, and in some this one quality predominates over all others. It not unfrequently happens that men who are great thinkers are also great humorists—great talent and great humour being often combined in the one individual.

The feeling for humour is ministered to in ornament by the grotesque, and the grotesque occurs in the works of almost all ages and all peoples. The ancient Egyptians employed it, so did the Assyrians, the Greeks, and the Romans; but none of these nations used it to the extent of the artists of the Celtic, Byzantine, and "Gothic" periods. Hideous "evil spirits" were portrayed on the outside of almost every Christian edifice at one time, and much of the Celtic ornament produced by the early monks consisted of an anastomosis, or network, of grotesque creatures.

The old Irish crosses were enriched with this kind of ornamentation and some of the decorative embellishments of these works are of extraordinary interest; but those who have access to the beautiful work of Professor Westwood on Celtic manuscripts will there see this grotesque form of ornament to perfection. As regards the Eastern nations, while nearly all have employed the grotesque as an element of decorative art, the Chinese and Japanese have employed it most largely, and for it they manifest a most decided partiality. The drawings of dragons, celestial lions (always spotted), mythical birds, beasts, fishes, insects, and other supposed inhabitants of the Elysian plains, which these people produce, are most interesting and extraordinary.

Without in any way going into a history of the grotesque, let us look at the characteristic forms which it has assumed, and what is necessary to its successful production. We have said that the grotesque in ornament is the analogue of humour in literature. This is the case; but the grotesque may represent the truly horrible or repellent, and be simply repulsive. This form is so seldom required in ornamentation that I shall not dwell upon it, and when required it should always be associated with power; for if the horrible is feeble it cannot be corrective, but only revolting, like a miserable deformed animal.

I think it may be taken as a principle, that the further the grotesque is removed from an imitation of a natural object the better it is, provided that it be energetic and vigorous—lifelike. Nothing is worse than a feeble joke, unless it be a feeble grotesque. The amusing must appear to be earnest.

In connection with this subject I give here a series of grotesques, with the view of illustrating my meaning, and I would fain give more, but space will not permit me to do so.

The initial letter S, formed of a bird, is a characteristic Celtic grotesque (Fig. 17). It is quaint and interesting, and is sufficiently unlike a living creature to avoid giving any sense of pain to the beholder, while it is yet in a most unnatural position. It is, in truth, rather an ornament than a copy of a living creature, yet it is so suggestive as to call forth the thought of a bird. It should be noticed, in connection with this figure, that the interstices between certain portions of the creature are filled by a knot. This is well—the whole thing; being an ornament, and not a naturalistic representation.

Fig. 18 is a Siamese grotesque head, and a fine sample it is of the curious form of ornament which it represents. Mark, it is in no way a copy of a human head, but is a true ornament, with its parts so arranged as to call up the idea of a face, and nothing more. Notice the volutes forming the chin; the grotesque, yet highly ornamental, lines forming the mouth and the upper boundary of the forehead, and the flambeauant ears; the whole thing is worthy of the most careful study.

Fig. 19 is a Gothic foliated face; but here we have features which are much too naturalistic. We have, indeed, only a hideous human face with a marginal excrescence of leafage. This is a type to be avoided; it is not droll, nor quaint; but is simply unpleasant to look upon.

Fig. 20 is a fish, with the feeling of the grotesques of the Middle Ages. It is a good type, being truly ornamental, and yet sufficiently suggestive.

In order that I convey to the reader a fuller idea of my views respecting the grotesque than I otherwise could, I have sketched one or two original illustrations—Fig. 21 being suggestive of a face, Fig. 22 of a skeleton (old bogey), and Fig. 23 of an impossible animal. They are intentionally far from imitative. If naturalistic some would awaken a sense of pain, as they are contorted into curious positions, whereas that which induces no thought of feeling induces no sense of pain.

Of all grotesques with which I am acquainted, the dragons of the Chinese and Japanese are those which represent a combination of power, vigour, energy, and passion most fully. This is to be accounted for by the fact that these peoples are believers in dragons. When the sun or moon is eclipsed they believe that the luminous orb has been swallowed by some fierce monster, which they give form to in the dragon, and upon the occurrence of such a phenomenon they, with cans and kettles, make rough music, and thus cause the monster to disgorge the luminary, the brilliancy of which it would otherwise have for ever extinguished. I can understand a believer in dragons drawing these monsters with the power and spirit that the Chinese and Japanese do; but I can scarcely imagine that a disbeliever could do so—a man's very nature must be saturated with a belief in their existence and mischievous power, in order that he embody in his delineation such expression of the assumed character of this imaginary creature as do the Chinese and Japanese.

Although I am not now considering the structure of objects, I may say that the grotesque should frequently be used where we meet with naturalistic imitations. We not unfrequently see a figure, naturally imitated, placed as a support to a superincumbent weight—a female figure as an architectural pillar bearing the weight of the entablature above, men crouched in the most painful positions supporting the bowl of some colossal fountain. Naturalistic figures in such positions are simply revolting, however perfect as works of sculpture. If weight has to be supported by that which has a resemblance to a living creature of any kind, the semblance should only be suggested; and the more unreal and woodeny (if I may make such a word) the support, if possessing the quaintness and humour of a true grotesque, the better.

It is not the business of the ornamentist to produce that which shall induce the feeling of continued pain, unless there is some exceptional reason for his so doing, and such a reason is of rare occurrence.



Originally published in Principles of Decorative Design in 1873.