The Uses of Ornament


John Ruskin




What is the place for ornament? Consider first that the characters of natural objects which the architect can represent are few and abstract. The greater part of those delights by which Nature recommends herself to man at all times cannot be conveyed by him into his imitative work. He cannot make his grass green and cool and good to rest upon, which in nature is its chief use to man; nor can he make his flowers tender and full of color and of scent, which in nature are their chief powers of giving joy. Those qualities which alone he can secure are certain severe characters of form, such as men only see in nature on deliberate examination, and by the full and set appliance of sight and thought: a man must lie down on the bank of grass on his breast and set himself to watch and penetrate the intertwining of it, before he finds that which is good to be gathered by the architect. So then while Nature is at all times pleasant to us, and while the sight and sense of her work may mingle happily with all our thoughts and labours and times of existence, that image of her which the architect carries away represents what we can only perceive in her by direct intellectual exertion; and demands from us, wherever it appears, an intellectual exertion of a similar kind in order to understand it and feel it. It is the written or sealed impression of a thing sought out; it is the shaped result of inquiry and bodily expression of thought.

Now let us consider for an instant what would be the effect of continually repeating an expression of a beautiful thought to any other of the senses, at times when the mind could not address that sense to the understanding of it. Suppose that in time of serious occupation, of stern business, a companion should repeat in our ears continually some favourite passage of poetry, over and over again all day long. We should not only soon be utterly sick and weary of the sound of it, but that sound would at the end of the day have so sunk into the habit of the ear, that the entire meaning of the passage would be dead to us, and it would ever thenceforward require some effort to fix and recover it. The music of it would not meanwhile have aided the business in hand, while its own delightfulness would thenceforward be in a measure destroyed. It is the same with every other form of definite thought. If you violently present its expression to the senses, at times when the mind is otherwise engaged, that expression will be ineffective at the time, and will have its sharpness and clearness destroyed forever. Much more if you present it to the mind at times when it is painfully affected or disturbed, or if you associate the expression of pleasant thought with incongruous circumstances, you will affect that expression thenceforward with a painful colour forever.

Apply this to expressions of thought received by the eye. Remember that the eye is at your mercy more than the ear. “The eye, it cannot choose but see.” Its nerve is not so easily numbed as that of the ear, and it is often busied in tracing and watching forms when the ear is at rest. Now if you present lovely forms to it when it cannot call the mind to help it in its work, and among objects of vulgar use and unhappy position, you will neither please the eye nor elevate the vulgar object. But you will fill and weary the eye with the beautiful form, and you will infect that form itself with the vulgarity of the thing to which you have violently attached it. It will never be of much use to you any more: you have killed or defiled it; its freshness and purity are gone. You will have to pass it through the fire of much thought before you will cleanse it, and warm it with much love before it will revive.

Hence then a general law, of singular importance in the present day, a law of simple common-sense,—not to decorate things belonging to purposes of active and occupied life. Wherever you can rest, there decorate; where rest is forbidden, so is beauty. You must not mix ornament with business, any more than you may mix play. Work first, and then rest. Work first, and then gaze; but do not use golden plowshares, nor bind ledgers in enamel. Do not thrash with sculptured flails; nor put bas-reliefs on millstones. What! it will be asked, are we in the habit of doing so? Even so; always and everywhere. The most familiar position of Greek mouldings is in these days on shop fronts. There is not a tradesman’s sign nor shelf nor counter in all the streets of all our cities, which has not upon it ornaments which were invented to adorn temples and beautify kings’ palaces. There is not the smallest advantage in them where they are. Absolutely valueless, utterly without the power of giving pleasure, they only satiate the eye and vulgarize their own forms. Many of these are in themselves thoroughly good copies of fine things; which things themselves we shall never, in consequence, enjoy any more. Many a pretty beading and graceful bracket there is in wood or stucco above our grocers’ and cheesemongers’ and hosiers’ shops: how is it that the tradesmen cannot understand that custom is to be had only by selling good tea and cheese and cloth; and that people come to them for their honesty, and their readiness, and their right wares, and not because they have Greek cornices over their windows, or their names in large gilt letters on their house fronts? How pleasurable it would be to have the power of going through the streets of London, pulling down those brackets and friezes and large names, restoring to the tradesmen the capital they had spent in architecture, and putting them on honest and equal terms; each with his name in black letters over his door, not shouted down the street from the upper stories, and each with a plain wooden shop casement, with small panes in it that people would not think of breaking in order to be sent to prison! How much better for them would it be, how much happier, how much wiser, to put their trust upon their own truth and industry, and not on the idiocy of their customers! It is curious, and it says little for our national probity on the one hand, or prudence on the other, to see the whole system of our street decoration based on the idea that people must be baited to a shop as moths are to a candle.

But it will be said that much of the best wooden decoration of the Middle Ages was in shop fronts. No: it was in house fronts, of which the shop was a part, and received its natural and consistent portion of the ornament. In those days men lived, and intended to live, by their shops, and over them, all their days. They were contented with them and happy in them: they were their palaces and castles. They gave them therefore such decoration as made themselves happy in their own habitation, and they gave it for their own sake. The upper stories were always the richest; and the shop was decorated chiefly about the door, which belonged to the house more than to it. And when our tradesmen settle to their shops in the same way, and form no plans respecting future villa architecture, let their whole houses be decorated, and their shops too, but with a national and domestic decoration. However, our cities are for the most part too large to admit of contented dwelling in them throughout life: and I do not say there is harm in our present system of separating the shop from the dwelling-house; only where they are so separated, let us remember that the only reason for shop decoration is removed, and see that the decoration be removed also.

Another of the strange and evil tendencies of the present day is to the decoration of the railroad station. Now, if there be any place in the world in which people are deprived of that portion of temper and discretion which is necessary to the contemplation of beauty, it is there. It is the very temple of discomfort; and the only charity that the builder can extend to us is to show us, plainly as may be, how soonest to escape from it. The whole system of railroad traveling is addressed to people who, being in a hurry, are therefore, for the time being, miserable. No one would travel in that manner who could help it,—who had time to go leisurely over hills and between hedges, instead of through tunnels and between banks; at least those who would, have no sense of beauty so acute as that we need consult it at the station. The railroad is in all its relations a matter of earnest business, to be got through as soon as possible. It transmutes a man from a traveler into a living parcel. For the time, he has parted with the nobler characteristics of his humanity for the sake of a planetary power of locomotion. Do not ask him to admire anything. You might as well ask the wind. Carry him safely, dismiss him soon: he will thank you for nothing else. All attempts to please him in any other way are mere mockery, and insults to the things by which you endeavor to do so. There never was more flagrant nor impertinent folly than the smallest portion of ornament in anything concerned with railroads or near them. Keep them out of the way, take them through the ugliest country you can find, confess them the miserable things they are, and spend nothing upon them but for safety and speed. Give large salaries to efficient servants, large prices to good manufacturers, large wages to able workmen; let the iron be tough, and the brickwork solid, and the carriages strong. The time is perhaps not distant when these first necessities may not be easily met: and to increase expense in any other direction is madness. Better bury gold in the embankments than put it in ornaments on the stations. Will a single traveler be willing to pay an increased fare on the South-Western because the columns of the terminus are covered with patterns from Nineveh?—he will only care less for the Ninevite ivories in the British Museum: or on the North-Western, because there are Old-English-looking spandrels to the roof of the station at Crewe?—he will only have less pleasure in their prototypes at Crewe House. Railroad architecture has, or would have, a dignity of its own if it were only left to its work. You would not put rings on the fingers of a smith at his anvil.

It is not however only in these marked situations that the abuse of which I speak takes place. There is hardly, at present, an application of ornamental work which is not in some sort liable to blame of the same kind. We have a bad habit of trying to disguise disagreeable necessities by some form of sudden decoration, which is in all other places associated with such necessities. I will name only one instance, that to which I have alluded before—the roses which conceal the ventilators in the flat roofs of our chapels. Many of those roses are of very beautiful design, borrowed from fine works: all their grace and finish are invisible when they are so placed, but their general form is afterwards associated with the ugly buildings in which they constantly occur; and all the beautiful roses of the early French and English Gothic, especially such elaborate ones as those of the triforium of Coutances, are in consequence deprived of their pleasurable influence, and this without our having accomplished the smallest good by the use we have made of the dishonored form. Not a single person in the congregation ever receives one ray of pleasure from those roof roses; they are regarded with mere indifference, or lost in the general impression of harsh emptiness.

Must not beauty, then, it will be asked, be sought for in the forms which we associate with our every-day life? Yes, if you do it consistently, and in places where it can be calmly seen; but not if you use the beautiful form only as a mask and covering of the proper conditions and uses of things, nor if you thrust it into the places set apart for toil. Put it in the drawing-room, not into the workshop; put it upon domestic furniture, not upon tools of handicraft. All men have sense of what is right in this matter, if they would only use and apply that sense; every man knows where and how beauty gives him pleasure, if he would only ask for it when it does so, and not allow it to be forced upon him when he does not want it. Ask any one of the passengers over London Bridge at this instant whether he cares about the forms of the bronze leaves on its lamps, and he will tell you, No. Modify these forms of leaves to a less scale, and put them on his milk-jug at breakfast, and ask him whether he likes them, and he will tell you, Yes. People have no need of teaching, if they could only think and speak truth, and ask for what they like and want, and for nothing else; nor can a right disposition of beauty be ever arrived at except by this common-sense, and allowance for the circumstances of the time and place. It does not follow, because bronze leafage is in bad taste on the lamps of London Bridge, that it would be so on those of the Ponte della Trinità; nor because it would be a folly to decorate the house fronts of Gracechurch Street, that it would be equally so to adorn those of some quiet provincial town. The question of greatest external or internal decoration depends entirely on the conditions of probable repose. It was a wise feeling which made the streets of Venice so rich in external ornament; for there is no couch of rest like the gondola. So again, there is no subject of street ornament so wisely chosen as the fountain, where it is a fountain of use; for it is just there that perhaps the happiest pause takes place in the labour of the day, when the pitcher is rested on the edge of it, and the breath of the bearer is drawn deeply, and the hair swept from the forehead, and the uprightness of the form declined against the marble ledge, and the sound of the kind word or light laugh mixes with the trickle of the falling water, heard shriller and shriller as the pitcher fills. What pause is so sweet as that—so full of the depth of ancient days, so softened with the calm of pastoral solitude?



First published in 1849.