Of Decorative Painting And Design

The term Decorative painting implies the existence of painting which is

not decorative: a strange state of things for an art which primarily and

pre-eminently appeals to the eye. If we look back to the times when the

arts and crafts were in their most flourishing and vigorous condition,

and dwelt together, like brethren, in unity--say to the fifteenth

century--such a distinction did not exist. Painting only differed in its
/> application, and in degree, not in kind. In the painting of a MS., of

the panels of a coffer, of a ceiling, a wall, or an altar-piece, the

painter was alike--however different his theme and conception--possessed

with a paramount impulse to decorate, to make the space or surface he

dealt with as lovely to the eye in design and colour as he had skill to


The art of painting has, however, become considerably differentiated

since those days. We are here in the nineteenth century encumbered with

many distinctions in the art. There is obviously much painting which is

not decorative, or ornamental in any sense, which has indeed quite other

objects. It may be the presentment of the more superficial natural

facts, phases, or accidents of light; the pictorial dramatising of life

or past history; the pointing of a moral; or the embodiment of romance

and poetic thought or symbol. Not but what it is quite possible for a

painter to deal with such things and yet to produce a work that shall be


A picture, of course, may be a piece of decorative art of the most

beautiful kind; but to begin with, if it is an easel picture, it is not

necessarily related to anything but itself: its painter is not bound to

consider anything outside its own dimensions; and, indeed, the practice

of holding large and mixed picture-shows has taught him the uselessness

of so doing.

Then, too, the demand for literal presentment of the superficial facts

or phases of nature often removes the painter and his picture still

farther from the architectural, decorative, and constructive artist and

the handicraftsman, who are bound to think of plan, and design, and

materials--of the adaptation of their work, in short--while the painter

seeks only to be an unbiassed recorder of all accidents and sensational

conditions of nature and life,--and so we get our illustrated newspapers

on a grand scale.

An illustrated newspaper, however, in spite of the skill and enterprise

it may absorb, is not somehow a joy for ever; and, after all, if

literalism and instantaneous appearances are the only things worth

striving for in painting, the photograph beats any painter at that.

If truth is the object of the modern painter of pictures--truth as

distinct from or opposed to beauty--beauty is certainly the object of

the decorative painter, but beauty not necessarily severed from truth.

Without beauty, however, decoration has no reason for existence; indeed

it can hardly be said to exist.

Next to beauty, the first essential of a decoration is that it shall be

related to its environment, that it shall express or acknowledge the

conditions under which it exists. If a fresco on a wall, for instance,

it adorns the wall without attempting to look like a hole cut in it

through which something is accidentally seen; if a painting on a vase,

it acknowledges the convexity of the shape, and helps to express instead

of contradicting it; if on a panel in a cabinet or door, it spreads

itself in an appropriate filling on an organic plan to cover it; being,

in short, ornamental by its very nature, its first business is to


There exist, therefore, certain definite tests for the work of the

decorative artist. Does the design fit its place and material? Is it in

scale with its surroundings and in harmony with itself? Is it fair and

lovely in colour? Has it beauty and invention? Has it thought and poetic

feeling? These are the demands a decorator has to answer, and by his

answer he must stand or fall; but such questions show that the scope of

decoration is no mean one.

It must be acknowledged that a mixed exhibition does not easily afford

the fairest or completest tests of such qualities. An exhibition is at

best a compromise, a convenience, a means of comparison, and to enable

work to be shown to the public; but of course is, after all, only really

and properly exhibited when it is in the place and position and light

for which it was destined. The tests by which to judge a designer's work

are only complete then.

As the stem and branches to the leaves, flowers, and fruit of a tree, so

is design to painting. In decoration one cannot exist without the other,

as the beauty of a figure depends upon the well-built and

well-proportioned skeleton and its mechanism. You cannot separate a

house from its plan and foundations. So it is in decoration; often

thought of lightly as something trivial and superficial, a merely

aimless combination of curves and colours, or a mere rechauffe of the

dead languages of art, but really demanding the best thought and

capacity of a man; and in the range of its application it is not less


The mural painter is not only a painter, but a poet, historian,

dramatist, philosopher. What should we know, how much should we realise,

of the ancient world and its life without him, and his brother the

architectural sculptor? How would ancient Egypt live without her wall

paintings--or Rome, or Pompeii, or Mediaeval Italy? How much of beauty as

well as of history is contained in the illuminated pages of the books of

the Middle Ages!

Some modern essays in mural painting show that the habit of mind and

method of work fostered by the production of trifles for the picture

market is not favourable to monumental painting. Neither the mood nor

the skill, indeed, can be grown like a mushroom; such works as the

Sistine Chapel, the Stanzi of Raphael, or the Apartimenti Borgia, are

the result of long practice through many centuries, and intimate

relationship and harmony in the arts, as well as a certain unity of

public sentiment.

The true soil for the growth of the painter in this higher sense is a

rich and varied external life: familiarity from early youth with the

uses of materials and methods, and the hand facility which comes of

close and constant acquaintanceship with the tools of the artist, who

sums up and includes in himself other crafts, such as modelling,

carving, and the hammering of metal, architectural design, and a

knowledge of all the ways man has used to beautify and deck the

surroundings and accessories of life to satisfy his delight in beauty.

We know that painting was strictly an applied art in its earlier

history, and all through the Middle Ages painters were in close alliance

with the other crafts of design, and their work in one craft no doubt

reacted on and influenced that in another, while each was kept distinct.

At all events, painters like Albert Duerer and Holbein were also masters

of design in all ways.

Through the various arts and crafts of the Greek, Mediaeval, or Early

Renaissance periods, there is evident, from the examples which have come

down to us, a certain unity and common character in design, asserting

itself through all diverse individualities: each art is kept distinct,

with a complete recognition of the capacity and advantages of its own

particular method and purpose.

In our age, for various reasons (social, commercial, economic), the

specialised and purely pictorial painter is dominant. His aims and

methods influence other arts and crafts, but by no means advantageously

as a rule; since, unchecked by judicious ideas of design, attempts are

made in unsuitable materials to produce so-called realistic force, and

superficial and accidental appearances dependent on peculiar qualities

of lighting and atmosphere, quite out of place in any other method than

painting, or in any place but an easel picture.

From such tendencies, such influences as these, in the matter of applied

art and design, we are striving to recover. One of the first results

is, perhaps, this apparently artificial distinction between decorative

and other painting. But along with this we have painters whose easel

pictures are in feeling and treatment quite adaptable as wall and panel

decorations, and they are painters who, as a rule, have studied other

methods in art, and drawn their inspiration from the mode of Mediaeval or

Early Renaissance times.

Much might be said of different methods and materials of work in

decorative painting, but I have hardly space here. The decorative

painter prefers a certain flatness of effect, and therefore such methods

as fresco, in which the colours are laid on while the plaster ground is

wet, and tempera naturally appeal to him. In the latter the colours

ground in water and used with size, or white and yolk of egg, or

prepared with starch, worked on a dry ground, drying lighter than when

they are put on, have a peculiar luminous quality, while the surface is

free from any gloss. Both these methods need direct painting and

finishing as the work proceeds.

By a method of working in ordinary oil colours on a ground of fibrous

plaster, using rectified spirit of turpentine or benzine as a medium,

much of the quality of fresco or tempera may be obtained, with the

advantage that the plaster ground may be a movable panel.

There are, however, other fields for the decorative painter than wall

painting; as, for instance, domestic furniture, which may vary in degree

of elaboration from the highly ornate cassone or marriage coffer of

Mediaeval Italy to the wreaths and sprays which decked chairs and

bed-posts even within our century. There has been of late some revival

of painting as applied chiefly to the panels of cabinets, or the

decoration of piano fronts and cases.

The same causes produce the same results. With the search after, and

desire for, beauty in life, we are again driven to study the laws of

beauty in design and painting; and in so doing painters will find again

the lost thread, the golden link of connection and intimate association

with the sister arts and handicrafts, whereof none is before or after

another, none is greater or less than the other.