[Like the first part of Crane's essay, this one has been transcribed from The Magazine of Art using the Internet Archive version of a copy in the University of Toronto Library. I have used the online images to correct the rough OCR text, and I have added links to material in the Victorian Web. The decorated initial “T” that begins the chapter comes from the original but is probably not by Crane, who did the neo-medieval illuminated capital in the first part. Click on images to enlarge them.—  George P. Landow.]

Cranes's decorated initial T

HE human figure, being the most adaptable of all forms, lends itself to treatment in filling spaces; which brings us to another important principle in designing. Connected with this question of filling spaces, the designer has another primal necessity before him, in the determination of his mass or silhouette. This in itself may be considered as a distinct and most important part of designing, as, apart from plan and line, in contriving the masses of a design any amount of ingenuity and invention may be spent. In adapting a figure to fill a particular proportioned space in decoration, for instance, one would think of it as a mass capable of infinite variation, either as a dark upon a lighter ground, or light upon a dark ground, and requiring modification accordingly. If we were to place a figure on the principle of even symmetrical balance in a panel (like the first of those in the illustration on p. 134), it would be felt to be rather a dull affair. We should try to vary it as much as possible — we should think of an idea — a motif for the action of our figure, and might get a result like the second example, and so we should be led on to vary and enrich according to the aim of our design.

The boundaries of the silhouette will be the rest of the interest of our outline. The determination of the quality of this line and the degree of its emphasis is another very important consideration with the designer, as the expressiveness of his whole design will largely depend upon it. It is, of course, in the ease of applied design, practically determined by the material in which the design is to be rendered. The lead lines necessary in building a stainedglass window, for instance, are taken account of in the cartoon, and so far from being disguised, at once become important decorative elements of the highest value in determining the chief masses of the design.

There is, in fact, no sort of design in the Hat in decoration to which outline is not essential. It may be as fine as an etching-needle or pen can make it, or substantially built up in a row of solid terrerae in mosaic, but it always involves the necessity of expressing its purpose according to its conditions, apart from modelled work in relief, when, though still controlled by line, if is rather the constructive lines of the plan than any actual outline, the decorative effect depending on the pleasant and varied, though ordered, opposition of light and shade.

In dealing with surface spaces or panels, friezes, lunettes, pilasters, and the like, these being all strictly architectural in origin, the designer feels bound to respect both his surface and his boundaries and in making devices to till them should naturally have due regard in relation to them. He docs not wish to cut a hole in his wall, as it were, and, by all the resources of pictorial skill, fasten your attention upon something accidentally seen through it. He wishes to dwell on the architectural character of his conditions, to acknowledge and emphasise the character or proportions of the space he has to deal with, and never try to induce you to forget that he is decorating a surface.

Of the perfect union of this controlling architectural sense with the most delicate and varied artistic and sculpturesque feeling, controlled by the rhythm of design, we must still point to that example of examples — the frieze of the Parthenon. But that frieze, though a thing of beauty, seen as we see it only in fragments, and torn from its proper architectural framing, owes its character, not only to the object and position from which it was designed. but also to the temper and spirit of the people of which it was the expression.

And this shows that the beauty of the most beautiful art is, after all, relative. What should we say if anyone proposed to place the frieze in Westminster Abbey or outside it? What barbarity! Yet here are two religious and monumental works, both beautiful, and yet of a beauty and sentiment so divided in time, so different in spirit, as to be incongruous. Re-establish the lost links of chronological connection, however, and you would get harmony again. Everything, therefore, is relative in design — nay, in all art.

I have spoken of the necessity under which the designer works of systemising his forms and emphasising their characteristics. In this he differs from the painter, as, in an analogous sense, the method of speech and delivery necessary to effect on the stage differs from the ordinary conversational pitch. In the designer's case the degree of naturalism being determined, apart from personal predilection, by three important considerations —

  1. The object to which the design is to be applied.
  2. The material in which it is to be executed.
  3. The conditions under which it will be seen. [131/132]

Crane's examples of adaptation of figures to space.

In painted decorations the imitative facility of the materia] leaves the designer comparatively five. He is only controlled by architectural considerations. In fact, superficial naturalism of effect is rather the snare to be guarded against, since in decoration we do not want the attention to be distracted by bits of literal imitation done for their own sake and unrelated to the general scheme of line and colour. No hard-and-fast line, however, can be drawn here, and there is always a large margin for individual feeling and judgment. It is, however, an ascertained fact that darkly-shaded figures, modelled up to full pictorial relief and chiaroscuro, with all the complexities of foreshortening, do not make good ornament, and the main business of a decorative designer being to ornament, he has little to do with such methods of representation. There are obvious reasons, too, why the attempt to give the superficial facts and effects of nature in decorative design is not successful. The main and controlling scheme of line, the clear silhouette, and counterbalance of masses, which are of the first importance, are sure to be confused and obscured by such a treatment, and that fair and frank system of coloration, on which so much depends — that ornamental treatment of detail, and rich fitting of inter-spaces, must necessarily be interfered with directly they cease to be our chief care in design. They must necessarily suffer when a new aim becomes paramount: and in aiming at pictorial force and literal accuracy of representation, these, and many other valuable qualities, must be sacrificed — to say nothing of those suggestions of romance, poetry, and imagination which are associated with dreams and emblems; and figurative and suggestive, rather than literal, methods of expression. It is certain, whether we look to Classical or Renaissance times, we find the struggle of art to lose itself in superficial naturalism preceding debasement and decay of all design.

The real controlling element in design in decorative painting is on its architectural side — its relation to the wall or panel it decorates, its lighting and position. Such considerations as these determine its form, and it is by meeting and acknowledging such conditions that it gains its peculiar dignity and impressiveness, as we find it exemplified in the churches, palaces, and municipal halls of Italy, where its greatest triumph, have been achieved.

Turning from painting, which is less controlled by its material and conditions, perhaps, than other branches of decorative design, we shall find this necessity of adaptation and control of conditions of material greater.

Adaptation of the figure to space.

Although in some cases it is possible that a [132/133] design may be so constructed as to be adaptable to execution in more than one material, as a general rule, the peculiar conditions of each process of handicraft have to be allowed for, and a design becomes successful, over and above its distinction on grounds of imagination and draughtsmanship, in proportion as it becomes perfectly adapted to the material in which it is carried out in proportion [133/134] as the designer has realised his design already in its proper material, whatever it be, and has felt, as the case may be, the ductility of the metal, and its capacity for "agreeable bossiness;" or the crispness of the wood-carving; the set of threads in the the loom: the emphasis of the embroiderer's needle : the plastic clay of the modeller; jewel-like tesserae of the mosaic work, and leaded glass; the architecture of the printed page; the soft relief of the stamped leather, or the clear gold tooling of the bookbinder.

All these crafts, by the necessities of their existence, impose certain conditions upon the designer which he cannot afford to lose sight of for a moment; and yet' these very conditions give their own particular charm and character to the design as long as they are frankly acknowledged, and that imitative counterfeiting spirit does not intrude — like the snake into Paradise— which would persuade everything to try and look like something else. When the sculptor devotes his skill to tricks which can only he done by the painter, and which even he should lie sparing of: when the painter would emulate the effects of the stage: when the mosaic worker tries to make his mosaic look like painting — all d the embroiderer and the tapestry worker aim in the same direction; when the wood carver tries to cut every feather on a dead bird, and forgets all about the ornamental effect and meaning of the design: when the cotton-printer ties up bundles of artificial flowers (from Paris) with artificial ribbon, and squeezes them on to his chintzes; and the paper-stainer goes and does likewise — then, well, then we may know, by the same tokens, that both the arts and the crafts are in a bad way.

Figures to illustrate the value of variety in silhouettes..

All this points to the conclusion that the designer — if designer pure and simple he is forced to remain — must never lose touch with the craftsman. It would be well, indeed, if he practised some craft himself, as the technical conditions, peculiarities, perhaps difficulties, he would be sure to encounter, would tell him more than any words about it: and the practical experience and suggestion gained would certainly react most favourably upon Ins power of design.

Before the evolution of our industrial epoch of subdivision of labour, machine industry, and centralised markets, the craftsman was his own designer. Handicraft, in fact, did not exist apart from art, and the workshop training and apprenticeship was common to them all. Thus, a painter began as a colour-grinder, ami went through all the technicalities of the studio or workshop before he became master of them. The system is so obviously sensible [134/135] and sound that it seems strange it should ever have been departed from, and, in fact, only was broken up by the pressure of the modern commercial system. and the domination of the money-making ideal.

Some few crafts here and there, closely connected with the humbler and less changeful conditions of the life of the people, have retained their primitive distinction and appropriateness, and remain instances of perfect adaptation of design to materials — such as the brass ornaments of cart and waggon horses, both in this and other countries, which are often beautiful, however simple in design. The common copper water-vessels of the Italian peasantry, and the embossed brass milk cans of Antwerp, are other instances of how much beauty may linger on in the unregarded life of the hewers of wood and the drawers of water. But, alas, the tourist comes by — a brisk manufacture for profit is started, toy models are made of such humble things for the drawingroom table — and the charm is lost.

In such things as these I have mentioned, there is no attempt to be fine, or to get outside the material or its purpose, and shout — "How clever I can be!" which has been the snare of so much post-Eenaissance art. And this is peculiarly the danger we are liable to when the designer is wholly disassociated with, and independent of, the craftsman. Pursued by the Nemesis of commercial competition — the demand for bogus novelty — the designer whips up the jaded Pegasus of his ingenuity and designs something to catch the superficial eye — and the penny — of an indifferent, because uninterested, public, rather than a design fitted to its material and object, in which he takes a personal interest and pleasure. And so, instead of serviceable and suggestively-decorated cupboards and cabinets, tables and chairs, we often get fantastic pieces of architecture in wood, which it would be unwise to keep for show, and which will not stand the test of use.

We have not, I am afraid, escaped out of the jaws of commercial competition, which ruthlessly pursues its way, and we become, in consequence, more and more dependent on the work of machines, or of human beings turned into machines, which, so far as they touch anything in the nature of art — that is, art which depends for its charm upon the personal clement certainly roll it of its variety, beauty, and individuality, and, therefore, of its interest. What would be done to a speaker or musician who kept on repeating the same set of words, or the same phrase in music, without variation? Yet this is precisely what happens in another way with a piece of ornament mechanically reproduced by machinery. Yet I am far from saying there is no place for machinery in art: although the machinery of artist or craftsman [135/136] is generally of the simplest, and has mostly remained the same through long ages, unaffected by that mechanical invention which, in the interests of commerce, has revolutionised industrial production generally.

The reason of the greater richness and beauty of old work is because of its variety. No two bits of a pattern are precise counterparts. The plan and design may be the same, but the hand has, consciously or unconsciously, varied it in the working, as it must inevitably do. These little variations make all the difference in the effect of the whole, and give it life, colour, and character. We have sedulously cultivated mechanical precision, and we ran get it, but at the cost of all other qualities generally— and not least, at the rust of turning our workmen into machines.

The designer is not a scientific analyst, that he should be required to draw up a report on such accidental appearances in nature that may be before him at the moment; neither is he an archeeologist, or a maker of grammars and dictionaries. He is rather the builder of a fair house of dreams, who sees in nature and in the relics and examples of the art of past ages wealth of beautiful and suggestive material — material which he is only at liberty to use on the condition of making it his own — of making it live in fact. Egyptian conciseness and emphasis, Assyrian solidity and vigour, Persian richness and grace, Arabic intricacy, Chinese distinctness and quaintness, Indian elaboration, Grecian severity and simplicity, Byzantine splendour and mystery, Italian grace and sympathy, German phantasy, or French gaiety and romance, with all the finer shades and distinctions of periods and styles — from Classic reserve to Gothic freedom and invention, and modern Japanese impressionism. All these are rich ores, which must be melted and fused by the tires of the imagination till they emerge again from the mind in some new form.

Overshadowed as we now stand by the work in art of successive ages, of such distinct temper and conflicting spirit as we read in turning from the first articulate strokes of primitive man to the conscious and learned artifice of the later Renaissance, the designer of our days may well stand amazed and embarrassed with wealth of material. But, unless he is content to look at the art of the past merely as a huge pattern-book only, of which he will ruthlessly tear page after page for his own patch-work, in his efforts to he all things to all men; unless he is content to be a toy-kaleidoscope maker, and break up fragments of Greek, Mediaeval, Renaissance, Persian, Arabic, Chinese, or what-not, like so many hits of coloured glass, and by a twist of the hand show you new and original designs at a moment's notice; ready to he Greek or Goth as the demands of trade or fashion (which is often only trade's mask) may decide; unless he is content to he a mere dealer in the cast-off clothes of decoration — a mumbler of dead languages, the significance of which has been lost long ago with the life that gave them birth — he must search his heart and find out whither his own sympathies and predilections lead him: he must find out what these dead languages in design signified, and, if he is free to pursue his thought and leisure to think, in the search he will find himself under the necessity of making up his mind about many pressing questions outside the immediate province of design. He will discover that art leads him to its source in the mind and the life of humanity, and that when it is a living thing it is always the fullest expression of that mind and that life, and its colours are the colours of the good and the evil of it. He may find himself between the wings of those spirits of light ami darkness, which, under whatever forms and names, like night and day, constantly overshadow the world and dispute the territory of the human mind between them— the one pointing to despair and indolence, the other to hope and strife.

Crane's tail-piece in The Magazine of Art.

Related Material


Crane, Walter. “Design in Two Parts. Part II.” Magazine of Art 16 (1893): 131-36. Internet Archive version of a copy in the University of Toronto Library. Web. 28 October 2013.

Visual Arts Victorian Design

Last modified 28 October 2013