I have found nowhere so clear and instructive an exposition of the principles regulating the formation of plants and flowers in their bearing upon Art and decoration as in a series of articles which appeared in this Journal in the years 1878, under the title of “Botany as adapted to the Arts and Art Manufacture,” by Christopher Dresser, some time lecturer on Botany in the Department of Science and Art at South Kensington, and subsequently reproduced in a book now out of print. under the title of “The Art of Decorative Design." (See also “ Unity in Variety, as deduced from the Vegetable Kingdom,” by Christopher Dresser: London, James S. Virtue, 1859; and “Principles of Decorative Design,” by the same author: Cassell, Putter, and Galpin.) As these original sources are not readily accessible now, I have no hesitation in giving, with Dr. Dresser’: pennission, a few of the more striking and important illustrations he supplied, with a summary of his views, in order that I may more easily point out their bearing on the progress and development of Japanese Art.

Decorated initial A from 1878 Art-Journal

LTHOUGH Nature generally works on fixed principles, in which the two halves of a leaf are exactly the same, yet even in this there is occasionally a notable departure, as in the begonia (Fig. 2). Yet the symmetry of the whole plant is secured by the disposition of the leaves of the plant on the axis; the want of correspondence in the two halves of each leaf is compensated by opposing the lesser halves of the leaves to each other, as seen below.

The most common arrangement of flowers, however, is that in which each is composed of a series of units which are precisely similar. Thus in Fig. 3. there are five precisely similar lobes forming the outer ring, five yellow leaves precisely alike forming the next whorl, ten awl-shaped members surmounted with knobs forming the third ring, and five central parts (carpels) constituting the pistil.

Figure 2. Begonia. Right: Figure 3. Stonecrop. [Click on these images for larger pictures.]

But that we may understand how indifferent it is to symmetry that the units of each whorl should, as in this case and the great majority of flowers, be precisely similar and have their halves also alike, let us take the example of the periwinkle. where the halves of the members are unequal—but all pointing one way. The effect of symmetry is equally preserved (Fig. 4). Here we see the flower-leaves (petals) have none of them equal halves. So in the pansy: we find two halves only are alike, but there is no loss of symmetry as the halves are similar; it only demands a peculiar position to make a pleasing variety (Fig. 5). As regards symmetry, therefore, it is obvious that even Lindley’s elastic definition can scarcely be stretched wide enough to embrace all the modes by which Nature secures the end. He says, “ Symmetry may be defined to be the general correspondence of one half of a given object with the other half in structure or other perceptible circumstance.”

Fig. 4. — Periwinkle.. Right: Fig. 5. — Pansy. [Click on these images for larger pictures.]

In regard to the simplicity of the means by which seemingly great complexity and infinite variety are produced, the principles that govern all development are easily traced, and may be reduced to their elements, which scarcely exceed two or three in number. It is an axiom in botany that “whatever is the arrangement of the leaves such‘ is the arrangement of the branches; for the branch is always the product of the bud, and a regular bud is always generated in and developed from the axil of a leaf, or the angle formed by its union with the stem or axis. This reveals the principle on which Nature produces her more complex structures. It is merely a system of repetition, and may be carried to any extent. The complexity is only in appearance and extent, for the unit is invariably more or less simple, as well as the method of its repetition. We may not, however, entirely overlook another principle of almost universal application, in which a new factor in the form of numbers comes into play. \Vhatever may be the numbers of parts in one floral whorl, it is a rule of the vegetable kingdom that such shall either be the number in the other whorls. or some power (multiple) of that number. Thus in the stonecrop the outer whorl is composed of five parts, the next of five, the next of ten (or twice five), and the inner again of five.

Fig. 6.— Guelder-rose. Right: Fig. 7.— Guelder-rose.. [Click on these images for larger pictures.]

These processes of Nature and principles of symmetry must have been discemed more or less clearly by the Japanese in their loving and patient study. They must either have seen or divined how, by repetition and alternation combined, the greatest variety might be educed from the fewest and simplest elements; and this was the secret of their Art. They would see that a flower is made up of four series of parts: “a ring [232/233] of outer leaves, which are usually green; a ring of coloured leaves; a number of awl-shaped or threadlike members, terminated in knobs, which are usually yellow; and a central organ consisting of several portions.” In the arrangement of these parts is set forth the principle of altemation, for the members of the second series do not fall over the parts of the first series (the petals do not fall over the sepals), but fall over the spaces between them—they alternate with them. The parts of the third series do not fall over the constituent members of the second, but between them—they alternate with them; and so with the inner series, the same rule is acted upon, and in its application productive of endless variety, and that intricacy of form which Hogarth eulogizes as “leading the eye in a wanton kind of chase,” the secret charm of which is ever to see in these outward manifestations of beauty the (aura musarum of so much variety—the law of development, the principle of order, the regularity of succession on a geometric basis. A methodical arrangement, invariably followed, is carefully concealed by what is seemingly confused, and without any trace of regularity or rigid rule. “Freedom seems the rule, and not order. The convolvulus winds its way in graceful freedom around the branches of the hawthom bush, and the honeysuckle wanders equally at its own free will amidst the closely packed habitants of the thicket."

Fig. 8.--Pulygonum cuspidatum: Lime-tree.. Right: Fig. 9. [Click on these images for larger pictures.]

But a cursory glance at the guelder-rose will show that the leaves are arranged upon the stem in an orderly manner, that they grow in pairs, which are so placed that when we look upon the top of the branch the leaves are seen to be in four rows. Here two leaves are opposed to each other, one of which passes to the right and one to the left; then one of the next pair advances and one recedes; one of the next pair again passes to the right and one to the left; and so on through the entire length of the branch (Figs. 6 and 7). This is not an uncommon mode of leaf arrangement. A law of order and a fixed method of arrangement prevails uniformly, but its existence is concealed from the eye. In some instances leaves which are not arranged in an opposite or whorled manner, and which were long regarded as being without order in their disposition, so well had it been disguised, were discovered by Bonnet to have a spiral disposition, and were so placed that a thread wound in a corkscrew-like manner around the stem touched the base of every leaf; and this spiral leaf arrangement occurs in a number of modifications which become more and more complicated in character. But all may be traced to the same principle, and have their origin or more simple development in those instances in which the leaves are altemately at either side of the stem, and one only proceeds from the stem at the same level, as they are consecutively higher.

This is the simplest form, or the first of a series, which successively becomes more and more complex. In the lime-tree we no longer find two or more leaves originating in one transverse plane, but the leaves are protruded solitarily at intervals,one at one side and the other at the other alternately (Fig. 8).

Left to right: Fig. 10. Fig. 11. Fig. 12 — Hawthorn. [Click on these images for larger pictures.]

Fig. 10 shows the more complex spiral arrangement of the Colchicum autummale. where one revolution in the spiral thread encounters three leaves, the fourth, or first of the next cycle, being over the first—as shown diagramatically delineated in the Figure. One secret of the infinite diversity produced under this arrangement is found by the variation in different plants of the distance between each leaf. “In some the consecutive --------- " leaves are equidistant; that is, leaf two will It." be removed from leaf one by half the circumference of the stem. The sugar-cane, leek, and daily lily, and most grasses, are illustrations of this mode of arrangement. In another spiral arrangement, as the autumn crocus, the leaves are removed from one another by one-third of the circumference of the stem. In another the leaves are in five rows, and the consecutive leaves in the spiral series are two-fifths of the circumference of the stem apart; this being the case, the spiral thread passes twice round the stem before reaching a leaf situated over the first, while in the instance before given a leaf so situated was arrived at by making one circuit round the stem. This disposition seems very common. being met with in the rose, apple, pear, cherry, and many others, including the poplar and the oak. In some, as in the holly and plantain, “ the spiral series are three-eighths of the circumference of the stem apart, and the spiral thread has to pass three times round the stem before encountering a leaf situated over that with which we start; while in the houseleek, minor convolvulus, and wormwood, the leaves are disposed in thirteen rows, and the consecutive leaves are removed from one another by five-thirteenths of the circumference of the circle, so that it is necessary to follow the spiral thread five times round the stem for the next leaf situated over the one from which we start.” This is called the “elongated repetition,” as distinguished from the principle of radiating repetition common in flowers. In these latter there is an organ formed of one or two members repeated in a circular arrangement (as in Fig. 3). But to show the infinite resources by which variety is secured, however simple the elementary forms or rigid the geometric basis, we find that radiating repetition not only occurs in F/g,1o_ the case of flowers, but is seen in the top ' view of every branch. Thus a top view gives radiating repetition, and a side view elongated repetition. Whatever is the arrangement of branches and leaves, such also is the disposition of flowers and of the floral parts, all equally subject to one orderly principle of development, and the same. Indeed, as Dr. Dresser demonstrates, “all parts are thus protruded in fixed stations, for the only two typical organs of the plant are the leaf and stem; and these in their modifications give rise to all the members of the vegetable structure." And so we get the revelation of the fact, that amidst all the endless variety and beauty in the vegetable world, which seems to carry with it the most perfect freedom from all rigid rules and geometric lines, or mathematical proportions, a principle of order everywhere prevails, in the least as in the greatest; and that plants, whatever their appearance or development, are founded on a- geometric basis, as are the motions of the stars and the celestial spheres themselves. \Ve now see not only how repetition and alternation are principles of plant growth, but manifestly the sources of much of the pleasure we derive from beholding the vegetable and floral world. The true artist seeks from the simple elements of natural beauty to follow Nature’s lines and reproduce new combinations upon some elementary principles for the delight of mankind. S0, at least it seems to me, the ]apanese have ever proceeded in their artistic development and its decorative tendencies, and with no mediocre success. If, as can clearly be shown, repetition with variation—the chief element of which is alternation of similar forms and colours in a certain order of contrast and successionlie at the root of all beautiful combinations in the vegetable world, we see at once how unlimited a field for study in decorative Art Nature supplies when in her least lavish moods. In radiated or elongated repetition of leaves and petals of flowers, or of a spot or stripe of colours, we may trace the original of all the best and choicest ornaments which have found acceptance in differents ages. This repetition of the spot has given rise to a class of patterns termed “ powdering," and when combined with order, it has its most simple form in the repetition of a geometric basis of a dot. This repetition with variation, so constant in nature, has appeared in every style of omamentation which has come down to us from ancient times, and the chief merit of the ]apanese will be found in the more perfect application of the principle and the nearer approach they have made to the Grcat Exemplar, in the richness of the collected products and the felicitous, if not unerring, instinct with which they have drawn from Nature its best lessons. It would be foreign to the object and scope of this article to enter upon any consideration of the more abstract questions connected with the subtlety or strength which may be the properties of different lines or curves. Hogarth’s line of beauty, or a line of life as indicative of vigour and vitality, and the curves used by the Greeks as the most in accordance with their own sense of beauty, and giving the best expression of refinement in form, suggest matter for endless discussion. The Greeks appear to have adopted many curves, from the parabolic to the elliptic, and the cultivated eye feels that curves are least satisfactory which have their halves alike. In Nature these are rarely seen. Dr. Dresser believes that with curves, refinement rests in subtlety, for that line, the constructive origin of which it is most diflicult to detect, is found to be the most beautiful. Thus he says, “ An arc is the least beautiful of curves, for its ongtnus instantly detected. Aportion of the bounding line of an ellipse is more beautiful, for its origin is less apparent—it being struck from two centres. The curve which bounds the egg-shape is more subtle still, because it is struck from three centres; and so on, in ratio to the number of centres employed in the construction of a curve, and its consequent subtlety, is its beauty."

Now, of all curves affected by the Japanese, I think that which bounds the egg shape is their predilection. Given then the selection by instinct of one of the higher and more subtle of curves, and the adoption of the fruitful principle of repetition and alternation, as the conditions of variety and beauty, the Japanese seem to have very early fallen upon the most essential elements of decorative Art in its best form. The discovery of the principle of altemation and repetition in ornamentation, whether in Nature or Art, was, of course, no monopoly of the Japanese. The Egyptians, the Greeks, the Romans, and the Hindoos, all have shown in their decorations how well they understood its value. The echinos, or egg-and-tongue moulding of the Romans (Fig. 11), is an example in point. It consists of oviform centres arranged in a horizontal series, with tongues or arrow-heads between, and alternating with them.

But Nature is not content with altemation and repetition for the production of variety and the highest beauty. There is a certain coyness and artifice in the way in which she conceals the method, and by the device adds a new charm. It is in this direction that it has seemed to me the Japanese have shown a subtlety of tact and truly Oriental patience in extracting the last secret of Nature’s ingenuity wherewith to enrich thework of their own hands. Alternation is only one of Nature’s infinite resources by which provision is made for endless variety and beauty in perfect combination. A confluence of lines where leaves are given off from branches, and branches from stems is continual; but a close observation shows that this “branching [235/236] is concealed by the foliage during the summer months, in which period alone plants present themselves in an ornamental aspect; and while the leaves are given out in countless numbers, the means devised for calling attention from the union of the leaf-stalk with the stem are endless. The bud arises in the angle formed by the upper surface of the leaf-stalk and the stem, and thus acts as the altemating members do in the examples already adduced. The alternation itself, which seems to be designed as a means of calling attention from a union of lines in all cases unsatisfactory, is here further strengthened and supplemented by a device full of grace. “A special provision for so arresting the attention that it shall not fix upon this confluence of lines is also made, for a pair of small leafy or membranous organs (stipules), of a form rich in subtle beauty, conceal this juncture” and the point of weakness. The growth of special organs is substituted for the principle of alternation, and Nature with the one effort secures many ends, while man, in his ignorance and feebleness, is reduced to seek, by many converging means, to attain a single object. This leads to the consideration of other lessons which the study of Nature brings to the artist, as well as to the moralist or naturalist.

The forms of plants and all the parts of a plant are invariably in harmony with the circumstances in which it exists. Thus adaptation should form one of the objects of an artist’s closest study. The trees which grow on high and exposed positions, and the plants destined to flourish on the unsheltered plain, have long and narrow rigid leaves, which best enable them to bear the fury of the tempest; the stems, by their strength combined with elasticity, show a similar adaptation. In all these particulars the Japanese are close observers, and this gives a special charm to many of their slightest works with brush or pencil. If they desire to represent the action of wind, not only the dresses of their figures will convey the impression to the mind, but the grass and flowers with their slender stems will be tumed by the wind, as observes," in the manner of a weathercock —its back to the storm.” All this minuteness of observation tends to create excellence in decorative Art; and l cannot doubt that this patience and minuteness in the study of the vegetable and animal world, both characteristic of the Japanese, has had much to do in suggesting to them the utmost regard to fitness and perfect adaptation, which constitutes one of their great merits.

Related Material


Alcock, Sir Rutherford. “Japanese Art.” Art Journal (1878): 232-36. Hathi Trust Digital Library version of a copy in the University of Michigan Library. Web. 6 September 2013.

Last modified 6 September 2013