Friday, 22 October 2010

Specimens of Ornamental Art by Ludwig Gruner and Emil Braun

Illustration: Painted church friezes from the early 14th century, from Gruner and Braun's Specimens of Ornamental Art, 1850.

In 1850 Specimens of Ornamental Art Selected From The Best Models Of The Classical Epochs was published in London. It was the work of two Germans, Wilhelm Heinrich Ludwig Gruner and August Emil Braun. It was classed then as it often is today, as one of the finest printed books on the decorative arts that has ever been published.

Although definitively published in London, it is thought that the book was actually printed in Berlin where an unprecedented number of colours were used in the process, many of the prints were even finished by hand. A number of these types of publication could, and were often seen as art pieces in their own right. Some volumes had so much lavish and expensive dedication spent on them that they were often published in multiple volumes with long time lapses between publications. The printing run was also often extremely limited, making the title even more desirable.

Illustration: Roman mosaic floor, from Gruner and Braun's Specimens of Ornamental Art, 1850.

As to the Specimens of Ornamental Art, the plates themselves were designed and produced by Gruner while Braun produced the descriptive text that went with the volume. This made good use of both men's innate skills as Gruner was a professional artist and engraver, while Braun was an archaeologist who had worked extensively in Italy.

One of the main reasons that the book was published in England rather than Germany was the fact that Gruner himself was highly connected with the Royal Court in London. He was a confident of Prince Albert and advised him on various aspects concerning both art and design. He was in fact intimately involved in both the Great Exhibition of 1851 held at the Crystal Palace and its after effect, that of the South Kensington Museum which was later to become the Victoria and Albert Museum. Gruner was involved in the procedure of vetting acquisitions for the museum. He was also, to a certain extent at least, a form of mentor to Owen Jones who was to produce his own fine addition to the volumes that highlighted the historical decorative arts, The Grammar of Ornament which was first published six years after Gruner and Braun's book, in 1856.

Illuatration: Painted friezes at the Sante Andrea Church, Vercelli, produced in the 13th century, from Gruner and Braun's Specimens of Ornamental Art, 1850.

Specimens of Ornamental Art was a feast for anyone remotely interested in the ancient, medieval or Renaissance decorative arts of Italy. The four examples given in this article cover the era from Classical Rome, through the thirteenth and fourteenth, to the sixteenth century. They are all highly coloured and finished to an exacting degree. The book itself was dedicated to Prince Albert and is no surprise due to the Prince's particular interest in Italian architecture, decoration and ornament.

Although in some respects this could be seen as an illustrative book dedicated to the flattery of the British monarch and her consort, it is much more. This is a title that coincides with both the Great Exhibition, the founding of the Victoria and Albert Museum and the general fascination that was being both promulgated and nurtured across Europe. It was during this period of the mid-nineteenth century that the serious and scholarly examination of historical decoration and ornament gained the momentum it needed in order to both influence and temper contemporary decoration. Although it could be said that these books were partially responsible for the seemingly endless decorative revivals that swept across Europe and North America during this century, it would perhaps be more accurate to say that the revivals themselves were fairly independent of these historically dedicated decorative arts volumes. By emphasising historical and scholarly accuracy to the period, these books were attempting in their own way to set the record straight and therefore to limit the damage done by the often cavalier character of a number of nineteenth century decorative revivals.

Illustration: Painted ceiling and frieze from the Palazzo Vecchio at Mantua produced in the 16th century, from Gruner and Braun's Specimens of Ornamental Art, 1850.

Although by no means anywhere near as universally popular and well known as Owen Jones The Grammar of Ornament, Gruner and Braun's Specimens of Ornamental Art has its place within the select bibliography that helped to promote the vocabulary of the history of decoration and ornamentation. Although much more familiar to us today, a number of the historical decorative styles would still have seemed unfamiliar and something of a perceived mystery to many in the mid-nineteenth century. Both archaeology and the scholarly pursuit of accuracy in the historical perspective of architecture, decoration and ornament would still have been in their very early stages and book titles such as that produced by Gruner and Braun in 1850, would have been seen as a most valuable addition to the constant widening of that particular knowledge base. In many respects we have to thank the work of so many nineteenth century scholars and activists in so many fields, for the perception and accuracy of the past that we take for granted in our own contemporary world.

Just as a means of explanation and to avoid confusion when looking through the links in the reference links section below, there are two names listed under Gruner, Ludwig and Lewis. These are not separate authors, but are in fact the same man as Ludwig often used the seemingly English version of his name while in England.

Reference links:
Specimens of Ornamental Art Selected From the Best Models of Classical Epochs, Illustrated By Eighty Plates By Lewis Gruner
The decorations of the garden-pavilion in the grounds of Buckingham palace
The terra-cotta architecture of North Italy (XIIth-XVth centuries): Pourtrayed as examples for imitation in other countries;
Descriptions of the plates of Fresco decorations and stuccoes of churches and palaces in Italy during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries
The Ruins And Museums Of Rome: A Guide Book For Travelers, Artists And Lovers Of Antiquity (1854)
Introduction To The Study Of Art-Mythology
The mosaics of the cupola in the "Cappella Chigiana" Sta. Maria del Popolo in Rome

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