Monday, 6 December 2010

Auguste Racinet's Polychromatic Ornament

Illustration: Auguste Racinet. 18th century Tapestries and Damaskeening from Polychromatic Ornament, 1869-1888.

The French nineteenth century illustrator, printer and lecturer Charles Auguste Racinet was a prodigious publisher of various decorative arts volumes. He is probably best known for his ten volume Le Costume Historique which he published between 1876 and 1888. As the title suggests it entailed a detailed selection of historical costume from both European and world history. Racinet produced his other great contribution towards the history of decorative arts and pattern work, starting in 1869 with the initial publication of the first volume of his L'Ornement Polychrome.

Illustration: Auguste Racinet. Gobelins tapestries from Polychromatic Ornament, 1869-1888.

Polychromatic Ornament to give it its 1873 English title was produced over two decades. The first volume contained one hundred full colour plates and was produced in ten instalments between 1869 and 1873. The second and last volume contained 120 equally impressive colour plates and was produced between 1885 and 1887. Like Owen Jones The Grammar of Ornament, Racinet's wide-ranging Polychromatic Ornament concentrated on various, mostly European historical periods along with the decorative and ornamental pattern work the specific eras produced.

Illustration: Auguste Racinet. Manuscript border illustrations from Polychromatic Ornament, 1869-1888.

The actual colour plates of Polychromatic Ornament were produced by a number of the leading contemporary commercial artists in France, so it should be seen that Racinet was perhaps more the general director who guided the framework of the volumes rather than being the artist himself. The colour plates of Polychromatic Ornament have sometimes been criticised for their general vagueness when considering historical and decorative accuracy, and while they may well not be as observationally detailed as perhaps the work of Owen Jones, they still give a good indication of the general description and styling of individual periods.

Illustration: Auguste Racinet. 16th and 17th century strapwork and book bindings from Polychromatic Ornament, 1869-1888.

Racinet meant for his large volumes to be used for the practical purpose of inspiration for contemporary designers and decorators. This was largely the scope of his work. While Owen Jones discussed various aspects of the history of design and decoration and the interaction between cultures and eras, Racinet was more circumspect and considered that theories about the evolution of even European decoration and ornament were far too sketchy in the nineteenth century to be able to make considered judgements. This was not necessarily a criticism of Jones and his Grammar of Ornament per se, but more a natural caution on the part of Racinet. When considering how expansive the knowledge and theories concerning historical and cultural parameters of both Europe and the planet in general were often changing, sometimes drastically, from year to year throughout the nineteenth century, Racinet's stand was hardly surprising. The gradual unveiling throughout the century of the human history of the planet by the increasingly professionally based subject of archaeology, rather than helping to explain and describe the history of cultures and eras, often threw up more questions than answers, with theories veering wildly from the plausible to the plain ridiculous.

Illustration: Auguste Racinet. 16th century ornament from Polychromatic Ornament, 1869-1888.

However, even though Racinet's statement that the Polychromatic Ornament volumes were to be used specifically for practical purposes, it does not change the fact that he had managed, through over two hundred colour plates, to itemise and identify large swathes of historical decoration and ornament. Therefore, in some respects he had been able to document some of the aspects of the intrinsic vocabulary that lay at the heart of the human capacity and need to produce decoration and pattern. These volumes, along with a number of others produced mainly in France, Germany and Britain throughout the nineteenth century, have left us with a valuable collection of not only historical based decoration, ornament and pattern, but also a valuable insight into how the aspect of historical and cultural decoration was both treated and examined in nineteenth century Europe.

Illustration: Auguste Racinet. Middle Ages from Polychromatic Ornament, 1869-1888.

Reference links:
Border Designs: A Treasury of Hundreds of Decorative Designs in Color and Black and White
Auguste Racinet: The Complete Costume History (Jumbo)
Auguste Racinet: The World of Ornament (25)
India - Mogul Emperors by Auguste Racinet 12.00X18.00. Art Poster Print
Racinet's Historic Ornament in Full Color (Dover Pictorial Archive)
Full-Color Picture Sourcebook of Historic Ornament: All 120 Plates from "L'Ornement Polychrome," Series II
Peasant Fashions of Sweden and Norway by Auguste Racinet 12.00X18.00. Art Poster Print
Racinet's Full-Color Pictorial History of Western Costume: With 92 Plates Showing Over 950 Authentic Costumes from the Middle Ages to 1800
Europe - Costumes of Pageantry, 1400-1600 by Auguste Racinet 12.00X18.00. Art Poster Print
Historical Encyclopedia of Costumes
Costumes of Polish Commonfolk, Nineteenth Century by Auguste Racinet 12.00X18.00. Art Poster Print
Racinet's Historic Ornament CD-ROM and Book (Dover Electronic Clip Art)
Variety of Fifteenth Century French Costumes by Auguste Racinet 12.00X18.00. Art Poster Print
Egyptian Columns by Auguste Racinet 12.00X18.00. Art Poster Print
Costumes of Tyrol, Germany by Auguste Racinet 12.00X18.00. Art Poster Print
Assortment of Ornate European Watches and Trinkets by Auguste Racinet 12.00X18.00. Art Poster Print
Royal Items of the Middle Ages by Auguste Racinet 12.00X18.00. Art Poster Print
Designs of the Renaissance by Auguste Racinet 12.00X18.00. Art Poster Print
Sixteenth Century Fashions of the Polish Nobility #1 by Auguste Racinet 12.00X18.00. Art Poster Print
Britons and Gauls by Auguste Racinet 12.00X18.00. Art Poster Print

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