Monday, 17 January 2011

Richard Redgrave and Natural Foliage

Illustration: Richard Redgrave. Natural foliage, 1847.

In 1847 the English artist, designer and critic Richard Redgrave, wrote an article entitled Natural Foliage for Designers of Ornament, which appeared in The Art-Union magazine a year later in 1848. It was chiefly an attempt by Redgrave to clarify some of the fundamental tenets of the Design Reform movement that was at this point in time at least, being largely spearheaded by himself and Henry Cole.

Although only a short article, which also contained these three illustrations of naturally observed flora, it did emphasise the practical necessity of acute and first-hand observation of nature in particular. Redgrave encouraged this direct approach towards the analysis of the natural world, rather than the use of secondary material such as the copying of earlier decorative styles. To observe nature through the eyes of another designer or decorator seemed pointless to him, as the connection between the object and the artist was of a personal and unique variety.

Redgrave drew obvious analogies towards the natural symmetry of nature such as can be found in flowers and leaves, which are often though not wholly, balanced and conveniently of near-equal proportions for the designer and decorator. However, he did stress the fact that even within this seemingly obvious symmetry of nature, lay infinite variety with no leaf or flower being a direct copy of another. This was observation beyond the initial or the casual and it was for the student of decoration to understand and ingest the facts of acute examination and then to reflect that within decoration, ornament and pattern.

Illustration: Richard Redgrave. Natural foliage, 1847.

It was this factual and empirical approach to botany that characterised the mid-nineteenth century search for a meaningful, practical and professional approach towards the medium of surface pattern. The science of observation, with its acute analysis of the structure and purpose of each and every plant used in the art of decoration, was foremost in a whole range of public lectures across Britain during this period. Many of these were to end up either in book form or were featured in architecture, art and design magazines. It was as if to understand the fundamental nature of botany was to understand the fundamental nature of decoration. Although the tenets of surface pattern seem often to be more culturally based than with science itself, Redgrave's article should be seen within the context of the period, which was one of expanding horizons, particularly within the sciences.

Although Redgrave was trying to communicate that nature and its observation was the basis of all good decoration, he was still trying to place it within historical context. He stressed the fact that the Greeks were more sympathetic to this more honest approach to observed decoration than the Romans. This has more to do with British critical fashions of the mid-nineteenth century, than necessarily with any true interpretation of the decorative arts of the two Mediterranean cultures. Rome was seen as a direct influence on the European decorative arts of the eighteenth century in particular. The styles of this particular century were being systematically damned by a whole range of British critics on the principle that much of the European decorative arts during this period were ephemeral, ostentatious and rooted in mock grandeur and studied pretentiousness. Many of the critics were supporters of the Gothic Revival, which was portrayed as, if not an indigenous British style, then at least one that was more suited to Northern Europe, a culture that was recognised as being from a different root than that of Rome.

Illustration: Richard Redgrave. Natural foliage, 1847.

However, Redgrave was less enamoured with the medieval and both Cole and himself were more characteristically in tune with the scholarly and defined understanding of the Greek classical world. That this Greek interpretation was also derived from the eighteenth century and had little bearing on the real ancient Greek culture was born out by the work of colourists such as Owen Jones who set out to prove, successfully, that the classical Greek world was very different from the one imagined by Greek classical enthusiasts. Jones unveiled a world of noise and exuberance, a culture of highly coloured temples and statues with little in the way of the whitewashed puritan. That this view took a number of generations to become known fact and today is still not universally accepted, is perhaps the nature of the appeal of the Olympian ideal rather than that of the real culture.

However, this does not negate the work of Redgrave who was well aware that the nineteenth century was unfolding aspects of the world both past and present that were new, controversial and intriguing. This did not change the fact that as far as he was concerned the observation of the natural world was the only real guide to maintaining a high standard of decoration both for the contemporary world he lived in and also for that of the future of the decorative arts in Britain. That in many respects he was proved correct, was born out in the later work of William Morris whose textile designs followed very much the tenets of observational detail. Their longevity and popularity have born out Redgrave's faith in the power of the examination and detailing of the natural world around us and of its full use within the decorative arts.

Reference links:
Manual of design: compiled from the writings and addresses of Richard Redgrave
Fifty Years of Public Work of Sir Henry Cole ... Accounted for in His Deeds, Speeches and Writings [Ed. by a S. and H.L. Cole].
King Cole: A picture portrait of Sir Henry Cole, KCB 1808-1882
Nineteenth-Century Design: From Pugin to Mackintosh
Early Nineteenth Century: Art, Design, and Society, 1789-1852 (Documentary History of Taste in Britain)
Plants and Their Application to Ornament: A Nineteenth-Century Design Primer [PLANTS & THEIR APPLICATION TO]
Pattern book designs of the nineteenth century
Principles of Victorian Decorative Design
Principles of Decorative Design
Pattern Design - A Book For Students Treating In A Practical Way Of The Anatomy - Planning & Evolution Of Repeated Ornament
Lewis F. Day: Unity in Design and Industry

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