Wednesday, 2 February 2011

Walter Crane, the Four Winds and Corona Vitae

Illustration: Walter Crane. Four Winds ceiling paper design, 1890.

The Four Winds was the title of a ceiling paper design produced by Walter Crane in 1890. The decorative paper, like so many in the nineteenth century, was not meant to appear on its own but was part of a set. It was partnered with his Corona Vitae, the Crown of Life design of the same year. Interiors in the latter nineteenth century were often wallpapered in what would appear to us to be a somewhat excessive nature, with most areas of a room being decorated in one form or another. However, there were specific wallpaper designs for specific areas of a room. Therefore, Crane designed his Four Winds paper purely as a ceiling design, while Corona Vitae was made up of a separate wallpaper design and added frieze.

Both the Four Winds and Corona Vitae were elaborate even by the standards of the day and Crane himself readily admitted that the work he had to do in order to produce the separate patterns was extensive and painstaking. He had to take great care to produce this complex and detailed design work in a form that would balance and harmonise all of the different design areas of both Four Winds and Corona Vitae.

Illustration: Walter Crane. Corona Vitae border frieze wallpaper design, 1890.

This group of wallpaper design work was probably one of the most testing for interior decoration. The visual complexity of the design work and the abundant use of allegorical figures must have been an acquired taste even in the last decade of the nineteenth century. The fact that at the time of manufacture gilding was also offered as an added, though not mandatory attraction for Corona Vitae, must have given the impression that the design work was even more involved, convoluted and heavy, giving an overburdened appearance that must have puzzled many. It is perhaps not surprising that Crane took an increasingly simplified approach after this sequence of decorative work was completed. As the 1890s wore on the full panoply of design and decoration techniques, the vocabulary that had been such a part of Victorian interior design began to lose its appeal and a clearer and less cluttered approach, which was deemed healthier for both mind and body, began to materialise.

Illustration: Walter Crane. Four Winds ceiling paper design, 1890.

However, this does not demean the extraordinary achievement of Crane as a designer. The Four Winds ceiling paper design by itself must have been a remarkable experience and would have dominated any ceiling. Admittedly, the allegorical figures of the winds tightly encircling each other were not on the monumental scale that the first illustration implies. They were in fact little more than 40cm in diameter, but they would still have given a fascinating effect of repeatable swirling circles across a ceiling, giving an effective symbolic impression of the atmospheric winds. The design would also have appeared in a much lighter tone and with a lighter decorative touch so that the atmospheric analogy could be continued. The Corona Vitae wallpapers in comparison are very tightly controlled with little in the way of obvious movement. The figures are produced with a more definite and harder line and often appear frozen, even statuesque. What is also immediately apparent is the amount of confusion and purposeful complication, as opposed to the relative straightforwardness of the Four Winds.

Illustration: Walter Crane. Corona Vitae wallpaper design, 1890.

Walter Crane gave a short explanation of the Corona Vitae sequence of wallpapers, which runs as follows:

Technically speaking, in the design of the field of the pattern and the frieze a suggestion has been taken from the growth and arrangement of the Crown-Imperial, which occurs in both in a more or less abstract form. Symbolically, the design may be understood as generally emblematic of a full, rich and ample life, not without its changes and contrasts but ever springing anew to flower and fruition. While the floral winged Lions, supporting the Crown of Life, indicate its material triumphs; the Sphinxes, on either side of the tree, figure its mystery, and those unanswered problems perpetually presented afresh to humanity in the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge. In the frieze the Crown again appears upheld in triumph by good genii of the house, in full pride of its flowering time, alternating with the fruit-bearing seed after its kind.

This seems an incredibly convoluted explanation of what can only be termed as a relatively cheap form of interior decoration, even by nineteenth century standards. However, it does somehow seem in keeping with the general complexity of the pattern work. It does appear, at least to some extent as if this collection of wallpaper designs were a testament to the experience of Crane and his illustrative capabilities, more than that of a fashionable and transitory interior accessory. What must be remembered as well is that the design work was all block printed and therefore praise should also be given to those workers who produced the papers and not only to those who designed them.

A room filled with Corona Vitae as well as the Four Winds most certainly must have made an unusual statement and those visiting would certainly have left with a lasting impression.

Reference links:
The Art & Illustration of Walter Crane
Walter Crane: The Arts and Crafts, Painting, and Politics (Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in Britis)Illustrations and Ornamentation from The Faerie Queene (Dover Pictorial Archive Series)
Flora's Feast: A Fairy's Festival of Flowers
The Frog Prince and Other Stories
Beauty and the Beast and Other Tales
Walter Crane as a Book Illustrator
Line and Form (1900)
The Victorian Parlour: A Cultural Study (Cambridge Studies in Nineteenth-Century Literature and Culture)
Wallpaper, its history, design and use,
Wallpaper: A History of Style and Trends
The Papered Wall: The History, Patterns and Techniques of Wallpaper, Second Edition

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