The History of Pattern-Designing

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(1834 - 1896)
William Morris (24 March 1834 – 3 October 1896) was a British textile designer, poet, novelist, translator and socialist activist associated with the British Arts and Crafts Movement. He was a major contributor to the revival of traditional British textile arts and methods of production. His literary contributions helped to establish the modern fantasy genre, while he helped win acceptance of socialism in fin de siècle Great Britain. (From :


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The History of Pattern-Designing

To give anything like a history of the art of pattern-designing would be impossible within the limits of one lecture, for it would be doing no less than attempting to tell the whole story of architectural or popular art, a vast and most important subject. All I can pretend to do at present is to call your attention to certain things I have noticed in studying the development of the art of pattern-designing from ancient times to modern, and to hint at certain principles that have seemed to me to lie at the bottom of the practice of that art, and certain tendencies which its long course has had. Even in doing this I know I shall have to touch on difficult matters and take some facts for granted that may be, and have been, much disputed; and I must, therefore, even treating the subject thus, claim your indulgence for a necessary curtness and incompleteness.

I have just used the word modern; so to clear the ground for what follows, I will say that by modern art I do not mean the art of the Victorian era. I need not speak of the art of our own day, because, on the one hand, whatever there is of it that is worth considering is eclectic, and is not bound by the chain of tradition to anything that has gone before us; and, on the other hand, whatever of art is left which is in any sense the result of continuous tradition is, and long has been, so degraded as to have lost any claim to be considered as art at all. The present century has no school of art but such as each man of talent or genius makes for himself to serve his craving for the expression of his thought while he is alive, and to perish with his death. The two preceding centuries had indeed styles, which dominated the practice of art, and allowed it to spread more or less widely over the civilized world; but those styles were not alive and progressive, in spite of the feeling of self-sufficiency with which they were looked on by the artists of those days. When the great masters of the Renaissance were gone, they who, strung by the desire of doing something new, turned their mighty hands to the work of destroying the last remains of living popular art, putting in its place for a while the results of their own wonderful individuality: when these great men were dead, and lesser men of the ordinary type were masquerading in their garments, then at last it was seen what the so-called new birth really was; then we could see that it was the fever of the strong man yearning to accomplish something before his death, not the simple hope of the child, who has long years of life and growth before him. Now the art, whose sickness this feverish energy marked, is the art which I should call modern art. Its very first roots were spreading when the Roman Empire was tending towards disruption; its last heavily fruited branches were aloft in air when feudal Europe first felt shaken by the coming storm of revolution in Church and State, and the crown of the new Holy Roman Empire was on the eve of changing from gold to tinsel. Three great buildings mark its first feeble beginning, its vigorous early life, its last hiding away beneath the rubbish heaps of pedantry and hopelessness. I venture to call those three buildings in their present state, the first the strangest, the second the most beautiful, the third the ugliest of the buildings raised in Europe before the nineteenth century. The first of these is the Palace of Diocletian at Spalato; the second, the Church of St Sophia at Constantinople; the third, the Church of St Peter at Rome.

At Spalato the movement of new life was first felt. There is much about the building that is downright ugly, still more that is but a mass of worn-out tradition; but there first, as far as we know, is visible the attempt to throw off the swathings of ill-understood Greek art, with which Roman architecture had encumbered itself, and to make that architecture reasonable, and consistent with the living principles of art. But at Spalato, though the art was trying to be alive, it was scarcely alive, and what life is in it is shown in its construction only, and not in its ornamentation. Our second building, St Sophia, early as it is in the history of the art, has utterly thrown aside all pedantic encumbrances, and is most vigorously alive. It has gathered to itself all those elements of change which, having been kept apart for so long, were at last mingled and seething, and bringing about so many changes, so much of death and life. It is not bound by the past, but it has garnered all that there was in it which was fit to live and produce fresh life; it is the living child and the fruitful mother of art, past and future. That, even more than the loveliness which it drew forth from its own present, is what makes it the crown of all the great buildings of the world.

The new-born art was long in coming to this. Spalato was built about 313 A.D., St Sophia in 530. More than two hundred years are between them, by no means fertile of beautiful or remarkable buildings; but St Sophia once built, the earth began to blossom with beautiful buildings, and the thousand years that lie between the date of St Sophia and the date of St Peter at Rome may well be called the building age of the world. But when those years were over, in Italy at least, the change was fully come; and, as a symbol of that change, there stood on the site of the great mass of history and art which was once called the Basilica of St Peter, the new Church of St Peter which still curses the mightiest city of the world; the very type, it seems to me, of pride and tyranny, of all that crushes out the love of art in simple people, and makes art a toy of little estimation for the idle hours of the rich and cultivated. Between that time and this, art has been shut up in prison; all I can say of it in that condition is that I hope it has not died there. We can draw no lesson from its prison days save a spurring on to whatsoever of hope and indignant agitation for its release we may each of us be capable of. As an epoch of art it can teach us nothing; so the nearest possible period to our own days must stand for modern art; and to my mind that is the period between the days of the Emperor Justinian and the Emperor Charles the Fifth; while we must call ancient art all the long period from the beginning of things to the time of Justinian and St Sophia of Constantinople.

And now I will set about my business of noting certain things which have happened to the very subordinate art of pattern-designing in its various changes, from those earliest days till the time when it was landed amid that rich and varied time of modern art aforementioned. Let us consider what place it held among the ancient peoples, classical and barbarian; you will understand what I mean by those words without pressing home their literal meanings. Broadly speaking, one may say that the use of this subordinate, but by no means unimportant art is to enliven with beauty and incident what would otherwise be a blank space, wheresoever or whatsoever it may be. The absolute necessities of the art are beauty of color and restfulness of form. More definite qualities than these it need not have. Its color may be brought about by the simplest combinations; its form may be merely that of abstract lines or spaces, and need not of necessity have any distinct meaning, or tell any story expressible in words. On the other hand, it is necessary to the purity of the art that its form and color, when these bear any relation to the facts of nature (as for the more part they do), should be suggestive of such facts, and not descriptive of them.

Now all the art of the ancient historical world is in a way one, and has similar and sympathetic thoughts to express. I mean that there is a much wider gulf between the ideas of that part of ancient art which comes nearest in thought to modern, than there is between any two parts of ancient art that are furthest from one another. Nevertheless there are wide differences between the art of the different races of the ancient world. Ancient art, in fact, falls naturally into two divisions; the first is archaic, in style at least, if not always in date. It is mostly priestly and symbolic; lacking, willingly or not, the power of expressing natural facts definitely and accurately. It is mystic, wild, and elevated in its spiritual part, its soul; limited, incomplete, often grotesque in its form, its bodily part. The other ancient art is only priestly and symbolic accidentally, and not essentially. I mean that, since this priestly symbolism clung to it, it did not take the trouble to cast it off, but used it and expressed it; but would as willingly and easily have expressed purely intellectual or moral ideas. Furthermore, it is an art of perfection; it has perfectly attained the power of expressing what thoughts it allows itself, and will never forego any whit of that power, or tolerate any weakness or shortcoming in it. Whatever its soul may be, its body at least it will not have incomplete.

Of the first of these arts, ancient Egypt is the representative; of the second, classical Greece; and we must admit that in each of these systems the art of mere pattern-designing takes but an unimportant place. In Egyptian art, and the school which it represents, the picture-work itself was so limited by rule, so entirely suggestive only, that a certain canon of proportion having been once invented and established, it was easy and effortless work for a people who were full of feeling for quiet beauty; and, moreover, suggestion, not imitation, being the end aimed at, the picture-work easily, and without straining, fulfilled any office of decoration it was put to; so that the story which was necessary to be told on religious or public grounds became the very ornament which, merely as a matter of pleasant color and line, the eye would most desire. In more modern and less forbearing art the pictured wall is apt to become a window through which a man quietly at work or resting looks on some great tragedy, some sad memory of the past, or terrible threat for the future. The constant companionship of such deeply emotional representations are too apt to trouble us at first, and at last to make us callous, because they are always claiming our attention, whether we are in a mood to be stirred by them or not. But in the older and more suggestive art the great subjects, symbolized rather than represented by its pictures, only reached the mind through the eye when the mind was awake and ready to receive them. The wall was a wall still, and not a window; nay, a book rather, where, it you would, you might read the stories of the gods and heroes, and whose characters, whether you read them or not, delighted you always with the beauty of their form and color. Moreover, the expression of these great things being so well understood and so limited, it was not above the powers of execution of numbers of average workmen, and there was no danger of the holy and elevating subjects being treated absurdly or stupidly, so as to wound the feelings of serious men.

For all these reasons there is in the archaic or suggestive art of the ancients scarce any place for the elaborate pattern-designing which in later times men were driven more or less to put in the place of picture-work, now become more liable to ridiculous and ignoble failure, more exciting to the emotions, less restful, and therefore less beautiful than it had been.

On the other hand, in the perfect art of Greece the tendency was so decidedly towards fact of all kinds, that it could only give a very low place to ornament that had not a quite definite meaning; and its demand for perfection in quality of workmanship deprived effort of all hope of reward in this lower region of art, and crushed all experiment, all invention and imagination. In short, this perfect art preferred blankness to the richness that might be given by the work of an unrefined or imperfectly taught hand, whatever suggestions of beauty or thought might be in it; therefore, as in the art of Egypt picture-work was not thought too good to fill the place of the elaborate pattern-work we are thinking of, so in that of Greece mere emptiness was good enough for the purpose; so that in both cases there was no room for finished and complete pattern-designing; nor was there in any of the schools of ancient art, all of which, as aforesaid, tended either to the Greek or the Egyptian way of looking at things. So you see we are met by this difficulty in the outset, that wishing to see whence our art of pattern-designing has been developed in the Ancient World, we find but little of any importance that looks like the seed of it. However, let us look at the matter a little closer, beginning with the art of Egypt. If it had no place for the elaborate and imaginative pattern-designs of modern art, at any rate it by no means loved blank spaces. Apart from the histories and the picture-writing which so often cover walls, pillars, and all, even smaller things, kings' robes. musical instruments, ship-sails, and the like, are striped and diapered with variety enough and with abundant fancy, invention and delicacy. Many of these patterns are familiar to modern art; but to what extent they owe their presence there to the influence of Egypt I do not know, but rather suppose that they are the result of men's invention taking the same path in diverse times and places, and not of direct transmission; and this all the more as I cannot see that Greek pattern-designs follow the Egyptian work closely. One thing certainly strikes one about many of these early designs of Egypt which does connect them with what follows, and that is that they seem distinctly not only Eastern, but even African. Take as an indication of this their love for stripes and checkers, that look as if they were borrowed from the mat-maker's craft, and compare them with the work of African tribes and people, so late as up to our own time. The Egyptian love of color is also of the East, and their boldness in the use of it, and the ease and success with which they put one bright tint beside another without shading or gradation. On this point it is interesting to note that whatever willful shortcomings clung to ancient Egypt in its dealings with the higher forms of art, its skill in all handicrafts was a wonder and a lesson to the ancient world. Fourteen hundred years before Christ they understood perfectly what may fairly be called the mysteries of figure-weaving and dyeing, even the more abstruse part of the last craft, which is now represented by chintz-printing; they were skilled in glass-making and pottery, not merely in the always early-acquired art of making a vessel that shall hold water, but in that of earthenware glazed with an opaque glaze variously colored and figured; and lastly, they were as skillful joiners and cabinetmakers as their successors of modern Egypt, who are (or were) so clever in making the most of the little scraps of wood which an untimbered country affords them.

With all this, and strange as it may seem, I cannot see that this wonderful art which lasted so many hundred years, which had reached its blossoming-time fourteen hundred years before Christ, and was still in use in the second century after, has had much direct or lasting influence on the modern pattern-designer's art. Doubtless these flowers here look as if they might have been the prototypes of many that were drawn in the fourteenth century of our era; but you must remember that, though they are conventional and stiffly drawn, they are parts of a picture, and stand for the assertion that flowers grew in such and such a place. They are not used in mere fancy and sportiveness; which condition of art indeed, as I said before, will be found to be common to all these primitive archaic styles. Scarce anything is drawn which is not meant to tell a definite story; so that many of the members of the elaborate Egyptian diapers are symbols of the mysteries of nature and religion; as, for example, the lotus, the scarab, the winged orb, the hooded and winged serpent.

I suppose that there is no doubt that the gigantic and awful temples of Egypt are the earliest columnar buildings of which the world knows; nevertheless, I cannot think that the columnar Greek temple was derived from them, whatever of detail the Greeks borrowed frankly and obviously from them. The enormous and terrible scale on which they are designed, and especially the battering in of walls and door-jambs, which adds such gloom to these primeval buildings, surely shows that one at least, and that the most venerated, of the types of the Egyptian temple was a cave, and that their pillars are the masses left to support the huge weight of the hillside; while, on the other hand, it is not easy to doubt that timber-building was the origin of the Greek temple. The Greek pillar was a wooden post, its lintel a timber beam, and the whole building a holy memory of the earlier days of the race and the little wooden hall that housed the great men and gods of the tribe. Nevertheless, the two forms of capital which have gone round the world, the cushion or lotus-bud form, and the bell-shaped or open-lily form, are certainly the forms of Egyptian capitals, nor has any other radical form been invented in architecture, or perhaps can be. Whether these have been taken consciously or unconsciously from the first finished art of the world who can affirm or deny?

Now before we venture to insult the aristocratically perfect art of Periclean Greece by making an important matter of what it despised, and trying to connect the work of its hewers of wood and drawers of water with the crafts of modern Europe, let us look a little into the art of another river-valley, the land between Tigris and Euphrates. This art is important enough to our immediate subject, quite apart from the wonderful historical interest of the great empires that ruled there; but there are left no such riches of antiquity to help us as in Egypt. Of Babylon, who was the mother of the arts of those regions, there is but little left, and that little not of the art in which she most excelled. What is left, joined to the derived art of Assyria, which is almost all that represents the earlier Babylonian art, seems to show us that if more yet had survived we might be nearer to solving the question of the origin of a great part of our pattern-designs; and this all the more as color was an essential of its master-art. The Babylonians built in brick (sunburnt much of it), and ornamented their wall-spaces with painted pottery, which (taking the whole story into consideration) must surely have been the source from which flowed all the art of pottery of Persia, and the kindred or neighbor lands of the East. From the very nature of this art, there are but a few scraps of it left, as I have said, and Assyrian art must fill the gap for us as well as it can. The great slabs of alabaster with which that people decorated the palaces raised on their mounds of sunburnt bricks, these things with which we are so familiar, that we are almost likely to forget the wonder that lies in them, tell us without a doubt what the type of Mesopotamian art was. It had started, like that of Egypt, from the archaic and priestly idea of art; but, in Assyrian days at least, had grown less venerable and more realistic, less beautiful also, and, if one may say so, possessed by a certain truculence both of form and spirit, which expresses well enough the ceaseless violence and robbery which is all that we have recorded of the history of Assyria. Its pattern-designing takes a lower place than that of Egypt, as far as we can judge in the absence or decay of what color it once had. Its system of color (one must needs judge from the fragments remaining) showed no great love for that side of the art, and was used rather to help the realism to which it tended, and which, had it lived longer, would most likely have driven it out of the path of monumental and decorative art. Nevertheless, by strange accidents in the course of history, there are some of the forms of its decoration that have been carried forward into the general mass of civilized art. A great part of its patterns, indeed, were diapers or powderings, like much of Egyptian work, only carried out in a bossy, rounded kind of relief, characteristic enough of its general tendencies. These minor and natural forms died out with the Assyrian monarchy; but several of its borderings were borrowed by the Greeks, doubtless through the Asiatic traders, who on their own wares seem to have used both Egyptian and Chaldean mythological figures without understanding their meaning, simply because they made pretty ornaments for a bowl or a vase. As an example of these running patterns, take the interlacement which we now nickname the guilloche, or the ornament called the honeysuckle, which I rather suppose to be a suggestion of a tuft of flowers and leaves breaking through the earth, and which learned men think had a mystical meaning beyond that simple idea, like that other bordering, which, for want of a better name, I must call the flower and pine-cone.

There is another mystical ornament which we first come upon in Assyrian art, which we shall have to come to again, but which I must mention here, and which has played a strangely important part in the history of pattern-designing; this is the Holy Tree with its attendant guardian angels or demons. Almost all original styles have used this form; some, doubtless, as a religious symbol, most driven by vague tradition and allured by its convenience as a decorative form. I should call it the most important and widely spread piece of ornament ever invented.

Again, before we affront the majesty of Pallas Athene by looking curiously at her sleeve-hem, rather than reverently at herself, I must say a word about the conquerors of Assyria, the Persians. To us pattern-designers, Persia has become a holy land, for there in the process of time our art was perfected, and thence above all places it spread to cover for a while the world, east and west. But in the hierarchy of ancient art the place of Persia is not high; its sculpture was borrowed directly from Assyrian and Babylonian art, and has not the life and vigor of its prototype; though some gain it has of architectural dignity, which the Aryan stock of the Persians accounts for, I think. Still more is this shown in the leap the Persians took in architecture proper. The palaces of the Assyrian kings do not know, or do not use the column; they are one and all a congeries of not very large chambers connected by doors very oddly placed. How they were roofed we can no longer tell; probably the smaller chambers had some kind of dome for a roof, and the larger no roof, only a sort of ledge projecting from the wall. The palace of the ancient Persians, on the other hand, was fairly made up of columns; the walls could not have been of much importance; the whole thing is as a forest of pillars that upholds the canopy over the summer-seat of the great king. For the rest, though this is the work of an Aryan race, that race had far to go and much to suffer before they could attain to the measured, grave, and orderly beauty which they alone of all races have learned to create, before they could attain to the divine art of reasonable architecture. The majesty of the ancient Persian columnar building is marred by extravagance and grotesquery of detail, which must be called ugliness; faults which it shares with the ancient architecture of India, of the earlier form of which it must have been an offshoot.

We have thus touched, lightly enough, on the principal styles of the archaic type of art; and have seen that our craft of pattern-designing was developed but slowly among them, and that, with few exceptions, its forms did not travel very far on the road of history. We are now come to that period of perfection which, as it were, draws a bar of light across the history of art, and is apt to dazzle us and blind us to all that lies on either side of it. As we pass from the Egyptian and Assyrian rooms at the British Museum and come upon the great groups of the Parthenon, full as we may be of admiration for the nobility of the Egyptian monuments, and the eager and struggling realism of Assyria, how our wonder rises as we look on the perfection of sculpture, cut off as it seems by an impassable gulf from all that has gone before it, the hopeless limitations, or the hopeless endeavors of the great mass of mankind! Nor can we help asking ourselves the question if art can go any further, or what there is to do after such work. Indeed the question is a hard one, and aftertimes of art, and even many cultivated people of to-day, may be blamed but lightly if they, in their helplessness, must needs answer: There is nothing to do but to imitate, and again to imitate, and to pick up what style the gods may give us amid our imitation, even if we are driven to imitate the imitators. And yet, I must ask you above all things to join me in thinking that the question must be answered in quite a different way from this, unless we are to be for ever the barbarians which the Athenians of the time of Pericles would certainly, and not so wrongly, have called us; for to me these works of perfection do not express everything which the archaic work suggested, and which they might have expressed if they had dared to try it: still less do they express all that the later work strove to express, often maybe with halting skill, seldom without some vision of the essence of things; which would have been lost to us for ever had they waited for the day, never to come, when the hand of man shall be equal to his thought, and no skill be lacking him to tell us of the height and depth of his aspirations. No, even these men of Ancient Greece had their limitations, nor was it altogether better with them than it is with us; the freedom of these free people was a narrow freedom. True, they lived a simple life, and did not know of that great curse and bane of art which we call luxury: yet was their society founded on slavery; slavery, mental as well as bodily, of the greater part of mankind, the iron exclusiveness which first bound their society, after no long while unsettled it, and at last destroyed it. When we think of all that classical art represents, and all that it hides and buries, of its pretensions and its shortcomings, surely we shall not accuse the Fates too loudly of blindness for overthrowing it, or think that the confusion and misery of the times that followed it was too great a price to pay for fresh life and its token, change of the forms of art which express men's thoughts.

Now if you should think I have got on to matters over serious for our small subject of pattern-designing, I will say, first, that even these lesser arts, being produced by man's intelligence, cannot really be separated from the greater, the more purely intellectual ones, or from the life which creates both; and next, that to my mind the tokens of the incompleteness of freedom among the classical peoples, and their aristocratic and rigid exclusiveness, are as obvious in one side of their art, as their glorious simplicity of life and respect for individuality of mind among the favored few are obvious in the other side of it; and it is in our subject matter of to-day that their worser part shows.

The pattern-designs of Greek art, under a system which forbade any meddling with figure-work by men who could not draw the human figure unexceptionably, must have been the main resource of their lower artists, what we call artisans; they are generally, though not always, thoroughly well fitted for the purpose of decoration which they are meant to serve, but neither are, nor pretend to be, of any interest in themselves: they are graceful, indeed, where the Assyrian ones are clumsy, temperate where those of Egypt are over florid; but they have not, and do not pretend to have, any share of the richness, the mastery, or the individuality of nature, as much of the ornament of the earlier periods, and most of that of the later, has had. I must ask you not to misunderstand me and suppose that I think lightly of the necessity for the due and even severe subordination of architectural ornament; what I do want you to understand is, that the constant demand which Greek art made for perfection on every side was not an unmixed gain to it, for it made renunciation of many delightful things a necessity, and not unseldom drove it into being hard and unsympathetic. Of the system of Greek color we can know very little, from the scanty remains that are left us. I think they painted much of their carving and sculpture in a way that would rather frighten our good taste - to hear of, I mean, though probably not to see. Some people, on the other hand, have supposed that they were all but colorblind, a guess that we need not discuss at great length. What is to be said of it is, that certain words which to us express definite tints of color are used in their literature, and that of Rome which imitated it, in such a way as to show that they noticed the difference between tones of colors more than that between tints. For the rest, it would be unreasonable to suppose that a people who despised the lesser arts, and who were on the look-out, first for scientific and historic facts, and next for beauty of form, should give themselves up to indulgence in the refinements of color. The two conditions of mind are incompatible.

As to what the development of pattern-designs owes to Greek art, all that side of the craft which, coming directly and consciously from classical civilization, has helped to form the ornament of modern architecture, has, whoever invented the patterns, originally passed through the severe school of Greece, and thus been transmitted to us. Of all these ornamental forms the most important is that we choose to call the acanthus leaf, which was borne forward with the complete development of the column and capital. As I have said before, the form of the timber hall, with its low-pitched roof, its posts and beams, had got to be considered a holy form by the Greeks, and they did not care to carry dignified architecture further, or invent any more elaborate form of construction; but the prodigious care they took in refining the column with its cushion, or horned, or bell-shaped capital, impressed those forms on the world for ever, and especially the last of these, the bell-shaped one, whose special ornament was this glittering leafage we now call acanthus. No form of ornament has gone so far, or lasted so long as this; it has been infinitely varied, used by almost all following styles in one shape or another, and performed many another office besides its original one.

Now this question of the transmission of the forms of Greek architecture leads us at once to thinking of that of Rome, since it was by this road that all of it went which was consciously accepted as a gift of the classical times. The subject of the origin of all that is characteristic in Roman art is obscure enough, much too obscure for my little knowledge even to attempt to see into it; nay, even in speaking of it, I had better call it the art of the peoples collected under the Roman name, so that I may be understood to include all the influences that went to its creation. Now if we are asked what impression the gathered art of these peoples made upon modern art, I see nothing for it but to say that it invented architecture; no less. Before their time, indeed, temples took such and such forms among diverse nations, and such and such ornament grew on them; but what else was done with these styles we really do not know; a frivolous pleasure-town built in a late period, and situate in Italy, which destruction, so to say, has preserved for us, being the only token left to show what a Greek house might perhaps have been like. For the rest, in spite of all the wonders of Greek sculpture, we must needs think that the Greeks had done little to fix the future architecture of the world: there was no elasticity or power of growth about the style; right in its own country, used for the worship and aspirations which first gave it birth, it could not be used for anything else. But with the architecture of the men of the Roman name it was quite different. In the first place they seized on the great invention of the arch, the most important invention to house-needing men that has been, or can be made. They did not invent it themselves of course, since it was known in ancient Egypt, and apparently not uncommon in brick-building Babylonia; but they were the first who used it otherwise then as an ugly necessity, and, in so using it, they settled what the architecture of civilization must henceforward be. Nor was their architecture, stately as it was, any longer fit for nothing but a temple, a holy railing for the shrine or symbol of the god; it was fit for one purpose as for another - church, house, aqueduct, market-place, or castle; nor was it the style of one country or one climate: it would fit itself to north or south, snow-storm or sand-storm alike. Though pedants might make inflexible rules for its practice when it was dead or dying, when it was alive it did not bind itself too strictly to rule, but followed, in its constructive part at least, the law of nature; in short, it was a new art, the great art of civilization.

True it is that what we have been saying of it applies to it as a style of building chiefly; in matters of ornament the arts of the conquered did completely take the conqueror captive, and not till the glory of Rome was waning, and its dominion become a tax-gathering machine, did it even begin to strive to shake off the fetters of Greece; and still, through all those centuries, the Roman lords of the world thought the little timber god's-house a holy form, and necessary to be impressed on all stately architecture. It is a matter of course that the part of the architectural ornament of the Romans which may be definitely called pattern-design shared fully in this slavery; it was altered and somewhat spoiled Greek work, less refined and less forbearing. Great swinging scrolls, mostly formed of the acanthus foliage, not very various or delicate in their growth, mingled with heavy rolling flowers, form the main part of the Roman pattern-design that clave to the arts. There is no mystery in them, and little interest in their growth, though they are rich and handsome; indeed they scarcely do grow at all, they are rather stuck together; for the real connected pattern where one member grows naturally and necessarily out of another, where the whole thing is alive as a real tree or flower is, all this is an invention of what followed Roman art, and is unknown both to the classical and the ancient world. Nevertheless, this invention, when it came, clothed its soul in a body which was chiefly formed of the Graeco-Roman ornament, so that this splendid Roman scroll-work, though not very beautiful in itself, is the parent of very beautiful things. It is perhaps in the noble craft of the mosaic, which is a special craft of the Roman name, that the foreshadowing of the new art is best seen. In the remains of this art you may note the growing formation of more mysterious and more connected, as well as freer and more naturalistic design; their color, often in spite of the limitation forced on the workman by simple materials, is skillfully arranged and beautiful; and, in short, there is a sign in them of the coming of the wave of that great change which was to turn late Roman art, the last of the old, into Byzantine art, the first of the new.

It lingered long. For long there was still some show of life in the sick art of the older world; that art had been so powerful, so systemized, that it was not easy to get rid even of its dead body. The first stirrings of change were felt in the master-art of architecture, or, once more, in the art of building. As I said before in speaking of the earliest building that shows this movement, the Palace at Spalato, the ornamental side of the art lagged long behind the constructional. In that building you see for the first time the arch acting freely, and without the sham support of the Greek beam-architecture; henceforth, the five orders are but pieces of history, until the time when they were used by the new pedants of the Renaissance to enthralled the world again.

Note now, that this first change of architecture marks a new world and new thoughts arising. Diocletian's palace was built but a few years before the Roman tyranny was rent in twain. When it was raised, that which men thought would last for ever had been already smitten with its death-stroke. Let your minds go back through all the centuries to look on the years that followed, and see how the whole world is changing; unheard-of peoples thrusting on into Europe; nation mingling with nation, and blood with blood; the old classical exclusiveness is gone for ever. Greek, Roman, Barbarian, are words still used, but the old meaning has departed from them; nay, even, they may mean pretty much the reverse of what they did. Dacians, Armenians, Arabs, Goths; from these come the captains of the Roman name; and when the Roman army goes afield, marching now as often to defeat as victory, it may well be that no Italian goes in its ranks to meet the enemies of Rome. More wonder is it, therefore, that the forms of the old world clave so close to art, than that a new art was slowly and unobtrusively getting ready to meet the new thoughts and aspirations of mankind; that modern art was near its birth, though modern Europe was born before its art was born.

Meanwhile let us turn aside from Europe to look for a little at the new birth of an ancient nation - Persia, to wit; and see what part it took in carrying on the forms of decoration from the old world into the new. I will ask you to remember that, after the contest between Persia and Greece had been ended by Alexander, and when his dream of a vast European-Asiatic Empire, infused throughout with Hellenic thought and life, had but brought about various knots of anarchical and self-seeking tyrannies, a new and masterful people changed the story; and Persia, with the surrounding countries, fell under the dominion of the Parthians, a people of a race whose office in the furthering of civilization is perhaps the punishment of its crimes. The ancient Parthians, like the modern Ottomans, scarcely mingled with the nations which they conquered, but rather encamped among them. Like the Ottomans, also, the decline of their warlike powers by no means kept pace with the decline of their powers of rule, or the steady advance of their inevitable doom. Artabanus, the last of the Parthian kings, turned from the victorious field of Nisibis, where he had overcome the men of the Roman name, to meet the rising of his Persian subjects; which, in three days of bloody battle, swept away his life and the dominion of his race. A curious lesson, by the way, to warring tyrannies. The Roman Empire had contended long with the Parthian kingdom, had wrested many a province from it and weakened it sorely, all for this, that it might give birth to the greatest and most dangerous enemy of the Roman Empire, and one who was soon to humiliate it so grievously.

Now as to the art of these kingdoms. That of the Parthians must be set aside by treating it in the way which was used by the worthy Norwegian merchant in writing of the snakes in Iceland; there was no art among the Parthians, no native art, that is to say, and scarcely any borrowed art which they made quasi-native. In earlier times Greek hands fashioned their coins and such-like matters; in later they borrowed their art from the borrowed art of their Persian subjects, with whom, doubtless, they were often confused by classical writers. Neither can I say that of the art of the new-born Persian kingdom there is much left that is important in itself. I have said that much of the art of Achemenian Persia was borrowed directly from Assyria, its wild and strange columnar architecture being the only part of it that seems to bear any relation to the Aryan race. For three hundred and fifty years the Persians lay under the domination of Turan, and certainly, to judge from what we know of their architecture during and after that time they were not receptive of ideas from other branches of their race.

The most notable works of the new-born or Sassanian Kingdom of Persia are certain rock-sculptured monuments of diverse dates, the earliest being that which commemorates Sapor the Great, and his triumph over the Roman Emperor Valerian, which happened in 260, only forty years after Artaxerxes, the first Sassanian king, had overthrown and slain the last of the Parthians on the field of Hormuz. To my mind these sculptures still show the influence of that Assyrian or Chaldean art, which is the first form that art took in Persia, though they are by no means lacking in original feeling, and are obviously and most interestingly careful in matters of costume, the Romans being dressed as Romans, and the Persians in their national dress; the chief difference between this and the costume of the Achemenian time being in the strange and, I suppose, symbolical head-dress of Sapor himself, who wears over his crown an enormous globe, seemingly made of some light material inflated. There is no mere ornamental detail in these sculptures; but in a monument to Chosroes the Second, whose reign began in 590, there is a good deal of it; and in this the Chaldean influence is unmistakable, and all the more marked, since it is mingled with visible imitation of late Roman figure-sculpture as well as with inferior work of the kind found in Sapor's monument. The existence of this Chaldean influence is all the more important to note because of its late date.

Besides these sculptured works, there are also left in Persia and Mesopotamia some remains of important Sassanian buildings, which, however scanty, are of great interest. To what earlier style is due the origin of their characteristic features it would be impossible to say; but one thing is clear to me, that some of those features at least have been fixed on modern Persian architecture; as, for example, the egg-shaped dome, and the great cavernous porch with the small doorway pierced in its inside wall, both of which features are special characteristics of that modern Persian architecture which is in fact the art of the Mussulman world. A word must be said further on a feature of the Sassanian architecture that lies nearer to our subject, the capitals of columns still existing. The outline of these is curiously like that of fully developed Byzantine architecture; the carved ornament on them is in various degrees influenced by ancient Chaldean art, being in some cases identical with the later Assyrian pattern-work, in others mingled with impressions of Roman ornament; but the general effect of them in any case shows a very remarkable likeness to the ruder capitals of the time of Justinian, more especially to his work at Ravenna, a fact to be carefully noted in connection with the development of that art.

Some very rich and lovely architectural carving at the palace of Mashita, wrought late in the Sassanian time, about 630, bears a strong resemblance to elaborate Byzantine work at its best; it might almost be work of Comnenian Greeks at Venice or Milan: nevertheless, and this also I beg you to remember, it is as like as possible to designs on carpets and tiles done nearly a thousand years after the battle of Cadesia, under the rule of Shah Abbas the Great. Furthermore, I believe the Persians have preserved and handed down to later ages certain forms of ornament which, above all, must be considered parts of pattern-designing, and which have clung to that art with singular tenacity. These forms are variations of the mystic symbols of the Holy Tree, and the Holy Fire. The subject of the shapes these have taken, and the reasons for their use and the diversities of them, is a difficult and obscure one; so I must, before I go further, remind you that I lay no claims to mythological and ethnological learning, and if I blunder while I touch on these subjects (as I cannot help doing) I shall be very glad of correction from any one who understands this recondite subject.

However, what I have noticed of these in my studies as a pattern-designer is this. There are two symbols; the one is a tree, more or less elaborately blossomed, and supported, as heralds say, by two living creatures, genii, partly or wholly man-like, or animals, sometimes of known kinds, lions or the like, sometimes invented monsters; the other symbol is an altar with a flame upon it, supported by two living creatures, sometimes man-like, sometimes beast-like. Now these two symbols are found, one or other, or both of them, in almost all periods of art; the Lion Gate at Mycenae will occur to all of you as one example. I have seen a very clear example figured, which is on a pot found in Attica, of the very earliest period. The Holy Tree is common in Assyrian art, the Holy Fire is found in it. The Holy Fire with the attendant figures, priests in this case always, is on the coins of all the Sassanian kings; the Holy Tree, supported by lions, is found in Sassanian art also. Now it is clear that the two symbols are apt to become so much alike in rude representations that sometimes it is hard to say whether the supporters have the tree or the fire-altar between them; and this seems to have puzzled those who used them after the Sassanian period, when, doubtless, they had forgotten or perverted their original meaning. They are used very often in Byzantine art in carvings and the like, where again they sometimes take another form of peacocks drinking from a fountain; but of all things are commonest perhaps in the silken stuffs that were wrought in Greece, Syria, Egypt, and at last in Sicily and Lucca, between the eleventh and the fifteenth centuries. In these, at first, it was a toss-up whether the thing between the creatures should be the altar or the tree, though the latter was always commonest; but at last the tree won the day, I imagine rather because it was prettier than for any more abstruse reason; still, even in quite late times, the fire crops up again at whiles. I should mention also, that in these later representations man-like figures are seldom, if ever, seen; beasts of all kinds, from giraffes to barn-door fowls, take their place.

It would be absurd of me to attempt to be authoritative as to the meaning of these far-traveling symbols; but I may perhaps be allowed to say that both the fire and the tree are symbols of life and creation, and that, when the central object is obviously a fire, the supporters are either ministers of the altar or guardian spirits. As to the monsters supporting the tree, they also, I suppose, may be guardians. I have, however, seen a different guess at their meaning; to wit, that they represent the opposing powers of good and evil that form the leading idea of the dualism that fixed itself to the ancient Zoroastrian creed, the creed in which the Light and the Fire had become the recognized symbol of deity by the time of the Sassanian monarchs. I cannot pretend to say what foundation there may be for this theory, which would fuze the two symbols into one. The only thing I feel pretty certain of is this: that whatever the forms may mean, they are never found but among peoples who, it may be at the end of a very long chain, have had some dealings with the country between the two Rivers; that they therefore are Chaldean in origin; that, though they have been transmitted by other means in earlier days, it is to the Sassanian Persians that we owe their presence in modern art. But it is not difficult to see that such an incomplete and even languid art as that of new-born Persia, which had but little character of its own, at any rate on its ornamental side, would have had no strength to carry these strange figures so far; figures which, I repeat, have played a greater part than any others among the pattern-designs of Europe and the East, however those who used them might be unconscious of their meaning. It was on another and mightier art that they were borne. The influence of Persia, indeed, was felt among a people ready to receive it, in a time that was agape to take in something new to fill the void which the death of classical art had made; but other influences were at work among the people whose mother city was New Rome, which was a kind of knot to all the many thrums of the varied life of the first days of modern Europe.

While men slept a new art was growing up in that strange empire on which so many centuries of change still thrust the name of Rome, although the deeds and power of Rome were gone from it. Many of you have doubtless heard this art spoken of with contempt as the mere dregs of the dying art of the ancient world. Well, doubtless death was busy among what was left of the art of antiquity, but it was a death that bore new quickening with it; it was a corruption which was drawing to it elements of life of which the classical world knew nothing; and the chief element of life that it gave expression to was freedom, the freedom of the many, in the realm of art at least. In the earlier days the workman had naught to do but to grind through his day's work, stick tightly to his gauge lest he be beaten or starved, and then go; but now he was rising under the load of contempt that crushed him, and could do something that people would stop to look at no less than the more intellectual work of his better-born fellow. What has come of that in later times, nay, what may yet come of it in days that we shall not live to see, we may not consider now. But one thing came of it in those earlier days; an architecture which was pure in its principles, reasonable in its practice, and beautiful to the eyes of all men, even the simplest: which is a thing, mind you, which can never exist in any state of society under which men are divided into intellectual castes.

It was a matter of course that the art of pattern-designing should fully share in this exaltation of the master art. Now at last, and only now, it began to be really delightful in itself; good reason why, since now at last the mind of a man happy in his work did more or less guide all hands that wrought it. No beauty in the art has ever surpassed the beauty of those its first days of joy and freedom; the days of gain without loss, the time of boundless hope. I say of gain without loss: the qualities of all the past styles which had built it up are there, with all that it has gained of new. The great rolling curves of the Roman acanthus have not been forgotten, but they have had life, growth, variety, and refinement infused into them; the clean-cut accuracy and justness of line of one side of Greek ornament has not been forgotten either, nor the straying wreath-like naturalism of the other side of it; but the first has gained a crisp sparkling richness, and a freedom and suggestion of nature which it had lacked before; and the second, which was apt to be feeble and languid, has gained a knitting-up of its lines into strength, and an interest in every curve, which make it like the choice parts of the very growths of nature. Other gain it has of richness and mystery, the most necessary of all the qualities of pattern-work, that without which, indeed, it must be kept in the strictly subordinate place which the scientific good taste of Greece allotted to it. Where did it get those qualities from? If the art of the East has been what it has since become, we might perhaps answer, from the East; but this is by no means the case. On the contrary, though, as I have said or implied above, Byzantine art borrowed forms from Persia and Chaldea at the back of her, nothing is more certain, to my mind, than that Byzantine art made Eastern art what it became; that the art of the East has remained beautiful so long because for so many centuries it practiced the lessons which New Rome first taught it. Indeed, I think the East had much to do with the new life of this true Renaissance, but indirectly. The influence of its thought, its strange mysticism that gave birth to such wild creeds, its looking towards equality amid all the tyranny of kings that crushed all men alike - these things must have had then, and long before, great influence on men's thoughts at the verge of Europe and Asia.

But surely, when we have sought our utmost for the origins of all the forms of that great body of the expression of men's thoughts which I have called modern art (you may call it Gothic art if you will, little as the Goths dealt with it), when we have sought and found much, we shall still have to confess that there is no visible origin for the thing that gave life to those forms. All we can say is that when the Roman tyranny grew sick, when that recurring curse of the world, a dominant race, began for a time to be shaken from its hold, men began to long for the freedom of art; and that, even amid the confusion and rudeness of a time when one civilization was breaking up that another might be born of it, the mighty impulse which this longing gave to the expression of thought created speedily a glorious art, full of growth and hope, in the only form which in such a time art could take, architecture to wit; which, of all the forms of art, is that which springs direct from popular impulse, from the partnership of all men, great and little, in worthy and exalting aspirations.

So was modern or Gothic art created; and never, till the time of that death or cataleptic sleep of the so-called Renaissance, did it forget its origin, or fail altogether in fulfilling its mission of turning the ancient curse of labor into something more like a blessing. As to the way in which it did its work, as I have no time, so also I have but little need to speak, since there is none of us but has seen and felt some portion of the glory which is left behind, but has shared some portion of that most kind gift it gave the world; for even in this our turbulent island, the home of rough and homely men, so far away from the centers of art and thought which I have been speaking of, did simple folk labor for those that should come after them. Here, in the land we yet love, they built their homes and temples; if not so majestically as many peoples have done, yet in such sweet accord with the familiar nature amid which they dwelt, that when by some happy chance we come across the work they wrought, untouched by any but natural change, it fills us with a satisfying untroubled happiness that few things else could bring us. Must our necessities destroy, must our restless ambition mar, the sources of this innocent pleasure, which rich and poor may share alike, this communion with the very hearts of departed men? Must we sweep away these touching memories of our stout forefathers and their troublous days, that won our present peace and liberties? If our necessities compel us to it, I say we are an unhappy people; if our vanity lure us into it, I say we are a foolish and light-minded people, who have not the wits to take a little trouble to avoid spoiling our own goods. Our own goods? Yes, the goods of the people of England, now and in time to come; we who are now alive are but life-renters of them. Any of us who pretend to any culture know well that, in destroying or injuring one of these buildings, we are destroying the pleasure, the culture, in a word, the humanity of unborn generations. It is speaking very mildly to say that we have no right to do this for our temporary convenience; it is speaking too mildly. I say any such destruction is an act of brutal dishonesty. Do you think such a caution is unnecessary? how I wish that I could think so! It is a grievous thing to have to say, but say it I must, that the one most beautiful city of England, the city of Oxford, has been ravaged for many years past, not only by ignorant and interested tradesmen, but by the University and College authorities. Those whose special business it is to direct the culture of the nation have treated the beauty of Oxford as if it were a matter of no moment, as if their commercial interests might thrust it aside without any consideration. To my mind in so doing they have disgraced themselves.

For the rest, I will say it, that I think the poor remains of our ancient buildings in themselves, as memorials of history and works of art, are worth more than any temporary use they can be put to. Yes, apply it to Oxford if you please. There are many places in England where a young man may get as good book-learning as in Oxford; not one where he can receive the education which the loveliness of the gray city used to give us. Call this sentiment if you please, but you know that it is true. Before I go further let me tell you that our Society has had much to do in cases of what I should call the commercial destruction of buildings; that we have carefully examined these cases to see if we had any ground to stand on for resisting the destruction; that we have argued the matter threadbare on all sides; and that above all we have always tried to suggest some possible use that the buildings could be put to. As a branch of this subject, I must ask leave to add, at the risk of wearying you, that the Society has taken great pains (and been sometimes called rude for it, if that mattered) to try to get guardians of ancient buildings to repair their buildings. For we know well, by doleful experience, how quickly a building gets infirm if it be neglected. There are plenty of cases where a parish or a parson will spend two or three thousand pounds on ecclesiastical finery for a church, and let the rain sap the roof all the while; such things are apt to make the most polite people rude.

I have one last word to say on the before-mentioned restless vanity that so often mars the gift our fathers have given us. Its results have a technical name now, and are called Restoration. Don't be afraid. I am going to say very little about it; my plea against it is very simple. I have pleaded it before, but it seems to me so unanswerable that I will do so again, even if it be in the same words. Yet first let me say this: I love art, and I love history; but it is living art and living history that I love. If we have no hope for the future, I do not see how we can look back on the past with pleasure. If we are to be less than men in time to come, let us forget that we have ever been men. It is in the interest of living art and living history that I oppose so-called restoration. What history can there be in a building bedaubed with ornament, which cannot at the best be anything but a hopeless and lifeless imitation of the hope and vigor of the earlier world? As to the art that is concerned in it, a strange folly it seems to me for us who live among these bricken masses of hideousness to waste the energies of our short lives in feebly trying to add new beauty to what is already beautiful. Is that all the surgery we have for the curing of England's spreading sore? Don't let us vex ourselves to cure the antepenultimate blunders of the world, but fall to on our own blunders. Let us leave the dead alone, and, ourselves the living, build for the living and those that shall live.

Meantime, my plea for our Society is this, that since it is disputed whether restoration be good or not, and since we are confessedly living in a time when architecture has come on the one hand to jerry-building, and on the other to experimental designing (good, very good experiments some of them), let us take breath and wait; let us sedulously repair our ancient buildings, and watch every stone of them as if they were built of jewels (as indeed they are), but otherwise let the dispute rest till we have once more learned architecture, till we once more have among us a reasonable, noble, and universally used style. Then let the dispute be settled. I am not afraid of the issue. If that day ever comes, we shall know what beauty, romance, and history mean, and the technical meaning of the word restoration will be forgotten. Is not this a reasonable plea? It means prudence. If the buildings are not worth anything they are not worth restoring; if they are worth anything, they are at least worth treating with common sense and prudence. Come now, I invite you to support the most prudent Society in all England.

Bibliographical Note


The History of Pattern Designing


1. 8th April 1879 before the Trades Guild of Learning at the Cooperative Institute, Castle Street, Oxford Street, London

2. 23rd February 1882 at the Kensington Vestry Hall, London, on behalf of the SPAB


The Collected Works of William Morris (1910-1915), M. Morris, Ed. (Vol. 22). London: Longmans, Green & Co.

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