Ornament, A Survey of Decoration Since 1830


Stuart Durant’s “Ornament, A Survey of Decoration Since 1830” discusses the background and key influences for Artists working with Decoration and Ornament from the 1830’s onwards.

In the chapter entitled “Nature and Ornament“, Durant discusses the mass appeal of nature-inspired ornament.

“During the nineteenth century, as never before, nature was viewed as inexhaustible fountainhead, providing an endless supply of decorative motifs.”

The Author states that this belief that Nature was beautiful and key for design, was closely linked at that time to beliefs in God.

He references Giorgio Vasari‘s “Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects” (Le Vite de’ più eccellenti pittori, scultori, e architettori da Cimabue insino a’ tempi nostri) of 1550, which established a foundation for Art-History, and also placed nature at its core.

Vasari’s Le Vite has also been said to be “by far the most influential single text for the history of Renaissance art.” Vasari held Nature in the highest of regards and is quoted as saying that the first model for the artist was:

“the beautiful fabric of the natural world.”

This led to Naturalism, a school of thought which had the firm belief in a world of beauty made by God, being the dominant design philosophy for the Gothic and Renaissance periods.

Durant comments that reference texts such as “Natural Theology: or evidence of the attributes of the Deity collected from the appearance of nature” by William Paley (1802) was so popular and widely used that it had 20 editions printed by 1820.

Durant remarks that industrialisation, which grew quickly during the 1830’s led to an increased demand for decoration.  This then led to searches for new designs for use in Ornament.

Durant states that the next contributor to the field of Nature and Ornament was William Dyce.  Dyce studied in London and Rome and assisted in writing teaching material for the Government School of Design.  Dyce believed students should do the following:

  1. Drawings of simple geometry.
  2. Then drawing outlines of Classical ornaments.
  3. Then “cloth” these outlines with foliage.
Dyce Outlines

Dyce Outlines - Click To Enlarge

According to Durant, Dyce placed an emphasis on botanical studies, and Dyce’s method was accepted for many years.  Dyce was in favour of an abstract form of nature being used in designs.

Durant also cites the works of A.W. Pugin as also promoting Nature as a source of material for Ornament, with the publication of his book, “Floriated Ornament” (1849). Durant states that Pugin’s work shows a sense of conventional or stylised design.

A.W. Pugin's Curtain

A.W. Pugin's Curtain

Durant states that it is likely that Pugin’s work was influenced by Owen Jones, who had been preparing principles for the proper use of Ornament.

One of Jones’ principles was that flowers and natural forms should not be copied but instead used as inspiration for a contemporary interpretation.  Owen Jones called this process “Conventionalism.”

Durant states that there was a particular common ground between Pugin’s and Jones’ work.  Jones preferred abstract and flat artwork.  Pugin also wrote that decorative design should be “without shadow“, suggesting flat geometry.

The Author states that there was some opposition to the idea of stripping Nature down to its most basic shapes and forms.

John Ruskin is given as an example of an artist who was against abstracting Nature’s form.  Durant states that Ruskin found the idea of symmetry, regularity and uniformity too precise and scientific and not in keeping with his view that Nature was Holy and should be reproduced as closely as possible to the original source.

Ruskin delivered many lectures on the damage being done to contemporary art by the idea of abstracted natural forms, e.g. Owen Jones’ Conventionalism.  Ruskin was also a strong supporter of a new movement, called the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, as:

Their treatment of nature was always reverential and never mechanical.” (pp 27)

Ruskin also believed that Nature, Art & Society were all linked together.

Durant then discusses Christopher Dresser.  Dresser’s early studies at the Government School of Design were directed at the study of Botany, but not in a scientific sense, but more of an artistic observations so that he would be able to draw them accurately.  Dresser contributed work to Owen Jones’ Grammar of Ornament, as well as contributing several more books to the field of “Art-Botany” including “The Rudiments of Botany.”

Christopher Dresser Drawing

Christopher Dresser Drawing

Durant next discusses a range of related artists, who he terms “Art-Botanists.”  These include George Charles Haité, and James Kellaway Colling.  These artists followed closely the approach of Dresser and Ruskin in their recognition that Nature and Flora should be studied in-depth.

Haité's design for printed shawl

Lastly, Durant discusses the works of Ernst Haeckel. Haeckel was a German biologist, but also had a strong belief in Nature.  His studies of aquatic life and the detailed drawings of jelly-fish and water-plants is highly praised.

Haeckel’s book titled, “Artforms from Nature” (Kunstformen der Natur) was published over a five-year period from 1899 to 1904 and provided much new source material and detailed drawings for use by Ornamentalists.

Although Haeckel was a scientist, his respect and appreciation for Nature led to his works being admired and used by many in the field of Art-Botany.

Haeckel's Conifer

Haeckel's Conifer

Haeckel's Orchids

Haeckel's Orchids

Durant’s survey of the works of Decoration from the 19th century offers great insight into the key sources of inspiration to the Ornamentalists and Artists of that time.  Also, it provides insights into the divides that occurred and why.


I found Durant’s discussion of Nature and Ornament to be very valuable.  I was not aware of the works of Vasari and the emphasis he placed on the Natural world and how beautiful he found it.  The way his work impacted the Gothic and Medieval eras was also interesting.

The discussion of the role of God, and how some Artists saw Nature and God as one was also an interesting point.

Then the discussion of how Loos and other Modernists may have been influenced by the scientific research being carried out by Charles Darwin, which was rejecting God as the creator of the universe, and instead promoting the importance of scientific investigation, was all insightful and not something I had considered.

I found the discussion surrounding Art-Botany to be the most interesting.  The emphasis that Ruskin and Dresser especially placed on the study of Nature is something I would agree with.

Also, I found that Ruskin was a key source of inspiration for William Morris and the Arts & Crafts Movement, an artist and movement that I have admired for quite some time.


Durant, Stuart, 1986, “Ornament, A Survey of Decoration Since 1830,” McDonalds

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