Truth, Beauty, Power: The Crane

“Truth, Beauty, Power” is a bimonthly series where we can share the wonderful details found within the Archive’s Christopher Dresser artworks with you. Every other month we’ll highlight one or more artworks from the Dresser Portfolio as detailed images, galleries, or interactive comparisons. We hope you enjoy them! You can also find out more about Dresser and his relationship with the company in our In Depth introduction to the series.

In 1876 Dresser arrived in Japan as the first European designer to visit the country since its re-opening to the West and in Japan: Its Architecture, Art, and Art Manufactures, the volume in which he recounted his journey, noted:

I stand on a land which, as a decorative artist, I have for years had an intense desire to see, whose works I have already learned to admire and amidst a people who are saturated with the refinements which spring only from an old civilisation.

The arts, crafts and culture of Japan had a profound influence on Dresser’s work and it’s therefore no surprise to see decorative elements inspired by the country present in his designs – in this case the symbolic and mystical crane.

In one particularly striking design two cranes are frozen in flight above a body of water, peering intently at the surface. Below them, partially hidden in the swell, is the penned outline of a large fish.

Visually the fish seems slightly at odds with the rest of the design – on closer inspection it would seem that it was drawn in after the waves but before the sunlit tips were added. We’re obviously not the only ones to find it slightly jarring as a note on the artwork’s mounting board simply reads “Leave out the fish”.

It is strange that, though they are so fond of portraying storks […] during the whole time of my sojourn in Japan I never saw but one living specimen of this bird. Owing to the numberless representations of them which we see on Japanese works, I used to think that storks must be almost as common in Japan as sparrows are in England; but this proved to be a great mistake.

Christopher Dresser, Japan: Its Architecture, Art, and Art Manufactures


View the source artworks for the highlights above

What is Truth, Beauty, Power?

Long since I was so fully impressed with the idea that true art-principles are so perfectly manifested by these three words, that I embodied them in an ornamental device which I painted on my study door, so that all who entered might learn the principles which I sought to manifest in my works.

The imitation is always less beautiful than the thing imitated; and as each material has the power of expressing beauty truthfully, thus the want of truth brings its own punishment. Let the expression of our art ever be truthful.

Shapes which are not beautiful are rarely decorative. A composition that is beautiful must have no parts which could be taken from it and yet leave the remainder equally good or better. The perfectly beautiful is that which admits no improvement.

We now come to consider an art-element or principle of great importance, for if absent from any composition, feebleness or weakness is the result… power is antagonistic to weakness… power means energy; power implies a conqueror. Our compositions, then, must be powerful.

Christopher Dresser, Principles of Decorative Design

Principles of Decorative Design is available to read at the Internet Archive.