Truth, Beauty, Power: The Scarab

“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 a previous instalment of this series we explored Dresser’s use of the crane as an example of the influence of Japanese art and culture on his work, but it’s not the only reoccurring creature to be found in his Portfolio. Here we’ve brought together a number of artworks featuring the scarab beetle, another important and symbolic creature represented and popularised by the scarabs of Ancient Egypt.

The central motifs of the designs above and below share many details, the most obvious of which is the highly detailed scarab beetle – complete with a formidable pair of front legs – resting above a bright gold background. According to a quick note and sketch included alongside it, the first design was to be applied to shape number 1614 (a round, footed and lidded vessel), with the second destined for a beautiful jardiniere.

The scarab is even more dominant in our third design, with delicate “sprigs” the only other adornments above the turquoise ground of this bottle vase. On the finished piece the bright colours and striking patterns shown below combine with a separately modelled body which grasps onto the side of the vase. An example, where flowers replace the sprigs and a ribbon flows round the vase’s neck, can be seen in the Gardiner Museum’s collections database.


View the source artwork 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.