Truth, Beauty, Power: A Study in the Grotesque

“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.

A pencilled annotation on “A Moonlight Scene”, a Dresser artwork featuring a row of cats “serenading” in the darkness, marks this particular illustration out as a “study in the grotesque”. In the Dresser Portfolio there are actually a number of designs executed in the “grotesque” style of ornamentation, detailed views of which we’ve highlighted below. Interspersed between these close-ups are quotes from the Humour in Ornament section of Principles of Decorative Design, where Dresser writes about the use of grotesques in ornamentation.

I hold it as a first principle that ornamentation, as a true fine art, can adminster to man in all his varying moods, and under all phases of feeling […] The feeling for humour is ministered to in ornament by the grotesque

On page 28 of Principles of Decorative Design three illustrations are included to “convey… a fuller idea of [Dresser’s] views respecting the grotesque”. The skeletal form featured in Fig. 22 (“old bogey”) has a strikingly similar appearance to the creature we’ve highlighted above and below: this, along with the other two examples are

[…] intentionally far from imitative. If naturalistic some would awaken a sense of pain, as they are contorted into curious positions, whereas that which induces no thought of feeling induces no sense of pain.

I think it may be taken as a principle, that the further the grotesque is removed from an imitation of a natural object the better it is, provided that it be energetic and vigorous – lifelike.

[…] the grotesque should frequently be used where we meet with naturalistic imitations.

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.