Decorative Art

In a work whose value depends so largely on its illustrative pictures, decorative art must be conspicuous. It is well that it should be so, opening out, as it does, an important problem which we are obliged in great measure to deal with empirically from imperfect knowledge of its principles. Even practically the civilized world has no exclusive possession of the secret of decorative art. There abound in our shops costly things made and sold for little other purpose than to be pretty, which are nevertheless unsatisfactory to the educated eye. On the other hand, savages or barbarians, though looked down upon as of low intelligence, produce objects which all must admit to show artistic taste. The reader will find proof sufficient of this in the pictures of carvings and mats from Papua and Polynesia.

Carved spatulas for betel-lime from Dorey in New Guinea
largest height approx. 210mm (Christy Collection.)Wickerwork (basket, pouches, and fly-whisk), from Tongatabu.
(Cook Collection, Vienna Ethnographic Museum.)Wicker fans from the Gilbert or Marshall Islands (British Museum).

Bamboo drinking horns from New Guinea
(Christy Collection.)
Larger approx. 230mm height.

Carved gourd, used for betel-box, from the Trobriand Islands – Height approx 230mm. (Christy Collection.).

Mats from Tongatabu. (Cook Collection, Vienna.)

Now what is it that makes some lines beautiful, and one more beautiful than another? It will be said in answer that beauty of outline depends on boldness, firmness, and evident intention in drawing, which no doubt is partly true, but some lines are stiff and ugly, some flowing and elegant, and again much stiff ornament is admirable, and flowing patterns may flow clumsily. We may respect Hogarth for attempting the problem of the line of beauty, for with fuller knowledge the moderns may succeed where he failed. The more types of tasteful ornamentation in varied styles can be stored in our minds the nearer will be the approach to its understanding.

It is encouraging to consider what progress has been made of late toward solving not so much indeed the direct problem of decorative beauty, as the intermediate problem of the origin and meaning of ornament. The researches of General Pitt-Rivers on the gradual transformation of human figures into ornamental designs, and the derivation of coil, wave, and step patterns of cultured art from realistic representations of cords and plaitings, gave an impulse to this interesting study which has continued to be worked out in the museum bearing his name, with added series such as Mr. Everard im Thurn’s pegals or baskets made by the natives of British Guiana, where the plaited pictures of birds and monkeys dwindle into graceful patterns, unmeaning unless their derivation is known.

The Evolution of Decorative Art by Mr. Henry Balfour, the curator of the Pitt-Rivers Museum, should be known to all students taking up this attractive line of research. Dr. Ratzel, whose feeling for ornamental design is very definite, has reproduced many instructive objects, among which mention shall only be made here of the Sandwich Island calabash slung in a carrying-net, placed close by two other calabashes without nets, but appropriately decorated with patterns which, according to the island habit, are conventionalised pictures of the absent network . Such evidence goes far to abolish the old-fashioned idea that the patterns which have been the pleasure of ages were devised by ingenious artists out of their inner consciousness. Looking at them as originally derived from real objects, we see none the less how they develop into variety, so that, notwithstanding unity of principle, each tribe or district tends to form patterns of its own, which again being characteristic, are patriotically encouraged as local badges.

Utensils from Hawaii (Arning Collection, Berlin Museum)
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Utensils from Hawaii

Thus every Melanesian and Polynesian knows which island a mat or carving comes from, just as in Switzerland outlying villages are still known by their special embroidery. When one of these populations, savage or civilized, is destroyed or reformed into uniformity with the general fashion of the country, a local school vanishes, and even the examples of its productions disappear. So natural is this that it is a pleasant surprise when they come back sometimes from a hiding-place.

Covered vessel in shape of a bird, inlaid with shell, from the Pelew Islands. (British Museum.)
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Covered vessel in shape of a bird

It brought back to me such a memory when, in this book, I opened on the cut of the “covered vessel in shape of a bird, from the Pelew Islands.” About 1880 I had chanced to go to the county parish of Holcombe Rogus in Devonshire to pay an afternoon visit to the vicar, Mr. Wills. A remark of mine as to a stone implement on the mantelpiece led to the unexpected remark that there were things upstairs from the Pelew Islands. When I protested that nothing from thence had come to England since the time when Captain Wilson brought over “Prince Lee Boo,” whose sad story is told in the once familiar poem, it was answered that the late Mrs. Wills was of Captain Wilson’s family, and had inherited his curiosities. Before that, two generations of children had played havoc with them, but in the attic there were still the great bird-bowl and the inlaid wooden sword, and the rupak or bone bracelet, that prized ornament of chiefs, with other familiar objects figured in Keate’s book. I represented that they ought to be in the national collection, and not long after, Mr. Wills, on his death-bed, ordered that they should be sent to me. They duly took their deserved places in the ethnographic department of the British Museum, where no doubt they will long outlast the amiable but hopelessly degenerate islanders, the picture of whose social decay has been drawn with such minute faithfulness by Kubary.


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