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Ornament by Design

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Ornament by Design


The research and writing of the panels and labels for this exhibition was a collective effort but special credit for work on particular exhibits is acknowledged by the initialling entries.


Ornament embellishes.  By design it distributes its motifs across a surface transforming that which is merely necessary and useful into something beautiful.

Buildings have been a focus for ornament since antiquity.  In the Age of Reason, the time in which most of the drawings in this exhibition were made, the rationality and reach of its claims to improve were publicly debated.  Is embellishment enough?  Should not ornament mean something?  Who should be responsible for beauty and meaning?  Architects, patrons or ornament designers?  In print, architects and critics argued for principles – of decorum, or function – while designers flooded the market with reproductions of their fanciful inventions.

These clashes are not immediately evident in drawings.  Architectural drawings seem cool and placid.  Their fine, inked lines are measured and controlled.  Many fall into conventional categories – the plan, the elevation and the section – that abstractly summarise the dimensions of a building on a flat surface.  In contrast ornament drawings depict.  Executed freehand and with energy in a variety of media, including red-chalk, back-chalk, wash and watercolour, they anticipate the impression the projected decoration will have.  Their rhetoric is one of detail, brio and seduction.  Ornament has designs on buildings and on patrons; it persuades by seeming to offer novelty and variety.  Many of the drawings in this exhibition challenge the difference between ornament and architecture.  Scaled-up ornament becomes structural; scaled down, spaces become ornamental.  The struggle for ornament and for its language of distinction is indirectly played out with and on paper, pitting forces of control and calculation against the rhetoric of desire.

  1. Charles-Dominique-Joseph Eisen (Valenciennes 1720 – Brussels 1778), Design for the frontispiece of the 2nd edition of Essai sur l’archtitecture by abbé Marc-Antoine Laugier, c. 1754 pen, ink and grey wash

NH 1240In this design for a frontispiece, Architecture, identified by the setsquare at her wrist and the compass in her hand, direct the attention of the infant Genius to the origins of building.  The invention of ornament is still in the future.  In the beginning, architecture consisted, Laugier argues, of simple post and lintel structures.  The possibility of ornament is acknowledged only in forms imposed by the materials used to meet the first hut’s primitive structural ends.  The hewn-off branches of the tree trunks hint, for example, at the volutes characteristic of Ionic capitals, as seen in the left foreground.

Drawing Matter Collections, NH 1240


  1. Jacques Aliamet (1726 -1788) after Charles-Dominique-Joseph Eisen, Design for the frontispiece of abbé Marc-Antoine Laugier, Essai sur l’archiecture, 2nd ed. (Paris 1755), etching and engraving

Gravelot EssaiEnthusiastically reviewed and widely read, the first 1753 edition of Laugier’s Essai was rapidly followed by a second, two years later, for which Eisen designed this frontispiece.  Laugier aimed to discredit the follies that modern architecture had developed since the Renaissance and to return it to its rational foundations.   The ‘primitive hut’ was to serve as an idea of truth and beauty, against which the highly wrought ornamental style we call Rococo necessarily seems extravagant and absurd.

Anthony Blunt Collection, 1984


  1. Nicolas Jean Baptiste Poilly (Paris 1712 – Paris 1780) after Michel Lange (before 1669 – Paris 1741), Design for a Wall Panel with Rocaille, Acanthus and a Floral Drop, c. 1735, etching with engraving

Lange printMichel Lange was an ornament sculptor who, like his better known contemporary Nicolas Pineau (see no. 5), sought to disseminate his designs via print.  The printmaker Poilly has reproduced not just Lange’s design for Rococo panelling but the effect of the chalk lines on paper, a technical novelty at this date.  As a design the drawing invited translation into a range of media: Dutch oak, plaster of Paris, even brocaded silk.  There was an expanding market for such prints in Paris in the 1730s and ‘40s.  (YN)

Anthony Blunt Collection, 1984


  1. Jean-Augustin Renard (Paris 1744 – Paris 1807), Acanthus, 1777, black chalk

NH 2480Signed and dated ‘à Rome 1777’, this drawing was one of a series of studies executed after the antique by Renard when a student in Rome, and later published in Paris in Etudes des fragmens d’architecture (1783).  The acanthus leaf is ubiquitous in Western ornament.  Supremely versatile, it can be deployed both flat (as here), or in profile (as in no. 6) where its spine springs forth to connect with other motifs.  The three-quarter view of the right-hand leaf suggested that Renard may have drawn his copy after a fragment of Corinthian capital.  It demonstrate how design can translate a natural form into a repeatable motif.  The large size and intensely sculptural effects of the black-chalk direct attention to the motif as an autonomous structure and material object.  (YN)

Drawing Matter Collections, NH2480


  1. Nicolas Pineau (Paris 1684 – Paris 1754) Design for Pediment Sculpture, c. 1745, pen, ink and wash over graphite is evident that this drawing is the work of a sculptor because the lines of the pediment do little more than establish the parameters of the space that relief sculpture will fill.  By architectural convention, pediment sculpture announces the identity and function of a building.  The vase of flowers framed by garden implements – scythe and rake – seems to indicate the garden façade of a country house.  The peace and pleasure of this idyllic pastoral scene is disturbed by the pair of hissing serpents to either side of the mascaron, the asymmetry of whose writhing coils threaten to unbalance this ornamental world.  Pineau was at the forefront of the Rococo movement.  By the mid-century he was held especially responsible for the ‘decadence’ it wrought on French ornament.

Robert Witt Bequest, 1952, D.1952.RW.4243


  1. Jean Bernard Toro (Toulon 1672 – Toulon 1731), Triumph of Neptune, c.  1728, pen, black ink and grey washD.1952.RW.4264
    A base line in black chalk establishes a foundation for this extremely refined drawing by the ornament carver Bernard Toro.  The movement of the procession is conveyed by the prancing sea-horses and the energetic flight of infants bearing bull rushes and watering urns to which the horses seem to react.  Ornament and figure combine in the real and carved putti at either side of Neptune’s knee and in the putto at the head of the cavalcade, whose left leg becomes leaf in a C-scroll that terminates the design.  The subtlety of line, the careful rendering of finely graded relief by wash, and the suggestion of narrative in the gestures and expressions of the figures together repay careful and sustained looking.  They raise the possibility that this design was intended for the amateur of drawings rather than for a craftsman.  (JB)Robert Witt Bequest, 1952, D.1952.RW.4264

  1.  French school, Designs for Eight Grotesque Mascarons, c. 1700, red chalk

D.1984.ab.124The eight mascarons on this sheet offer different treatments of an ornamental motif that, in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, served to decorate the keystones of windows and doors.  Some, notably the female heads, are quite naturalistically rendered, others are stylised, the heads not fully human but hybrid, sporting satyr’s ears and ram’s horns.  Mouths that gape grotesquely, tongues that stick out and curl, exhibit ornament’s potential to transgress and offend.  Architectural theorists like Laugier objected to the use of mascarons on grounds both of decorum and verisimilitude: hanging a fantastic head above a void was an affront to reason as well as to taste.  By contrast, for designers like Oppenord (nos 21, 23) and ornamental sculptors like Toro and Pineau (nos 5, 6) it provided an opportunity for a grander, more exalted (because divine or human) form of ornament.

Anthony Blunt Bequest, 1984, D.1984. AB.124


  1. French school, Designs for Trophies, c. 1730, red chalk pair of trophies assembles on a vertical axis a contrasting array of exotic and Roman arms.  An elephant’s head crowns the left-hand trophy, which also features body armour with feathered skirt. The right gathers an array of antique shields, axes, arrows, swords and ensigns and promotes the codes of the Roman legions.  Possibly from a set of trophies of the Four Continents the designs, most likely drawn for or after prints, offered painters and sculptors ornament assemblages for realisation on wall or door panelling.

Robert Witt Bequest, 1952, D. 1952.RW. 1593-94


9. Jacques-François Blondel (Rouen 1705 – Paris 1774) Designs for Stone Consoles, c. 1737-38, red chalk

NH 2226.3-4These drawings proposed to the readers of Blondel’s De la distribution des maisons de plaisance, et de la décoration des édifices en général (1737-38), models for consoles, engravings of which illustrated the text.  Consoles, or brackets, were deployed to support balconies and other overhanging architectural elements; inverted they served as a termini for garden walls and balustrades.  Their beauty, according to Blondel, lies in the contours of their silhouette: in the more or less flattened treatment of a scroll, in the single or double undulation of a bracket.  Decorum required that consoles communicate strength.  Ornamental detail was therefore kept to a minimum: discrete and appropriate.  Dolphins and shells are here proposed for the ground hugging inverted garden consoles, leaves are suggested for raised and upright consoles.  Although Blondel finds plenty to criticise in the ‘style pittoreque’ or Rococo, he acknowledges having drawn on the talents of Pineau (no 5) for some of the ornament illustrations in his treatise.  In the 1750s, however, he would repudiated unequivocally the modern style associated with Pineau’s name, and was among the first to promote the revival of classicism.

Drawing Matters Collection, NH 2226.3-4


  1. Gilles-Marie Oppenord (Paris 1693 – Paris 1742), Alternative Designs for a Mirror Frame with Mascarons, c. 1720-25, red chalk drawing proposes alternative treatments of the upper right-hand corner of a mirror frame.  An illusion of space is created by the ghost of a cornice that runs across the right top of the drawing and by the darker parallel lines of hatching denoting mirror in the upper variant, which appear to recede and pass behind the surface of the lower frame.  Bolder in shape and simpler in its use of planes, the lower frame moves forward and out of focus, the mascaron seemingly cut away by the edge of the paper.  We look in preference beyond it, to a frame decorated with the emblem of Mercury and with the garlands and ribbons of wealth and prosperity.  Made around the time that Oppenord was working on the decoration of the Regent Philippe d’Orléans’ gallery at the Palais Royal it may have been intended for execution or for reproduction in print.  (MD)

Robert Witt Bequest, 1952, D.1952.RW.3305


  1. Jacques-François Blondel (Rouen 1705 – Paris 1774), Designs for exterior masonry Cartouches, c. 1737-38, red chalk

NH 2226.1-2This type of ornamental sculpture was designed to sit on the balustrade topping a building and stand out against the sky.  The delicate design with a vase is proposed for a garden front, the more muscular scheme with the eagle and Jupiter’s thunderbolts, is suggested for a courtyard façade.  In De la distribution des maisons de plaisance (1737-38), Blondel’s treatise which these designs illustrate, the architectural theorist warns against the fashion then prevailing of setting such cartouches and supporters on a diagonal.  Uneasy also about the too liberal use of such purposeless ornaments he proposed making them useful by placing sundials within their empty frames.

Drawing Matter Collections, NH 2226.1-2


  1. Attributed to Gilles-Marie Oppenord (Paris 1693 – Paris 1742), Design for a Door-Frame with Grotesques Masks and Swags, c. 1695, pen and red-brown ink over graphite

D.1984.ab.116Executed using ruler and compass this highly controlled drawing proposes a design for the architecture of the doorframe; it ignores the furniture of the doors themselves.  A relationship is thus implied with other apertures of the wall’s surface – other doors, windows – even though wall is not itself represented.  Decoration is a matter of shape and profile not motif. Cross-hatching accentuates the upper curve of the open pediment by suggestions of shadow. The consoles, mascarons and garlands no more than underscore the dramatic counterpoint of solids and voids,projection and recession.

Anthony Blunt Bequest, 1984, D.1984.AB.116


  1. Augustin Pajou (Paris 1730 – Paris 1809), Study after the Frame of the Vision of St Ignatius at La Storta by Andrea Pozzo on the High-Altar at St Ignatius, Rome, 1752-55, black chalk over graphite. when the sculptor Pajou was a student in Rome, this study focuses on the frame; the altarpiece is evoked by words and  a few, rough squiggles.  Pajou’s copy appears to have been made level with the frame’s upper rail.  It records the shell’s rupture of the pediment, a break masked in situ, where the frame is seen from below.  Not only is the study attentive to shape  – to the C-scrolls that sit in the depressed corners of the frame – it attends also to qualities of relief: to the swell of the mouldings, the projection of the clasp and the detachment of the garlands that cast shadows across the painting’s surface.  This extreme focus on ornament, unusual in Pajou’s Roman drawings is perhaps accounted for by his participation in the decoration of San Luigi dei Francesi in 1754.  Scholars have noted a resemblance between the Pozzo frame and the gigantic stucco shell clasps that stud the gilded frame around around Charles Natoire’s ceiling fresco in the nave.

Robert Witt Bequest, 1952, D.1952.RW.4145


  1. Gabriel Huquier (Orléans 1695 – Paris 1772) after Jacques de Lajoüe (Paris c.1686 – Paris 1761), Design for a Frame, c. 1740, pen, ink and brown watercolour over graphite.

D.1952.RW.3073The precision and constraint of this drawing indicate a printmaker’s attempt to arrest the style of a painter, or designer, in order to reproduce it in print. In 1740 Huquier etched and published, after Lajoüe, a set of 12 designs for frames encircling architectural capriccios, to which this frame is related, though it corresponds to none of the executed prints. Lajoüe, the son of an architect, was an exponent of the Rococo, which introduced asymmetry into French art.  The bi-lateral divide of Oppenord’s (no. 21) designs imply that the left half of each frame will mirror the right; the fully visualized design of this frame reveals subtle asymmetries in the treatment of the right and left sides: acanthus that curls differently, band-work is cut differently, and the crown, sprigs of laurel and branches of corral that appear on one side, are matched by no such extras on the other.  Such licenses were not long tolerated.  By the 1750s Lajoüe’s novel and imaginative designs were completely discredited.  (VW)

Robert Witt Bequest, 1952, D.1952.RW.3073

  1. François-Joseph Bélanger (Paris 1744 – Paris 1814), Design for a Wall Elevation at the Hôtel Dervieux, c. 1789, pen, black and red inks over graphite with coloured washes and gouache.
    NH 1333
    One of more than twenty alternative designs for a room in the Paris mansion. built for Anne-Victoire Dervieux opera dancer and, from 1794, the architect and designer Bélanger’s wife. Bélanger imagines for Dervieux a scheme of ‘Etruscan’ arabesques loosely inspired by the archaeological excavations at Herculaneum and Pompeii.  Compass, ruler and pen were used to delimit and subdivide the decorative field; ink, watercolour and gouache were then applied to work up the fine detail of trellis, tablets, terms, arcades, dancing figures, birds, griffons, fine scrolls and floral patterns, caught within boldly coloured frames. (OE)

Drawing Matter Collections, NH 1333


  1. Attributed to Claude-Antoine Colombot (Besançon 1747 – Besançon 1821) Design for a Double-Door and Casement, c. 1789, pen and black ink with grey wash over graphite on two sheets.

NH 1204This unfinished drawing provides alternatives for the ornamentation of the panels of a set of double-doors.  In the lower square panels a rural scene is proposed on the left, a still-life of harvest on the right.  Alternative treatment of main panels is subtler: a choice between putti and torches.  Wash was also added on the left to accentuate the effects of relief, while lines alone refine the detail on the right. This may indicate alternatives for carving and painting in the realization of the scheme.  Although the drawing prioritizes ornament, architecture is not absent. On the left, profiles of pilasters allude to the larger architectural setting. (VW)

Drawing Matter Collections, NH 1204


  1. Jean Charles Delafosse (Paris 1734 – Paris 1791) Design for a Niche with Musical Instruments, c. 1770, pen, ink and watercolour.
    Delafosse was at the forefront of the revival of classical ornament in the 1760s, evident here in the coffered arches and the column-shaped pedestals, left and right. He also assigned ornament a denotative function: the sphinxes decorating the organ refer to the mystery and potential danger of music’s appeal.  Design is close here to its French root ‘dessin’ (drawing) and Delafosse exploits all the effects of the medium to model a space and to create an atmosphere, dramatised by the frame of rushed curtains and the theatrical lighting.

Robert Witt Collection, 1952, D.1952.RW.4504


  1. Charles De Wailly (Paris 1730 – Paris 1798) Section through the Interior of Salon, pen, ink and wash, after 1771, pen, black ink and grey wash.

NH 1270The high level of ornamental detail and the conspicuously novel elements of stove and fountain suggest that this drawing may have been among those exhibition-drawings that De Wailly sent to the Paris Salon from 1771 onwards, the year he was controversially admitted to the Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture.  Every element is present – water and fire, and also air, represented by the incense burners above the frieze, and earth, depicted in the small Bacchanalian reliefs.  All the viewer’s senses are thus powerfully addressed.  (AM)

Drawing Matter Collections, NH 1270


  1. Attributed to Jean Charles Delafosse (Paris 1734 – Paris 1791), Elevation and Section of a Town House, c. 1775, pen and black ink, with black, grey and rose washes over graphite.

NH 1622Exterior and interior are contrasted in this double view of part of the courtyard façade and the residential apartments on three floors.  Light enters the interior from the left; it casts dramatic shadows in the courtyard to the right.  The simple geometric shapes of the exterior windows and doors painted black throw into relief the variety of interior decorative detail subtly articulated by grey wash: the coffered ceiling of the hall, the chimney-mantle with Ionic columns in the salon, the trophies in the cabinet.  Rose coloured wash indicates a masonry building.  Roof structure and sewer top and tail the section.  (CP)

Drawing Matter Collections, NH1622


  1. Pierre Contant d’Ivry (Ivry-sur-Seine 1698 – Paris 1777) Section through the Interior of the Church of the Madeleine, Paris, 1771, pen and brown ink over graphite.

NH 2000This signed drawing of the interior of a transept at the Madeleine established the heights of the column bases, the entablature, and the springing point for the semi-circular lunette in the chapel recesses, and the widths of the fluted columns and the distances between them.  Ornament is restrained.  The frieze above the Corinthian columns is left plain, simple pediments crown the niches, straight mouldings and geometrical shapes articulate the planes of the side altars.  Only swags yoking the consoles beneath the attic windows and rosettes decorating the clerestory windows above, add a conspicuous note of elegance.

Drawing Matter Collections, NH 2000


  1. François II d’Orbay (Paris 1634 – Paris 1697), Project for the Elevation of the Pavilions Terminating the Forecourt Wings of the Château of Versailles, 1671, ink, wash and watercolour.

D.2013.XX.1D’Orbay’s skill is evident in the careful disposition of the façade on the sheet, and in the illusion of its emplacement created by the ornamental railings that stretch across the paper.  It is evident also in the refined delineation of the Doric order and the exact depiction of stone and brick.  This was a presentation drawing.  Pentimenti, or revisions, in the treatment of the bays suggests that Louis XIV was directly involved in the choice of design for these pavilions.  Their façades were the first architectural statements of the king’s glory to confront visitors as they approached Versailles from the town.  (SR)

Ralph Holland Bequest, 2013, D.2013.XX.1


  1. Michel Dorigny (Saint-Quentin 1617 – Paris 1665) Design for a Compartmented Ceiling Decoration, c. 1660, graphite, overdrawn in pen and brown ink with watercolour and body-colour.

D.1984.AB.120This drawing offers designs for parts of a compartmented carved and painted ceiling.  Although the ornamental motifs are not depicted as if seen from below, an illusion of height is nevertheless conveyed through the suggestion of sky in the empty frames, and in the subtle depths of shadow around the figures, herms and hunting trophies.  The interlaced LLs of the royal monogram and the Apollo masks with sunburst inscribe political power in this ornate framework, while painting is seemingly relegated to filling the decorative shapes of ornament’s devising. (CP)

Anthony Blunt Bequest, 1984, D.1984.AB.120


  1. French School after Charles Le Brun (1619 – 1690), Allegory of Night, c. 1725, red chalk.

D.1982.jw.29A winged figure accompanied by owls, bats and other nocturnal creatures depicts night-time.  Possibly Hecate, possibly Morpheus, god of sleep and dreams, the figure’s dark veil contrasts with the moonlight radiating from the crescent moon beneath Artemis’s chariot.  Veils and drapery were regarded as painting’s ornaments.  Here, drapery not only decorates the body, the veil also forms a cartouche-like setting for Night.  Drawn from below the composition suggests a design for a ceiling; it is an accomplished and inventive copy of a scene from Le Brun’s famous ceiling for the pavilion of Aurora at Sceaux.  (JB)

John Witt and Art Fund, 1982, D.1982.JW.29


  1. Gilles-Marie Oppenord (Paris 1693 – Paris 1742), View of a Rustic Fountain, c. 1720, red chalk, pen and brown ink, on two sheets.

NH 1349This exceptionally large architectural capriccio was one of a number of such drawings produced by Oppenord for collectors.  Not intended for building, the fountain Oppenord imagines appears to merge architecture and ornament.  The pilasters and half columns and the reticulated entablature seem more decorative than structuring, and the Herculean caryatid speaks more persuasively of beauty and grace than the raw, load-bearing strength of the Doric.  Oppenord’s virtuoso handling of chalk is especially evident in the depiction of water falling into the basin around which hunters gather with their dogs.  It is a medium especially suited to the depiction of mutable and natural ornamental forms.  (YN)

Drawings Matter Collections, NH 1349


  1. Jean-Baptiste Marie Pierre (Paris 1714-1789 Paris), View of a Garden Structure, c. 1765, red chalk.

D.1952.RW.4371In this seductive ornamental drawing, the warmth of colour and the soft, plastic texture of the red chalk, have been exploited in broad sweeping strokes across the paper. The artist, a painter, depicts the inert stone of the carved caryatids as if living, female flesh. The natural swinging curves of bodies and tree mirror each other, seemingly working together to prefigure or reclaim the forms of the stone structure from both sides.  The design thus explores the transformative power of ornament, at once originating in nature and destroying its forms by its stylizing artifice.  (CS)

Robert Witt Bequest, 1952, D.1952.RW.4371


  1. Attributed to Léon Vaudoyer (Paris 1756 – Paris 1846), Designs for the Decoration of a Salon with Furniture Studies, c. 1780-1800, pen and brown ink.

NH 1804On this page we see grouped haphazardly together adjacent walls around two sides of a floor-plan, and a collection of studies for fixed furnishings.  The pen-work is quick, abbreviated and sketchy, occasionally catching on the surface of the paper.  The designs are supplemented by annotations that provide details of colour and finish: the ‘gilded’ arabesques to either side of the chimney are offset against a ‘white’ ground, the chimney-mantle is ‘white marble’, the light fixtures ‘gilt-bronze’, and the ceiling is ‘painted’.  If designs for interiors dominate the sketchbook, it is nevertheless an architect’s work.  Issues of planning and spatial arrangement equal decoration in importance and ornament is secondary to the structures it articulates.  (LGT)

Drawing Matter Collections, NH 1804


  1. Pierre-François-Léonard Fontaine (1762 – 1853) Model for a Music Room, possibly for Emperess Joséphine’s Apartment at Fontainebleau c. 1800, pen, ink and watercolour on paper.

NH 2081Models are not common in Fontaine’s work. However, clients sometimes requested them to ease understanding of the effects the architect proposed. The sheet of paper is cut and folded to create a real space, with real dimensions, actualized by really intersecting planes, albeit on a miniature scale.  Unlike technical drawings which determine the structure to be built and assign materials to it by colour-code, model drawings describe a room’s decorated surfaces and unfold its colour scheme.  Miniaturised and made-up, architecture becomes ornament.  (IM)

Drawing Matter Collections, NH 2081

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