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Perspectives (Now)

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Ornament by Design



Ornament by Design

Perspectives (Now)

In the podcasts, you will hear an architect, a historian, an artist, and a curator speak in greater depth about a group of objects from the display, giving their own perspective on them. Brief though they are, these gallery mini-talks (2-3 minutes long), offer a more detailed interpretation than is possible in the exhibition labels. Moreover, each speaker brings to the works their own professional experience, knowledge and taste. Their responses are personal, even sometimes emotional, as well as intellectual and practical.

The conversations and discussions for the podcasts took place in front of the exhibits and were recorded at various stages in the preparation and installation of the exhibition: in the Prints and Drawings Room, in the Conservation Studio and in the Courtauld’s Gilbert and Ildiko Butler Drawings Gallery, where the exhibition is installed. With the drawings before them and immediately to hand, the speakers are able not only to account them historically and technically, but also to convey something of the visual and material impact of these objects today.

Deanna Petherbridge is an artist, writer and curator primarily concerned with drawing. She is Professor Emeritus at the University of the West of England, Bristol and was Visiting Professor of Drawing at the University of the Arts London from 2009 to 2012. She has lectured extensively on the history of drawing in Western Art, teaching a Summer Course at the Courtauld on the topic.

Miraj Ahmed is a practising painter and architect. He has taught at the AA since 2000, is Associate Lecturer at Camberwell College of Art and was a Design Fellow at the University of Cambridge.

Carl Magnusson is currently a Post-Doc fellow at the Courtauld, having received his PhD at the University of Lausanne. After the publication of his first book titled Les sculpteurs d’ornement à Genève au XVIIIe siècle (Geneva: Droz 2015) Carl is now working on the theory of ornament and decoration in the broader cultural realm of the eighteenth century.

General accounts of Western ornament, historical and theoretical, reserve a special place for the end of the ancien régime.  The Revolution and the writings of Immanuel Kant are said to constitute the moment at which ornament attained its manumission, specifically its liberation from function.  Moreover, the eighteenth century’s late style is cited as a point of reference for the present appetite for the floridcomplex patterns, or ‘new’ Rococo, that has accompanied post- modernism’s decriminalisation of ornament.  Offered as an extra or supplement to the exhibition, Ornament by Design, the brief essay below used ornamental motifs as metaphors for understading ornament’s rhetoric and practices in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

Workshop of François II D’Orbay (1634 – 1697), Design for a balcony in the cour de Marbre, Versailles, Anthony Blunt collection: The Courtauld Trust.

: the ornament of the ancien régime is said to be decorative in at least two senses: that it invariably forms part of a larger, spatial ensemble to which the arts collectively contribute, the château de Versailles stands in this as the example of choice, and that it serves the purposes of representation, that is, that it participates instrumentally in the baroque theatricality of the early modern state and is a principle means by which power – royal, Episcopal, noble – showed itself to society.  Ornament, in short, is more than an accessory, indeed exceeds even the surplus-age of decoration.  It is rather the very condition of early modern authority (fig. 1); a ground of law which finds its punitive expression in the branding of criminals, notably so-called maroons, or fugitive slaves, who learned their lesson on the body: a fleur-de-lys on one shoulder for the first offence and, in searing symmetry, on the other for the second (Code noir, 1685, arts. 36, 38).  Not surprisingly, revenge against the embodied tyranny of Bourbon ornament was exacted after the Revolution by the legally sanctioned excision of those sovereign lilies from the public view: hacked off the key-stone designed by Pierre Puget for the main door of the hôtel de ville at Marseille;  supplanted on the façade of the cour carré at the Louvre by a cock and serpent.[1]

clasp: the stylistic unity and rhetorical coherence of the decoration brought into being during the successive reigns of Louis XIV, XV and XVI has tended to obscure the extent to which ornament was experienced, at both a material and a symbolic level, not as naturally dependent, but as requiring force of artificial attachment.  In the world of the early-modern luxury trades, legally divided by stuffs, tools, techniques and traditions, the realisation of decoration depended on patterns of collaboration and combination that could paper over corporate schisms.  The language of craft, the terminology of ornament, is thick with reference to the clasps and clasping, the ties and tying, the attaches and attaching, the knots and knotting, the bolts and bolting, the joints and joining, et cetera, by which ornament of one kind was variously riveted, glued or otherwise cemented to supports of another.  Moreover, the means of that affixing long remained evident: Pierre Verlet has noted the ‘rudimentary’, ‘nearly barbaric’ ways in which, for instance, gilt bronze fixtures were mounted onto the most exquisite marquetry furniture.[2]

mascaron: for the meanings of the ephemeral and permanent decorations of the court, meanwhile, we largely owe our knowledge to the ‘descriptions’ of those, such as André Félibien, who condensed to the size of the urban pocket the cornucopian ‘texts’ of courtly extravagance.  Not only do Félibien’s in-12o publications[3] indicates the consumer currency of decoration made conspicuously ornamental by visual and verbal reproduction, his attention to the semantics of and in detail betrays a fundamental and widely shared anxiety about the instability of symbolic meaning.  If ornament was a kind of language, its content was only truly secured by translation into the absolute conventions of language as such.[4]  That is to say that in order for the classical orders and their attendant decoration to articulate distinctions of class and power, to speak its social function, as according to architectural theory of the early modern period it ideally should, ornament had to assume the character of a language in which the relations between signs and signifiers are arbitrary.  But acceptance of the social coding of such signs was never total, indeed often contested.  Both in the making and the meaning of decoration the ancien régime proceeds as if ornament were not only autonomous but prior to the uses and needs that by ‘convenance’, or convention, it was captured and then forced to meet.  This autonomy, unlike the autonomy that for Kant was the precondition of art, that is art properly so-called, was in the ancien régime rather the curse of ornament, an avowal of it arbitrary and negotiated authority, which pre-modern artistry sought skilfully to mask.


Jean Bernard Toro (1672-1731), Triumph of Neptune, pen, ink and grey wash (Courtauld Gallery, Robert Witt Bequest, 1952).  Neptune holds a cornucopia, or horn of plenty in his left hand.  It represents the bounty of the deep, manifest in the multiple iterations of bull-rush and shell.

cornucopia: the ‘ornamental’ of the ancien régime was, then, one of excess not disinterestedness.  Even when the end of decoration was magnificence, ornament exceeded the capacity of architectural theory to circumscribe that utility (fig. 2).  It was, you could say, an instance of dépense, as defined by Georges Bataille,[5] that is, an unconditional ornament, an end in itself.  Baroque ‘potlatch’ flaunted an abundance of radiant geometric and vegetal forms to provoke, defy or humiliate rival performances, unfolding its most spectacular expenditure at Versailles in fêtes that figured plenty as both wealth and loss when those gigantic machines that supported and articulated allegorical triumphs of nature’s treasury were themselves consumed; destroyed by fire. Propriety’s critique of luxury in the form of ornament in the eighteenth century was, arguably, not so much the elite’s defence of its threatened prerogatives[6] but a bourgeois denunciation, in the name of property and reason, of such scandalous, non-productive expenditure.  A morality of adornment replaced an ideology of decoration and, inevitably, ornament became a crime.[7]


Marie Antoinette (2006) restages the wild, risky and self-destructive extravaganza of the court with an apparent disregard for material cost and narrowly symbolic utility that characterised the original.  The hostility of the critics speaks eloquently of its success. The film is not, however, a history lesson, but rather, says its director, Sofia Coppola, a performance of empathy.  That curling back of feeling rides on more than personal nostalgia, however.  According to Jean-Joseph Goux, Bataille’s model of ‘primitive’ dépense makes profound structural sense of the late stages of capitalism, of the post-bourgeois, hedonistic mass consumerism unleashed by Reaganite economics.[8]   Ornamental excess, in forms not precluding cakes and Manonlo Blahnik shoes, is more than an appetite, it has a post-modern point.


[1] See La Révolution et l’Europe 1789-1799, exhib. cat. Paris, Grand Palais, 3 vols (Paris, 1989) 2: 433, nos 566-67.

[2] Pierre Verlet, Les bronzes dorés français du xviiie siècle (Paris, 1987)

[3] André Félibien, Recueil des descriptions de peintures et d’autres ouvrages faits pour le roi (Paris, 1688); La description du château de Versailles (Paris, 1694)

[4] For a discussion of the language analogy in relation to autonomy see Christopher Wood’s excellent, ‘Why Autonomy?’, Perspecta, 33 (2002) 48-53.

[5] Georges Bataille, ‘The Notion of Expenditure’, in Visions of Excess: Selected writings 1927-1939, ed. and trans. Allan Stoekl (Manchester, 1985) 116-28.

[6] See, for example, R. Galliani, ‘L’idéologie de la noblesse dans le débat sur le luxe (1699-1756)’, Etudes sur le XVIIIe siècle, eds R. Mousnier and H. Hasquin (Bruxelles, 1984) 52-64.

[7] The reference is, of course, to Adolf Loos, ‘Ornament and Crime’ (1908) trans Michael Bullock in Ulrich Conrads, ed Programs and Manifestos on Twentieth Century Architecture (Cambridge, 1971)

[8]  Jean-Joseph Goux, ‘General Economics and Postmodern Capitalism’, in Yale French Studies, 78 ‘On Bataille’ (1990) 206-24.

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