THE most important element in successful work is the choice of design, and I shall therefore be obliged to linger a little over this subject, as it is impossible to make a clear explanation to those of my readers to whom the subject may be entirely strange without a good deal of enlargement of general axioms. While inferior work can be tolerated for the sake of the design, if that is good (though the two rarely go together), excellent work on a worthless design must be cast aside as labour lost; so that, you see, design is the very soul and essence of beautiful embroidery, as it is of every other art, exalted or humble. It is enough to break one's heart to see the labour and skill sometimes spent over would-be decorative ornament, that instead of being full of beauty and intention, is more like a heterogeneous collection of unmeaning shapes, lacking form, which the designer himself, if put to it, could as ill explain as anyone else.
Having said this much, I must here say what I mean by design worthy to be wedded to good work. First we must consider the nature of Design generally and ask, for instance (a) Why the otherwise blank surface of the wall of my study is decorated by a patterned paper; and (6) Why this particular paper is chosen of willow-boughs rather than roses or honeysuckles, or any other growth ? (a) In the first place, it is one of man's instincts to beautify his life by whatever means are in his power, and a wall-paper printed in colours with some ornamental form is more pleasing in his sight (as a make-shift, be it said, for handsomer decoration, such as wood panelling or woven hangings) than the bare blank surface of plain white or colour. This is the instinctive pleasure in life (the 'joie de vivre' in the comprehensive sense), which makes life desirable, but which is too often restrained or even altogether crushed out of us by external circumstance, (b) Again, the ornamented surface takes the shape of willow-boughs on account of my own especial fancy for them, and the pleasant river-scenes they recall; this constitutes the personal element of taste or fancy, and it is this individuality which divides what is called ' original' work from that which is wanting in character and vigour ; in a word, lifeless. Thus we have the instinct, and the more or less developed capacity of man to adorn his life, on the one hand; and on the other, the individual taste which directs that capacity on to this, that, or the other lines : Design embodying these two elements, universal and individual handicrafts, as they are called, will obviously be for the adornment of articles of daily and of especial use. Every commonest article of every-day use shows the remains (machine-made now, of course) of what was once put on by hand in the course of making the article, by way of decoration, such as the rim of blue or pink colour round the edge of a penny plate, or the star at the bottom of a beer-house tumbler.
As in embroidery we have only to do with decorative design applied to flat surfaces, and especially to textiles, I must, in so large and interesting a subject, limit myself to this particular branch. Given a certain space, the aim of the designer is to lay on it ornament, first, pleasing to the eye, and next, suitable to the materials in hand, and to the future use of the article when finished. For the present we only have to deal with the former pleasure-giving quality. Now, the modern tendency (a reaction, doubtless, from the Renaissance conventionality which has so long held its ground) is to copy some spray or bough directly from nature, and to lay it down haphazard on the surface to be ornamented; a few stray petals or a broken leaf and a caterpillar being peppered about elsewhere without rhyme or reason ; this is then called a ' quaint' design. When I tell you that symmetry, order, and balance are above all things essential, and that no attempted copying of the painter's art (for that is what it amounts to) in such dissimilar and insufficient materials is permissible, you will understand that the 'quaint' design is wrong in the very nature of it. The given space must be filled by forms in certain rhythmical sequence, which may either be masked or plainly marked.
In designing for reproduction by mechanical means the various forms are arranged so as to be repeated in regular order; but for our purpose, repetition of a design should be sparingly resorted to, and principally for large surfaces ; for the great charm of embroidery lies in its richness and diversity of invention, within certain well-understood limits.
You will have often heard the words convention and conventional used as opposed to naturalistic forms in a decorative design. Now, the first thing the designer will do is to go to natural growths and animal life, and show his pleasure in them by studying their infinite variety and beauty, and introducing them into his work. These studies should be constantly and faithfully made, until the artist has familiarised himself with all possible peculiarities and diversities of such things. But his own work should merely recall nature, not absolutely copy it; the living flower should inspire a living ornament in his brain, certain characteristics being dwelt upon, but the forms all simplified, leaves flatly arranged, stems bent into flowing curves to fill the required spaces.
Whatever growth is chosen as a model will thus be re-presented by the draughtsman's hand, but translated, as it were, and serving the purpose of giving delight almost as well as when growing in the fields: in exchange for the subtle, unconscious and untranslatable beauty of nature, we get the charm of conscious art; the artist exacting service from nature, and obtaining it, graciously and ungrudgingly given just in so far as it is lovingly and frankly asked for. Here is (Fig. 20) a sketch of a rose-bud, conventionalised a great deal, as you will notice ; as a likeness of the rose-bud it is too rough to be worth much, but quite sufficiently recalls the real thing for the purposes of needlework. It was not drawn without careful consideration of a live rose-bud, all the little nicks in whose leaves, and twirls of whose tendrils were admiringly noted, but not reproduced in this sketch.
Thus much of Convention, then, as an essential of decorative design. Next I would ask you, when you have a design for flat decoration in your hands, or are yourself designing, to consider carefully whether it fulfils its first purpose of well and symmetrically covering a certain defined space ? If this space is not so filled, the would-be design must be rejected as not fulfilling its function. The following sketches (Figs. 21 and 22) may roughly supplement this. Given a square space to be ornamented simply, two ways of doing so are shown ; In the one (Fig. 21) a spray is 'gracefully and negligently,' as a fashion-paper would say, laid in one corner, a leaf or two stuck on somewhere else, no matter where. The spray is inoffensive in itself, but however beautifully and carefully it might be drawn, there is no form or symmetry in the grouping; in fact, no thought. Next we have a square (Fig. 22) with rosettes at the four corners, little spots running along the edge forming a border, and a circle in the middle, with more spots round it, forming a centre rosette. The whole is a mere grouping of spots big and little, symmetrically arranged, simply, but sufficiently decorative, when compared with Fig. 21.
However, having warned you against the dangers of so-called 'naturalism,' I must point out that conventionalism in the extreme brings us to an equally unsatisfactory result; that is, when natural objects are so changed as to become either grotesque or meaningless. In fact, a 'conventional ' design in common talk means something of this sort; that is, form which has now no true relation to natural growth. It would be of service to us here, as an illustration, if we could compare the convention of, say, the design of a fourteenth century embroidered cope (of no more than ordinary beauty, but good of its style) with the design of some late Renaissance quilt or hanging, or what not.
In the earlier work we have the convention which compels natural objects into a certain subjection without losing sight of their character, and without robbing them of their grace. In the later work - and I am careful to speak of late Renaissance, as the early style has a beauty and delicacy all its own - we have the convention which has forgotten all about nature, or thinks to improve upon it, spinning ideas out of itself like a silkworm. It is almost unnecessary to say that with this exhaustive method the supply of ideas soon gives out, and we have strange and extravagant forms, at once luxuriant and weak in line, and poor in fancy - conventional indeed, and nothing besides.
The deduction from this is, therefore, not to draw a line you do not understand and cannot explain to yourself. Be definite before everything - let every form you put on paper be something, explain something.
Some of the natural forms most dear to the designer as models are so intricate that the explanatory and strictly conventional method is the only method of representing them at all. Look, for instance, at the numerous drawings by the ancient Egyptian artists of papyrus beds, executed with extreme simplicity, and almost amounting to mere shorthand notes of the real thing, but none the less beautiful in their way.