Irena Yamboliev, “Christopher Dresser, Physiological Ornamentist”


This article argues that, in 1862, when he published his most influential book The Art of Decorative Design, Christopher Dresser joined the multi-disciplinary enterprise of the physiological aesthetics in the name of ornamental form, positioning the theory of ornament as a crucial cutting edge of the empirical study of human aesthetic responses. I read The Art of Decorative Design in relation to contemporary psychological-aesthetics texts by Alexander Bain, Herbert Spencer, James Sully, Edmund Gurney, and Clementina Anstruther-Thomson and Vernon Lee to show that Dresser finds in ornamental form a site for a materialist physiological understanding of aesthetic response—and he does so well prior to the essays on aesthetics that were published in the journal Mind from the 1870s on. Like contemporary empirical aestheticists—and in distinction to other ornamentists of his time—Dresser emphasizes the mental “laws” that orchestrate our reactions to forms in nature and in ornament alike. Tracing in Dresser’s design handbook an approach to ornamental form that becomes fully “physiologized” in Bain’s, Sully’s, Gurney’s, and Lee’s writing makes more complete the critical picture of the so-called “lesser” (and often pejoratively feminized) decorative arts as a fertile ground for the theories and practices the empirical aestheticists were pursuing.

In his second major book on design, Principles of Decorative Design (1873), Christopher Dresser (1834-1904)—ornamentist, botanist, and a former Professor of Artistic Botany—writes: “Nothing can be more important to the ornamentist than the scientific study of art” (14). He specifies the scientific study of art should entail “the metaphysical inquiry into cause and effect, as relating to decorative ideas” (14). By “cause and effect,” Dresser means something very specific here. He means the effects that decorative patterns produce on the perceiver’s mind and emotions: “Sharp or angular forms, where combined in ornament, act upon the senses much as racy and pointed sayings do” (14). Wallpapers and carpets play directly and profoundly on their viewers’ nerve-strings, and so the designer

must constantly ask himself what effect such and such forms have upon the mind—which effects are soothing, which cheerful, which melancholy, which rich, which ethereal, which gorgeous, which solid, which graceful, which lovable, and so on; and in order to do this he must separate the various elements of ornamental composition […] and consider the effects of the various combinations on his own mind and that of others, and thus he will discover what will enable him to act on the senses as to induce effects such as he may desire to produce. (14)

In other words, Dresser is intent on tracing the feelings viewers experience when they encounter decorative patterns to the basic stimuli that inspire them.

As Stuart Durant points out, Dresser saw ornament as “an art form which could incorporate the lessons of science: botany, colour theory, geology, the movements of viscous materials, even glaciers—the whole gamut of nineteenth-century scientific knowledge” (“Christopher Dresser and Interior Design”). This is one sense in which, as Dresser puts it, ornament could “embody the knowledge […] of our age” (The Art of Decorative Design 168). But, in this speculative piece, I propose that Dresser also enacted a more specific contribution to the scientific study of art: he valorizes ornament as a crucial working site for the fields of inquiry that Victorian investigators eventually called the physiological and psychological aesthetics: that body of empirical studies and theories that aimed, across diverse disciplines—optics, psychology, neurology, physics, and literary studies—to trace the bases of aesthetic response in our neural and physiological makeup.[1] Dresser’s guidebooks for designers show his theory of ornament actively engaging contemporary explorations of the way human aesthetic experience arises out of our muscular and mental reactions to the non-signifying elements of the world around us—to those qualities of line, color, proportion, gradient, and texture that are the elemental units of form.

Recent scholarship on the physiological study of art has recognized that Victorians who were interested in materialist and empirical aesthetics concerned themselves with decorative and plastic arts.[2] But Dresser’s contribution to the field—the ornamental physiology, if you will, that emerges from within his texts—has gone unremarked. In these texts, his priority is not only to defend ornament as an industry in which English society should invest in the name of competing for good taste with Continental designers. He shows how ornament taps into the fundamental functions of our perception, setting a-chime mechanisms that underlie our reactions not only to buildings, interiors, and objets d’art, but to everything in our world.[3] Dresser’s way of theorizing ornament in its interactions with the embodied mind, was remarkably innovative and interdisciplinary.

Among Dresser’s publications, The Art of Decorative Design offers the most sustained development of a physiological aesthetics of ornament. To reveal how it does so, I will show the resonances of Dresser’s work with the work of figures we recognize more readily as central to both the practice and the theory of physiological and psychological aesthetics. Reading Dresser in light of these thinkers affords an especially vivid view of how continually his ornamental technique foregrounds the circumstances that determine how physical sensation gives rise to mental formations. Dresser is famous for articulating the geometries by which plants and flowers develop—or the fact that “The plant grows in obedience to law” (The Art of Decorative Design 18). But what has gone unrecognized, and what I want to highlight, is that, as he traces the laws of plant growth, he in fact also traces laws of the mind.

Dresser’s Physiology

Having studied at the map iconGovernment School of Design at map iconSouth Kensington from age thirteen, Dresser was appointed as Professor of Artistic Botany in the Department of Science and Art there in 1855; he held the post through 1859. He was awarded a doctorate in Botany from the map iconUniversity of Jena in 1859, and was invited to be a member of the Linnean Society in 1861 (Eisenman 17). In 1857-1858, he wrote an eleven-part essay called “Botany as Adapted to the Arts and Art-Manufacture” for the Art Journal. He revisited and expanded on many ideas from this essay in The Art of Decorative Design (1862). It’s in these early works on botanical design that he focuses most extensively on how decorative patterns interact with their perceivers. What’s more, across these works on botany and design, he transitions between two accounts of “laws” of form that were developing across Victorian thought.

Dresser begins “Botany as Adapted to the Arts and Art-Manufacture” by arguing that ornamentists should avail themselves of the lessons of botany, because “nature’s gay flowers have in all ages been used by the aspiring ornamentist, and they have ever been the basis on which the science of ornament has stood” (Vol 20: 17).[4] This premise is representative of the spirit in which the discipline of “Art Botany”—or the study of plant morphology for the purposes of decorative art—developed in the 1850s. By importing botany into the drawing classroom, the lecturers at the Government School of Design hoped to make ornament “a kind of practical science, which, like other kinds, investigates the phenomena of nature for the purposes of applying natural principles and results to some new end” (Dyce 65). The Art Botanists taught “conventional drawing,” or rendering plant shapes in simplified, schematic outlines, “displaying each part [of the plant] separately according to its normal law of growth” (Redgrave and Redgrave 565). Or, as Dresser memorably puts it, “We are not to draw particular plants as they really exist—blown about and deformed, but as we know them to be” (“Botany as Adapted to the Arts” 21: 362).

David Brett explains the context of the references to “natural principles” and “normal laws of growth” here: at the beginning of the nineteenth century, botany was not an altogether positive science but “carried along with it some smuggled metaphysics, not least in the notion of ‘typical’ or ‘ideal’ plants” (“The Interpretation of Ornament” 104). Correspondingly, Art Botany, too, “was a pre-scientific natural philosophy, and was, in some important respects, rooted in neoclassical lore” about the harmony present throughout the natural world (Brett, “Design Reform and the Laws of Nature” 41). Certainly, the natural-theological notion of form is in evidence in Dresser’s work, particular in the text that followed “Botany as Adapted to the Arts and Art-Manufacture” and preceded The Art of Decorative Design, Unity in Variety, As Deduced from the Vegetable Kingdom (1859). In the preface to Unity in Variety, Dresser justifies his work in explicitly metaphysical terms: “While we trace a unity amidst all the works of creation, the mind, by an effort of its own, informs us that one system results from one intelligence,” that is, the intelligence of “the one God who rules over all” (xiv).[5] But throughout the middle decades of the nineteenth century, design instruction “recorded a movement of thought away from natural philosophy,” away from “a neoclassical approach to form, ultimately of platonic origins” and “towards scientism” (Brett, “Design Reform and the Laws of Nature” 41).[6] Brett highlights the thread of this scientism that embraced evolutionary theory, so that by the 1890s, a “dynamic conception” of evolving types gave rise to “laws” prescribing the process of designing in terms of evolving and adapting arrangements (41).[7]

Against this background, Dresser appears as a rather ambivalent figure: Brett writes that “after 1860, Dresser’s interest in botany decreased rapidly, and he showed no interest in Darwinian evolution” (44). On the other hand, a different kind of scientism is on view in Dresser’s “Botany as Adapted to the Arts” and in The Art of Decorative Design, where reference to a supreme designer is missing and gets replaced by an emphasis on the way human beings react to their encounters with nature’s forms. Indeed, a kind of empiricism is on view in Dresser’s opening argument in “Botany as Adapted to the Arts” that, since designers have observably used nature’s forms as a “source from whence to draw the beauties requisite” for their art, they might as well complement their practice with the latest knowledge about the causes of plants’ aesthetic effects (20: 17).

More to the point, while some of what Dresser describes as nature’s “forms and lessons” are lessons about plant form, many are rather about something else (20: 17). Dresser shows the “principles on which nature works” active in the shapes of all the parts of a plant: the seed, the root, the stems, the leaves, the leaf-buds, the flowers. At each of these scales of development, he shows consistent “laws” of morphology, including symmetry, alternation, and gradation, and “the centralization of power, or the exertion of a force in a centrifugal manner from a fixed point” or central axis (20: 17). But the interesting parts of “Botany as Adapted to the Arts and Art-Manufacture” (and the parts that bloom more fully in The Art of Decorative Design) are those where he turns his attention to the physiology of—not only plants, as they grow and adapt to their surroundings, but—humans, as they perceive the shapes of plants and adapt them to our interior surroundings. When he considers “the causes of the varied effects produced by certain parts of the vegetable structure […] from a purely ornamental point of view,” he describes the flowers of plants living in a field as “as powderings (insulated small ornaments which are repeated)” (21: 237, emphasis original). The impression of flowers as powdering patterns is based on color contrasts on a scale such as humans would see: “[F]or example, take the common Primrose; here the leaves are green, the same colour as the grass in which they are entangled; they, therefore, are undistinguishable at a distance: but the flowers are pale and light, and are therefore conspicuous. As the flower is the only conspicuous part, and is star-like in form, it appears as a light powdering on a green background” (21: 237). But it “appears” so to a human viewer in particular.

Figure 1. Christopher Dresser, nature’s diaper patterns, from “Botany as Adapted to the Arts and Art-Manufacture” (1857-1858). Public domain.

Figure 1. Christopher Dresser, nature’s diaper patterns, from “Botany as Adapted to the Arts and Art-Manufacture” (1857-1858).

Dresser leans fully into an ornamental lexicon that transforms flowery stimuli into aesthetic objects, describing “nature’s diaper patterns, or those simple repeating patterns, the parts of which are united” (Figure 1), and plants that “strike us at once as running patterns” because they “acquire immense length, […] and are mere extended repetitions of simple units,” as in hop and briony plants (21: 238, 239). Throughout all these instances of “vegetable structures [that] offer examples for all varieties of ornaments” (21: 238), the “content” of the visual inputs is irrelevant—whether the flower is a primrose or another species doesn’t matter. What does matter is the way the human observer perceives differences of contour and hue, or sequences of similar structures repeated, symmetrical, or alternating. Nature’s “lessons” are really observations about how our attention moves among different parts of our visible, palpable world. Nature contains powderings, diapers, and running patterns because nature’s forms affect the sensorium in the same way that human-made patterns can. Thus we might translate one of the most mysterious of Dresser’s formulations—”in the vegetable organism, every part is treated ornamentally” (21: 295)—as something like, “of the vegetable organism, every part gets treated (by our perceptual apparatus) ornamentally.”

I propose that, in approaching the “effects” of plant morphology in terms of human perception, Dresser takes up ideas that appear in the work of his contemporaries who were not designers but physiologists and psychologists. During the 1850s, as the young Dresser was starting to lecture at the Kensington School, Alexander Bain published The Senses and the Intellect (1855) and Herbert Spencer published The Principles of Psychology (1855). I have not come across direct evidence that Dresser interacted with either Bain or Spencer, or read their work.[8] And yet, as we’ll see, Dresser’s discussion of how visual forms stimulate us overlaps a great deal with their accounts. Dresser explicitly refers to our sensory organs’ role in our reactions to different leaf textures:

If the foliage of the plant is glossy, the near effect is sparkling and sharp, and hence exciting; if it is dull and velvety, the effect is usually rich and somber; if the medium, being just dull, the effect is soothing and grateful. This is obvious; for when we behold a glabrous or glossy leaf, the rays of light cast upon its polished surface are reflected back upon the retina of the eye of the observer, and the nervous system is thus agitated or excited; whereas when the surface is such as will tend to absorb light the reverse effect is the result. (“Botany as Adapted to the Arts” 21: 333)

In characterizing the impression of textures as a matter of the retina, Dresser echoes Bain’s emphasis on the physical foundations of aesthetic perception. Bain writes, for example, “A perception of length, or height, or speed, is the mental impression, or state of consciousness, accompanying some mode of muscular movement” (117), and details the way the optical stimuli received by the retina combine with the sensations of the eyes’ muscular movements, to give rise to “aesthetic emotions” (240-28). Spencer, too, details the roles that “retinal impressions” (112, 561) play in perception.

If “Botany as Adapted to the Arts” signals Dresser’s interest in aesthetic perception, The Art of Decorative Design (1862) develops this line of inquiry further.[9] The Art of Decorative Design is a hybrid work. It contains plenty of the art-historical survey of ornaments from diverse cultures and periods that we might expect from a Victorian design handbook and that we find in, for example, Owen Jones’s The Grammar of Ornament (1856). For instance, in his opening chapter, “On the Nature and Character of Ornament,” Dresser goes through the decorative styles of different cultures—Egyptian, Greek, and Renaissance styles—and analyzes their principal motifs and the cultural beliefs and values they reveal. Like Jones, Dresser also devotes a chapter to color relations. But The Art of Decorative Design is also a work of theory. In it, he articulates much more extensively the motivations and the fruits of his particular way of bringing science to bear on aesthetics. “Art and science dwell too widely apart,” (43) he urges, and ornamentists must learn from “empirical knowledge” (42).

He leads by example in, for instance, the chapter “The Affinity of the Aesthetic Arts—Music, Ornament, &c.” Benjamin Morgan has shown that the physiological aestheticists were after the bases of our aesthetic experiences across all media and forms of art, that they detected and demonstrated “An intimate connection between making things out of wood (or wool or paper) and making things out of words” (175). Dresser takes a physiological aestheticist approach as he posits “a similarity in the manner in which music and decoration influence the mind” and tries to track this similarity of effect to formal roots.[10] Starting from the fact that different musical notes are produced by sound waves of differing lengths, he represents musical notes visually as lines of the same relative lengths, and considers the beauty of the designs achieved by this cross-modal translation (Figure 2).

Figure 2. Dresser’s illustration of the formal similarity between the musical scale and the Greek anthemion motif. From _The Art of Decorative Design_. Courtesy of the Department of Special Collections, Stanford University Libraries.

Figure 2. Dresser’s illustration of the formal similarity between the musical scale and the Greek anthemion motif.

Taking a series of lines representing the seven notes of the scale, he finds that “the form resulting from placing [them] in a radiate manner […] is exceedingly pleasing, and corresponds, when repeated or doubled, with the anthemion of the Greeks” (46)—this is the top right image in Figure 2. In another “experiment,” “in which chords are embodied as well as the scale,” he generates an ornament that “has a splashing character” (47)—in the bottom right of Figure 2. Finally, he tries converting “God Save the Queen” into visual form, though he concludes the result is “more curious than beautiful” (48) (Figure 3). Dresser is realistic about the modest outcomes of these “investigations into the extent and nature of the harmony existing between music and decorative forms”: they “cannot be said to have resulted in any great good” (48). But what they do result in is an interest in empirical approaches to aesthetics that sets Dresser apart from his contemporaries: his fellow lecturers at the Kensington Schools (Jones, Richard Redgrave, William Dyce) and ornamentists whose names are more familiar to us today, such as William Morris.

Figure 3. Dresser, motif “translating” “God Save the Queen” into visual form. Dresser specifies that “For the sake of effect, the first portion of the tune occurs in the lower half of the figure” (48). From _The Art of Decorative Design_. Courtesy of the Department of Special Collections, Stanford University Libraries.

Figure 3. Dresser, motif “translating” “God Save the Queen” into visual form.

It’s in the same spirit of learning from the empirical that he begins his chapter “Analysis of Ornamental Forms”: “In ornament, as in science, it is necessary to have recourse to an analytical method […] The combination of forms cannot be carried on successfully unless the forms themselves are understood and the conditions of their association ascertained” (49-50). To achieve this goal, “the first effort should be to reduce [an ornament] to its most elementary condition, or most simple unit” (51). He sounds quite like the physiological aestheticists when he breaks down the effect of a stylized flower motif (Figure 4): “The eye immediately rests on the spaces between the four members, and is thus conducted to the junction of lines, while the alternating parts give an outward direction and thus direct the attention from the point of weakness” (111). Three formal elements are at work here: the interplay between four solid shapes and the negative spaces between them; a point of junction; and an alternation of shape and color. He keeps focus on our physiological encounter with simple visual elements when he describes how our eyes react to real plants, too. Thus, the small, leafy organs at the angle formed by a leaf-stalk and a stem function visually as “a special provision for so arresting the attention that it shall not fix upon” the confluence of lines at the juncture of stem and stalk (112) (Figure 5).[11]

An object in the external world that seems to become “active” in accordance with the rhythms of our vision—this is an example of “outward mind,” if nothing else is! And the “laws” he pursues are perhaps even less laws of plant morphology than they are laws of the mind, relevant to an ornamentist who wants to impact his viewers in particular ways. He discusses the different principles that guide both plant growth and the best ornamental design the earlier essay had demonstrated: “Order,” “Repetition,” “Curves,” “Proportion,” “Alternation,” “Adaptation.” But he also writes: “The designer’s mind must be like the vital force of the plant, ever developing itself into forms of beauty, yet while thus free to produce, still in all cases governed by unalterable laws; and in the action of the mind being controlled by rules we rejoice, and not mourn” (188-89). The mind gets controlled by laws whether the designer wills it or no, and in looking into what these laws look like and how designers can take advantage of them, Dresser joins in the empirical aestheticists’ desire to break down aesthetic response to physiological mechanisms.

Figure 4. Decorative motif showing the principle of alternation. Fig. 92 from Dresser, _The Art of Decorative Design_. Courtesy of the Department of Special Collections, Stanford University Libraries.

Figure 4. Decorative motif showing the principle of alternation.

Figure 5. A small, membranous leaf structure that grows at the juncture of leaf-stalk and stem, and causes the eye to not fixate on that juncture. Fig. 99 in _The Art of Decorative Design_. Courtesy of the Department of Special Collections, Stanford University Libraries.

Figure 5. A small, membranous leaf structure that grows at the juncture of leaf-stalk and stem, and causes the eye to not fixate on that juncture.

The most intricate and extensive resonance between Dresser’s approach to pattern and contemporary psychologists’ comes into view when he addresses how visual stimuli translate into enduring psychological entities—which he calls “mental conceptions.” A “mental conception” is what results when “the mind takes cognizance” of “existences,” which it does “by creating to itself internally an image of that which is external; but this image is without detail, possessing only the salient features of the object of which the conception is formed” (30). For example, “You have probably visited the lecture-room of the map iconSydenham Crystal Palace,” he invites the reader to reflect:

and in order to reach it you have traversed the entire length of the great building in which it is situated; but what detail have you embodied in your conception of this great edifice? You perhaps feel—and feel is the best word that we can here use—that its walls are of crystal, that the centre of the building, from south to north, is a clear avenue, bounded on either side by statuary, shrubs, and courts, and that in one or two places there are water-tanks in which grow lilies and other forms of life. (30-31)

It would be enough, “in order to awaken reminiscences of this glorious building at any future time, that we present a sketch of a crystal edifice of exalted proportions, with a promenade up its centre, and statuary, trees, and various houselike erections on either side” (31). Unconsciously, we hierarchize the features of the sight we’ve encountered and preserve the “salient” ones in a reminiscence. Similarly, “our conception of an opening leaf-bud will be found to consist in the springing of a number of parts from the summit of a branch, some of which are reflexed to a considerable extent, while those which are internal approximate, in ratio to their position, more and more to the perpendicular” (30).[12] Seeing that “the mind can be induced to form to itself an image of an object by presenting to the eye that which contains the salient features of that which the spirit is to recall,” Dresser writes, “we discover the possibility of evoking ideas by the agency of decorative art such as it does not itself present” (31-32). In other words, ornamental abstraction can contribute to ideation.

Dresser’s model of how ornamentistists’ abstractions from natural form mirror the mind’s abstractions echoes Spencer’s and Bain’s accounts of how physical sensations give rise to mental formations. In The Principles of Psychology, Spencer describes how perception yokes together present and past sensation, as Dresser’s designs call up mental conceptions by activating viewers’ past experiences: “A perception of [an object] can only arise when the group of sensations [it produces] is consciously coordinated and their meaning understood. And as their meaning can be understood only in virtue of those past experiences in which similar groups have been found to imply such and such facts; it is clear that […] the act of perception involves the assimilation of [the new percepts] to those similar groups” (186-87). Later, G.H. Lewes sums up in The Study of Psychology (1874): “Perceptions are condensed into conceptions by generalising what the perceptions have in common” (63).

Dresser’s “mental conceptions” also sound a lot like what Bain calls “permanent notions” (108, 189, 242) or “permanent imagery of the intellect” (121, 242, 246), or else “permanent impressions” (111, 189). These are impressions that become “formed into a permanent idea by repetition” and “spring up as memories in after times” (422, 483). They begin as sensory and muscular inputs, but linger beyond the single stimulus: “This cohering and storing up the impressions of light made on the retina of the eye, and the accompanying muscular impressions rising out of its form-tracing mobility, are, both the one and the other, of a very enduring kind; they take on the coherence that gives them an existence after the fact” (247-48). Bain explains that the mind stores “characteristic” forms or motions—similar to Dresser’s “salient features”—that become emblematic: “The gallop of a horse is a series of moving pictures that leave a trace behind them, and are revived as such. The motions that constitute the carriage and expression of an animal or a man, demand particular movements of the eye in order to take them in, and store them up among our permanent notions” (242). Here we have a mechanism similar to that by which our many experiences of seeing bundles of sprigs cohere into a mental conception of a leaf-bud. And, these “permanent notions” can be recalled to mind by later perceptions: “These, repeated to our view, at last fix themselves in our mind with sufficient force to be revivable on the occasion of any link being present”—including the “link” offered by a stylized ornamental leaf-bud (424). Bain discusses maps and diagrams as representations that we make to serve as visual links to our coherent permanent impressions; perhaps Dresser took the cue to extend Bain’s method to decorative design, too.

Figure 6. Ornamental motifs that evoke the “mental conception” of a leaf-bud. Plate II from Dresser, _The Art of Decorative Design_ (1862). Courtesy of the Department of Special Collections, Stanford University Libraries.

Figure 6. Ornamental motifs that evoke the “mental conception” of a leaf-bud.

Reading Dresser alongside Bain and Spencer allows us to understand even better Dresser’s rationale for enjoining ornamentists to study the laws of plant growth. Aside from any natural-philosophical or art-historical reason why the laws of plant growth should be the laws of ornament, Dresser highlights that our reactions to plants contain lessons about how our aesthetic responsiveness is configured at an unconscious level. Any time we see a shape that has a number of parts springing from the summit of a line, and the parts near the center line are fairly perpendicular while the parts moving out from the center are more and more angled, this perception—like the stylized leaf-bud motifs Dresser creates—will call into our minds the idea of a leaf-bud (Figure 6). This psycho-physiological insight gives new meaning to what Dresser calls “our intimacy with flowers” (109). In a way he suggests that, when plants recurrently organize their parts into the same combinations of shapes, which we recurrently take in with our eyes and bodies, plants in effect teach us about the combinations to which we can consistently expect, and habitually respond.

He illustrates this by way of many additional examples, via design principles that operate at different scales. For example: “A principle which has been universally obeyed in the best periods of art,” he points out, is “that the wall decoration should have its halves corresponding while the floor should consist of radiating parts” (The Art of Decorative Design 153). This principle also “occurs most fully in the vegetable kingdom” (153). Here he reprises his observation in “Botany as Adapted to the Arts” that certain plants appear as “vertical” or “horizontal” ornaments. In that essay, he writes that in the top view of the Speedwell, “we have an ornament precisely adapted for an horizontal position, or one which is to be viewed from above” (20: 111). The Speedwell’s leaves might be arranged as they are perhaps for reasons having to do with their ability to gather sunlight or breathe. But to regard the plant as a horizontal ornament is to regard it with reference to a human being’s typical spatial orientation toward it, to foreground the fact that a human being would most often take a top view of the Speedwell.

When he revisits this idea in The Art of Decorative Design, he owns the human-centeredness of this “principle in the vegetable kingdom”: “In wandering over the moor we notice that every plant which we look down upon has this radiate structure—the daisy, the buttercup, the jelly-flower […] and whatever plant we look down upon, it matters not what it is, for in all cases the leaves and the flowers and the prostrate stems spring from a common centre” (153). In other words, “The top view of every plant shows it to be of a radiating character,” but only because these plants are smaller than us, and we are far more familiar with the top view of them than with all other possible views (153). Dresser’s phrasing transforms flowers so that, when they present us with these various symmetries, they become ornaments: “All plants with the top view of which we are familiar, and which are consequently to us horizontal ornaments, are of a radiate character” (153, emphasis added). Alternatively, if a flower has two symmetrical halves, “the blossom is so situated that it becomes a vertical ornament, as in the violet” (154) (Figure 7).

Figure 7. Dresser, illustrations of a violet, a flower that we encounter as a “vertical ornament” with bi-lateral symmetry (left) and a flower we encounter as a “horizontal ornament” with radial symmetry (right). From _The Art of Decorative Design_. Courtesy of the Department of Special Collections, Stanford University Libraries.

Figure 7. Dresser, illustrations of a violet, a flower that we encounter as a “vertical ornament” with bi-lateral symmetry (left) and a flower we encounter as a “horizontal ornament” with radial symmetry (right).

Figure 8. Dresser, ornamental patterns with radial symmetry, suitable for floors or ceilings. Fig. 57, Plate XVIII fig. 2, and Plate V fig. 3 from _The Art of Decorative Design_. Courtesy of the Department of Special Collections, Stanford University Libraries.

Figure 8. Dresser, ornamental patterns with radial symmetry, suitable for floors or ceilings.

So automatic is our perception of these symmetries that, lexically, Dresser equates the way plants appear to an ornamentist with what they are, tout court. In turn, our experience of flowers in nature creates deeply ingrained expectations about the positions, relative to our eyes, from which we’ll encounter particular human-made patterns. Because we most often see radially-symmetrical flowers by looking downward on them from above, it is more comfortable for us to see radiating patterns on horizontal planes of an interior, either on a floor or on a ceiling (Figure 8). On the other hand, because we experience bi-lateral symmetry when we look at flowers, shrubs, and trees from the sides, bi-laterally symmetrical patterns are more comfortable when we see them to our sides, on vertical planes such as walls (Figure 9). These kinds of forms are adapted for wall-decorations and “would be most objectionable as a floor-pattern; for in this position it would of necessity be wrong way upwards to a large portion of the occupants of the room” (156). In the end, “Vegetable nature is full of ornamental ideas” not because plant parts come in an array of shapes that a decorator can copy and combine into chintz patterns (The Art of Decorative Design 30). Our physiology orchestrates our aesthetic response, indoors as out of doors.

Figure 9. Dresser, ornamental patterns with bi-lateral symmetry, suitable for wall coverings. Fig. 57, Fig. 79, and Plate V fig. 2 from _The Art of Decorative Design_. Courtesy of the Department of Special Collections, Stanford University Libraries.

Figure 9. Dresser, ornamental patterns with bi-lateral symmetry, suitable for wall coverings.

What else might it look like for ornament to reflect empirical knowledge about material forms’ mental form-ing? Dresser shows how ornamental motifs can bring to mind all sorts of “thoughts.” For instance, “The most simple agency by which the thought of ascension can be called to mind is by the arrow with its apex directed upwards, and of descension by an arrow inverted” (175). This is because an upward- or a downward-pointing arrow revives a whole array of past experiences of perceiving moving objects:

An umbrella, moved through the air with considerable velocity […] has its web pressed closely against the stick. A bird in rapid flight has its feathers pressed against the body. A parachute during ascent is closed. Should the umbrella be pulled downwards through the air it will be forced open; a bird when descending has its wings uplifted; and the parachute is spread—hence these bodies, when in these particular conditions, tend to induce the mind to originate to itself the thought of ascension or descension […] (175)

Dresser offers a series of patterns that constitute “an embodiment of occurrences or effects associated by the mind with these acts [of rising or falling]” (175) (Figure 10). Not only static forms such as leaf-buds, it turns out, but also moving objects, and the experience of movement itself, are part of what Bain calls “the large class of impressions that we receive [… and] the emotions that they produce, and the permanent imagery that they contribute to the intelligence” (246)—and thus, for Dresser, part of what a designer can cast into ornamental form.

Figure 10. Dresser, motifs illustrating the ideas of ascension and descension. Plates XX and XXII from _The Art of Decorative Design_. Courtesy of the Department of Special Collections, Stanford University Libraries.

Figure 10. Dresser, motifs illustrating the ideas of ascension and descension.

Dresser wasn’t the only ornamentist to write about the psychology of perception. In The Stones of Venice I (1851), John Ruskin devotes half of the chapter “Treatment of Ornament” to “the expression, or rendering to the eye and mind, of the thing itself” (IX: 283). If an artisan cannot render an object pictorially, Ruskin writes, he must think about how to render just those features that will call the object to the viewer’s mind. Ruskin suggests an ornamentist can perform “noble abstraction,” which means “taking first the essential elements of the thing to be represented, then the rest in the order of importance […] and using any expedient to impress what we want upon the mind, without caring about the mere literal accuracy of such expedient” (241). He illustrates by asking us to “suppose, for instance, we have to represent a peacock: now a peacock has a graceful neck, so has a swan; it has a high crest, so has a cockatoo; it has a long tail, so has a bird of Paradise. But the whole spirit and power of the peacock is in those eyes of the tail […] express the gleaming of the blue eyes through the plumage, and you have nearly all you want of peacock, but without this, nothing” (241).

In The Stones of Venice II, he briefly muses that the barred red lines on the brick-and-clay walls of Arabian houses an “expression of the sweep of the desert” (X: 282), and this expression of the desert is “probably the great charm of these horizontal bars to the Arabian mind” (347). Putting this in Dresser’s terms, we might say the barred red lines call to mind the “mental conception” of the sweep of the desert. Elsewhere, Ruskin writes that ornamental forms can express “action or force of some kind” (X: 268), or “motion, elasticity, or dependence” (X: 267). For example, cornices should have shapes that “are distinctly rooted in the lower part of the cornice, and spring to the top. This arrangement […] is essential to the expression of the supporting power” because it “best expresses rooted and ascendant strength like that of foliage” (X: 366). But Ruskin regarded the abstraction Dresser champions as “barbaric,” as he showed in the 1859 lectures he delivered at South Kensington, “The Two Paths.”

Jones, for his part, argued often that decorative art must produce effects that balance activity and repose. In The Grammar of Ornament, he writes, that “True beauty results from that repose which the mind feels when the eye, the intellect, and the affections, are satisfied from the absence of any want” (23). Along similar lines, William Morris ascribes to ornament the task of beautifying living spaces without taxing our emotions with the often tragic scenarios that make for the greatest works of painting. In his 1881 lecture “Some Hints on Pattern Designing,” he explains: “Stories that tell of men’s aspirations for more than material life can give them, their struggles for the future welfare of their race, their unselfish love, their unrequited service […] This is the best art, and who can deny that it is good for us all that it should be at hand to stir our emotions: yet its very greatness makes it a thing to be handled carefully, for we cannot always be having our emotions deeply stirred: that wearies us body and soul” (176-77). On the other hand, by filling our field of vision with stylized reminders of nature’s forms, decorative art, according to Morris, provides “life and beauty” and “sets our minds and memories at work easily creating,” but doesn’t tax us with constant intense emotions (177). Morris asks that designs, in addition to resting us, produce “a certain mystery” that neither makes us “read the whole thing at once, nor desire to do so, nor be impelled by that desire to go on tracing line after line to find out how the pattern is made” (109). When they discuss ornament’s psychological impact, these thinkers focus on preventing ornament from doing “too much” in the way of stimulating its viewers. In contrast, as we’ll see, Dresser gives space for ornament to shape a more active, broader range of responses.

Embodying Knowledge

The most visionary move of Dresser’s book—and the part where his physiological-aestheticist theory of ornamentation comes into fullest view—is a chapter in The Art of Decorative Design he titles “Power of Ornament to Express Feelings and Ideas.” In this chapter it becomes clear that it’s not only Dresser’s attention to our eyes’ path around a visual field, or to the way abstraction contributes to “mental conceptions,” that makes him a physiological ornamentist. It’s also his enthusiasm for the work of scientists in other disciplines altogether, such as the physicist John Tyndall—and his particular take on how ornamentists can engage with inquiries such as Tyndall’s. Dresser attended some of Tyndall’s demonstrations at the map iconRoyal Institution. In “Power of Ornament to Express Feelings and Ideas,” he describes watching an experiment in which Tyndall “caused semi-plastic matter (pipe-clay reduced to the consistency of thick batter by water), to flow down planes of varying declivity […] which underwent remarkable changes of form as they descended and were acted upon by varying pressure” (177). For a reader accustomed to, for instance, Ruskin’s approach to ornament, it might not be immediately clear how such a study of the physics of fluids could be relevant to the decorative designer.

But as Dresser explains the connection, he offers a physiological theory of ornament: “The influence of matter in motion upon matter, whether moving or fixed, is at all times worthy of study,” Dresser argues, “for by observing the aspects of matter when acted upon by various influences, and diligently inquiring into the nature of the mental conception of facts and occurrences, it will be found possible to express feelings and ideas by ornaments without the aid of symbolic forms” (177-78, emphasis added). An unobtrusive and here makes for a kind manifesto of what ornament can do. Dresser links two projects that at first seem unrelated—the physicist’s and the psychologist’s—conceiving a continuity between the ways materials interact with each other and the ways visual stimuli affect their perceivers’ minds.

Our understanding of matter’s behavior—which demonstrations like Tyndall’s can make more detailed than casual observation—shapes our enduring ideas about matter. In both physical and mental processes, some forces are strong enough to produce change, to imprint themselves. Dresser seems to echo Spencer’s observation: “Thus, Matter, Space, Motion, Force—all our fundamental ideas, arise by generalization and abstraction from our experiences of resistance” (268-69)—and experiments like Tyndall’s give us more informed experiences of resistance, and ornament can express those informed experiences. It can express the findings of science. Most practically for his designer audience, learning about the forces at work on flowing clay can help us represent other forces visually—can serve, in other words, as a source of design ideas just as rich as the study of botany. For example, Dresser suggests, our understanding of how water acts when it gets splashed against a surface—part of the water rebounds from that surface, and part clings to it in droplets or runs along it in thin rivulets and films, because of surface adhesion—can inform an ornamental motif like that in Figure 11. His choice of verb is revealing: ornament doesn’t only “express” meanings, but “embodies” knowledge. The motif doesn’t depict water droplets but represents their physical behaviors.

Figure 11. Dresser, an ornament that “may justly be said to embody two natural facts” about water’s behavior against a surface, the way it rebounds and the way it clings. Fig. 135 from _The Art of Decorative Design_. Courtesy of the Department of Special Collections, Stanford University Libraries.

Figure 11. Dresser, an ornament that “may justly be said to embody two natural facts” about water’s behavior against a surface, the way it rebounds and the way it clings.

For Dresser, ornamental form is a prime vehicle even for ideas that are quite complex. In order to convey these, he explains, “an inquiry into the facts and circumstances which go to make up the mental conception of that which is to be set forth must be […] carefully conducted” (171). For example, he asks:

What goes to form our conception of evening? […] What is it that causes us thus to feel [that it is evening]? And what do we now see that we do not meet with at other times? […] The aerial vault has a hue peculiar to this period of day […] There is the brightening ‘star of the evening,’ which shines forth long before its comrades less brilliant than itself […] The herbage partakes of the influence, and alters the position of its leaves, which for the most part rise and form a more acute angle with the upper portion of the stem. And the majority of flowers close, while others open, as the evening primrose. The colours are also altered; blue becomes lighter, till in the later dusk it is impossible to tell a surface washed with cobalt in its intensity from a sheet of white paper. Orange and red become darker, and finally disappear in black. (171-72, emphasis original)

Dresser strips away the rich poetic and symbolic resonances of this time of day—the idea that evening is a time of darkening, an end, symbolically near to other kinds of ends, of eras, of life—and shows how much there is to notice just on the sensory front, once we slow down to notice it. How many of us, after all, know how flower petals angle at this time of day, or what happens to the orange hues around us? But the exercise is worth it because, “having ascertained what goes to make up our mental idea of evening, it is not difficult to […] create a decorative scheme which shall so impress the mind as to cause it to originate to itself the sense of evening […] All that is necessary is that we originate a series of conventional forms which shall call to mind the salient features in our conception” (172). Ornament’s abstraction can bring about a feeling by distilling the rhythms and laws that structure the world, and that we perceive, even if unconsciously.

Figure 12. Dresser, Hobgoblin, Plate XVII, fig. 1 from _The Art of Decorative Design_. Courtesy of the Department of Special Collections, Stanford University Libraries.

Figure 12. Dresser, Hobgoblin.

Even as Dresser moves, next, to a rather fanciful and, really, a more culturally-specific point about the combinations of shape and color we associate with evening, he aims to stick to patterns of perception: “It will be found that we associate with our conception of evening the existence of creatures with luminous eyes; for insects generally impress by their eyes and wings, and although perfectly familiar with the organs of vision of these creatures, we are frequently altogether ignorant of the character of the mouth. Hobgoblins are associated with evening; hence it is necessary to link them with our conception of this portion of the day and to make them terrific through the magnitude of the eyes” (173-74). Dresser’s hobgoblin (Figure 12) doesn’t have to do with our myths and folklore but with our reactions to the shapes of insects—our fascination with the proportions of their large eyes to their bodies, with their wings, and the mysteriousness of their mouth parts, which are often too small for us to distinguish clearly because we are scaled so differently from them. “Our sketch of the Hobgoblin,” Dresser concludes, “may be appropriately followed by one of evening in which this creature is present” (174). A wallpaper pattern such as his “Evening” (Figure 13) selects and arranges the crucial sensory effects that shape our “mental conception” of this time of day.

Figure 13. Dresser, “Evening” wallpaper pattern. Plate XVI from _The Art of Decorative Design_. Courtesy of the Department of Special Collections, Stanford University Libraries.

Figure 13. Dresser, “Evening” wallpaper pattern.

Ornamental Physiology

Dresser incorporated empirical physicists’ and psychologists’ models of perception into his theory of ornament. In the reverse direction, physiological aestheticists considered ornament in the course of their inquiries into human aesthetic response more broadly. Bain happens not to be a terribly good example in this regard. In The Senses and the Intellect, he discusses decorative art only briefly. He characterizes it as one of the “purely effusive arts, such as music or the dance, [in which] truth and nature are totally irrelevant [and] the artist’s feeling, and the gratification of the senses of mankind generally, are the sole criterion of the effect” (607). In contrast, for Bain, arts such as painting and poetry are ones in which the artist “has to show a certain decent respect to our experience of reality in the management of his subject” (608). The notion that ornament could in fact show a distinct “respect for our experience of reality”—so central for Dresser—seems not to have been on Bain’s radar in this work.

But in the journal Mind, founded in 1874, ornament features much more prominently in discussions of “aesthetic feeling.” Authors emphasize what they see as distinctive features of ornament—its symmetry, regularity, and non-representationality. These qualities allow ornament to serve as a testing ground for attempts to separate aesthetic effects that depend on “association”—or on semantic content—from effects produced by non-signifying elements such as color harmony and order. Thus, for example, in his 1880 essay “Pleasure of Visual Form,” James Sully sets out to show that the gratification we receive from visual forms has a sensual component as well as the oft-emphasized intellectual component (181). Sully means to begin with “the elements of pleasure which […] arise from the activity of the visual organ, and trace the process of building up a more complex intellectual gratification on these [… and] the indirect or associated elements of enjoyment” (182). Less important for him are the “more circumscribed and concrete” associations ornament might call up, the fact that, for instance, “the Corinthian capital, and forms frequently found in ornamental design, please the eye in part through a vague feeling of their plant-like character” (198). More attention-worthy are the “abstract associations” that we find pleasurable because of the organization of our retina and our musculature—the prominence of central figures, the sense of proportion, “the wooing character of the remote and retiring, and the stimulating aspect of the near and prominent” (198). Ornament also comes into service as Sully argues that a pleasing sense of unity comes from the perception of contours, which ornament can accentuate: “The movement of the eye around a contour to the point from which it set out, yields a peculiar filing of gratification which may be called a sense of completeness. The special aesthetic value of contour is seen in the custom of accentuating it in decorative designs by means of ornamental appendages” (192). Sully is close, here, to the Dresser who foregrounds that ornamentists of the past have been drawn by plant shapes’ satisfying relationships of centralization or radiation, their ways of causing the eye to move gratifyingly inward or outward from a center, across gradations, or away from points of juncture.

Similarly, in his 1897 essay “Suggestions on Aesthetic,” E.H. Donkin holds off ornament’s semiotic possibilities and emphasizes abstraction, arguing that aestheticists must value “formal beauty” over “the so-called beauty of individual expressiveness” (512). He writes: “I would make the fact of ‘expressiveness,’ the fact that, e.g., a statue ‘expresses’ some aspect of humanity, and the like, secondary. I would make unity in variety the paramount feature, the essence of beauty of every kind. I would find two exactly parallel forms of unity in variety in, say, a symmetrical ornamental pattern, and a statue” (512). For the empirical aestheticist, “all beauty is essentially the same, whether it be the beauty of a geometrical pattern, a rainbow, a waterfall, a cliff, a poem, a statue, or a tragic drama” (512). But as a side effect of this line of reasoning, Donkin allows ornament to “express” perhaps even less than Sully allows—only the general notion of “unity in variety.” In this, he is close to, for instance, Grant Allen, who regards ornament as evidence of the general human proclivity toward symmetry, in “The Origin of the Sense of Symmetry” (1879). More fine-grained “associations” such as Sully’s “wooing of the remote,” “stimulation of the near and prominent,” or “completeness of the contoured” fall beyond what these writers are willing to grant ornament.

In his 1879 essay “Relations of Reason to Beauty,” Edmund Gurney, like Sully, acknowledges that ornament can please us because it recalls nature: “[I]n the effect produced by buildings there are elements which may be very distinctly traced to associational and other mental sources […] For instance, the branching appearance of a gothic roof may be held to owe some of its effect to dim suggestions of forest-forms […] In the pleasure given by mass, size and strength also, architecture reaps the benefit of conceptions which are chiefly formed in the presence of nature” (490). But, Gurney insists, ornament also does more to its perceivers, and reveals more about our physiological makeup, than other physiological aestheticists have admitted. Gurney directly disagrees with arguments that ornament’s form pleases because it exhibits orderliness and regularity. He seeks to describe a more diverse array of intellectual “laws” that ornament addresses. He is after “principles” that:

so far as they go beyond the mere laws of sensory stimulation and extend to the intellectual region, will be the general facts of our mental processes, as regards, e.g., the pleasure of imitation, or the love of type and metaphor, and, above all, the laws of association, hereditary and individual, which are deeply involved in most of our enjoyment of form […] they [these laws] are general facts about the development and characteristics of mind itself, not about relations which the mind desiderates in phenomena, and to which therefore beautiful phenomena are bound to conform. They are general as applying to all minds, not as applied by the mind to all phenomena. (484)

Gurney is after those “hidden relations between things which are akin in having deeply impressed” the viewer (500). He recalls, I think, Dresser’s observations that various forms can be “akin” in the sense they cause the form a “mental conception”—there is a set of “relations” between all the combinations of forms that evoke for us a leaf-bud. Thus Sully perceives “a general unity in the whole range of the phenomena which cause us lofty emotions, corresponding to the persistent unity of our own ego” (500)—or at the least of our physiology.

Another account of how ornament addresses the mind—and an account resonant with Dresser—appears in the essay “Evolution and Psychology in Art” (1897), by the physician-turned-archeologist Henry Colley March. March argues that ornament attests to the existence of “a psycho-neural syntaxis” that causes us to expect certain forms to appear together (448). When we create useful shapes—a vase that has a functional rope handle, for instance—we later expect the same shapes to occur even in not strictly utilitarian scenarios, as when a differently balanced vase no longer needs a handle, but the eye misses the visual equivalent of a rope, and so the ornamentist must supply an equivalent by adding a decorative rope-like pattern to his vase. Thus ornament satisfies an “‘expectancy’ of the visual equivalents of certain technical devices in the matter of joints, angles, borders, rims and edges—and visual ornaments satisfy this expectancy” (448). And, “What is called ‘feeling’ in Ornament is really a particular kind of emotion which is mainly due to the realisation of an expectancy in coexistences” (459). March draws explicitly on Spencer’s and Bain’s observations about how mental groupings that have arisen over the course of repeated sensual experiences can be called up by future stimuli. But, unlike Dresser who, as we saw, felt ornament could activate expectations we have about the behavior of natural objects as well as human-made ones—those rising and falling bodies, for example—March doesn’t allow for ornaments to call up more than the configurations of their original functional equivalents.

Figure 14. “Honeysuckle Pattern from Greek Vases,” drawn by Clementina Anstruther-Thomson, from Vernon Lee and Clementina Anstruther-Thomson’s _Beauty and Ugliness_ (1912).

Figure 14. “Honeysuckle Pattern from Greek Vases,” drawn by Clementina Anstruther-Thomson

Perhaps no psychological aestheticist spent more time analyzing ornament than the amateur art theorist Clementina Anstruther-Thomson. Anstruther-Thomson and her collaborator Vernon Lee—about whom I will have more to say—first published the essay “Beauty and Ugliness” in The Contemporary Review in October 1897 and published it, along with other essays, in 1912’s Beauty and Ugliness, and Other Studies in Psychological Aesthetics.[13] Like Sully, Donkin, and Gurney, Lee formulates “the central aesthetic problem” as “the problem of the preference and antipathy inspired by visible shapes entirely apart from any object or action which they may (as in the case of decorative patterns of architecture) or may not suggest” (Beauty and Ugliness 115). “From the aesthetic standpoint,” Lee writes, “all aesthetic form is equally abstract, because the aesthetic standpoint is that of a play of abstract forces” (362, emphasis original). Lee and Anstruther-Thomson theorize the human “aesthetic faculty” by documenting their own bodily and mental reactions to the forms of physical objects of all sorts—paintings, sculptures, chairs, buildings, and decorative patterns. (In her footnotes in Beauty and Ugliness, Lee makes clear that it was mostly Anstruther-Thomson who did this self-monitoring, and that Lee herself did not experience such profound physical reactions; her ensuing theory of empathy is a theory of mental rather than corporeal reactivity to form.)

For example, they write about Greek honeysuckle motifs (Figure 14), which seamlessly interface with our bodily selves: “As soon as the eye falls upon the pattern, we are conscious of being bilateral, for the two equal sides of the pattern call both lungs into equal play. With the sense of being bilateral goes a sense of expansion, and the two unite into a vague feeling of harmony, which is recognised as unusual but at the same time as eminently natural” (186, emphasis original). Anstruther-Thomson explains her liking for the design—which she imagines was the same as the “preference” that inspired the motif’s original creator to draw it this way—via an “experiment”: looking away from the pattern, she finds that she ceases to feel the “bilateral balance” in her lungs; looking back at the pattern restores the feeling to her. “After this experiment,” she concludes, “one quite realises how decorative art may have originated in the pleasure which some prehistoric man may have found in breathing regularly and without need for readjustment when he first scratched lines at regular intervals from each other” (186-87). Ornament thus calls up past bodily experiences even more so than it does “mental conceptions.”

Finding ornaments such a rich source of physiological stimuli, Lee argues in a late footnote in Beauty and Ugliness that empirical aestheticists should do more to study the shapes occurring “in all times and countries in ornaments, pottery, textile fabrics, and every possible object susceptible of undergoing alteration of its merely practically required shape to suit individual or traditional liking” (360). Studying achieved ornamental designs, Lee writes, would go far beyond the then-existing experiments in psychological aesthetics performed by German psychologists such as Hugo Münsterberg, Jacob Segal, and Leonhard Wladislaus Legowskyr, which examined viewers’ experiences only of “elementary geometrical figures drawn with ruler and compass” (360). Instead, studies must examine “simple geometrical shapes as they occur in patterns and architecture, that is to say, altered, accentuated, and phrased into aesthetic significance,” because such completed ornaments possess twice the “empathic powers”—twice the capacity to elucidate human aesthetic responses (360). This is why, Lee explains, she and her co-author feature an ornamental design—the mosaic floor pattern from the baptistery in Florence—as the frontispiece to Beauty and Ugliness. Throughout the lectures in Art and Man (1912), Anstruther-Thomson takes up this challenge, analyzing many ornamental patterns, especially decorative drawings on Greek vases.

For all these writers, ornament is attractive because it tamps down the contribution of subject matter and seems to promise a site for isolating more purely aesthetic responses from moral or sentimental ones. As my descriptions have indicated, physiological aestheticists’ treatment of ornament thus develops in what we can think of as two strains. One strain, visible in Sully and Donkin, emphasizes physical responses to aesthetic objects. In pursuit of the purely aesthetic, these writers allow ornament to express “associations” of only the most general kind: associations having to do with unity, symmetry, or variation. Even Anstruther-Thomson doesn’t allow ornament to “express” much more than bodily ease or strain, movement or stasis. She speaks of patterns that give us pleasure because “their shape fits the way we are made […] their shapes corroborate our shapes” (Art and Man 15, 17); of patterns expressing “movement and life” (133); of horizontal bars causing an “apparent widening of the vision of one’s eyes [that] has an extraordinary effect upon one’s spirits: it is at one and the same moment peaceful and exhilarating” (124); or of a building that produces “a state of baulked activity which is exceedingly irritating to one’s nerves” (125). Another strain foregrounds the “mental laws” ornament reveals, such as the force of “expectancy” (in March), or the “love of type and metaphor” and “laws of association” that reveal the perceiving ego’s coherence over time (in Gurney). Dresser’s approach is more similar to this second direction. He incorporates what we know about physiology—or effects on the retina and musculature—and the psychology of association, so as to produce more purposeful, intentionally expressive ornament. In this, Dresser also resonates especially with an aestheticist who came to psychology and physiology by way of art history and aesthetics rather than science—Vernon Lee.

Lee’s Dresser

If Anstruther-Thomson doesn’t allow ornament to “express” much of anything mental, her collaborator points the way toward ideation again, in her independent work on form and psychology. For this reason, I feel Lee is a particularly interesting interlocutor for Dresser. I am not arguing for a direct historical influence, but more for a convergence of concerns. Dresser and Lee were not connected biographically. Her early conceptions about art were based on Ruskin’s moral aesthetics and later influenced by Walter Pater and the Aesthetic Movement. She began writing in the 1880s about the connection between beauty and ethics in Belcaro: Being Essays on Sundry Aesthetical Questions (1881), and about the way literature affects our feelings in Baldwin (1886). She wouldn’t begin working on empirical aesthetics until the 1890s, some five decades after Dresser, and wouldn’t publish most of her studies on psychological aesthetics until the early 1900s. And her first empirical studies were influenced by the work of French and German psychologists, particularly Théodule-Armand Ribot, Robert Vischer, Hermann Lotze, Karl Groos, and Theodor Lipps. Dresser, on the other hand, was influenced by studies in England.

And yet, related ideas seem independently to have come to preoccupy these thinkers. Plenty of times, Lee’s locutions sound like Dresser’s, in her later work The Beautiful: An Introduction to Psychological Aesthetics (1913). Resonant with Dresser’s “mental ideas” and “mental conceptions,” Lee refers to the “mental facts” that determine the way we perceive (32); the “mental activities” that “meet” sense stimulation (29); the “mental reflexes,” “mental processes” and “mental images” that get “[set] up in us” when we take in our environs (5, 57, 24). She defines beauty as a “particular group of mental activities and habits” (1) and seeks to describe “the bodily and mental activities of exploring a shape and establishing among its constituent sensations relationships both to each other and to ourselves” (129). As she details some of these “mental activities,” she highlights the prominent role of our past perceptual experiences in shaping our expectations around visual form. She is in line with Spencer and Bain and other British psychologists, but her examples also create a gesture via which we don’t merely recognize objects by their characteristic features—as, in Bain, we recognize a horse’s gait or a person’s face because our coherent intellectual picture of it gets activated. Instead, Lee argues that we should try working our perception in the reverse direction, to see objects rather than just recognizing them, defamiliarizing them so that we see them as combinations of potentialities rather than repetitions of past experience. We stylize how objects can configure into, not what they (statically) are. It sounds a bit like Lee wants to see things as potential ornaments:

A rose, for instance, is not merely a certain assemblage of curves and straight lines and colours, seen as the painter sees it, at a certain angle, petals masking part of stem, leaf protruding above bud: it is the possibility of other combinations of shapes, including those seen when the rose (or the person looking) is placed head downwards […] For, so far as our consciousness is concerned, things are merely groups of actual and potential reactions on our own part, that is to say of expectations which experience has linked together in more or less stable groups. (16-17, emphasis original)

Thus, a “Thing,” for Lee, is a bundle of “grouped possibilities, past, present, and future” (70). We have seen Dresser pay attention to the way we “expect” certain possible symmetries to be “grouped” with certain spatial relations to ourselves: when we expect to see bilateral symmetry like the violet’s in vertical relation to ourselves, on a wall, and we expect that radial symmetry should only be a “possibility” (Lee’s term) for a floor or ceiling. In Lee’s phrasing, an ornamentist designing a pattern like Dresser’s “Evening” marshals our sense of the “combinations of shapes”—deep shades of blue, closing flower-bells, and hobgoblins—that experience has taught us it’s “possible” to encounter during this time of day.

Another point of convergence with Dresser is in their discussions of what visual art can convey to its viewers by relying on symbolism as opposed to a more strictly formal syntax. I return to Dresser’s claim in The Art of Decorative Design that by “diligently inquiring into the nature of the mental conception of facts and occurrences, it will be found possible to express feelings and ideas by ornaments without the aid of symbolic forms” (177-78, emphasis added). By bringing up “symbolic forms,” he enters into dialogue with another traditional approach to ornament that he wishes to revise: the anthropological and art-historical practice of analyzing ornaments as a symbolic language that carries religious or cultural meanings. In this tradition, visible in Jones’s Grammar of Ornament or William Goodyear’s The Grammar of the Lotus (1891), historic styles make utterance to us of the faith or sentiments of their producers, as the Egyptian lotus motif expresses all the symbolism associated with the lotus in Egyptian religion (Dresser, The Art of Decorative Design 12-14). But Dresser points out that symbolic images are necessarily limited:

Orange-blossoms may set forth innocence, and call up reminiscences of Hymen’s altar; holly and mistletoe will express Christmas, and evoke thoughts of merriment and joy; the violet will typify humility, leaf-buds spring, a profusion of flowers summer, ripe fruits autumn, leafless branches winter, the trefoil the Trinity, and the quatrefoil the four Evangelists; yet the number of such symbols is few, consequently they afford no great means of expressing ideas. (167)

What’s more, this procedure can reach only a small audience: “In order that a symbolic art be powerful in utterance it is necessary that the people have knowledge of the purport or significance of the forms used and of the circumstances to which they have reference” (167). On the other hand, when designers “embody our knowledge in ornamental forms,” they appeal not to specialized vocabulary but to “that knowledge which is invariably gained by the common-life experience of those addressed”—by a knowledge that’s common because it depends on a physiology we all share (168). Dresser’s call to bypass symbolic forms defines succinctly what distinguishes his empirical approach to aesthetic effect from more metaphysical approaches. Informed by science’s discoveries about “matter when acted upon by various influences” and “the nature of the mental conception of facts,” ornament can “express” ideas not pictorially, but by relying on the mind’s habits of reacting to form. It can be a more universal conveyance of thought and idea.

In what strikes me as a fortuitous coincidence, one early essay shows Lee meditating on a similar idea: on the difference between looking at visual forms so as to “translate” the symbols they contain, and looking at them so as to appreciate the relations and hierarchies “embodied” (as Dresser would put it) by their formal elements alone. In “Orpheus and Eurydice: The Lesson of a Bas-Relief” (1878), Lee tells the story of how she misidentifies a motif on a Greek bas-relief.[14] This is because, under the influence of a passage in a book by Charles Blanc mentioning that a bas-relief at the Villa Albani in Rome depicts Orpheus and Eurydice, she takes a particular bas-relief to be an “embodiment” (a term interestingly coincident with Dresser’s) of that scene. As Lee describes the relief to the reader, she enumerates how each of its features captures “the whole pathos” of Virgil’s narration of Orpheus and Eurydice in the Georgics, line by line (209)—that is, until she reads the museum label and gallery catalogue, which both indicate the bas-relief represents other characters altogether, Antiope and her two sons. The mistake, Lee admits, arises from her having come to the bas-relief with an idea about what it symbolized—Charles Blanc’s idea—rather than taking account of “its internal evidence” (210). But she also realizes that an even bigger mistake inheres in regarding art primarily as a symbolic language, in the first place. Such a regard means that “The comprehension of the subject of a work of art would therefore seem to require certain previous information; the work of art would seem to be unable to tell its story itself, unless we have the key to that story” (212). Like Dresser, she realizes such a regard means art can speak only to the knowing—to those, in this case, who have read Classical dictionaries enough to know what kinds of garb was typically worn by “barbarian” Thracians versus Greek ephebi, and which of these groups Orpheus and Hermes would have belonged to.

So she dismisses art-historical “correctness” in favor of the apprehension of pure form and lines. She admires a “young painter,” “serenely unconscious of literature and science in his complete devotion to art,” who finds the bas-relief not blank at all: “it has spoken for him, the clear, unmistakable language of lines and curves, of light and shade, a language needing no interpreters, no dictionaries; and it has told him the fact, the fact depending on no previous knowledge, irrefutable and eternal, that it is beautiful” (213). And she concludes “We have thus caught ourselves almost regretting that pictures should have any subjects […] because we have too often observed that the subject seemed to engross so much attention as to make people forget the picture” (216). Even in this early work, we can see Lee start to take up her role in the field of psychological aesthetics, helping move away from metaphysics towards a more empirical and scientific foundation by deprioritizing symbolic form, as Dresser does.

Later in her career, Lee turns to how an artist can shape his creations so as to influence the minds of those who encounter his art. This comes through most strongly in her writing about literary form in The Handling of Words (1923). Lee clearly distinguished between aesthetic effects of visual art and of literature. In “A Dialogue on Novels” (1885), she characterizes literature as a “half-art” because, unlike plastic arts such as sculpture, music, architecture, or painting, writing elicits moral reactions as well as purely aesthetic ones (386).[15] It satisfies not only artistic interests but the “desire for the excitement of sympathy and aversion, and desire for the comprehension of psychological problems” (387). But even as it meets those desires, literary form depends on the reader’s psychological organization. Literary form, like aesthetic form in general makes use of both “expectations which experience has linked” as well as “the possibility of other combinations” (The Beautiful 16-17). Lee explains in “On Literary Construction” (1895) that, “by his skillful selection of words and sentences” and also of “whole large passages and divisions,” the writer manipulates both “the single impressions, single ideas and emotions, stored up in the Reader’s mind,” and new “moods and trains of thought” “which were determined by the writer himself” (404). Orchestrating language, the writer works toward “the formation of his particular pattern of thought or fact or mood” in the reader’s mind (577, emphasis original). Ultimately, Lee observes that novelists “have, by playing upon our emotions, immensely increased the sensitiveness, the richness, of this living keyboard,” and allowed us to “become conscious of new harmonies and dissonances” and to feel “new feelings” (“A Dialogue on Novels” 390). We might remember Dresser’s observations about how an ornamentist’s skillful design “calls to mind” mental conceptions and ideas that previous experience has built up in us—and Dresser’s insistence that ornament can convey feeling and new knowledge.

For both Dresser and Lee, then, there’s much at stake in aesthetic form’s ability to create forms in the minds of its perceivers. “Form is not merely something we perceive; it is something which determines our mode of perception and reaction,” Lee writes in The Handling of Words (271). And Dresser regards decorative art as a “vehicle for thought,” “an ornamental car in which mind is conveyed throughout the world” (The Art of Decorative Design 35). Both acknowledge that the encounter with skillfully selected “visible or audible shapes” (Lee’s phrase) can have repercussions that continue beyond any single viewing experience.

Dresser’s next book, Principles of Decorative Design (1873), has a different orientation from The Art of Decorative Design. In Principles of Decorative Design we see the more familiar Dresser, the industrial designer rather than the theorist. This book is aimed at “those who seek a knowledge of ornament as applied to our industrial manufactures” (v). Many of the chapters came from a series of lessons published in the Technical Educator and aimed toward working men, to “those noble fellows who, through want of early opportunity, have been without the advantages of education, but who have the praiseworthy courage to educate themselves in later life, when the value of knowledge has become apparent to them” (v). In this practical spirit, Principles of Decorative Design features chapters on specific kinds of decorative wares: “Colour,” “Furniture,” “Carpets,” “Curtain Materials,” “Hollow Vessels,” “Hardware,” and “Stained Glass.” It spends no time detailing the psychological rationale behind patterns. But even in Principles of Decorative Design, Dresser makes some space for his findings about aesthetic perception. Its one theoretical chapter, the first chapter, includes the paragraph with which I began, and which we can read as a recap of The Art of Decorative Design’s more fleshed-out case for why the designer must consider himself as addressing the viewer as a physiological and psychological being, a being whose “mind” the “combinations” of ornamental elements will affect.

What is the upshot of all this? Ultimately, to regard Dresser as a physiological ornamentist is to appreciate that he sees non-naturalistic art as especially communicative about “mental facts,” at a physiological level. We must expand the more familiar emphasis on Dresser’s role in the commercial aspects of “industrial” design, to recognize Dresser’s contribution to the many and diverse ways in which contemporary scientific exploration of sensation and perception informed thinking about art and what it “does” with us. His unique connection of art and science generated an innovative approach to design that likens the interaction between materials to the interaction of human perception and materials, since they follow the same natural laws. By foregrounding how intimately ornament communes with our physiology in producing knowledge, he shows that we can make ornament more “sympathetic” than it has been, and more sympathetic than other art forms: more attuned to the correspondences between the mind’s inner-bodily feelings and the stimuli it encounters in the outside world; more filled with wisdom about how our embodied minds sieve stimuli into the salient features that become objects of memory and emotion. But Dresser reaches even further: understanding the laws of human perception of form enables the artist, and all those who use visual form, to influence audience reaction. In articulating his conviction of ornament’s relevance to the study of human perception and even ideation, Dresser not only prepared the way for more empirical studies of aesthetics and ornament, but also gave the “lesser” art of décor a more serious role in in the context of aesthetic and psychological science. If we appreciate Dresser as a physiological aestheticist, we have a new way to understand what he means when he writes in The Art of Decorative Design that ornaments “are not imitations of that which actually exists, but are mind embodied in form” (37).

published March 2020

Irena Yamboliev holds her PhD from Stanford University, where she is currently Lecturer. Her book manuscript, All Art is Ornamental: Ornament, the Novel, and the Victorian Real, examines how writers used the decorative arts as formal models for their realist narratives. Essays have appeared or are forthcoming in Victorian Literature and Culture, Twentieth-Century Literature, and Victorian Studies. She is also completing a critical companion to Jeffrey Eugenides’s Middlesex.


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[1] For rich accounts of the development of psychological and physiological aesthetics, see Benjamin Morgan’s The Outward Mind: Materialist Aesthetics in Victorian Science and Literature, Nicholas Dames’s The Physiology of the Novel: Reading, Neural Science, and the Forms of Victorian Fiction, and Douglas Mao’s Fateful Beauty: Aesthetic Environments, Juvenile Development, and Literature 1860-1960.

[2] The thinkers developing the new materialist aesthetics (Benjamin Morgan’s phrase) included practitioners of the decorative arts. In addition to the color chemist Michel-Eugene Chevreul, who was working on developing color systems expressly for the plastic arts, and the British pigment manufacturer George Field, a key figure was the interior decorator David Ramsay Hay. In other words, we have historical reasons to focus on ornament’s connections to the larger-scale array of attempts to explain the ways aesthetic form works on us. See Morgan’s The Outward Mind: Materialist Aesthetics in Victorian Science and Literature (Chicago UP, 2017).

[3] Indeed, the discussion of physiological aesthetics as a whole has rarely touched on the contributions made by theories of ornament as an aesthetic form. Lars Spuybroek is one commentator who has discussed mid-nineteenth-century ornamental theory’s intersections with physiological aesthetics. As Spuybroek points out, John Ruskin’s ideas about “tenderness” in relation to decoration were part of an effort to describe the “sympathy” between human beings and things that thinkers directly associated with psychology and that physiological aesthetics—namely William James and Henri Bergson—were developing. But, for Spuybroek, this kind of sympathy of things is central to Ruskin but not to ornamentists who proponed stylized, “conventional” ornamentation, as Dresser did, and with whom Ruskin bitterly disagreed. Alternatively, I propose that Dresser’s discussion of how conventionalized form can “embody mind” suggests a kind of sympathy of its own. See Spuybroek, The Sympathy of Things: Ruskin and the Ecology of Design (V2, 2011). Others have pointed out the connection between physiological aesthetics and the theory of ornament as they developed on the Continent, but I’m interested in the picture in Britain. See Debra K. Schafter, “Function, Fiction, Flux, and Silence: Ornamental Theory, Science, and the Modern Search for Aesthetic Volition” and Christiane Hertel, “August Schmarsow’s Theory of Ornament,” both in Ornament and European Modernism: From Art Practice to Art History, ed. Loretta Vandi (Routledge, 2018).

[4] The eleven parts of “Botany as Adapted to the Arts and Art-Manufacture” spread over volumes 20 and 21 of The Art Journal in 1857-1858. My in-text citations indicate volume number because pagination is continuous within each volume.

[5] The book’s subtitle attests to its ambition: “Being an attempt at developing that oneness which is discoverable in the habits, mode of growth, and principle of construction of all plants.” Jonathan Smith, too, characterizes Dresser’s approach to botany in Unity and Variety as “transcendental.” See Jonathan Smith, Charles Darwin and Victorian Visual Culture (Cambridge UP, 2006), p. 150. Still, in terms of Dresser’s psycho-physiological ideas about pattern, The Art of Decorative Design is distinctly engaged with empiricism.

[6] Morgan also details this shift in The Outward Mind.

[7] Stephen Eisenman also parses the respects in which Dresser and other ornamentists rejected or embraced evolutionary theory. See his introductory chapter in Design in the Age of Darwin: From William Morris to Frank Lloyd Wright (Mary and Leigh Block Museum of Art, Northwestern University, 2008), pp. 9-24.

[8] David Brett, too, has found no sign of direct encounters between these individuals. He writes of “the powerful intellectual circle that included George Eliot, Lewes, Huxley, Tyndall, and Spencer (and Owen Jones; but apparently not Dresser)” (“Design Reform” 45).

[9] Dresser first delivered “The Art of Decorative Design” as a two-part lecture series in front of the Society for the Encouragement of the Fine Arts; the two halves of the lecture were published in The Building News on 20 December 1861 and on 3 January 1862. He then used the same title for an article published in The Builder on 15 March 1862, a very short preview of the book to come out later that same year.

[10] Here, Dresser draws on George Field’s “analogical philosophy.” See also David Brett, “The Aesthetical Science: George Field and the Science of Beauty” in Art History 9.3 (Sept. 1986): 336-50, and Morgan, The Outward Mind.

[11] This passage in The Art of Decorative Design expands on a passing observation in “Botany as Adapted to the Arts and Art-Manufacture,” where Dresser writes: “Nature also offers other suggestions [to the ornamentist], as the covering of joints, or the unions of lines, with diverse expansions (stipules), or the adorning of joints, by the judicious arrangement of certain protrusions and membranes” (21: 294). He uses this same drawing of a leaf that I show in Figure 5, and his commentary about it reads: “[T]here is a strong tendency manifested on the part of nature to hide the actual point of union of contiguous organs, therefore small leafy expansions are often situated at this junction, as in the Hawthorn […] These appendages are called by botanists stipules” (20: 341). In “Botany as Adapted to the Arts,” Dresser acknowledges the plant-physiological reasons for the forms of leaf-joints: “This union is necessarily influenced by various circumstances, as, for instance, […] if the object (say a leaf) is large which is united to the stem, strength is required” (20: 341). But in The Art of Decorative Design, Dresser de-emphasizes the mechanical causes of plant morphology and highlights how plant form “suggests” aesthetic principles to human viewers, by inducing certain kinds of movement of the viewer’s eye. Indeed, in the later book he revisits many moments from “Botany as Adapted to the Arts,” and expands them with reference to the psychology of perception.

[12] The corresponding, less developed version of this point in “Botany as Adapted to the Arts” reads simply: “Without here entering further into this subject, we must notice that ornaments of diverse characters are suggested by the various parts of vegetable structures, that is, that a leaf-bud presents certain general characters which suggest the embodiment of similar general principles in varied detail, and which nevertheless produce a similar effect, owing to the presence of the primary characters” (21: 294-95). In The Art of Decorative Design, Dresser elaborates on how it happens that certain general characters suggest the embodiment of general principles by discussing “mental conceptions” (175).

[13] This essay was the core of 1912’s Beauty and Ugliness and Other Studies in Psychological Aesthetics, which also included an introduction and conclusion by Lee, gallery notes by Anstruther-Thomson, and many footnotes by Lee in which she distinguishes between beliefs her collaborator held and ones Lee herself had come to espouse.

[14] I am grateful to my reviewer for pointing me toward this essay. “Orpheus and Eurydice” was first published in Cornhill Magazine in 1874, then reprinted in Belcaro in 1881.

[15] “A Dialogue on Novels” was reprinted in The Handling of Words (1923), as was “On Literary Construction” (1895), which I discuss later in this essay.