Menu Close



Page with ornament
The Database of Ornament

THE accusation was brought against our first Dial of
mere art eclecticism; one thing, keenly attractive to us,
might explain this reprehensible selectiveness, a little
thing we think common to all good art. Inseparable
from the garment of individuality, the word Document
perfectly explains this.

Record of some remembered delight, record perhaps of a mere moment in
transfigured life, producing and controlling it, the word Document represents
some exquisite detail in a masterpiece, convincing to the spectator as a thing
known, yet not of necessity the symbol of borrowed story—possibly, there,
the mere symbol of time. A thing easily imagined away from a picture, but
authoritative there, as a gesture, or poetical recollection, the lattice-light cast
upon the wall in Rossetti’s “Proserpine,” the azalea near the scattered hair
in Whistler’s “White Harmony, number three,” might be chosen to prove
that Document is not necessarily the mere machinery giving vraisemblance
to positive subject, for these pictures are almost without it.

Rossetti, it is true, adds to his work a sonnet, and between this and the
picture some delicate interchime penetrates the sense with a conviction in
its symbol, adding meaning to the well-like light; to the fatality that seems
to brood about the shadows; to this face that listens to the ebb and flow of
footsteps hastening. The fateful pomegranate might, however, be put into
the hand of many an Italian portrait, the title Donna Innominata painted


on the frame would not destroy this picture’s memorableness—to-morrow the
name Proserpine might be given to Da Vinci’s Monna Lisa, and so, seem-
ingly, unseal its secret. In Whistler’s “White Harmony” the subject is
intentionally fugitive,—a chosen place where ladies live, with something of
the pale life of lilies listening to the music of their shapes. Yet in this
secret air that drowses over the perfume of hair and flower, and penetrating,
as it were, this mute harmony, some stray notes would convey undertone-
symbol, preexistence, and chime about the picture faintly, like evening music
echoed by a river.

These works have been chosen for their lack of story, in its common
acceptance; and so we come easily to the colour exclamation on some Chinese
enamel, dabbed there in vibrant crimson on a liquid purple, where no subject
can exist at all; yet this thing, by its cunning spontaneity, will give the emo-
tion that sudden movement adds to nature—the ripple of grass in a summer
landscape for instance—and so become Document —that monument of moods.
A viol left on a lowering bough by some singer who has ceased, one mari-
gold drowned in a space of water, would convey, within a picture and with-
out, this sense of existence and preexistence, this sense of time.

In the work of the English Pre-Raphaelites, document has been chiselled
in new-cleft gems; in Impressionism, it has been wrapped in strokes that
waved into air, or that palpitated into light; far be it then from us to claim
it treasure trove, for we think it inseparable from all art excellence—capable
even of being spun to the veriest gossamer thread of definition. More
common thirty years ago than at present, it may appear unfamiliar, its
recentness has made it obsolete and strange.

We make no claim to originality, not feeling wiser than did Solomon who
doubtless wrote the Song of Songs; for all art is but the combination of
known quantities, the interplay of a few senses only; that some spirit seems
to transfuse these, is due to a cunning use of a sixth sense—the sense of
possible relation commonly called Soul, probably a second sense of touch
more subtle than the first—and this sense is more common to the craftsman
used to self-control than habit would allow.

We would therefore avoid all taint of announced reform for those patheti-
cally persistent in demanding it; dawn itself promises day only to some,
not to all; and Art has been, Art is, this is the pledge that it will be

“Fresh with some colour, a cloud breaks upon the sky. Dawn grows,
wanes, and stretches fibres of frail light; this is the signal to white hazy
moths to shimmer above the gummy vines; and stagnant water grows
steel-like and hard.

“Suddenly the cock crows; he is awake; long before, he has mistaken one
or two accidents in the night for signals that he should announce the light, his
accuracy in utterance is merely sentimental.”

One word more of apology.

All past effort has seemed more conscious of aim, more direct, than it was
really; we imagine an effort towards renaissance, springing from a white


hand beckoning above the ashes of some forgotten city, and seen at some
time by one in whom the possible germ of a new art was placed. Again,
revelation has come to one reading a book, or to one who fancies he has seen
a grey torso beneath a cliff in some forgotten creek, and that it rocked with
the water’s motion. We forget those previous years, wasted in barren yearn-
ing, satisfied at last by something contemporary; imitation following, too
often without knowledge of the new result attained.

To-day the announcement that you believe in Nature, or in Ideas, affords
claim to originality, and we would avoid this announcement. By the word
Idea is meant, that formulated experience of the many, their guarantee in
life against future failure. Strange, this flattery of common thought, this
useless pandering to the crowd, incapable in its appreciation to surpass the
annual shilling or two, for some exhibition; for its characteristic is peevish
lassitude—the bankruptcy of disinterest; the reviews have long since assured
it as to contemporary lack of originality, separating this work from that
master, to attribute it to his wife.

Indifference is only crested at times by little exasperated words, frost-
bitten fronds, crooked and meaningless: let admiration be one of the reasons
for the Dial to exist; admiration, so often fruitful of self-respect, nay more,
it is “the essence of all art”—it is that which makes us wish in childhood,
when power is not yet, and before experience has shut the gates, for larger
flowers, something that would prevent soft, gentle beasts from walking away,
the growth of berried twigs so out of reach, for these are the first stray waifs
of all art feeling. Let the great artists yet alive be witness that copybook
culture is the only reason for this colourless currency in art and thought;
the rainbow of Art is still there for Hope to look through, all pleasantness
has not been snatched from the meadows and hills of Nature’s royalty, Art
has been, Art is, so the present touches wings with the past.

“In the naif delight and fantastic objectiveness we call primitive art
feeling, space was found for the august and reticent personality of Piero
della Francesca; his work was sweet besides with occasional convolvulus ten-
dril, or nestling finch, gay in some trick of dress revealing personality, some
shapely gem or crown of selected leaf. Giorgione painted the Greek Theseus
—but as St. George naked in a brook, his work fulfilled. Since then the
world would expect this development with the budding of the garden peas,
that quality with the bursting of the pod. Experience would, for conveni-
ence, separate the quality of form from its blossoming into colour, little caring
to note its oneness—for in continuance from environing space, to the central
surfaces, Form, Greek Form, as it is called, is colour; colour is continued
line; without it, form is but some personal conviction not visual at all, a
mental building into air, a reasoned spanning of given space. Change, with
its contradiction, its return to the past, appears again in Romantic Art, which,
nevertheless, would control Art and Nature more than did the older styles;
dominate it by individuality at high vibrant pitch—Nature strained into
symbolic action, and in an atmosphere dyed by personal feeling.—Slowly


the old fantastic details of primitive art return, with these, the old ornamental-
ness; lyrical movement recoils, becomes arrested, a tense immobility ensues,
more ultimate than the great calm of the Antique, for upon the Parthenon,
the great divine limbs leap and rebound, the draperies cling close to flesh,
deep with the possibility of sweat.”


MLA citation:

Ricketts, Charles. “The Unwritten Book.” The Dial, vol. 2, 1892, pp. 25-28. Dial Digital Edition, edited by Lorraine Janzen Kooistra, 2018-2020. Yellow Nineties 2.0, Ryerson University Centre for Digital Humanities, 2019.