Line and Form, by Walter Crane

Chapter v

Of the Influence of Controlling Lines, Boundaries, Spaces, and Plans in Designing — Origin of Geometric Decorative Spaces and Panels in Architecture — Value of Recurring Line — Tradition — Extension — Adaptability — Geometric Structural Plans — Frieze and Field — Ceiling Decoration — Co-operative Relation.

The function of line considered from the point of view of its controlling influence as a boundary, or inclosure, of design, upon which I touched in the last chapter, is a very important one, and deserves most attentive study.

The usual problem a designer in the flat has to solve is to fill harmoniously a given space or panel defined by a line — some simple geometric form — such as a square or a circle, a parallelogram, a diamond, a lunette.

Influence of Controlling Lines, etc.

Now it is possible to regard such spaces or panels as more or less unrelated, and simply as the boundaries of an individual composition or picture of some kind. Yet even so considered a certain sense of geometric control would come in in the selection of our lines and masses, both in regard to each other and in regard to the shape of the inclosing boundary. We seem to feel the need of some answering line or re-echo in the character of the composition to the shape of its boundary, to give it its distinctive reason for existence in that particular form — just as we should expect a shell-fish to conform to the shape of its shell. Such a re-echo or acknowledgment might be ever so slight, or might be quite emphatic and dominate as the leading motive, but for perfectly harmonious effect it must be there.

Relation of Design to Boundary: Simple Linear Motives and Pattern Bases.

A strictly simple and logical linear filling of such spaces might be expressed in the most primitive way, as in the illustration on p. 109.

By these means certain primitive types of ornament are evolved, such as the Greek volute and the Greek key or fret, the logical ornament of a logical people.

Such arrangements of line form simple linear patterns, and a decorative effect of surface is produced simply by their repetition, especially if the principle of alternation be observed. This principle may be expressed by taking, say, a series of squares or circles, and placing them either in a line as for a border arrangement, or for extension vertically and laterally over a surface, and filling only the alternate square or circle, leaving the alternate ones, or dropping them out altogether (see illustration, p. 111).

Use of Intervals in Repeating the Same Ornamental Units.

When we desire to go beyond such primitive linear ornaments, however, and introduce natural form, we should still be guided by the same principles, if we desire to produce a strictly decorative effect, while varying them in application to any extent.

It matters not what forms we deal with, floral, animal, human; directly we come to combine them in a design, to control them by a boundary, to inclose them in a space, we shall feel this necessity of controlling line, which, however concealed, is yet essential to bring them into that harmonious relation which is the essence of all design (see illustration, p. 112).

Designs of Floral, Human, and Animal Forms, Governed by Shape of Inclosing Boundary.

We may take it as a general rule that the more purely ornamental the purpose of our design, and the more abstract in form it is, the more emphatically we may carry out the principle of correspondence of line between that of the inclosing boundary and that of the design itself; and, vice versâ, as the design becomes more pictorial in its appeal and more complex and varied in its elements, the more we may combine the leading motive or principle of line with secondary ones, or with variations, since every fresh element, every new direction of line, every new form introduced, demands some kind of re-echo to bring it into relation with the other elements of the design, or parts of the composition, whatever may be its nature and purpose.

Now, if we seek further the meaning and origin of this necessity of the control of geometric lines and spaces in design, I think we shall find it in the constructive necessities of architecture: for it is certainly from architecture that we derive those typical spaces and panels the designer is so often called upon to fill.

The Parthenon: Sketch to Show Spaces Used for Decorative Sculpture in Greek Architecture.

Origin of Geometric Decorative Spaces

Lintel architecture — the Egyptian and the Greek — gave us the frieze, both continuous, as in that of the Cella of the Parthenon, or divided by triglyphs, which represented the ends of the beams of the primitive timber construction; and the interstices left between these determined the shape of the sculptured panel or slab inserted, and influenced the character of its masses and the lines of its design, which was under the necessity of harmonizing with the whole building (see illustration, p. 114).

Tower of the Winds Athens BC 50

The same may be said of the pediments. The angle of the low-pitched roof left another interstice for the sculptor at each end of the building; and I have elsewhere2 pointed out the influence of the inclosing space and the angles of the pediment of the Parthenon upon the arrangement of the groups within it, and even upon the lines taken by some of the figures, especially the reclining figures near the acute angles.

2 See "Bases of Design."

Certain lines become inseparably associated with constructive expression, and are used to emphasize it, as the vertical flutings of the Doric column, by repeating the lines of the column itself, emphasize its constructive expression of supporting the weight of the horizontal lintels, the lines of which, repeated in the mouldings of the frieze and cornice, are associated with level restfulness and secure repose.

As examples of design which, while meeting the structural necessities and acknowledging the control of space and general conditions, as the form of the slabs upon which they are sculptured, yet expresses independent movement, the figures of the octagonal tower of the winds at Athens are interesting (see illustration, p. 115).

Quite a different feeling, corresponding to differences in conception and spirit in design, comes in with the Roman round arch its allied forms of spandril and vault, lunette and medallion, presenting new spaces for the surface designer, and new suggestions of ornamental line (see illustration, p. 117). It is noticeable how, with the round-arched architecture under Roman, Byzantine (see illustration, p. 118), and Renaissance forms, the scroll form of ornament developed, the reason being, I think, that it gave the necessary element of recurring line, whether used in the horizontal frieze in association with round arches, or in spandrils of vaults and arcades, and on marble mosaic pavements.

Sketch of Part of the Arch of Constantine to Show Spaces for Decorative Sculpture in Roman Architecture.
Byzantine (Mosaic) Treatment of Architectural Structural Features: Apse, S. Vitale Ravenna.

Value of the Recurring Line

The development of Gothic architecture, with its new constructive features and the greater variety of geometric spaces, forms, and interstices which, as a consequence, were available for the designer of associated ornament, whether carved work, mosaic, stained glass, or painting, naturally led to a corresponding variety in invention and decorative adaptation; and we may trace the same principle at work in other forms — I mean the principle of corresponding, counterbalancing, and recurring line — Gothic ornament being indeed generally an essential part of the structure, and architectural features being constantly repeated and utilized for their ornamental value, as in the case of canopies and tabernacle work.

We see, for instance, in the Decorated period the acute gable moulding over the arched recess, niche, doorway, or tomb, lightened and vivified by a floriated finial springing into vigorous curves from a vertical stem, forming an emphatic ogee outline which re-echoes the ogee line of the arch below, and is taken up in variations by the crockets carved upon the sides of the gable; and their spiral ascending lines lead the eye up to the finial which completes the composition. We may trace the same principle in the carved fillings of the subsidiary parts, such as the trefoiled panels, the secondary mouldings, and the cusps of the arches, which continue the line-motive or decorative harmony to the last point (see illustration, p. 120). The elegance and lightness of the pinnacles is increased in the same way, and further emphasized by the long vertical lines of the sunk panels upon their sides.

From Canopy of Tomb of Gervaise-Alard 1303. Temp ED^wd^ I^st^ Winchelsea

In church doorways we may see certain voussoirs of the arch allowed to project from the hollow of the concave moulding, and their surfaces carved into bosses of ornament; while, again, the doorway is emphasized by the recurring lines of the mouldings, with their contrasting planes of light and shadow, and the point of their spring is marked by a carved lion, controlled in the design of its contour by the squareness of the block of stone upon which it is carved (see illustration, p. 121).

Structural Control of Line in Architectural Enrichments West Door Walberswick Ch. Suffolk

The carvings of miserere seats in our cathedral choirs often afford instances of ingenious design and arrangement of elements difficult to combine, yet always showing the instinct of following the control of the dominating form and peculiar lines of the seat itself. There is an instance of one from St. David's Cathedral — apparently a humorous satire — a goose-headed woman offering a cake to a man-headed gull (?), or perhaps they are both geese! I won't pretend to say, but it evidently is intended to suggest cupboard love, and there is a portentously large pitcher of ale in reserve on the bench. But note the clever arrangement of the masses and lines, and how the lines of the seat and the curves of the terminating scroll are re-echoed in the lines of the figures and accessories.

C. 1460-1480 Wood Carving Miserere Seat Choir Stalls St. David's Cathedral. Controlling Line in Design of Subsidiary Architectural Decoration.

A stone-carving from the end of a tomb in the same cathedral — that of Bishop John Morgan, 1504 — of a griffin with a shield shows an emphatic repetition of the inclosing line of the arched recess in the curves of the wings which follow it.

Recessed Panel Carved Stone From the Tomb of Bishop John Morgan D. 1504, St. David's Cathedral.

There is also a charming corbel of a half-figure of an angel, which, though somewhat defaced, shows the architectural sense very strongly in its design — the vertical droop of the wing-feathers inclosing the figure repeating and continuing the vertical lines of the shafts and the subsidiary mouldings of the arrangement of the drapery, and its termination in crisp foliated forms, which pleasantly counterbalance the set of the scale feathers of the wings and break the semicircular mouldings of the base of the corbel, repeating those of the shafts above.

Constructive Line Reechoed in Architectural Ornament. Corbel, Bishop Vaughan's Chapel, St. David's 1509-

Adaptability in Design

Gothic Tile Pattern S. David's Cath^l.

Adaptation to spaces upon a flat surface is also illustrated in some tile patterns from the same place. They are simple and rude but very effective bits of spacing, and show a thorough grasp of the principles we have been considering — if, indeed, it is so far conscious work at all. But whether or not the outcome of a tradition which seemed to be almost instinctive with mediæval workmen — a tradition which yet left the individual free, and under which design was a thing of life and growth, ever adapting itself to new conditions, and grafting freely new inventions to flower in fresh phantasy upon the ancient stock — the movement in art in the Middle Ages, exhibiting as it does a gradual growth and a constant vitality, always accompanying and adapting itself to structural changes, to life and habit, was really more analogous to the development of mechanical science in our own day, where each new machine is allied to its predecessors, though it supplants them. The one law being adaptability, the one aim to apply means to ends, and more and more perfectly, inessentials and superfluities are shed, and invention triumphs. It is, too, a collective advance, since each engineer, each inventor, builds upon the experience of both his forerunners and his fellow-workers, and everything is brought to an immediately practical test.

We are not yet in the same healthy condition as regards art, and art can never be on the same plane as science, though art may learn much from science, chiefly perhaps in the direction of the inventive adaptation of analogous principles. But in art the question is complicated by human feeling and association, and her strongest appeal is to these, and by these, and as yet we do not seem to have any terms or equivalents precise enough to describe, or any analysis fine enough to discover them.


The next consideration in spacing we may term extension. This bears upon all surface design, but more especially upon the design of patterns intended to repeat over a large surface, and not specially designed for particular spaces. It is a great question whether any design can be entirely satisfactory unless it has been thought out in relation to some particular extent of surface or as adapted to some particular wall or room. Modern industrial conditions preclude this possibility as a rule, and so the only sure ground, beyond individual taste and preference, is technical adaptability to process or material. We should naturally want to give a different character to a textile pattern, whether printed or woven, and intended to hang in folds, from one for flat extension as a wall-paper; and a different character again to such designs intended for extension horizontally from those intended for vertical space alone. Floor patterns, parquets and carpets, for instance, naturally demand different treatment from wall patterns, as those orders of plants in nature which cling and spread on the flat ground differ from those which grow high and maintain themselves in the air, or climb upon trees. The rule of life —adaptability— obtains in art as in nature, and, beneath individual preference and passing fashion, works the silent but real law of relation to conditions. This again bears upon the choice of scale, and differentiates the design of dress textiles from furniture textiles, and the design of varied surfaces and objects, which, while demanding their own particular treatment, are brought into general relation by their association with use and the wants of humanity.

Extension: Surface Pattern Motives Derived from Lines of Structure.

Geometric Structural Plans, etc.

The law governing extension of design over surface is again geometric, and our primal circle and square are again the factors and progenitors of the leading systems which have governed the design of diapers and wall patterns and hangings of all kinds. Nay, the first weaver of the wattled fence discovered the principle of extension in design, and showed its inseparable association with construction; and the builder with brick or stone emphasizes it, producing the elements of linear surface pattern, from the mechanical necessity of the position of the joints of his structure. At a German railway station waiting-room I noticed an effective adaptation of this principle as a wall decoration in two blues upon a stone colour (see illustration, p. 128). We may build upon such emphatic structural lines, either incorporating them with the design motive, as in all rectangular wall diapers, or we may suppress or conceal the actual constructive lines by placing the principal parts or connections of our pattern over them, but one cannot construct a satisfactory pattern to repeat and extend without them; for these constructive lines or plans give the necessary organic life and vigour to such designs, and are as needful to them as the trellis to the tendrils of the vine (see illustration, p. 129).

Surface Extension: Repeating Patterns Built Upon (1) Square And (2) Circular Basis.

The same principle is true of designs upon the curvilinear plan. The mere repetition of the circle by itself gives us a simple geometric pattern, and we are at liberty to emphasize this circular plan as the main motive; or, as in the case of the rectangular plans, to treat it merely as a basis, and develop free scroll motives upon it; or follow it through its principal variations, as in the ogee, formed by dropping out two intermediate semicircles; or the various forms of the scale arrangement. These simple geometric plans are the most generally useful as plans of designs intended for repetition and extension over space, and they are always safe and sound systems to build upon, since a geometric plan is certain to join comfortably if our measurements are right.

Surface Extension: Plan of a Drop Repeat.

We may, however, often feel that we want something bolder and freer, and start with a motive of sweeping-curves, non-geometric, but even then a certain geometric relation will be necessary, or an equivalent for it, since each curve must be counterbalanced in some way, though not necessarily symmetrically, of course; and even where a square of pattern — say to a wall-paper repeat of twenty-one inches — has been designed, not consciously upon a geometric base, but simply as a composition of lines and masses to repeat, the mechanical conditions of the work when it comes to be printed will supply a certain geometric control, since it necessarily begins in the process of repetition a series of squares of pattern in which the curves are bound to recur in corresponding places. Without a geometric plan of some sort, however, we may easily get into difficulties with awkward leading lines, gaps, or masses, that tumble down, and are only perceived when the paper is printed and hung.

The designer should not feel at all restricted or cramped by his geometric plan, but treat it as an aid and a scaffolding, working in as much variety and richness of detail as he likes, bound only by the necessity of repeating or counterbalancing his forms and lines. In the diagram (p. 131) the plan of making a repeat less obvious by means of what is termed "a drop" is given, and this system also increases the apparent width of a pattern.

Frieze and Field

The feeling which demands some kind of contrast or relief to a field of repeating pattern, however interesting in itself, seems now almost instinctive. It is felt, too, in the case of plain surfaces, where the eye seeks a moulding to give a little variety or pattern-equivalent in play of light and shadow upon different planes, lines, or concavities and convexities. The common plaster cornice placed to unite walls and ceiling, in our ordinary houses, is a concession (on the part even of the jerriest of builders) to the æsthetic sense. We get the decorated frieze in architecture in obedience to the same demand, though originally a necessary feature of lintel construction, as we have seen, from the days of the festal garland hung around the eaves of the classic house, to its perpetuation in stone in so many varieties.3 The carved garland depending in a series of graceful curves, or contrasted with pendants, or their rhythm punctuated, as it were, by ox-heads, as on the temple of the Sibyls, Tivoli, formed the needed contrast to the plane masonry of the wall below. Sculptured figures, with the added interest of story, as on the choragic monument of Lysicrates, fulfilled the same decorative function in a more complex and elaborate way.

3 See "Bases of Design."

To satisfy the same feeling we place a frieze above the patterned field of our modern wall-papers. Such a frieze may be considered as a contrasting border to the pattern of the field, much as the border of a carpet, allowing for difference of material and position; or the frieze may assert itself as the dominant decoration of the room. In this case it would be greater in depth than the simpler bordering type. The interest of the field filling would then be subsidiary, and lead up to the frieze. In wall-paper friezes the difficulty in designing is to think of a motive which will not tire the eye in the necessarily frequent repeats of twenty-one inches. Longer ones have occasionally been produced, the limit being sixty inches. It is often a good plan to recur in the main lines or forms of the frieze to some variation of the lines or forms of the field. If, for instance, the main motive in the field was a vertical scroll design, a horizontal scroll design upon a large scale used for the frieze would answer, the field being kept flat and quiet; or the fan, or radiating shell form, used as a frieze, above a pattern on the scale plan, would be quite harmonious. Relation and balance of line and mass, and arrangement of quantities in such designs, are the chief considerations.

With painting or modelling an artist is freer, as he is at liberty to design a continuous frieze of figures, and introduce as much variety as he chooses.

A painted frieze of figures above plain oak-panelling has a good effect in a large and well-proportioned room, and is perhaps one of the pleasantest ways of treating interior walls.

Sketch Designs to Show Relation Between Frieze And Field in Wall-paper.

Ceiling Decoration

Ceiling decoration, again, presents problems of extension in designing, and the large flat plaster ceilings of modern rooms are by no means easy to deal with satisfactorily. The simplest way is to resort to wall-paper, and here, restricted in size of repeat and the usual technical requirements of the work, the designer must further consider appropriateness of scale, and position in regard to eye, relation to the wall, and so forth.

The natural demand is for something simpler in treatment than the walls — a re-echo, in some sort, of plans agreeable to the floor, yet with a suggestion of something lighter and freer: here we may safely come back to rectangular and circular plans again for our leading lines and forms.

Painting and modelling, again, offer more elaborate treatment and possibilities, and we know that beautiful works have been done in both ways; but art of this kind seems more appropriate to lofty vaulted chambers and churches, such as one sees in the palaces of Italy, at Genoa and Venice, at Florence and Rome.

I remember a very striking and bold treatment of a flat-beamed ceiling in the Castle of Nuremberg, where a huge black German eagle was painted so as to occupy nearly the whole field of the ceiling, but treated in an extremely flat and heraldic way, the long feathers of the wings following the lines of the beams and falling parallel upon them and between them; and upon the black wings and body of the eagle different shields of arms were displayed in gold and colours, the eagle itself being painted upon the natural unpainted wood — oak, I think. The work belonged to the thirteenth or fourteenth century, I believe. It seemed the very antithesis of Italian finesse and fancy, but the fitness of such decoration entirely depends upon its relation to its surroundings, which in this case were perfectly appropriate.

Co-operative Relation

That is the great point to bear in mind in all design — the sense of relation; nothing stands alone in art. Lines and forms must harmonize with other forms and lines: the elements of any design must meet in friendly co-operation; it is not a blind struggle for existence, a fierce competition, or a strife for ascendency between one motive and another, one form and another, or a war of conflicting efforts. There may be a struggle outside the design, in the mind of the designer. He may have tried hard against difficulties to express what he felt, and have only reached harmony through discord and strife, but the work itself should be serene; we should feel that, however various its elements, they are not without their purpose and relation one to another, that all is ordered and organized in harmonious lines, that everything has its use and place, that, in short, it illustrates that excellent motto, whether for art or life: "Each for all, and all for each."

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:52