Essays  >  Botany as adapted to the arts and art-manufacture - Part 1, by Christoper Dresser

Lecturer on artistic botany in the department of science and art, School of Design, South Kensington, 1857-1858

A series of lectures that the industrial designer Christopher Dresser delivered in the late 1850s were published in ‘The Art Journal’ in 1857 and 1858. They were split into eleven articles and covered the growth and form of plants and their parts, and how these may be appropriated by artists. It is remarkable in that it does not deal with mere mimicry, but the adaptation of the nature of plants to ornamentation (and design). It is a scarce series of articles, and (in placing them on the website) it is our intention that more people should have access to Dresser's writing, which still has insights about the adaptation of botany to art and design.

It should be pointed out here that Dresser's career spanned the period of increasing industrialisation, and he was an important figure in the development of modern design. He was particularly concerned with economy, the use of modern manufacturing methods of the time, and the abstraction of source material from the natural world.

If any grammar or florid language seems a bit peculiar, remember that the articles were published in Victorian England roughly 150 years ago (less than 20 years after the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi). The introductory passages are particularly florid, but it eventually diverts itself to the substantial subject matter that forms the bulk of the articles.

Part 1

Though the science of botany has been long more or less perfectly understood, it has been but very scantily applied to the purposes and requirements of the beautifying ornamentist. Perhaps, upon reflection, we may find that this neglect is pardonable - for how were the two sciences to become mingled ? If we ask the ornamentist how long it takes to become thoroughly acquainted with his delightful art, he replies that a lifetime is too short; and if we ask the botanist what time is required in order to become thoroughly familiar with his fascinating science, he replies that the era of man's life is not long enough. Here, then, has been the difficulty - the ornamentist has not had time to study botany, and the botanist has not had time to study the requirements of the ornamentist. This difficulty is now, however, almost overcome; for as a science progresses, its laws become more simple and definite: this is eminently true of the science of botany - old apparent mysteries are now vanishing away, being superseded by simple truth; nevertheless, though the mountains are becoming low and the rough places in this science smooth, we do not mean to say that all difficulties have vanished, and that the science has accomplished its mission by unravelling the entire web of mystery in the vegetable world. Far from it, for whole pages are yet in a labyrinth of confusion. Notwithstanding, there is now so much truth revealed, so much light enjoyed on this science, that it has laid open to us its fundamental principles, and displayed before us its beauties so simply and pleasingly that it is now little more than a work of pleasure to gather those gems that shall appropriately deck the ornamentist's choicest works.

It is needless on our part to show you that nature's gay flowers have in all ages been used by the aspiring ornamentist, and that they have ever been the basis on which the science of ornament has stood. We need not rehearse in your ear the pedigree of Art, to show you that the lotus was the chief unit of Egyptian ornament, that the honeysuckle formed the anthemion of the Greeks, the acanthus the Roman scroll, and numerous floral gems the ornaments of the later ages; nor need we point around to establish the fact that the products of the vegetable kingdom furnish almost the entire materials for the enrichments of the present day.

If, then, the showy gems of the meadow, the aerial bells of the mossy bank, the living cloak of the rippling rill, and the bolder foliage of the darkened forests, have in all ages been used as sources from whence to draw the beauties required for the enrichment of our meaner devices, is it not imperative upon us to gather all the information that modern light has thrown upon them, that we may be better qualified to fulfil our arduous, though delightful task ? If modern research has found a clue to their hieroglyphical language, and has shown that not only are their forms exquisite, their curves graceful, and the aggregation of their parts perfect, but that they speak a language which discloses more than their external beauty seems to reveal, shall we not listen to their speech, and cheerfully imbibe their golden teachings ?

We rejoice in the fact that some who have become distinguished for their artistic skill have propagated the sentiments that we now advocate. Pugin, in his "Floriated Ornament", remarks that "Nature supplied the medieval artists with all their forms and ideas; the same inexhaustible source is open to us; and if we go to the fountain-head, we shall produce a multitude of beautiful designs treated in the same spirit as the old, but new in form." And this is eminently true of other Art-epochs - is it not of the Egyptian, the Greek, and the Italian ? but he goes on to say, "We have the advantage of many important botanical discoveries which were unknown to our ancestors; and surely it is in accordance with the true principles of Art to avail ourselves of all that is beautiful for the composition of our designs."

Before we proceed in a systematic manner to examine the merits of our subject, and to adjust them to our purposes, we will answer a question some may ask, viz.:- How much time must be sacrificed in order to become acquainted with a subject ? We answer, You will sacrifice none. Have we not read in our history of that hero who, when an overwhelming force was in pursuit, and all his followers were urging him to more rapid flight, coolly dismounted to repair a flaw in his horse's harness: whilst busied with the broken buckle, the distant cloud swept down in nearer thunder, but just as the prancing hoofs and eager spears were ready to dash down on him, the flaw was mended, the clasp fastened, the steed was mounted, and, like a swooping falcon, he had vanished from their view. The broken buckle would have left him on the field, a dismounted and inglorious prisoner. The timely delay sent him back to his huzzaing comrades. Was the time here lost which was spent in repairing the buckle ? No - it rather proved infinite gain; and the artist's studying botany is only like the hero mending the buckle - for that time cannot be lost which is spent in accomplishing that which shall facilitate his end. You may lend time, but that, we think, will be paid with usury. The only question that can be entertained is, which is the quickest method of arriving at the required truth. The old system - indefinite observation, or the direct scientific examination of the book of nature. This question we leave the following pages to answer.

If we have now been successful in kindling a desire in the reader's breast for an insight into the wonderful works of the blooming creation, we have done well, for he may then more studiously pursue the following.

It is not the object of these paragraphs to fully develop even the simple and certain truths which botanical science has revealed, nor to furnish essays on the latter science, and thence draw maxims to rule our future conduct. It can only come within the limits of our space to display the results and effects of established truths, with their adaptation to our requirements. Therefore, we shall show the adaptability of every part of the vegetable organism, when thoroughly understood, to the general requirements of the ornamental world; and then reveal the peculiar adaptability of certain forms and lessons to particular cases or manufactures. In this great task we shall allow ourselves free scope among all the ramifications of the vegetable kingdom: we may drag the roaring ocean for its organised pearls; we may dip in the tranquil pool for its vegetable gems; we may ascend the alpine heights to bring down their treasures; we may wander o'er the burning plain, or through the woods of the warmer zones to reveal their beauties; we may spread our arms and embrace all tribes of the vegetable race, - believing that they are all given to help us in our glorious task.

In order to receive the full benefits derivable from meditating on the various parts of the vegetable structure, it will be necessary for us to give as brief an insight as possible into the laws or principles which govern the development of the various vegetable organs, and the influences which bear upon their development, so as to modify or disturb their normal positions.

We ask you to follow us to the woodland, and as we crouch beneath the outstretched boughs, behold the humbler gems which form the carpet of the great hall of nature; as we enter on the grottoes formed by the meeting of the high and lofty arms of the towering trees, mingled with the free-growing creeper, lift your searching gaze and examine the overhanging canopy. Wander on, and lounge on the downy couch by the side of the murmuring rivulet, and scrutinise its nodding bells, its odorous bespangled covering. Take your morning walk, and behold the vegetable virgins of the earth lifting up their heads, unfolding their gay foliage, and blushing to kiss the morning dew: and in these cases we say that you see nature in her true character, in her twofold aspect.

Fig. 1. GUELDER-ROSE. -; Viburnum opulusThe first and general effect that strikes us in such a ramble is the rustic, an effect derivable from two sources - first, the vegetable structures are here modified by external natural influences; and second, they are for the greater part deformed in their growth from the preponderance of interrupting causes. Before, however, we can fully comprehend in what way, and to what extent, nature is here modified by influences from without, we must be familiar with the normal positions of the various organs and their natural habits. Therefore it behoves us to examine first the principles on which nature works, so that we may learn, as it were, her intentions, or what her productions would be, were they unmodified by external influences. This latter condition of nature we shall call its natural state. After which examination we shall be qualified to discern between truth and deformity, rule and exception.

A plant is regarded by the botanist as composed of a central rod, or stem, which he names the axis, and lateral organs of diverse characters, as leaves, & c., which proceed from it. For artistic purposes we deem it expedient to view these structures from two points, or in two lights - first, as looking at the side of the plant (the ordinary view that we have of trees), when it is to us a vertical composition; and second, as looking on top of the object (the view which we generally have of smaller plants, as the houseleek, daisy, & c.), Fig. 2. GOOSE-GRASS. -; Galium aparinewhen it is to us a circular composition. These observations will lead us to a great principle in the vegetable world - viz., the centralisation of power, or the exertion of a force in a centrifugal manner from a fixed point, which gives a marvellous oneness to the structures of this kingdom. This, with the great variety worked out in nature by the Great Head of the universe, has given rise to what is termed "unity in variety."

Let us now glance at the axis, or central rod of the plant. If we take the axis of such a plant as the Elder, Lilac, Horse-chestnut, or Guelder-rose, one year old, and view it laterally, we find that it is thickest in its centre, where the root and stem meet, or at the plane from which the plant elongates in opposite directions (this plane has been named the collar, or medial line). This axis, then, is composed of two cones, the bases of which cohere.

The axis, however, is not naked, but is usually garbed in a Fig. 3. Polygonum cuspidatum.foliaceous dress; nor is this mantle carelessly adjusted for every leaf has its own individual position, and each one is so placed as to form, with the rest, a symmetrical series. If, now, we examine the disposition of the leaves, or foliaceous appendages, on one of the axes above suggested (the Guelder-rose, for example, Fig. 1), we shall find that there originates in, or springs from, certain planes which cross the stem or axis at intervals two leaves which develop in contrary directions from the two opposite sides of the stem. In no instance, on this plant, do we find more than two having their origin in the same plane, or less than two developed by this vital point (they are in this case said to be opposite). Not only are the leaves of these plants in pairs, but each successive pair crosses the pairs both immediately above and below it, or is so situated as to form with them right angles. Substitute for the axis just examined that of the Goose-grass (gallium, Fig. 2), or the Madder, and here we have a series of three or more leaves originating in the one vital plane; hence they are arranged in rings round the axis (verticillately), and each successive vertical is so developed that its members fall between the component parts of the whorls both immediately below and above it. If, now, we turn to the Lime-tree, or Fig. 4./Fig. 5.Polygonum cuspidatum (Fig. 3), we no longer find two or more leaves originating in one transverse plane, but we find the leaves protruded solitary at intervals, one at one side, the other at the other side of the stem (alternately). Simple as this arrangement may appear, and actually is, it is nevertheless the first of a series which successively becomes more and more complex; for though the leaves are merely alternately at one side and then at the other, they nevertheless take their consecutive positions in a spiral cycle, as will be immediately seen from a glance at the figure (Fig. 4). To follow out this spiral arrangement, we may notice the Cereus triangularis, or the Meadow-saffron (Colchicum autumnale), where one revolution of the spiral thread encounters three leaves; the fourth, or, rather, the first of the next cycle , Fig. 6. OAK.- Quercusbeing over the first (the principle of which is shown in Fig. 5), whereas, in the alternate arrangement, two leaves only are encountered in one spiral revolution; the third, which is the first of the next cycle, being over the first. Without following this out in its various modifications, as this is not the object of these pages, but rather to convey a mere outline of principles, we just notice that, in some instances, the spiral thread makes more than one revolution round the axis in order to complete the unit of the arrangement of the leaves. An exceedingly common form of this variety is that in which two revolutions of the spiral thread, encountering five leaves, complete the cycle-this is found in the Oak (Fig. 6), and many of our fruit trees. These being the principal varieties of the arrangement of leaves upon the axis, furnish us with nature's most simple and characteristic vertical compositions; an few, we think, can have passed even thus far without being forcibly impressed with the lesson that simplicity is elegance.

Having now examined the principles on which leaves are developed, and their varied aspects when viewed in a side or lateral direction, we must notice the peculiarities and appearance of these diverse arrangements when viewed from above.

Fig. 7. GUELDER-ROSE. -; Viburnum opulus.Recommencing our observations with the opposite leaves, as of the Guelder-rose, and viewing them from above, we find that most frequently each successive pair occupies the spaces midway between the leaves of the pairs both immediately below and above them, as we have already stated, thus giving to a cross as the top view (Fig. 7).

If we view verticillate leaves from above (Fig. 2), we shall find, as we have previously remarked, that the leaves of each successive verticil, or ring, occupy the spaces between the leaves of the preceding whorl, giving rise to the effect delineated in Fig. 8, each alternate pair being over one another.

Respecting the top, or horizontal view of the spiral modes of arrangement, it is obvious that in the alternate disposition, as that of the Polygonum cuspidatum, where one leaf is on one side of the stem, and one on the other, the third being over the first, that they fall simply into two rows, one on either side of the stem (Fig. 9). Fig. 8. GOOSE-GRASS. - Galium aparine.In that disposition where three leaves form one spiral cycle, the leaves are in three rows; and in that where five leaves form one unit of the spiral, whether the spiral thread revolves once or twice round the stem in order to complete the cycle, the leaves are in five rows (Fig. 10). This is sometimes carried to a much more complex state, as in the Screw-pine.

These observations reveal to us nature's most characteristic and simple circular compositions, and show forth a series of members, originating in one point, and extending on one plane; and a series of parts, originating in various points, and arranged round an extended centre. This subject will, however, be touched on again. As in all cases the lateral members are the product of the axis, or originate in the central rod, it is obvious that this central axis embodies, or is, the centre of power. Fig. 9. Polygonum cuspidatumAnd as this axis is in all cases the centre, and the lateral organs proceed from it, there is at once displayed a marvellous unity in the entire products of the more highly organised tribes of the vegetable kingdom-for all, when viewed from above, are circular compositions.

Having now glanced at the most simple compositions displayed before us by our kind Creator, we proceed to notice the principle on which nature constructs, or develops her more complex structures.Fig. 10. OAK. - Quercus.

It is an axiom of botany, that whatever is the arrangement of the leaves, such is the arrangement of the branches; for a branch is always the product of the development of a bud, and a regular bud is always generated in, and developed from, the axil of a leaf, or the angle formed by its union, with the stem or axis; this, therefore is evident, and at once reveals the principle on which nature produces her more complex structures. This, which is merely a system of repetition, may be carried to any extent.

There is one point which we should here notice-viz., that although the structure may be extremely complex in appearance, it is so only in extent; for the unit is invariably more or less simple, as well as the method of its repetition.

The French (See E. le Maout's "Botany.") have expressed themselves thus:-"It is more logical to say that a plant, by growth, repeats than divides itself." Now upon this beautiful idea one or two things of great interest are built : first, that the branches given off by a parent axis are axes each of which is precisely similar to the parent in its original condition, or, in fact, is a repetition or reproduction of the parent in its original state; and second, that as the power of development is centralised in the axis, each lateral axis has this power also; therefore we have a primary central developing power, surrounded by a series of secondary developing points (Fig. 11).

Fig. 11.Here we see most clearly that the broad principle of unity in variety is wonderfully worked out in the vegetable kingdom.

Need we go further to reveal the simplicity of the structure of the works of creation as displayed in the vegetable kingdom ? Having thrown out the unit, can we not readily repeat it; having laid the first stone, can we not readily raise the edifice ? Lest we should not have expressed ourselves with sufficient clearness, and left some difficulties yet standing, we proceed to apply these principles to the various parts of the vegetable structure.

Having shown that the entire robe of the central axis is the result of a centrifugal vital force, and that this is not only inherent in the primary axis, but in lateral axes also; having also shown that this one energy, modified in effect, exists in all the more highly organised products of the vegetable kingdom, we now proceed to notice the extent of the modification of this universal vital force. It is entertained by most botanists that, although the arrangement of the leaves-hence of buds and branches-is diverse, that, nevertheless, the principle of their development is one; for instance, suppose that an axis develops its leaves in a spiral manner, and that the portions of the stem which separate each consecutive member of the spiral cycle are undeveloped, those portions only being generated which separate each complete revolution of the spiral, the result would be a whorl of parts, and not a spiral disposition. In this supposition we are borne out by many facts in nature (see the Jerusalem-artichoke, Helianthus tuberosus). Upon this principle are the parts of the flower adjusted; the flower-stalk is the axis or stem, and the component parts of the flower are leaves in a somewhat metamorphosed state. By the non-development of the portions of the axis which separate the floral leaves, they are aggregated usually into four contiguous rings of parts. These rules, however, are not without apparent exceptions; but space will only permit us to deal with broad principles and general facts.

Deeming the preceding sufficient to show the unity of that divine idea which God has been pleased to work out so Fig. 12. PLANE. - Platanus orientaliswonderfully and so variously in the vegetable products of our globe, and to establish fully the fact that one principle reigns throughout the countless varieties of the floral developments of our globe, we now proceed with our task.

Having now examined the laws or principles on which nature works in the vegetable kingdom, it will not be difficult to establish our next proposition-viz., that the productions of nature belonging to the vegetable world are symmetrical in their parts, as well as in the disposition of those parts when aggregated, if their normal arrangement is not disturbed by external influences. The first question that here arises is, What is symmetry ? "Symmetry," says Lindley, "may be defined to be the general correspondence of one half of a given object with the other half, in structure, or other perceptible circumstances; or the general correspondence of one side of an object with the opposite side, in structure or other perceptible circumstances." (Lys' "Symmetry of Vegetation.") And he goes on to say :- "If understood in such a sense, all living objects whatever will be included under the denomination of symmetrical. That which we find universally in the animal kingdom belongs to all parts of the living world, and must therefore occur equally in plants, however unlike animals they may be. The student's attention cannot be directed too closely to this important law, from Fig. 13. BEGONIAwhich there is no real departure, except owing to accidents, such as those which produce monsters in objects with which we are most familiar. Indeed, symmetry in plants arises out of their peculiar nature, and is dependent upon a highly-complicated internal structure, which is in itself essentially symmetrical. The basis from which organs proceed being symmetrical, it seems to be an evident inference that the organs themselves should be symmetrical also." This statement-viz., that vegetables are symmetrical-is so obvious that it requires no proof; for we think that could have joined us thus far in our researches without feeling that this is a prominent characteristic of vegetable productions; for having shown that nature works on set principles, we have shown that her products must be symmetrical, for the result of principle and order is symmetry. If, however, we take any vegetable organ, or aggregation of organs, for analysis, we shall be struck with their marked adherence to this rule.

Fig. 14. STONECROP. - SedumTake the leaf of almost any plant, and you will find that its two halves are alike (Fig. 12); so constant is this, that the two or three exceptions in the vegetable kingdom are marked by botanists as, to an extent, curiosities, examples of which are the Begonia (Fig. 13) and Elm; and, although these examples prove exceptions to the symmetry or correspondence of the parts of the individual leaf, nevertheless the disposition of these leaves on the axis is such as will restore symmetry. No comment need be given on the disposition of the leaves alluded to, for all, falling into a regular geometrical series, are symmetrical-the spiral not excepted.

If we turn to fFig. 15. PERIWINKLE. - Vincalowers, two varieties strike us; both of which are, however, equally symmetrical. The most common is that in which the floweris composed of a series of units, which are precisely similar; thus in the Stonecrop (Fig. 14), there are five precisely similar lobes forming the outer ring of parts (sepals, constituting the calyx); five yellow leaves, precisely alike, forming the next whorl (petals, forming the corolla); ten awl-shaped members, surmounted with knobs, forming the third ring (stamens, forming the androecium); and five central parts (carpels, constituting the pistil). Here the units of each whorl are precisely similar, and they have their halves also alike; but it would not interfere with the symmetry were the halves of the members of any of the whorls unequal, provided that all pointed one way, as in the flower-leaves (petals) of the Periwinkle (vinca, Fig. 15). The other variety is that in which the flower only are alike, as the Pansy (Fig. 16); but here there is no loss of symmetry, as the halves are similar, and it makes a pleasing variety. It only demands a peculiar position, which we shall hereafter notice.Fig. 16. PANSY. - Viola tricolor

None, perhaps, could help being struck with the numbers of the parts of the flower of the Stonecrop (Fig. 14), as we enumerated them, the outer whorl being composed of five parts; the next of five; the next of ten (twice five); and the inner of five. This is a rule in the vegetable kingdom, that whatever may be the number of parts in one floral whorl, that such shall either be the number in the other whorls, or some power (multiple) of that number. This rule, however, is not without exceptions.

We must next notice a principle of paramount importance, which is equally strongly exhibited in the vegetable kingdom with those points above reviewed-namely, adaptation to purpose; this, however, we must defer for our next paper.