Gathered below are a series of chronologically arranged quotations from a selection of writings on ornament and architecture in the eighteenth century. It is the nearest we can get to over-hearing arguments and discussion on design matters from the past.
Some of the opinions expressed are about particular ornamental features (Briseux on consoles; Le Camus de Mézières on cornices), others are about ornament and regimes of value (Laugier), or on license and imagination (Blondel and Leblanc), or ornament and taste (Boffrand) which, in Pierre de Vigny’s case, is a choice between the flavour of grandeur or lightness. Pierre Patte warns of the dangerous illusions created by ornament in architectural drawings, and a scene from Jean-François de Bastide’s short architectural story, The Little House, describes just one such moment of delusion, when a naïve young woman, Mélite, is seduced by the domestic ornaments of her suitor, the worldly comte de Trémicour. These opinions, the opinions of professional men, provide a historical foil for the perspectives you will hear expressed (now) in the podcasts.
Jacques-Fraçois Blondel, On the Planning of Country Houses, 2 vols (Paris, 1737-38)
‘it would have been dangerous to have offered members of the Public examples of the excessively rich decoration to which they has become all too accustomed, and which leads them to prefer a fashionable architect to those whose sobriety appears to them cold and sterile. This is why, in most modern buildings, one finds a muddled assemblage of motifs arranged indiscriminately, and which, by the glitter of gold, attract the applause that is due only to well-judged decoration. Consequently, the most fitting features are jumbled with ornaments that spring only from a bizarre imagination. And we find everywhere ridiculous heaps of shells, dragons, reeds, palms and foliage in which consists all the value of interior decoration at the present, and which… is spreading to the exterior. If this disorder continues, and if the wise laws of Architecture are forgotten, it is to be feared that future generations will condemn our style of building and treat it with the contempt that we reserve for the Gothic.’
Charles-Etienne Briseux, The Art of Building Country Houses, 2 vols (Paris 1743)
‘Good architecture has always made use of consoles, but they must be disposed in such a manner that they do not appear redundant. One of the general rules of this art of architecture is that ornament that reason cannot justify, is not admitted. Since the form of the console is load-bearing, it will appear ridiculous if it has nothing to support.’
Germain Boffrand, Book of Architecture , trans David Britt (Aldershot, 2002)
‘Fashion, the tyrant of taste, is a great obstacle in the way of the perfection of the arts; it brings with it a foolish novelty that pleases the common herd; and all nations are to some degree its slaves. True principles take refuge among the few. Such is the degeneracy of fashion that at times what ought to be on top has been placed at the bottom. Bizarrerie is excused by the name of genius – as if the production of a monster were a mark of fecundity.
It seems that at different times fashion has taken pleasure in inflicting torture on all the individual parts of a building: it has often sought to undermine those architectural principles whose noble simplicity must always be preserved. Sculptural ornaments, which must be used discreetly, have sometimes been applied so excessively, and made to project so grossly, that they become the principle feature instead of remaining as they should, a mere accessory. In a single century, we have several times had the surprise of seeing these ornaments change beyond all recognition.
In the age of the birth of architecture in France, the precious ornaments employed in certain locations, and imitated from the ornament s of antiquity, were replaced by weighty ornaments such as festoons of overblown fruits, cartouches of enormous size, and crudely wrought figures that often stand so far proud of the ceiling a to seem about to fall on one’s head.
Then came other ornaments in the form of scrollwork, repetitive, confused, indiscriminate and lacking in the repose that is so desirable in architecture. These in turn made way for other ornaments that have no merit beyond their workmanship: intricate, it is true, but jejune and unrelated to the rest of the decoration. In a small room, they might pass; but they are everywhere, and the draughtsman’s pencil seems to trace them at a run. Whatever the house, the ornaments are always the same.
These ornaments have crossed over from interior decoration and woodwork – where intricate craftsmanship may well have its place – into exteriors and stonework, where the craftsmanship must be stouter and more masculine. Fashion has carried such ornaments to such heights of worldly success that, fickle as she is, they cannot last.
Fashion has varied the form and outline of every part of a building, and introduced a welter of lines, curved and straight, with no thought of where they might be appropriate, and with no understanding that in architecture such lines are like the notes of music, which on their different strings express joy and sadness, love and hate, grace and terror.’
Jean-Bernard Leblanc, Letters on the English and French Nations, 2 vols (Dublin, 1747)
‘Nothing is more monstrous, as Horace observes, than to couple together beings of different natures; and yet ‘tis what many of our artists of this time glory in doing. A cupid is the contrast of a dragon; and a shell, of a bat’s wing; they no longer observe any order, any probability, in their productions. They heap cornices, bases, columns, cascades, rushes and rocks, in a confused manner, one upon another; and in some corner of this chaos, they will place a cupid in great fright, and have a festoon of flowers above the whole. And this is what they call designs in the new taste. Thus by going beyond the due limits, we are returned to the Gothick barbarity.’
Pierre de Vigny, ‘Dissertation on Architecture’, Journal Œconomique (March 1752)
‘Imagine a primitive Man, born with judgement and other innate qualities of mind; imagine him transported to St Peter’s in Rome, or to St Sulpice. He is surprised by the grandeur of the buildings and by the genius of the men who have succeeded in erecting them. Imagine this man simultaneously transported to the cathedrals of Beauvais, Amiens and Royaumont etc; he responds to these buildings with the same admiration. Asked to compare and choose between them, he criticises the huge pillars, the bulky mouldings and other heavy, jutting parts attendant on the Greek orders, which make them appear massive and ungainly. He prefers the Gothic structures, worked with more delicacy and lightness and just as solidly built.’
Marc-Antoine Laugier, An Essay on Architecture , trans Wolfgang and Anni Herrmann (Los Angeles, 1977)
‘In all Orders each single part represents a background on which sculpture can be applied. But here, as anywhere else, confusion and excess must be avoided. Sculpture is to buildings what embroidery is to dresses. When the embroidery is fine and allows enough ground to show through, it adds lustre to the dress and makes it stately because it preserves simplicity. When, on the contrary, the embroidery is overloaded and confused, its only merit is richness and labour. Seeing a dress in this way bedecked with embroidery one says: “Here is something which must have cost an immense sum, but is not at all beautiful.” Sculpture on buildings demands the same moderation. If care is not taken to distribute it sparingly and in orderly fashion, a great amount will have been spent without achieving anything of value. Architects must therefore be aware of covering indiscriminately all parts of an Order with sculpture; restful intervals are needed. If they wish to embellish a work and embellish it judiciously, they should never have two consecutive parts carved; there should always be a plain part to serve as a background for a sculpted one. Those who do not keep within these justified bounds will fall into the frivolous.’
Jean-François de Bastide, The Little House , trans. Rodolphe el-Khoury (New York, 1996)
‘He led Méite directly to a salon that opened onto the garden, a salon unequalled in the entire universe. He noticed Mélite’s delight and permitted her to pause and contemplate its finery. Indeed, so voluptuous was this salon that it inspired the tenderest feelings, feelings that one believes one could have only for its owner. The salon was circular in shape, capped with a dome painted by Hallé. The lilac-coloured panelling framed beautifully crafted mirrors. In the overdoors, Hallé had also painted scenes of love. The tastefully positioned sculptures were further enhanced by the luster of gold, and the curtains had been chosen to complement the lilac of the panelling. Even le Carpentier himself could not have arranged anything more agreeable or more perfect.
The day was drawing to a close and the light waned; a valet came to light the thirty candles held by a chandelier and by girandoles of Sèvres porcelain artfully arranged in their brackets of gilded bronze. The thirty candles were reflected in the mirrors, and this added brilliance made the salon seem larger and restated the object of Trémicour’s impatient desired. Mélite admired the room’s beauty in earnest… [She] praised the light chisel of the ingenious Pineau, who had created the ornamental sculpture. She admired the talents of Dandrillon, who had applied his skills to convey the most imperceptible refinement in the carvings of the woodwork.
“Delightful, simply delightful!” cried Mélite. “This is how the advantages of fortune should be spent. This is so much more than just a little house; this is a temple of genius and taste…”.’
Pierre Patte, Memorandum on the most significant matters in architecture (Paris, 1769)
‘…in order to excel in Architecture, drawing alone is not enough. On the contrary, nothing is more commonplace than to see excellent Designers become indifferent Architects: witness Oppenord, Meissonnier, Germain and Pineau. If design is not enlightened practical experience it is no more than a happy illusion the execution of which, in most instances, ruins its charm. It is pictured Architecture, and that is all.’
Nicolas Le Camus de Mézières, The Genius of Architecture, or, The Analogy of that Art with our Sensations , trans. David Britt (Santa Monica, 1992)
‘Cornices govern the ensemble, wherever they are employed; success depends on them. Interior cornices, above all, are the essential ornaments of the rooms in which they are placed and whose character they determine. Their proportions, the combinations of their mouldings, the beauty of their profiles, their pleasing outlines, and their concordance captivate and delight us by their harmony, as does the relation of their height and the projection with the size and extent of the place. Their relief, more or less strongly marked in relation to the distance from which they are seen, can make or mar the success of the whole apartment: nothing can remedy the want of harmony between the cornice and the room in which it is placed. Let there be no mistake: often, despite the most artistic arrangement of furniture, glasses, and openings, something seems wanting; we are aware of a deficiency. Glance up at the cornice, and the reason will be evident: the cornice is out of proportion with the size of the room. Either it is too large or too small; it has not enough relief; it has too much or too little ornament; or that ornament is not in keeping with it or not relative to the genre and character of the room. A trifle is enough to disrupt the harmony and suspend the emotion. This is a matter of great weight, therefore, and not by any means to be neglected. The cornice is the frame for the whole; it must have a genre, a character, all of its own; it must bear the stamp of good taste.’