The emergence of Modernism: an etymology of beauty, harmony, excellent and good.

3 years ago by

Written by Kelly Gilchrist.

Starting with the term beauty, this four part series, explores the use and interpretation of the terms beauty, harmony, excellent and good. With a focus on the texts and journals collected by Robert Coupland Harding, Kelly will explore Harding’s understandings and intentions behind his late nineteenth century use of the four words.

It was through research for my honours project that I discovered an intriguing use of the terms beauty, harmony, excellent and good throughout Robert Coupland Harding’s Typo (you can read the articles on Harding’s journal, work and his life here). He used these terms to describe what we would today define as BEAUTY but perhaps would also agree to mean, ‘cool’, ‘sweet’ or ‘great’ perhaps even ‘excellent’.

Beauty is a term that is generally difficult to define, yet it possesses multiple frequently used definitions. There were only a few authors in Harding’s collection, who attempted to define the term within print, while others only referred to what I can imagine was an educated, subconscious understanding of a collective definition.

From classical times, beauty was often found in close association to the following terms: proportion, number, order, colour, architectural, mathematical and harmony. Similarly, Harding’s use the term beauty in design was in relation to formal structures; that is, not a naturally occurring beauty, but of a man-made, constructed system of ordering. He believed that:

The more exact and regular the work, the greater its beauty; and by the accurate repetition of the same pattern secured by the use of cast types, we obtain that beautiful and unique class of ornament known as the Running Border (Harding, Vol 3, Issue 25, p. 1).

What was of great interest to me, was his personal interpretation gathered through his extensive collection of books and typographical journals. His knowledge was varied, gathered from all over the world to the colony of New Zealand. Through these texts we are able to see that Harding was able to pick and choose what he agreed and disagreed with in order to develop his own understanding of the term, beauty. Using Harding’s understanding of the term in the late nineteenth century, we are able to note the changes in its meaning through the shift from Victorianism to the beginnings of Modernism.

Raymond Williams in his 1987, Keywords, notes these shifts in terms of the key terms he explores:

New kinds of relationship but also new ways of seeing existing relationships, appear in language in a variety of ways: in the invention of new terms (capitalism); in the adaptation and alteration (indeed at times reversal) of older terms (society or individual); in extension (interest) or transfer (exploitation). But also, as these examples should remind us, such changes are not always either simple or final (Williams, p. 22).

To define the changes of the term beauty in the lead up to Harding’s definition, I begin just before the turn of the nineteenth century. John Walker’s 1824 volume, A Critical Pronouncing Dictionary of the English Language, defines the term beauty as “to Beautify; to adorn, to embellish”, and “Beauty; that assemblage of graces which pleases the eye; a particular grace; a beautiful person” (Walker, p. 56). Walker’s definition refers to the beauty of a human being whereas Noah Webster’s 1828 The American Dictionary of the English Language observes not only the eye of the beholder but an additional beauty of the object:

…it is hardly possible to define all the properties which constitute beauty we may observe in general, that beauty consists in whatever pleases the eye of the beholder, whether in the human body, in a tree, in a landscape, or in any other object (Webster, p. 242).

Williams observes the shift of beauty in reference to art – which would ultimately see the term in association with print:

[The uses of beauty are] then found in occasional early Nineteenth Century English examples, but by the mid-Nineteenth Century reference to “the beautiful” is predominant and there is strong regular association with art (Williams, p. 27).

As we continue through the century, Christopher Dresser, a nineteenth century decorator – a modern equivalent to an Interior Designer attempts to define the term beauty. His work focused on the decoration of houses (rich and overly decorated house at that) however, his writings play an important role in including the term beauty in printing. Dresser along with other printers of the period, often associated beauty with that of decoration. In particular, he included discussions on notions such as: ‘what is beauty?’ and the ‘laws of harmony’. In his The Art of Decorative Design, Dresser provided his opinion on the meaning of beauty in terms of ornament [decoration]:

Ornament, we have said, is that which beautifies and renders objects pleasing and delightful; but what is beauty? and whence does it arise? Beauty is that quality of an object, which causes delight, gladsomeness, or satisfaction to spring up within the beholder, or induces a thrill of delight in the soul; it arises from the absence of any want, and the presence of that which gratifies (Dresser, p. 3).

For Dresser, beauty was used to describe what the reader or viewer should experience from the array of visual combinations–especially with regards to colour. He develops the discussion of beauty–moving beyond the visual; incorporates the concept of possession, and the idea of personal beauty. He further reminds that all things, “which charm the mind are not beautiful” (Dresser, p. 3). This may be better understood by looking to his later work, The Principles of Decorative Design, where beauty is presented in a somewhat ethereal sense:

The beautiful manifests no want, no shortcoming. A composition that is beautiful must have no parts which could be taken from it and yet leave the remainder equally good or better. The perfectly beautiful is that which admits of no improvement (Dresser, p. 17).

Reaching the turn of the twentieth century, five years after the final issue of Typo, De Vinne, through his series, The Practice of Typography, (1902-1904) rejected decoration and proposed that printing be kept simple. The long association of beauty to that of decoration was what ultimately saw to its rejection in print and design. In discussing the shift to functionality he stated; “decoration is of doubtful value when it diverts the eye from matter to manner, from the thought of the writer to the skill of the printer” (De Vinne, p. xi). Further, he states:

Over-decoration is a common fault. In no case should much ornament be added, unless especially ordered and unless it is certain that the type, paper, and presswork of the book to be made will be of the best. Even when ornament is ordered, there should be a leaning toward simplicity. Appropriateness should be considered (De Vinne, p. xi).

The emergence of Modernism, saw the rejection of beauty. 26 years on, in his 1928 work, The New Typography, the Modernist designer, Jan Tschichold stated:

And yet, it is absolutely necessary to omit everything that is not needed. The old ideas of design must be discarded and new ideas developed. It is obvious that functional design means the abolition of the ‘ornamentation’ that has reigned for centuries. The use of ornament, in whatever style or quality, comes from an attitude of childish naivety. It shows a reluctance to use ‘pure design,’ a giving into a primitive instinct to decorate – which reveals, in the last resort, a fear of pure appearance. It is so easy to employ ornament to cover up bad design! (Tshchichold, p. 69).

Within half a century, the printing industry saw a significant shift within the use of beauty and the association with ornamentation or decoration. Tschichold, as De Vinne did, rejected beauty for functionality and thankfully no appreciation for the art of typography or printing was lost.


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