Wednesday, September 22, 2010

The Medieval Style as Seen by the Audsleys

Illustration: G and W Audsley. Plate 15 from Polychromatic Decoration as Applied to Buildings in the Medieval Styles, 1882.

The Scottish architect brothers George Ashdown and William James Audsley, originally from Elgin but settled by the 1850s in Liverpool, produced a number of vocabulary books on ornamentation and decoration across a two decade period starting in 1878 with Outlines of Ornament in the Leading Styles.

The brothers were involved in a number of key commissions for the wealthy city of Liverpool including the Free Public Library and Museum and the Philharmonic Hall. However, many of the commissions taken on and completed by the brothers under the company name of W & G Audsley, have now disappeared. Therefore they are perhaps better known today for an enduring legacy they have left for future generations, their decorative and ornamental vocabulary books.

Illustration: G and W Audsley. Plate 18 from Polychromatic Decoration as Applied to Buildings in the Medieval Styles, 1882.

The four illustrations shown in this article come from their 1882 book entitled Polychromatic Decoration as Applied to Buildings in the Medieval Styles. It was a book produced very much in a practical vein and was to be used by professional and amateur alike as an inspirational starting point for any form of surface pattern or decorative and ornamental embellishment.

Interestingly the brother's publications although being likened often to that of others in this specialised field, the most famous of which being Owen Jones, produced work that differed consciously from that published by Jones. While Jones set out his vocabulary of ornament in his 1856 The Grammar of Ornament, with specific cultural headings so that all the history of decoration was documented by historical period and geographical area, the Audsleys produced a very different book.

Illustration: G and W Audsley. Plate 19 from Polychromatic Decoration as Applied to Buildings in the Medieval Styles, 1882.

The brothers believed that although no one could fault Jones 1856 title, it seemed more appropriate as an educational tool rather than that of a practical guide to the usage of pattern, decoration and ornament.  To some extent this is true as Jones The Grammar of Ornament, while being potentially a perfectly good tool for professional and amateur alike was used by Jones himself and many scholars and critics alike, as a form of critique of the history of the decorative arts. The Audsley's publications on the other hand were arranged very differently with decoration and pattern being segregated under chapter titles that designated their core style or motif, rather than their provenance. This meant that rather than placing a traditional Celtic styled decorative pattern under a chapter heading of Celtic, it was more likely to be placed under a heading of Interlaced Ornament. While this may have proved to have been a decidedly unpopular compromise to the scholar or critic, to the practical designer or decorator it was a much more pragmatic and efficient means of itemising the vocabulary of the history of pattern, decoration and ornament.

Illustration: G and W Audsley. Plate 20 from Polychromatic Decoration as Applied to Buildings in the Medieval Styles, 1882.

The Polychromatic Decoration as Applied to Buildings in the Medieval Styles concentrated on the decorative styling of the thirteenth century. This book was a practical catalogue of all of the main features and motifs that went to make up this particular period of the medieval style. Although 1882 to some might well seem a little late for a book dedicated to propagating the minutiae of the medieval for the benefit of the Victorian Gothic Revival, Gothic styling proved to be enduringly popular right up until the end of the nineteenth century, and in fact well into that of the twentieth with architectural buildings on both sides of the Atlantic using medieval ornamental styling and decorative work within their structures.

Although the Audsley brothers' books were perhaps not as grand or as scholarly as those of Owen Jones and some of the French publications also produced from the middle of the nineteenth century onwards, they were set on a much more practical level. The Audsleys adapted their books towards the working designer and decorator. They were meant to be used as an extra practical tool for the production of pattern and decoration, and in this they were successful as the production by the brothers of a number of useful titles over a twenty year period was to signify.


pansypoo said...

love the critters.

Leonard Greco said...

Well as an artist heavily influenced by the decorative arts, the Audsley volume is one of the most thumbed in my collection.
And yes, it is very user-friendly, right down to a charming little color selection guide.
it has proven very handy, although whenever i have attempted the "hard-line' of their ornament it feels a bit cheap.
And yes, I'm with Pansypoo, i have always loved the critters.
Take care my friend,

John hopper said...

I am not as familiar with the Audsley's as Owen Jones for example, but this will not be the only article concerning their publications. There will also be other decorative books featured on The Textile Blog by British, French and German authors in the coming weeks.