I was reading a great book recently on Tall Case clocks, “Painted Dial Clocks” by Brian Loomis. A great resource for understanding tall case clock styles from 1770 to 1870. One bit of trivia caught my attention, a decorated dial circa 1790 that included a painted housefly resting between the Roman numerals. In an age before modern plumbing, screen windows and bug zappers, why would they intentionally add a fly to the painted dial? Didn’t they have enough already? Loomis speculated that it may have been a clever way to cover up a small defect in and otherwise perfect Japanned surface. Makes sense. After all, Murphy’s Law says that the closer you are to completing a project, the more likely you are to flub it. I suppose if I was charged with painting a clock dial, I might need to lay in a snapping turtle to cover up an errant brush stroke. This idea of adding a fly somehow brings my mind back to the idea of using ornament in a design.
I’ve been reading about ornament a great deal in preparation for an upcoming article in Popular Woodworking Magazine. Ornament is an element that frequently is used to emphasize the underlying form. Traditionally ornament falls into several categories regardless whether it’s executed in carving, marquetry, or painting. It may be based on animal life such as carved seashells. The egg and dart carving used on an Ovolo is also an example of ornament based around animal life (Other than the one clock dial, I’ve not come across house flies used as ornament.) It also frequently finds expression in plant life such as the frequent use of carved leaves or inlaid vines. Another frequent expression of ornament is geometric.
Marquetry is often employed to create borders with simple geometric patterns. In most cases the ornament emphasizes the form either by creating a visual border or by highlighting an existing element that defines the form. Thus vines and carved leaves not only provide a delightful surprise when viewed close, but help highlight the form from across the room. Since they often are used as borders they punctuate a form and help define a clear beginning or ending. Thus from a proportional standpoint they may occupy an envelope that’s one fifth or sixth the overall height on a wide element like a drawer front, or a fifth of the width on a tall element like a door. That’s a decent rule of thumb when you are working through your initial rough sketches. Obviously, quite bit of discretion is called for to avoid the overuse of ornament. A good friend of mine lavished a small table with inlaid ornament, which he affectionately refers to as a wedding cake. Learning a new skill like marquetry or carving brings with it the temptation to pour it on. As always, take a closer view of masterful work and note those vines or inlaid ribbons that quietly emphasize a form. Size up how they proportioned them in relation to the element they highlight.
George R. Walker