The Parents' Review

A Monthly Magazine of Home-Training and Culture

Edited by Charlotte Mason.

"Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life."
The Fésole Club Papers.

by W. G. Collingwood.
Volume 2, 1891/92, pgs. 679-684

[William Gershom Collingwood, 1854-1932, was an artist in the Lake District. He spent part of his life as John Ruskin's assistant, and became a family friend of Arthur Ransome, "who based his book Swallows and Amazons on his experiences of sailing with the Collingwoods' grandchildren" in Collingwood's boat, called Swallow. He loved Viking/Norse culture.]


"Divide and conquer" was the ancient rule of statecraft. We trot out our Pegasus team, the principles of composition, one at a time; and hope, if not to break them immediately, at least to learn their points and something of the management they require. Last time we studied Contrast; this time it must be his yoke-fellow Symmetry. In January* we must try another pair, Unity and Variety; in February the third pair, Infinity and Principality. And our year's work will be well ended if we can round it off with Repose.

Here parenthetically let me say that these are not exactly Mr. Ruskin's laws of composition, as stated in any of his books. He has given three lists of the laws of Beauty in Nature and in Art, none of which are offered as final codifications or as complete sets of rules for practical purposes.

(A) In "Modern Painters," Vol. II, he gives six chief laws of Beauty as seen in Nature:--

Infinity, Unity, Repose, Symmetry, Purity, Moderation.

These are stated to be not meant as exhausting the subject, but as illustrating analogies between Creation and its Creator.

(B) In "Elements of Drawing" there are nine laws of composition, that is to say, the conditions of Beauty in Art; these also being offered not as exhaustive, but merely as useful reminders:--

Principality, Repetition, Continuity, Curvature, Radiation, Contrast, Interchange, Consistancy, Harmony.

(C) In the Laws of Fesole these nine are reduced to three "ultimate elements of Beauty in artificial grouping":--

Dependence, Difference, Balance.

These three, however, reduce the subject to its lowest terms and thinnest abstraction. A little more explicitness will, I think, be welcomed by the student. All the various headings of Mr. Ruskin are implied in our seven laws of Creation, which, as they are associated with one of the best known passages in all literature, can be always recollected with a very little effort.

But it must be remembered that these are laws of Beauty, not rules; they are the statements of existing facts, which may be observed and imitated; they are not precepts by which if you work you are sure to do right. It can never be too strongly stated that rules will never make procedure safe; no art can be learned or practised by rules. If it could, then obviously you and I would have it in our power to be Raphaels and Beethovens; genius and talent would be idle distinctions. But, in fact, real artists work from instinct, without conscious reference to rules. When their work is done, but not till then, we see the natural and necessary laws of Art exemplified in it.

Still, for us, who are feeling our way, not so much to imitate their masterpieces as to understand them, it is right to keep the formulae of universal fact before us, to endeavour to illustrate the laws. The mistake is to suppose that by using them as rules, that is by obedience to the letter while misunderstanding the spirit, we shall produce good work. I could moralise on this; but I deny myself, in order to take an example which will lead directly to our point.

How futile the application of rules in a spirit of legality, and how difficult the work of legislative enactment, is shown in an amusing passage in "The Two Paths" (§ 84 to 86) where three rules--contrast, series, and symmetry--are laid down by a friend of the author's as sufficient for all purposes of design, and illustrated in a "choice sporting neckerchief" of which the picture is given. Mr. Ruskin, commenting, shows that the mere application of rules is not what happens; much more is involved in the creation of the design--what we usually call, in short, judgment and taste. But he goes on to remark that strict symmetry as commonly understood is only applicable to inferior materials, to conventional patterns--that it is not endurable in the human figure.

And yet he has said that symmetry is one of the laws of Beauty?

The difficulty is merely one of words. Symmetry in the language of pattern-designers means the effect produced when you fold your paper down the middle and rub off a reversed impression of the pattern on one side, like a reflection in water. There was a great craze for this kind of thing some thirty years ago, when the nation was impressed with the idea that Art ought to be applied to its manufactures, and that this trick of symmetry, once learned by the artisan, would put him on a level with all the artistic decorators of all the ages. The idea and the very phrases that expressed it are now antiquated, surviving only in the freehand copies of inferior drawing schools. But the word symmetry, for a time misused, ought to be replaced in its proper position and meaning. Symmetrical is merely Greek for "commensurate," and commensurate is Latin for "of like measure," whether as regards size, or shape, or length of time, or weight; or whatever it be you choose as common quality, in that respect the two things are alike, in others different. There are, therefore, many kinds of symmetry; the symmetry of reflection is one rudimentary form of it; the symmetry of repetition or interchange is another, in which you have two things alike, not reversed on both sides of a central thing. In this case, not the things themselves, but their measurements with regard to a central line, are reversed. You may have symmetry of value, as that between a penny and a penny bun. You may have symmetry of weight, a pound of lead in one scale against a pound of feathers in the other. And in popular language the symmetry of value is called equity or justice; that of weight is called balance. And it is in this broader sense that we ought to use the word.

Now the first condition needful for symmetry is that our two things should be different in some respect. There is no equity when you give a penny bun and take a similar penny bun; either they are alike and nothing happens, or one is damaged, and the transaction is unfair. The notion of justice only steps in when you exchange your penny bun for a penny piece, or a penny stamp, or a penny anything else. And the more apparently unlike the two things are, the more striking is the sense of justice when you discern it. So that the best art is that in which symmetry is concealed; the best composition is that in which you cannot tell at once what it is that balances what; in which you can't say, "Behold, with what obvious art the painter has introduced his secondary masses, his compementary colours, interchanged his lights and darks, reflected his forms, and balanced his composition!" How do you know when a bargain is just? When both parties are satisfied. How do you know when the pound of feathers in one scale equals the lead in the other? When the scales are at rest. And so, in a picutre which is in the hightest sense symmetrical and balanced, you know the fact only from the satisfaction you feel in it; form, colour, light and shade are all in stable equilibrium; you want nothing altered, though you cannot tell why.

This is the case in all great naturalist painting; in the representation of things as they are in this world. But it is a curious fact that in proportion as the subject of a picture is raised out of the world of men into whatever heaven the painter may conceive of divinity, the symmetry, which is the outward and visible sign of justice or equity, becomes more apparent. Hieratic Art, whether Egyptian or Greek, sacred conceptions, whether in the Old or New Testament, are always obviously symmetrical. We do not see the justice of God openly working in this world, but we cannot conceive of heaven without its plainest manifestation. And so the mediaeval painters put always their Madonna in the middle and saints in balanced order round; but the painters of the Renaissance, who dwelt more upon the humanity than the Divinity of Christ, and brought him down from the seventh heaven to the carpenter's shop, or--I don't blame them--into their own back-garden, lose the desire of symmetry as they lose the awe and sacredness of their subject.

In these Fesole lessons lessons our principle is to begin at the beginning, and to follow in our individual development the general development of the history of Art. We are to end with the covert symmetry of great naturalism, the type of Faith, the confidence that all things work together for good, even in this travailing world. But heaven lies before us in our infancy. Let us begin as little children to whom the justice of home and heaven is explicit. Let us take the simplest instances of balance by repetition and interchange.

First, as to light and shade. We have noted the contrast involved in separating light from darkness, day from night. But what would sunshine be without its shadows? What is the midnight sky without its moon and stars? In our picture then we must have our dark field and our light field, but in the dark there must be light, and the light there must be dark. This is the law of interchange--the favourite scheme of Prout, to whom we look, as I have said before, as our schoolmaster. Starting from his simple methouds we mean to pursue our own course of development. If you make a rough sketch in soft pencil on the back of an envelope from one of his pictures, you will find that about half of the picture is a dark mass with light spots in it, and the other half is a light mass with dark spots in it. on the principle of heraldic quartering.

Sit in the corner of a room, in one of the corners next the window, and look across to the other corner next the window. It must be by daylight; best of all when the sun is shining in. Sketch the interior roughly in soft pencil on a little by of paper. You had better half-shut your eyes so as to see no detail, but only the broad masses. You can take into your picutre a bit of the window and its frame, the curtain, and a table and chair or two standing by the curtain, some of the carpet, the wall beyond, with the furniture against it and the pictures on it; and if the room be not very high, a bit of the cornice and ceiling. As you sketch, looking only for the distinctness of light and shade, you will see that your pictue is broadly divided by a diagonal line above which everything is a gloom, below which everything catches the light. Lay in the gloom with a general shading, and leave the light as white paper. Then in the light field shade all the parts that are dark, and in the gloom look for whatever lights there may be reflected from picture-frames chatching on a hanging lamp, or outstanding furniture, and rub out these places roughly with indiarubber until you have a scribbled sketch which illustrates this law of symmetrical interchange. Then take another paper and make a similar sketch of the lines, which will in all probablility lend themselves without much trouble to illustrate Repetition. You will see the upright frames, the horizontal table by the horizontal cornice; and you will find that if you have any shape of round or square, oval or oblong, in one half of the picture, you will not be content until you have something like it in the other half.

With these studies before you, begin your picture with a firm pen outline and a light tint of black, used in this instance simply to define and preserve your light and shade; and then tint the local colours. In doing this you will find when you have painted the faint green of the trees outside the window, or the blue of the sky, that you will want to repeat them with stronger and more limited masses of green or blue indoors. The colours in the carpet will cry out until they are answered by similar colours, more subdued perhaps and more widely spread, on the wall, or more concentrated in a picture or in the flowers on the table. And so you will go on until you have filled in every mass, attending to nothing else but its balance with the mass that reflects it. The more advanced student may make a charming subject out of this lesson; but I think it is not beyond the powers of the youngest beginner to look out for examples of this law of balance, and to record them with intelligence if not with artistic skill. And so with two horses of our team in hand, Contrast and Symmmetry, we will put up for the present at "the Sign of the Scales."**

*There will be no Fesole Paper in the December (Christmas) number of the Parents' Review. Members are requested to choose their own subjects, and to send in drawings by New Year's Day.

** Drawings to be sent by December 1st, and in future on the 1st of the month following that in which the lesson is set.

Typed July 2013