ORNAMENT: A Social History since 1450.
By Michael Snodin and Maurice Howard. Yale Univ. Press and the Victoria and Albert Museum. 232 pp. $45
Upper-class English ladies have never worn tattoos. Or have they? In 1901, Lady Randolph Churchill celebrated the coronation of Edward VII by having a tiny serpent tattooed on her forearm. Tattoos were all the rage at the time. By 1920 the traditional prejudice against tattooing had returned, and Lady Churchill was never seen in public without a bracelet covering the spot.
The authors of this fascinating book do not say whether Lady Churchill ever regretted her tattoo. But they do explain much else, including the likely reason why she chose the serpent motif. Snodin, head of the designs collection at the Victoria and Albert Museum, and Howard, an art historian at the University of Sussex, begin their survey in 1450, when the invention of printing led to the circulation of Renaissance and other design ideas throughout Europe. By the mid-1500s, art patrons were poring over "emblem books" in search of "visual symbols of personal qualities that a patron aspired to." In this context, the serpent was "a symbol of eternity." Hence the serpent embroidered in the sleeve of Elizabeth I in the famous "Rainbow" portrait (c. 1600).
As a social history of ornament, this book is a first. Snodin and Howard explain that 19th-century "grammars of ornament" classified visual motifs (everything from the Corinthian acanthus to the Chinese Willow Pattern) according to a hierarchy of aesthetic and moral value. With the 20th century came a different approach, one that read psychological meanings into various recurring images. (Need we dwell on what Lady Churchill’s serpent would have meant to a generation raised on Freud?) This lavishly illustrated volume takes the next step, which is to give historical context to our understanding of ornamental hierarchies and of the rules shaping ornament’s private and public uses. Today’s postmodern designers like to think they are beyond such considerations, but, as the authors wisely point out, "If rules are broken, then people choose to do that consciously; the very process of breaking rules emphasizes the fact that normally they are there."