The Analysis of Beauty

Chapter 8: Composition


Thus far having endeavored to open as large an idea as possible of the power of variety, by having partly shown that those lines which have most variety in themselves, contribute most towards the production of beauty; we will next show how lines may be put together, so as to make pleasing figures or compositions.

In order to be as clear as possible, we will give a few examples of the most familiar and easy sort, and let them serve as a clue to be pursued in the imagination: I say in the imagination chiefly, for the following method is not meant always to be put in practice, or followed in every case, for indeed that could hardly be, and in some it would be ridiculously losing time if it could; yet there may be cases where it may be necessary to follow this method minutely; as for example, in architecture.

I am thoroughly convinced in myself, however it may startle some, that a completely new and harmonious order of architecture in all its parts, might be produced by the following method of composing, but hardly with certainty without it; and this I am the more apt to believe, as upon the strictest examination, those four orders of the ancients, which are so well established for beauty and true proportion, perfectly agree with the scheme we shall now lay down.

This way of composing pleasing forms, is to be accomplished by making choice of variety of lines, as to their shapes and dimensions; and then again by varying their situations with each other, by all the different ways that can be conceived: and at the same time (if a solid figure be the subject of the composition) the contents or space that is to be inclosed within those lines, must be duly considered and varied too, as much as possible, with propriety. In a word, it may be said, the art of composing well, is the art of varying well. ) It is not expected that this should at first be perfectly comprehended, yet I believe it will be made sufficiently clear by the help of the examples following.

Figure 5, plate 12, represents the simple and pleasing figure of a bell; this shell, as we may call it, is composed of waving lines, encompassing, or bounding within it, the varied space marked with dotted lines: here you see the variety of the space within is equal to the beauty of its form without, and if the space, or contents, were to be more varied, the outward form would have still more beauty.

As a proof, see a composition of more parts, and a way by which those parts may be put together by a certain method of varying : i. e, how the one half of the socket of the candlestick A, figure 6, plate 12, may be varied as the other half B. Let a convenient and fit height be first given for a candlestick, as figure 1, plate 13, then let the necessary size of the socket be determined, as at a, figure 2, plate 13, after which, in order to give it a better form, let every distance or length of divisions differ from the length of the socket, and also vary in their distances from each other, as is seen by the points on the line under the socket a; that is, let any two points, signifying distance, be placed farthest from any other two near points, observing always that there should be one distance or part larger than all the rest; and you will readily see that variety could not be so complete without it. In like manner, let the horizontal distances, always keeping within the bounds of fitness, be varied both as to distances and situations, as at 6, on the opposite side of the same figure ; then unite and join all the several distances into a complete shell, by applying several parts of curves and straight lines; varying them also by making them of different sizes, as c: and apply them as at d in the same figure, and you have the candlestick, figure 3, plate 13, and with still more variations on the other side. If you divide the candlestick into many more parts, it will appear crowded, as figure 4, plate 13, it will want distinctness of form on a near view, and lose the effect of variety at a distance: this the eye will easily distinguish on removing pretty far from it.

Simplicity in composition, or distinctness of parts, is ever to be attended to, as it is one part of beauty, as has been already said: but that what I mean by distinctness of parts in this place, may be better understood, it will be proper to explain it by an example.

When you would compose an object of a great variety of parts, let several of those parts be distinguished by themselves, by their remarkable difference from the next adjoining, so as to make each of them, as it were, one well-shaped quantity or part, as is marked by the dotted lines in figure 1, plate 14, these are like what are called passages in music, and paragraphs in writing, by which means, not only the whole, but even every part, will be better understood by the eye: for confusion will hereby be avoided when the object is seen near, and the shapes will seem well varied, though fewer in number, at a distance ; as figure 2, plate 14, supposed to be the same as the former, but removed so far off that the eye loses sight of the smaller members.

The parsley leaf, figure 3, plate 14, from whence a beautiful foliage in ornament was originally taken, in like manner, is divided into three distinct passages; which are again divided into other odd numbers; and this method is observed, for the generality, in the leaves of plants "and flowers, the most simple of which are the trefoil and cinquefoil.

Light and shade, and colors, also must have their distinctness to make objects completely beautiful: but of these in their proper places — only I will give you a general idea of what is here meant by the beauty of distinctness of forms, lights, shades, and colors, by putting you in mind of the reverse effects in all of them together.

Observe the well-composed nosegay how it loses all its distinctness when it dies; each leaf and flower then shrivels and loses its distinct shape: and the firm colors fade into a kind of sameness; so that the whole gradually becomes a confused heap.

If the general parts of objects are preserved large at first, they will always admit of farther enrichments of a small kind, but then they must be so small as not to confound the general masses or quantities. Thus you see variety is a check upon itself when overdone, which of course begets what is called a petit taste and a confusion to the eye.

It will not be amiss next to show what effects an object or two will have that are put together without, or contrary to these rules of composing variety. Figure 4, plate 14 is taken from one of those branches fixed to the sides of common oldfashioned stove-grates by way of ornament, wherein you see how the parts have been varied by fancy only, and yet pretty well: close to which, figure 5, plate 14, is another, with about the like number of parts; but as the shapes, neither are enough varied as to their contents, nor in their situations with each other, but one shape follows its exact likeness: it is therefore a disagreeable and tasteless figure, and for the same reason the candlestick, figure 6, plate 14, is still worse, as there is less variety in it. It would be better to be quite plain, as figure 7, plate 14, than with such poor attempts at ornament.

These few examples, well understood, will, I imagine, be sufficient to put what was said at the beginning of this chapter out of all doubt, viz. that the art of composing well is no more than the art of varying well : and to show, that the method which has been here explained, must consequently produce a pleasing proportion amongst the parts; as well as that all deviations from it will produce the contrary. Yet to strengthen this latter assertion, let the following figures, taken from the life, be examined by the above rules for composing, and it will be found that the Indian-fig or torch- thistle, figure 1, plate 15, as well as all that tribe of uncouth shaped exotics, have the same reasons for being ugly, as the candlestick, figure 6, plate 14, as also that the beauties of the Lily, figure 2, plate 15, and the Calcidonian Iris, figure 3, plate 15, proceeds from their being composed with great variety, and that the loss of variety to a certain degree, in the imitations of those flowers, figure 4 and 5, plate 15, is the cause of the meanness of their shapes, though they retain enough to be called by the same names. C Hitherto with regard to composition, little else but forms made up of straight and curved lines have been spoken of, and though these lines have but little variety in themselves, yet, by reason of the great diversifications that they are capable of, in being joined with one another; great variety of beauty of the more useful sort is produced by them, as in necessary utensils and building: but in my opinion, buildings, as I before hinted, might be much more varied than they are, for after fitness has beeti strictly and mechanically complied with, any additional ornamental meriibers, or parts, may, by the foregoing rules, be varied with equal elegance; nor can I help thinking, that churches, palaces, hospitals, prisons, common houses and summer houses, might be built more in distinct characters than they are, by contriving orders suitable to each; whereas, were a modern architect to build a palace in Lapland or the West Indies, Paladio must be his guide, nor would he dare to stir a step without his book.

Have not many gothic buildings a great deal of consistent beauty in them? perhaps acquired by a series of improvements made from time to time by the natural persuasion of the eye, which often very nearly answers the end of working by principles; and sometimes begets them. There is at present such a thirst after variety, that even paltry imitations of Chinese buildings have a kind of vogue, chiefly on account of their novelty: but not only these, but any other newly invented characters of building might be regulated by proper principles. The mere ornaments of buildings, to be sure, at least might be allowed a greater latitude than they are at present; as capitals, friezes, etc. in order to increase the beauty of variety.

Nature, in shells and flowers, etc. affords an infinite choice of elegant hints for this purpose; as the original of the Corinthian capital was taken from nothing more, as is said, than some dockleaves growing up against a basket. Even a capital composed of the awkward and confined forms of hats and periwigs, as figure 4, plate 10, in a skilful hand might be made to have some beauty.

However, though the modems have not made many additions to the art of building, with respect to mere beauty or ornament, yet it must be confessed, they have carried simplicity, convenience, and neatness of workmanship, to a very great degree of perfection, particularly in England; where plain good sense has preferred these more necessary parts of beauty, which everybody can understand, to that richness of taste which is so much to be seen in other countries, and so often substituted in their room.

St. Paul's cathedral is one of the noblest instances that can be produced of the most judicious application of every principle that has been spoken of. There you may see the utmost variety without confusion, simplicity without nakedness, richness without tawdriness, distinctness without hardness, and quantity without excess. Whence the eye is entertained throughout with the charming variety of all its parts together ; the noble projecting quantity of a certain number of them, which presents bold and distinct parts at a distance, when the lesser parts within them disappear ; and the grand few, but remarkably well-varied parts that continue to please the eye as long as the object is discernible, are evident proofs of the superior skill of Sir Christopher Wren, so justly esteemed the prince of architects.

It will scarcely admit of a dispute, that the outside of this building is much more perfect than that of St. Peter's at Rome : but the inside, though as fine and noble as the space it stands on, and our religion will allow of, must give way to the splendor, show, and magnificence of that of St. Peter's, on account of the sculptures and paintings, as well as the greater magnitude of the whole, which makes it excel as to quantity.

There are many other churches of great beauty, the work of the same architect, which are hid in the heart of the city, whose steeples and spires are raised higher than ordinary, that they may be seen at a distance above the other buildings; and the great number of them dispersed about the whole city, adorn the prospect of it, and give it an air of opulence and magnificence: on which account their shapes will be found to be particularly beautiful. Of these, and perhaps of any in Europe, St. Mary-le-Bow is the most elegantly varied. St. Bride's in Fleet street diminishes sweetly by elegant degrees, but its variations, though very curious when you are near them, not being quite so bold, and distinct, as those of Bow, it too soon loses variety at a distance. Some gothic spires are finely and artfully varied, particularly the famous steeple of Strasburg.

Westminster Abbey is a good contrast to St. Paul's, with regard to simplicity and distinctness; the great number of its filigree ornaments, and; small divided and subdivided parts appear confused when near, and are totally lost at a moderate distance; yet there is nevertheless such a consistency of parts altogether in a good gothic taste, and such propriety relative to the gloomy ideas, they were then calculated to convey, that they have at length acquired an established and distinct character in building. It would be looked upon as an impropriety and as a kind of profanation to build places for mirth and entertainment in the same taste.

More about William HogarthA printmaker analyzes taste — and beauty comes out on top