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The Grove Encyclopedia of Decorative Arts


The distinction between the fine arts and the decorative arts first emerged in the 18th century. Until that time, artists had been members of craft guilds, and the terms ‘artist’ and ‘artisan’ were used interchangeably. From the mid-18th century, however, a distinction was drawn according to the criterion of purpose: the fine arts were intended to give pleasure, while the mechanical arts, which were later known as the decorative arts, were merely useful. The five fine arts were deemed to be painting, sculpture, architecture, music (i.e. composition) and poetry; sometimes this list was extended to include performing arts (rhetoric, dance, drama). The mechanical arts, which were variously known as Handwerk (German), métier (French), artisanat (French) and mestiere (Italian), included crafts such as ceramics, glassware, metalwork, weaving, furniture-making and interior decoration, all of which are represented at length in this book. The distinction between art and craft also created hierarchies within the fine arts, and at the bottom of these hierarchies, certain crafts were deemed to be merely decorative: easel painting was a fine art, but the painting of figures on pottery was decorative; the exteriors of buildings (including their gardens) were the product of the fine art of architecture, but the interiors (including layout as well as fittings and furnishings) were decorative art; sculpting in marble was a fine art, but ivory-carving and wood-carving were crafts. These excluded subjects are all included in this book in the defiant conviction that they are as important as the fine arts.

Such distinctions between arts and crafts may now seem untenable, but they have been institutionalized by museums such as the Victoria and Albert Museum in London and the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris. It is the collecting principles of such museums that have largely determined what is included in this book. I have followed the lead of the V (which was initially known as the Museum of Manufactures) in including entries on designers and manufacturers as well as craftsmen. Fashion is sometimes considered as a distinct field (hence the Musée des Arts de la Mode in Paris), and has not been included here, but I have included an abundance of material on textiles, even though they are often the subject of separate museums, such as the Musée Historique des Tissus in Lyon. All crafted objects are designed and most are decorated, but most are not accommodated in museums of decorative arts, and so are not to be found in this book. I have, for example, included very little material relating to the design of transport, even though I am aware that cars, trains, ships, pogo sticks and shoes could have been included; the exclusion is not complete, however, in that decorative features such as figureheads are included in the entry on ship decoration. In the case of engravers, I have concentrated on those who specialized in ornamental rather than figurative subjects. I have cast my net widely, and so have included domestic arts (e.g. quilting and patchwork) and arts associated with death (e.g. taxidermy and head-shrinking), as well as arts of higher cultural status. In the case of large subjects, I have sometimes provided an overview (e.g. ceramics and furniture in China, toys, wallpaper) as well as entries on individual makers and types. In short, I have provided entries on subjects that one might reasonably expect to find in a book with this title. Within the limits that I have described, I have exercised my own judgement and indulged scores of personal enthusiasms, mostly stimulated by the labours of those who choose objects for display in museums. I have been fortunate in being able to visit museums all over the world, and so have been delighted to be able to include material on collections in Europe, the Middle East, Africa, Asia, the Americas, Australasia and the Pacific Islands. Collections typically range from antiquity to the present, and I have aspired to a similar chronological range, albeit with an emphasis on the period from the Middle Ages to the present.

I have also attempted to provide material that is not accessible to Anglophone users of electronic search engines. It is possible to Google one’s way to facts, though as medical doctors complain when presented with pre-emptive diagnoses by patients, the facts may be inaccurate or out-of-date. What electronic resources (especially free ones) cannot at present provide is comprehensive access to material based on the most recent scholarship, or translations of much of the material in languages not understood by the reader. In the entries that I have written I have drawn on material in a score of languages, and in the entries that I have edited the writers have drawn on material in a vast number of languages. The entries therefore mediate this material for our intended readers, who are not only specialists in the decorative arts but also a miscellaneous group that includes collectors, practitioners of the crafts, university and high-school students and individuals who may have bought a crafted object and simply want to know more about it.

The fine arts are widely studied in universities and so generate a vast secondary literature. Many of the decorative arts, such as arms and armour or clocks and watches, are not much studied in the universities, and the responsibility for scholarly investigation falls on museum curators, whose meticulous scholarship is sometimes confined to local publications. The bibliographies attached to many entries often contain such items, most of which can be secured through inter-library loan systems. The bibliographies also include one type of book not normally found in reference publications, which is that of manuals intended for readers who wish to practise the crafts that are described in the entries.

Gordon Campbell, Leicester, 2006