The Language of Ornament – National Gallery of Victoria 2017


Michael Graves (designer) Alessi, Italy (manufacturer) Coffee and tea service designed 1983, manufactured 1985 sterling silver, painted aluminium, opaque synthetic polymer resin, silver, plastic, glass (a-i) 27.3 x 41.4 cm diameter (overall) ed. 17/99 National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne Purchased, 1984 (D22.a-i-1984) © Michael Graves

A rich selection of objects from the National Gallery of Victoria Collection, including a coffee and tea service designed in 1983 by Michael Graves and manufactured by Alessi, Italy, will be on show in an exhibition entitled The Language of Ornament starting February 25, 2017 until December 2017 at NGV International.

The exhibition will be FREE and provide a wonderful opportunity for those who wish to learn not only how to look, but also to see and understand what period they are from by reading clues embedded in their ornamentation.


Holmegaard Glassworks, Holmegaard (manufacturer) Per Lu?tken (designer) Rose of Africa, bowl c. 1982 glass 15.8 x 31.2 cm diameter National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne Gift of H M Queen Margarethe II of Denmark, 1987 (D18-1987) © Per Lu?tken

If you are a glass lover as indeed I am, it will be wonderful to encounter the Rose of Africa glass bowl designed by Per Lütken of the Holmegaard Glassworks, gifted to the gallery by H.M. Queen Margarethe II of Denmark in 1987, as a fine example of the timeless designs he produced during a golden period of the factory

Each object tells an aspect of the stories that reflect humankind’s political, moral and social concerns and scientific and technical achievements, all of which helped shape the periods and styles that form our decorative heritage.


Italy, (Naples) Cameo shell (c. 1850) Queen Helmet (Cassis madagascariensis) 15.7 x 17.5 x 24.8 cm National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne Bequest of Miss Mary Turner Shaw, 1990 (D23-1990)

One of the most extraordinary is a Cassis madagascariensis, a marine shell that was hand-carved using the ‘cameo’ technique during the mid-nineteenth century, when the material was decorated gloriously with sculptural relief.

Created in Naples, Italy circa (around) 1850, the Queen’s Helmet as it is more commonly known, was decorated at that time with profile cameo style bust portraits of the important Roman Gods Jupiter and Juno.

It also has a ‘classical border’, decorated with ornament deriving from observed flora and fauna, which originated in ancient Greek and Roman imperial ornamentation and in the traditions of the Islamic Moors who lived in Spain from the ninth century onward.

The process of discovery for the language of ornament commences in our classical past, moves through the medieval period, on to the Renaissance and beyond until it emerges in Australia from colonial times until today.

Throughout history an extraordinary array of motifs decorated architecture, interiors, ceramics, furniture, glass, metalwork, textiles and so much more, highlighting the influences that impacted on their evolution.


Michael Powolny (designer) Wiener Keramik, Vienna (manufacturer) Winter, from The four seasons 1906–08 earthenware 39.2 x 20.2 x 18.1 cm National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne Purchased with the assistance of the National Gallery Women’s Association, 1994 (D1-1994)

Summer from the Four Seasons features the figure of a putto, or cute cupid like figure, carrying a cornucopia, or horn of plenty, full of fruit and flowers.

Decorated with polychrome (many colours) decoration and gilding, the figure is one of four representing all the seasons in nature.

The language of ornament or decoration played a defining role in Western design tradition as it translated from one medium of art to another and was re-discovered and re-interpreted from antiquity to the twenty-first century.


Italy, Apulia, Volute krater (Apulian red-figure ware) 330 BCE – 320 BCE, attributed to The Ganymede Painter, earthenware, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne Felton Bequest, 1969

A stunning ‘volute krater’ in red-figure earthen ware from Apulia in Italy is attributed to The Ganymede Painter. It dates from 330-320 BCE and on a large scale, he produced mostly funerary subjects with ambitious compositions,

The moment of differentiation between products bearing a resemblance to porcelain and something comparable to the Chinese body so long admired was not a reality in Europe until the eighteenth century.

The wares we refer to as porcelain came quite some time after the earthen wares and the more sophisticated stone wares initially produced by many civilisations.


Manifattura Figli di Giuseppe Cantagalli, Florence (manufacturer) Vase c.1897 earthenware 58.5 x 28.8 x 28.7 cm National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne Purchased, 1897 (386-D2)


Before the sixteenth century Italian city-states imported their ceramics from abroad, particularly from Turkey, Syria and Moorish Spain.

There was a serious attempt in Italy in the sixteenth century to also reproduce hard paste porcelain similar to that coming into Europe from China.

Their predominately blue-and-white schemes were much admired as was floral decoration borrowed from Iznik pottery, named for the town in western Anatolia where it was made.

Works by Italian company Figli di Giuseppe Cantagalli became well known in England when showcasing its wares at the Italian Exhibition in London in 1888.

The company established in the fifteenth century at Doccia near Florence produced ceramic wares brilliantly conceived and carried out.

In nature and composition the Florentine ceramic body produced was entirely different to that of the Chinese. It was made by mixing together impure kaolin, lime and white sand with finely ground up glassy material and rock crystal.

This was the first version of soft past porcelain made in Europe and while the glassy constituent gave the fired clay the required translucency it didn’t however achieve the hard body characteristics of true oriental porcelain.

The majority were decorated in underglaze blue, in a distinctive palette of colours admired as a characteristic of the native Renaissance style.

In Renaissance Europe, increased emphasis was placed on the accurate visualization of reality and hence on the image itself. Cantagalli wares are marked on the base with the distinctive symbol of a cockerel.

Archaeology reached fever pitch during the nineteenth century as architectural remains were studied, tombs excavated and relics from the ancient cities of Mesopotamia, Byzantium, Greece, Egypt and other exotic climes were assembled.


Vase (1875) Minton, Stoke-on-Trent, Staffordshire (manufacturer) attributed to designer and decorator Charles Toft Senior, porcelain (pâte sur pâte, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne The Dr Robert Wilson Collection. Gift of Dr Robert Wilson and Colin Lane through the Australian Government’s Cultural Gifts Program, 2012

At Stoke on Trent in Staffordshire in England designs by Thomas Minton were particularly well loved from 1793 onward when his firm became renowned for its art porcelains and ‘Willow Pattern’ china.

Cross cultural fertilization’s are many in the history of ceramics from one country to another, from one ware to another and from one medium to another.

In the Far East the cultural catalyst was China, whose influences flowed strongly to Europe originally through the Near and Middle East and finally directly.

This vase c1875 has a design attributed to designer and decorator Charles Toft (1831-1909) has strong oriental influences from both the near and far East.

Its ‘Persian inspired form, pseudo-Chinese fretwork, cloisonné enamel work and Japanese inspired floral design’ is thought to have been inspired by an object completed in 1869 by botanist, designer and writer Christopher Dresser (1834-1904) whose works were considered radical in their day.

Herbert Minton succeeded his father in 1836 with producing wares that appealed to popular taste. He enlisted artists and skilled artisans as he expanded the factory’s reputation for both industrial enterprise and artistic excellence.


Minton, Stoke-on-Trent, Staffordshire English est. 1793 Lidded vase 1840 porcelain (bone china) (a-b) 45.8 x 28.5 x 24.9 cm (overall) National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne The Dr Robert Wilson Collection. Gift of Dr Robert Wilson and Colin Lane, 2007 (2007.695.a-b)

Minton who was in partnership with John Boyle (1836-1841) produced this ‘lidded vase made of porcelain (bone china) in 1840. Delicately elegant, it had a distinct love for asymmetry with the extensive use of c and s scrolls.

With its scroll handles and cover surmounted by a figure of cupid acting as a finial, the vase features ornamentation in the eighteenth century Rococo taste, which was about a mood, an atmosphere of fancy, frivolity and fun.

Many of its designs were sophisticated and a great deal of gold was required to highlight its use of bright clear colours.


Thomas Pitts, London (manufacturer) Epergne 1762–63 silver (a-w) 63.6 x 76.3 x 64.8 cm (overall) National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne Felton Bequest, 1932 (3304.a-w-D3)

A pineapple was a rare and delectable luxury when it was grown first in England in the latter part of the seventeenth century when it became a symbol for hospitality. Here it surmounts a silver epergne created 1762-1763 by manufacturer Thomas Pitts, London.

This finely crafted object would have once graced a dining room table as an ornamental centrepiece, used for holding fruit, sweetmeats and flowers allowing everyone an opportunity to enjoy the bountiful gifts of nature.

The Language of Ornament will challenge the mind, engage the spirit and, most of all, connect with the soul of many of its viewers.

Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle, 2016

The Language of Ornament

NGV International

February 25 – December 2017

St Kilda Road, Melbourne

Entry FREE


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