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Hogarth; the Line of Beauty/Line of Grace etc.

Posted by woodyoak 5 (My Page) on
Thu, Jan 12, 12 at 17:53

First of all - pardon/ignore to weird stuff GW does to '-, etc. when material is copied from Word to here! I hope you can still read it without too much difficulty :-)

The Analysis of Beauty by William Hogarth, published in 1753, was quite interesting � aside from the mind-numbing, dry, academic introduction in the edition I bought! The first six chapters were the most general, briefly explaining the elements of his theory. The longer later chapters were very focused on the use of the principles in painting and sculpture of the human body � and the lines of beauty and grace in dance and other movement!

The fundamental principles that give grace and beauty in his theory are: Fitness; Variety; Uniformity; Simplicity; Intricacy; and Quantity. It�s interesting to compare that list to various listings of elements of design�


Fitness and Variety seem to be the ones to which he gives most weight.

Beatrix Farrand obviously agreed with Fitness as a key issue. Her favorite saying appeared to be: 'What would be fair must first be fit.' That line appears to come from a book by Charles Eliot, a partner of Frederick Law Olmstead Sr. but I�d guess its roots are in Hogarth�s theory. (Fit = suitable for the use intended)

�The art of composing well is the art of varying well� is a line Hogarth repeated often in the book. Too much variety is as bad as too little. He used �variety� in a broad sense. For example, he said �a gradual lessening is a kind of varying that gives beauty� and gave the example of a pyramid diminishing from its base to its point, and perspective views � i.e. things that appear to diminish when they actually do not.

Uniformity/regularity/symmetry he saw as relating to fitness and not elements of beauty on their own. "We find it [uniformity] necessary in some degree, to give the idea of rest and motion, without the possibility of falling. But when any such purposes can be as well effected by more irregular parts, the eye is always better pleased on account of variety.�

�Simplicity, without variety, is wholly insipid, and at best does only not displease�� Other than pyramids, he doesn�t like objects of straight lines because they lack variety. Simplicity�s role is that it �enhances the pleasure of variety, by giving the eye the power of enjoying it with ease.� So he preferred the oval to the circle; the triangle to the square; the pyramid to the cube, etc. because the oval, triangle and pyramid, while having simplicity, have more variety.

Intricacy he related to the need for the mind to be employed and the pleasures of pursuit! �Every arising difficulty, that for a while attends and interrupts the pursuit, gives a sort of spring to the mind, enhances the pleasure, and makes what would else be toil and labour, become sport and recreation.� (Hmmm� I think reading all this stuff falls in that category for me!)

The discussion of intricacy led him to prefer objects composed principally of waving and serpentine lines that �lead the eye a wonton kind of chace [sic].� But he warned that an excess is to be avoided in intricacy as well as all the other principles or you end up with a disagreeable result because the eye would be perplexed.

Quantity deals with the magnitude of things, noting that vast things draw our attention and raise our admiration by sheer size, but it�s better when quantity is combined with grace. Quantity + grace = greatness, but beware excess or quantity becomes clumsy, heavy or ridiculous.

All that finally brings us to the matter of lines�.

His order of preference for lines was based on variety : straight lines vary only in length and were therefore considered least ornamental; curved lines can be varied by both degrees of curvature and length, so they are more ornamental; combining curves and straight lines increased ornamental value further; the waving line � the line of beauty � varies more because it is composed of two contrasting curves; the serpentine line � the line of grace � varies further by curving in three dimensions (it�s illustrated as the line of beauty drawn around a cone - see object # 26 below.)

He considered there was only one precise line of beauty � but did not define it specifically, other than by showing 7 wavy lines varying from almost straight to very bulging. (see diagram #49 below)
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He then noted the 4th line as the precise line of beauty; neither too stiff/mean nor too clumsy/deformed. (I prefer #3�.)

So that�s a basic summary of where the �line of beauty� comes from. Relating that to my dislike of wiggly lines, I note several things:

- I like and use both straight lines and curves and think he ignored the beauty and power to be found in straight lines. There was a lot of politics of various sorts involved in his position/opposition to the views of others of his time who gave more weight to a more formal style of beauty (i.e. one with more straight lines).

- Many (most?) lines I consider wiggly would fall into his clumsy/deformed categories!

- I think a more precise definition of the degree of curvature relative to length might have been useful. Since he was not writing in the context � or scale � of landscape design, he probably didn�t feel it was necessary or desirable as the human body was really his reference scale. When I look at wiggly lines, the sorts of things that jump out at me as making them unattractive to ugly are too big a bulge in too short a length or too many bulges in too short a length, the bulges repeat in a boring pattern, and so on�

Clearly just because a line of a bed edge is wavy does not mean it is a line of beauty a la Hogarth. I think if you look at the examples of wavy edges posted on the thread about curves vs. wiggles, you can see that most are not Hogarth�s #4 line.


Follow-Up Postings:

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RE: Hogarth; the Line of Beauty/Line of Grace etc.

How's about lines and curves in opposition and contrast? A struggle for uniformity and control in the face of natural 'design'. Angles and lines vs natural spirals and fractals.

A pic of a project I began last year, after a move to Oklahoma. A formal layout, with future plantings to remain in their natural shapes and forms, with judicious pruning, of course. (The first of the major plantings will go in this spring.)

Edible landscaping. Front yard. Over 3,000 sq ft of beds, in total. Additional footage will be added when the grass is eventually removed and replaced with edible ground covers.

Describing additional design elements may require a separate post.

It'll take three or four years to complete this project, by myself and with the resources available. A number of large and small tres will have to be removed, too. Sorround it all with a white picket fence...(cheap) wooden arbor 'gates' and entryways...

(good design - i.e 'beauty' - doesn't take lots of money ...or genius. (All it takes is a shovel, a bucket and a piece of string...and a fair bit of planning.)

Here is a link that might be useful: Lines and curves in opposition.


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RE: Hogarth; the Line of Beauty/Line of Grace etc.

Woody: go slow. I could throw another bunch of books at you but try to absorb what you have already learned (boy I sound patronizing). It is possible to draw an historical line from Vitruvius through the Golden mean all the way up to "form ever follows function" if you take the fast train, none of it will keep the weeds out of your flower beds. But hey what else to do in a Canadian winter?


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RE: Hogarth; the Line of Beauty/Line of Grace etc.

True Ink re what else to do in winter (although it hasn't been too wintery here so far...) You had mentioned on the thread that started me on this winter's reading something about serpentine and China...? That would seem to be the next logical thing to look at as it might connect with Hogarth's line of grace. Is there a specific book you'd recommend on that subject?


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RE: Hogarth; the Line of Beauty/Line of Grace etc.

"Line of beauty"... hmmm... one of those things Southerners picked up on and believe to the core!

Many people have tried to "explain" beauty, but I don't think anyone has succeeded yet. (If someone has, the world is not listening or on the same page.) My gut reaction to Hogarth was that he was a long way off from identifying the cause and structure of beauty....even though he was immersed in thoroughly analyzing some of its components.

I attended one of Mike Lin's LA graphics classes back in the 80's. He'd delve out an assignment and we'd all work like crazy for barely-enough-time and then everything would be posted on the wall for a critique. Mike would always get a laugh because of his ultra-simplification of the notion of beauty. When critiquing student work, he'd say in his great Chinese accent, "What wrong with this??"...the answer was always, "Because it LOOK BAAAD!" And of course, the converse, "Why you like this??..."Because it LOOK GOOOD!!" Few of us could say WHY something looks good, but most of us could agree that it does, if that's the case.

I find that something automatically looks bad to me if:

...its connections look structurally or mechanically weak or inferior.

...or if an object looks not built to last as long as it should... as when the "edges" of an object are weaker (or no stronger) than the "field"... so that the object looks insufficiently "self protected." Masonry walls where the cap stone is no thicker than the wall stone fall into this category for me.

...or if something looks like it is without purpose. Every bleeping bloop of wiggly bed edge is especially bothersome if it's going around nothing in particular...just stuff! Why is it there if there's no thing for it to go around? If there was some specific thing in each bulge, it would seem that, at least, it was trying to conjure up some purpose. My thinking when routing the edge of a bed goes something like wondering, "after here, where am I going next?" if the answer is left, I will not go right first. I may go straight and then left or I may go left and then straight (relative to the original position)... but I will not go right. Thinking of the same issue in the vertical, it always seems wrong/silly to connect two differing elevations (that are relatively near one another) with a path that causes one to go both up AND down (or down and up) in order to reach the other destination. It seems pointless. Just go up. Or just go down.

Of course, there seem always to be instances where one must "break the rules" (even though they've never been properly laid out and recorded.) This all means that Hogarth left work. There's still plenty to do.


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RE: Hogarth; the Line of Beauty/Line of Grace etc.

Yard - I think most of your reasons things look bad would fall into the Fitness category in Hogarth's theory. But I agree that Hogarth's theory is not a complete thing. He was talking about painting and sculpture mainly so he was operating on a different scale and with different materials. Certainly a lot of it is general enough to apply to landscape design but I do wonder what he would have added or changed to deal with the larger scale and living materials of landscaping/gardening.

As I read the book with his detailed considerations of art and sculpture from ancient to (his) contempory times, I found myself wondering how many of today's artists are as familiar with the history and ancient techniques of their craft as artists in his day were. And how many of current artists seriously ponder what is beauty and how to create/enhance it. So, while one can pick holes in what he did (and his contemporaries/rivals certanly did with vigor!), you have to admire the thoughtfulness of his effort.

Another thing that struck me was how ideas get distorted over time. I think his pronouncement that 'the line of beauty is a wavy line' has got corrupted over the last 250 years or so into 'a wavy line is a line of beauty'. The shift in the order of the words may seem subtle but it corrupts the meaning substantially compared to what Hogarth meant. Mind you, I still think his #4 line is too wiggly to be beautiful in my eyes... :-)


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