Is our response to decorative detail instinctive?

Our most recent Conservation of Architectural Ironwork training event took place at the SPAB head office in Spitalfields, London, from 11-12th April, attended by practitioners and professionals, alongside SPAB Scholars.  NHIG Council members Bethan Griffiths, Chris Topp and Geoff Wallis delivered lectures on historical context, manufacture and forming of iron, properties, tools, and repair techniques.  Other sessions covered specifications, contracts, surface preparation and coatings, several video clips and a two-hour walking tour of local ironwork.

All the attendees were complimentary about the course, and many rated the event as ‘excellent’.  We plan to run this highly regarded 2-day course again next year, this time in York.

An interesting idea

During the course, Geoff pointed out that much our best-loved decorative ironwork is a mixture of order and disorder, symmetry and chaos.  He posed the interesting theory that our love of decorative wrought ironwork may be more than an aesthetic preference for traditional materials and craftsmanship, and might in fact be instinctive.  He analysed a simple example (pictured):

  • The scroll is organic, like a snail or unfurling fern, and is also a mathematically pure form. Both characteristics resonate with our ordered brain.
  • Our eyes are not cameras that take photos, but as we ‘read’ a scroll, its decreasing radius and reducing thickness draw us to the centre with increasing speed, as in a whirlpool.  We are emotionally drawn into infinity as into a black hole.
  • Similarly, as we scan upwards on the spike its reducing width warns us that ‘the end is approaching’ as it tapers away to infinity.
  • The orderly scroll and chaotic spike form an important contrast. This stimulates us, probably because as hunter-gatherers we have learned to pay attention to this contrast.  Much of mankind’s existence would have been spent in the chaos of woodland or fields. If the symmetry of a pair of eyes or ears appeared amongst the chaos these would be a striking contrast which we have learned to pay attention to as a ‘food or flight’ reaction.

Our reaction to well-designed historic metalwork may therefore be wired into our brains. What do you think?

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