The English built environment is one of layers, variety, and cohesion. Its development – which spans over centuries – has resulted in a conglomerate of styles, representations and features that are characteristic of their time. As a result, exploring and observing these features create different experiences that are unique to their environments. That being said, when observing more closely, viewers can recognise that certain ornamental features and styles often reoccur.
Such is the case for the ubiquitous use of egg-and-dart ornament.
Egg and what?
Sometimes referred to as egg-and-tongue, egg-and-anchor or even egg-and-star, this simple yet captivating ornament has been used in England since the medieval times and can therefore be identified in various architectural examples throughout the country. It is created by alternating between an oval shape, which resembles an egg, and a narrow dart and/or arrow. It is stated in the Dictionary of Ornament (1985) that egg-and-dart is ‘one of the most widely used classical mouldings […] to enrich and Ovolo moulding such as the echinus on Ionic Capitals.’ In turn, it creates a ‘rhythmic and repetitive pattern of curved and non-curved elements [that creates] delicate and detailed designs’ (knoweledgebank.com).
What is the origin of this architectural feature?
Whilst it originated in ancient Greece, there are various speculations regarding its symbolisms and iconography. For example, it could be a representation of ‘life and death’ (Marinij.com, 2013), or originated as a ‘lotus border and alternating bunches of grapes’ (Dictionary of Ornament, 1985), or it could represent ‘Greek soldiers holding shields and spears’ (knoweledgebank.com).
How is it created?
This bas-relief ornamentation is usually carved in wood, stone or plaster and can – most commonly – be found on the echinus, friezes, or columns of classically inspired buildings. Egg-and-dart was frequently used in the English built environment, particularly in the 19th century, and its adoption within an English context has resulted in its use not only on Ionic columns, but also in churches and other internal decorative features.
Where can it be seen?
Despite egg-and-dart being a small ornamental feature, it has adorned large scale and prolific buildings such as St Pauls, the British Museum, and the Queens House, Greenwich. Other, more modest examples include the columns found along Brook Street, London, and internal mouldings and cornices in domestic buildings.
Curiously, egg-and-dart has also been translated into a medieval context, as it has appeared in churches such as St. Mary’s Warwick. Although not as commonly used as other medieval decorative features such as chevron, beakhead or dogs-tooth, when exploring with an inquisitive eye the use of this classical motif can be spotted in medieval structures. In addition to its appropriation by different architectural styles, its ongoing use has created various types of egg-and-dart.
This subservient classical ornament appears in the most unlikely of places when you know to look for it
Despite its frequent appearance in the historic landscape, this subservient ornament often goes undetected and/or unnoticed. Its location, typically in cornices, mouldings, and columns requires viewers to look up and have a more active and inquisitive interaction with their surroundings. However, once identified, egg-and-dart will be recognisable in the most unlikely of places and can help viewers gain an appreciation for the language of classical ornamentation.
Sources and further reading:
Lewis, Philippa, and Gillian Darley. (1985). Dictionary of Ornament. London: Macmillian