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Heraldic Arts - The Heraldry Society of Scotland


Heraldic Design - The Basic Principles - By Dr Patrick Barden


This article which appeared in the 1989 Double Tressure was a distillate of an illustrated lecture given to the Heraldry Society of Scotland in Edinburgh, 14th February 1989. It is intended for beginners of all ages.

A small error in the printing of the Society's winter programme led to the title of this lecture being published as ". . . the basic principle*'. In fact, this is not such a bad point from which to begin, for the burden of my song today is that there is one over-riding principle in heraldic design: arms, and all that goes with them, have the primary purpose of identification. Clarity must therefore be the first criterion of good work.

The Armorial Bearings of

The Late Dr Patrick Barden



We use heraldry, or armoury, to identify persons; their documents, their buildings, towns and tombs. Such use of heraldry has resulted in two other, but secondary, purposes: commemoration and decoration.

In the commemoration of great occasions, both contemporary and historical, or such everyday events as birthday's and retirements, We use the colours and shapes of heraldry, not only on documents but also in windows, sculptures and flags as eye-catching decoration. 'The factor of identification, however, remains paramount.

The best size

I am going to begin with a grin. Too much heraldry exhibited or displayed in Scotland today is far too small, We may admire and applaud heraldry on postage stamps but "postage-stamp" heraldry is much to be regretted. Look at almost any sample of civic heraldry which you call meet on the roads; as heraldists we want to see boundary boards and welcoming signs which actually identify. At school, I was taught that any poster put in a public place should be so designed that "he who runs may read". With the speed of passing traffic today, a roadside coat of arms needs to be simple - no mantling or other frills - and the shield should be at least two feet high. In the case of flags, there is an easy rule: estimate the size required and double it. For some reason flags seem to disappear or become pocket handkerchiefs when they are run up to the mast-head.

The best shape for a shield

Shield shapes have changed ever since heraldry began. In each Country there has been a gradual evolution from one shape to another, often reflecting the contemporary taste in other branches of' decorative art. It has, however, been uncommon to find the same shape in vogue in several countries at the same time. Today, if we look at the Fashion in heraldry in different countries of Europe, we find that the heater is in vogue in England, the Halbrundschild with a semicircular base has been around in Austria and Switzerland for centuries and a form of rounded shield with tapering sides is currently very popular in Germany. The French, contrary to their usual taste for the beautiful, have chosen to cling tenaciously to the ugliest shape of all, an almost square and unrealistic, impractical shield.

Current German
Current French

You will all be familiar with many different forms of shield and I will show only a few examples, representing the extremes of simplicity and decoration. It is generally agreed that, when heraldry was born, the shield was almost triangular in shape. Minor variations can be seen throughout the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. Later, heraldry became more and more a paper art, though it was


still used in architecture and other art forms; more quarters were added to arms (particularly furth of Scotland) and the shield began to take on some bizarre forms. By the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries the fashions current in public and ecclesiastical architecture were reflected in curly, over-decorative shields where the arms borne upon them are almost irrelevant to the overall design.


16th Century after
Walter Leonhard
19th Century by
Knight and Rumley
19th Century by
Knight and Rumley

If you are in the habit of drawing or painting arms, you almost certainly have one or two favourite shield shapes; they suit your particular style and you have become used to them. That is excellent and stamps your work as surely as your signature. The only thing I would add is that you should avoid mixing two or more shield designs in one display and, if you are completing or repairing a set of shields already in place, it is wise to copy as closely as possible the style of the original artist.

How do we arrive at an ideally shaped shield? I should like to suggest to you that we approach this question from a consideration of the relationship of the shield to the banner.

We shall probably never know whether heraldry first appeared on shields or on flags. What is certain, however, is that the truly heraldic design was, and should be, transferable from one to the other. It is for this reason that I recommend that, when we begin a new design, we start with a shield which relates optically to a suitably proportioned rectangle. For example, the classical "heater-shaped" shield, based on an equilateral triangle and a chief of three by one, happens to relate exactly to the square banner. We shall see how useful this is later.


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The Heraldry Society of Scotland   last Update 27 Oct 2021