George Bell and Sons
These pages are inscribed with affection and esteem
These essays on the furnishing and decoration of the home appeared in the "Pall Mall Gazette" under the heading of "Wares of Autolycus," and are reprinted by perpemission of the Editor.
INDIVIDUAL taste-or the lack of it-in arrangement and decoration has made no very decided movement of any kind for some considerable time past. Matters remain, in the mass, much as they were; the intelligent upholsterer who receives carte blanche from affluent patrons still adds, "to make the place look homely," his finishing touches in the shape of scattered volumes that bear the seal and superscription of Mudie; the no less intelligent amateur still pursues the uneven tenor of her way, mingling foul with fair, heaping together objects which-well enough in themselves-disparage and nullify each the other's charms when forced into companionship; lighting, by chance medley, now and again, on a pleasing harmony, but more often failing to achieve aught but incoherency and fatuity of effect.
There are exceptions, of course, and these do but the more emphatically prove the rule. And the reason of this inconsistency, this inability to grasp the situation as a whole, this predominance of zeal over discrimination in the large majority is not far to seek; it arises in part from the widespread superstition that the sense of sight needs no education; partly from the influence of fashion; and partly, also, from the fact that the true flair for decorative beauty is almost as rare as the gift of divination, or the power of abstention from verse-writing. He of antique anecdotal fame, who, on being asked as to whether he could play the violin, responded genially that he did not know because he had never tried, was diffidence incarnated by comparison with most of those who furnish houses. The judicious choice of a wallpaper, the right selection and disposal of furniture, is taken for granted as being thrown in with the rest of the feminine arts; the housewife who is dissatisfied with her own arrangement of her own drawing-room, or who entertains misgivings as to her heaven-born ability for grouping flowers to the best advantage, were hard, indeed, to find.
And yet each of these accomplishments is a separate science in itself, and-though capable of modification to suit with individual predilections and whimsies-founded on principles as well-defined as those that govern the composition of a sonnet, a picture, or a fugue. Each has its own more or less subtle laws of being, its own code of transgressions and gamut of merits. There is, of course, nothing positively wrong in taking delight in uncomely, or even hideous, surroundings; many estimable and talented persons have passed through life unconscious, and uncareful, of their singularly ugly material environment. Some of the most illustrious writers of to-day inhabit rooms and houses that, decoratively speaking, are a slur upon civilization. And this merely from the absence of development in one particular direction. Yet there lies a certain unexplained. and, perhaps, inexplicable mystery in the established fact that one who can, and does, both appreciate and translate into fitting words the best glories of the best sort of sunset, or of a cherry tree in blossom, will spend, year in, year out, the main portion of his time in company with goods and chattels that are positively detestable, within the shelter of walls so bedizened as to be in open revolt against all accepted principles of beauty.
"There are," observes the hero of a clever Transatlantic novel, "some things as can be altered, and others as can't-let's alter them as can," and the saying is not without its modicum of wisdom. Ourselves, whom time and care and sickness seem all joined in a conspiracy to disfigure, it were vain to consider from any standpoint of comeliness; we are, for the more part, "not fair to outward view;" neither, as it very frequently' happens, are the features, topographical or architectural, of our immediate neighbourhood. These are things out of our control that cannot well be altered, and perhaps are no great matter after all. But with indoor decoration it is altogether otherwise; you can make what you will of the house you live in, either a mere shelter from the weather, a box of brick or stone, where you eat and sleep and pass your days in as much material ease as you can compass; or, on the other hand, a refuge that may be even as the shadow of a great rock in a weary land, an oasis of infinite peace and suggestion, a place that pleases and satisfies both eye and intellect at once.
It is best, for obvious reasons, to have some definite scheme of decoration from the outset: to determine firmly as to which path you shall follow. To put it broadly, ignoring all minor complexities of grade and detail, there are two distinct and different ways of constructing the House Beautiful: the one plan is pitched on a high plane of austerity, and demands no little courage, sacrifice, and repression; the other, of homelier complexion-and, it may be, of more lasting charm-is replete with rich colours and low tones: it allows a wider scope for personal idiosyncrasies, is more catholic, and, on the whole, much easier to live with.
Should the inspiration of the moment dictate to you a command for walls light in colour, you must not, having once put your hand to the plough, entertain any idea of looking back. That would be to ruin all. A fastidious chastity of form and site must be the order of the day; your pieces of furniture, very refined, very fit, and very few, are to be disposed here and there after anxious premeditation and earnest thought. They must correspond in their design with the spirit of the wall-papers, or the panelling, and be placed just there (and in no other position than that) where they will tell the most effectively as patches of a darker tone; or you may choose to set the whole walls, chairs, tables, and all-in a high key; only remembering that if this be done you must keep just as tight a rein over your fancy as though the plenishing were of dark wood. A severe elegance, scrupulously maintained and consistently carried out in every particular, is the main characteristic of this method; the colour chord, limited though it be, will have an austere sweetness that falls in well with some temperaments, but a jarring note were disastrous.
It will be something in the nature of a domestic tyranny that you thus establish. Are you a collector, you cannot bring home a new vase, a picture, a fresh acquisition of any sort that promises the remotest chance of upsetting the reigning scheme. A book with a gay cover, a time-table, a newspaper, a magazine, each and all of these blameless commodities might create a revolution in this little world, where things go wrong so easily. A displaced chair or table, a settee drawn up to the hearth, away from its accustomed niche, would work havoc on the general effect, which, to be sure, seeing that it is so easily disturbed, may not be altogether worth the sacrifices it demands. It is possible to tire of pedantic perfection, even in decorative art, such as many an elegant First Empire scheme aspired to, and to sigh for something touched with less asceticism and a broader proportion of comfort. With low-toned walls and ceilings all things are possible; it is not only less difficult to make a room thus arrayed look well, but there is also small doubt as to which result, when completed, is more to be preferred.
A rich, deep-hued background (always provided it be good in colour), besides its soothing composure, offers unquestionable advantages; it is becoming in the extreme to every objets that may be placed against it, whether human or the work of the cabinet-maker, as any who has noticed a group of figures beside a hedge of clipped yew or flex can bear witness. There is no merciless silhouetting, no hard-and-fast definition; now and again the outline is lost and intermingled in a pleasant dusk, that nevertheless has nothing of gloom, because the colours, though sombre, are pure and mellow, and the design, what you may see of it, graceful, and compacted of well-chosen forms. Again, your low-toned background gives a so much ampler scope for variety and quantity in the furniture whose attractions it is to enhance; a light-coloured chamber must, as we have said, be sparsely and warily plenished, while in the former case, so long as over-crowding is avoided, it is possible, and even desirable, to be generous.
Few errors are commoner and more likely to engender a quick and lively sense of remorse than the careless or over-hasty choice of wallcoverings; and yet, while the most earnest consideration is frequently bestowed upon the selection of a gown, the purchase of a dog, the entering upon a betrothal-all matters of importance in their way -scarce a tithe of such deliberation is given by the large majority to the inner development of the houses in which they are to live and move and have their being. Generally speaking, the person about to " decorate " a fresh abode is the sport of chance, of any random impulse or ephemeral fad. Blown by every wind of doctrine, a prey to conflicting passions for various modes and periods, the amateur whom undisciplined decorative predilections lions have hurried astray has much, and often, to regret. Should you stoop to such folly -your walls are sure to bear mute witness against - you from your rising up to your down-lying.
"Sleepless with cold, commemorative eyes," the peacock frieze in unblessed union with the realistic flowery wall-paper stares mute reproach at you so long as it, and you, may endure. If you can afford to do so, you will, after a certain while - fluctuating according to individual temperament - and the exigencies of the moment-send for the workmen to arise and unbuild it again; but if, on the other hand, you are lacking in means, or in - Napoleonic decision, there is nothing for it but to "bulge along" like Brer Rabbit, and bear the consequences as best you may. Your albatross will hang heavy round your neck; and all the heavier that it was your own crossbow that burdened you with the unlovely fardel.
The writhing, bastard-Renaissance design that charmed so unwisely with its morbid tones and affected repeats, loses by custom and exhibition in the mass those artificial graces wherewith it ensnared you. Even some of the really fine conventionalizations of flowers, if too self-assertive and elaborate, fail signally to fulfil the first law of their being-that of providing an adequate and fitting background to furniture, pictures, faces, to all, in fine, that a room may contain. There is hardly a sin in the decorative calender of crime that were impossible to an ill-conceived or foolishly designed wall-paper. And the "new-invented game" can rove, perhaps, still more hopelessly off the rails, it can be played in even more detestably vicious taste, than the early Victorian.
The tawdry-and, not so very long since, inevitable-white and gold atrocity which once reduced every respectable drawing-room to the decorative level of a painted sepulchre; the red or green, flock, stuffy and depressing as the rep curtains draped against it, that disfigured the average dining-room; the blowsy, brightly-coloured and yet dismal-looking floral papers that made our sleeping-chambers as so many howling wildernesses -they have gone red-handed to their last account with all their sins unshriven, and thus have merely met with their deserts; and yet-and yet-were they so very much more condemnable than many an "art" wall-paper that is the apple of its owner's eye to-day? In all honesty-no. For there is nothing quite so repulsive as the degradation of a fine tradition, the garbled version of something that has once been good; just as an ape is displeasing in its horrid likeness to a man; precisely as a cast from an out-worn mould caricatures the beauties of the classic features it was meant to emulate; even as the mincing modern poetaster of "the pap and daisy school" (as Mr. Hardy has it) almost makes you turn for the moment with revulsion from Keats and Herrick: in like manner the pitiful pasticcios of fitly and decoratively conventionalized forms, and sombrely harmonized chords of colour; throw a sort of temporary discredit upon their estimable models.
Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery; it is often, none the less, the most disgusting; as witness the debased outlines, the muddy tints, that go to make up many and many a popular wallpaper. Unhappily, the same movement that dethroned the bloated commonplaces of the day before yesterday has given birth to more monstrosities. human and inanimate, than you may care to count. The decadent, the "art-square," the symbolist, the hand-painted looking-glass, bedizened by distorted simulacra of iris and Mary-lily; the "art" colours which simulate the hues of corruption, the "art" wall-paper with its misbegotten sunflowers and poppies, its inane sham-mediaeval dicky-birds intermixed with geometrical patternings, its livid complexion, now sour, now sallow, but ever revolting, they are all in the same tale. To be sure, they have mainly ebbed out to the suburbs, but that is only so much the worse for the suburbs, and for the Aesthetic development of the myriads of admirable persons who reside therein. It is to be hoped, and expected, that the next turn of the wheel may disperse the whole sorry company to their own place-the more or less decent obscurity of minor anthologies and cheap lodging-houses.
And; if the imitation be vile, it must be confessed that the original owns certain aspects that are not entirely and invariably delightful. That school of mural decoration for which the designs of Mr. William Morris may be taken as the leading type, falls, despite its obvious (sometimes a little too obvious) virtues, into the common error of considering wall-paper as an independent system of decoration in itself, instead of as a portion of the general scheme, a background, as we have just said, for the contents of the chamber whose nakedness it is to cover. Now, if you elect to remain satisfied with your wall-paper as the sole adornment for your walls, then you can hardly do better than make a choice among the many excellent examples proffered. And of these there is a multiplicity; indeed it would almost seem as though the art of designing wall-papers had reached its highest development It is, nevertheless, in all true essentials, a superfluity; you "wonder what it was begun for." To heap pattern on pattern, design over design, were too crass an error for serious criticism; and this is precisely the transgression into which the elaborate fascinations of these pretty papers seek to lure you.
If for their sake you are content to forego the pleasures of decorating your rooms with pictures and china-both of which commodities, to be of any worth at all, must appeal to your senses primarily as patterns-why then, well and good; procure the design that happens to be most to your taste, and settle down to enjoy it; only remembering that having once enthroned so elaborate a work of art, it will brook no rival near. To hang pictures or ornaments of any kind upon it were to discredit both, and to establish a contention for supremacy as undecorative as undesirable. And surely, no wall-paper, however good, can be good enough to compensate for the banishment of its betters; the very character of it, the material, its position in the scheme of things decorative, forbid that it should suffice alone; and therefore the most worthy are the most unobtrusive. They may be as rich as you please-the gold (ranging from palest gilt to copper) Japanese leather paper gives proof enough of that; but simplicity, and that not the bold, bleak, self-conscious archaism that passes muster so often in its stead, but true simplicity, chaste, sober, and dignified, must still remain, as in so much else, the basis of being, the foundation for all the other virtues.
And to attain to this perfection of simplicity demands an even subtler skill than does the weaving of an intricate device and solving the problem of repetition. You must have courage, but not fool- hardiness, a very fine sense of selection and space, and a fixed indifference as to whether you shall make a spoon or spoil a horn. The over-excitable, or impatient designer runs a fair chance of spoiling all he touches. Fine stripes, placed close together at regular intervals, with corresponding blank spaces left between, are capable of much that is good; so is a warm, purely-coloured ground powdered with conventional shapes. An excellent example of the latter is a rich Venetian-red paper besprent with dim golden lions, rampant, heraldic, but unassertive in the extreme for all that. Again, it is pleasant to see that some delightful designs of the early years of this century are being revived-dainty arrangements of flowers, stripes, and ribbons, unambitious, eminently unpictiorial, and absolutely charming as backgrounds in their appropriate rooms.
Brown paper should be the prop and stay of the economical, and, indeed, failing the two ideal wallcoverings-panelling and tapestry-there are few better than this friend in need, if sympathetically seconded by a really good frieze and well-moulded picture-rail.
Every now and again (but fortunately seldom) you are brought to realize fully and newly the great decorative darkness from which the taste of to-day, for all its faults and excrescences, is gradually emerging; or, as it might be more accurately said, reverting-turning backward to simpler schemes and finer principles. You may chance upon a beautiful old Georgian house infested by latter-day Vandals who have not hesitated-nay, who have even delighted-to dishonour its comfortable stateliness with the ordinary trophies of travel, immoderately disfiguring the walls and the floors of it with stuffed beasts and hides, with debased Japanese grotesques, common Chinoiseries, ill-selected spoils of all sorts from the East, representative of everything that is tiresome and obvious in Oriental decoration.
This is a comparatively recent vice; yet hardly less significant than yesterday's hunger and thirst after unrighteousness in another form, that desperate endeavour to achieve a meretricious elegance of effect; and proof of that aspiration, again, is brought home to you afresh, so vividly sometimes as almost to take your breath away for the moment, by the chilly hand-painted saloons still surviving in no small number, both in and around London. Occasionally, it is only fair to confess, these are the despair and the disgust of their unconsenting occupants, such as may be restrained from destroying mural ornament that has cost so much, and is still in such an excellent state of preservation; while to others who incline towards the hand-painting habit themselves, they are still a shameful joy.
Some thirty years ago it was that our shores and our homes were generally invaded by the horde of enterprising aliens, who conceived the idea of decorating the English drawing-room, then stolidly complacent in its white and golden glories, with sham Renaissance devices-of showing the British householder how the lilies grow on the banks of Italy. Like the "winsome, grinsome grinder" celebrated in modern verse, these compatriots of his would seem to have been endowed with- fine powers of persuasion, if you are to judge, that is, by the number of drawing-rooms, suburban and otherwise, within individual ken, where painted baskets of blowsy artificial flowers, meaningless tangles of pink and sky-blue ribbons, obese and anatomically impossible Amorini, disport themselves for ever upon a background much the proverbial colour of London milk. But it is not often that an old house has been thus attacked; the malady is more generally confined to the usual I folding-doored front and back; drawing-room so I dear to the early Victorian architect.
For those who are empowered to choose the very best, without let or hindrance, and who have the wit to choose aright, there are three alternatives, each equally desirable in its way-wood-panelling, old tapestry, and old Spanish or Italian leather, the last being somewhat hard to come by. And of these three wall coverings perhaps the panelling is most to be preferred. Some are so favoured of fortune as to inhabit houses already lined with it from ground-floor to garret, and they are blest indeed; for, painted or polished-but more especially the latter-it forms a faultless background, composed, dignified, and reposeful as heart could wish. If it have not the fantastic suggestiveness of tapestry, it is yet instinct with a poetry of its own, a grave and quiet charm which is the essence of decorative content. The gold and black lacquer screen, with its "pomegranate trees and things," its strange birds, its mysterious populace; the tall bureau of amboyna wood, inlaid with urn and shell; the slender, flower-garlanded satinwood table, the gilt-handled, marble-topped chest of drawers, spreading its sleek sides and swaggering in portly elegance-what better setting might be hoped for these, and such as these, than the dark mirror of polished oak, here giving back a dim reflection so much more beautiful, as all reflections are, than that of mirrors-there appearing as a twilight country of infinite possibilities?
And what, indeed, that is in any way good may not benefit by such a background, independently of period or style? Blue china is never seen to such perfect advantage as on this vague relief, too glossy and rich in tone to be sombre, too atmospheric for hardness; while on low-toned pictures -ever the easiest to live with-you could scarce bestow a better neighbourhood. A great deal of modern panelling is well-proportioned and does honour to modern craftsmanship; but to ask more of it (unless painted) were manifestly unfair; the graces of eld are of necessity denied it. No artificial method of staining can be anything but a blunder and a shame; no new mouldings, reedings, or bevellings can show that almost imperceptible -and yet how subtly pleasing-obtusity of outline brought about by the long lapse of years.
If you are patient and perspicacious-if, at the same time, a chamber panelled with antique oak should chance to be one of your unfulfilled ambitions-it were well to search the country diligently for an old church in process of its restoration-and consequent improvement out of all knowledge- which will of course involve the usual dispewment. And this, though it will be bad, decoratively speak ing, for the sanctuary, will, in the event of your taking an adequate grip of the situation, prove vastly pleasant for you. The panelling of those generous old high pews that once screened the weekly slumbers of the village quality and the diversions of their progeny, is generally extremely good in design and often admirable in colour to boot. It may even yet, moreover, be purchased, if not precisely for an old song, still at a fairly insignificant price. The remoter the parish the cheaper the panelling; but that goes without saying. This. at least, is certain, that such chances-and they are not really rare-seem well worth watching and waiting for, when it is remembered how immeasurably more beautiful is the antique wainscoting than the new, and how infinitely less expensive. Besides, is there not the excitement of the chase?
When a panelled room has been painted the romance of it undergoes a complete change from grave to gay, from dignity to daintiness; and yet the daintiness rightly used need by no means be devoid of dignity. You must cover your chairs and settees with lightly-flowered chintz, or delicately striped tabouret, and hang old coloured prints after Morland and Romney, delicate water-colour drawings of, or after, early English masters, faded miniatures, or the black cameos of silhouettes-so adorably tender when suggesting a girlish profile- upon the walls. Your furniture, slender and frail in appearance, but strong and well-knit in reality, as all good gear must be, whether stout or slim, should be of a refinement making ever so slightly for austerity, and yet full of graceful lines, and curves not so subtle as to exclude all sense of sweetness. If the room be spacious enough you may even harbour an ear-chair for comfort, an you will'; but this, although permissible, is not to be greatly desired, unless the bowed claw-and-ball legs, or their severer substitutes, are of the first elegance. In all cases the colour of the walls is to be delicate and yet not sickly, pale, and still with a something of mellowness. There is a combination of soft salmon pink, "picked out," to use the common phrase, with dim willow-green, that is very comely and reviving; while certain tones of amber and of apricot are not without their charm.
As for tapestry, most romantic of all hangings the poetry, as it were, of mural decoration, at its best you- could hardly over praise it; and here from best to worst there is but a single step, although that is a long one. The modern Morrisian and the Jacobean are both equally to be condemned, as failing most essentially in all the qualities that go to make up a desirable wallcovering. The figures force themselves upon you, they are always with you, in decided patterning, importunate anecdote, insistent, and demonstrative. They press uninvited into the world you live in, for world of their own they have none; the twilight borderland of the older arras, peopled by a phantom folk whom you may beckon forth from the shadows and dismiss again at will, is all unknown of these. Old tapestries are such stuff as dreams are made of, and they are peopled by the "forms that sweep the melancholy ways of sleep." They may be enchanted forests with woven mysteries of grey and green, and the ghostly hunt sweeping through; or dim chambers in lordly palaces, where forms as vaguely fair as the conceptions of Matthys Maris, or Monticelli move to and fro or unearthly meadows trodden by no earthly visitants. Again-if you are not in the mood-they may be nothing more than harmonies in low, rich tones, and mistily beautiful colours- the beau ideal of backgrounds.
An Eared Armchair, by Hepplewhite
This page is sponsored by J.R. Burrows & Company, Historical-Design Merchants. Please visit our home page to see our reproduction Arts & Crafts Movement wallpapers, fabrics, lace curtains and carpets.