New York: 1880, reprinted 1881.
This important pamphlet helped to shape trendsetting taste in America in the 1880's. Although it is often quoted, copies are rare and the text has not been widely accessible to students of 19th century interior design. This web page edition is offered in the hope that Cook's ideas will gain greater circulation, as the ideas are as valid today as they were to the original audience.
John Burrows, November 23, 1995
The critics, as a whole, have been kind to this trifle, and even when they have seemed less amiable than was to be desired, I have tried to profit by their strictures. It seems ungrateful to our friends to say it, yet it is nevertheless true, that we get but little real good from praise, while we can often learn something from the fault-finding of those who are plainly more bent on harming than on helping us by their fault-finding. A common criticism is, that my essay is "vague;" and so, no doubt, it may justly be charged with being, if looked at from one side only. But, my aim in writing was rather to offer suggestions, and to interest people in the subject, than to give advice, or to lay down formal rules. I wished to propose some general principles, and to leave the reader free to make such particular application of them as his own taste or his own needs might lead him to. The prettiest rooms I see are those where the owners, people of education and of good natural taste, have arranged things - often with professional aid, it is true - to suit themselves and their own way of living. And the most unhappy rooms I know are some in which professional decorators and architects have had their own way, and have reduced everything to a perfectly "correct" and "fashionable" vapidity -
I have to thank one of my critics - a friendly one this time - for setting me right as to the etymology of the word "dado" - see below. A writer in the Art-Amateur informs me that it is an architectural term answering to the word "die" with which we are all familiar when it is used in describing the parts of a pedestal. The word "dado" in Spanish and Italian, means a cube, and like the answering de of the French and "die," [plural, "dice"] of the English, is commonly employed for the small ivory cubes used in certain games of chance. It is easy to see how it applies to the main part of a pedestal, which is generally a six-sided block resting on a moulded base and crowned with a cornice. But, as applied to one of the divisions of a flat wall, the use of the word becomes somewhat figurative. The wall in this case represents one side only of the die, the chair-rail answers to the cornice, and the skirting-board to the base.
Fishkill-on-Hudson, August 20, 1881. C. C.
Most of us, whether we have plenty of money, or only a moderate portion to lay out in making our rooms handsome with furniture and ornaments, find ourselves nonplused when, in the process of fitting up and furnishing our houses, we come to the question, "What shall we do with our walls?"
The covering of the floors is easily settled, for, there, the choice is between a hard floor with rugs, or a carpet covering the whole planking, and allowing not a square inch of it to be seen. The ceiling too, we are so in the habit of leaving untouched, in all the empty whiteness of the original plaster, that it hardly enters as an element into the problem. But the walls cannot be so easily disposed of. We must be looking at them, whether we will or no, and their common refusal to play a harmonious part in our scheme for making our rooms agreeable to the eye frets us to find out a remedy.
I think there will be a better way found for treating the walls of rooms than the old way - of which Pompeii shows us so many examples - of coloring the plaster when it is fresh, with harmonious ground tints, relieved with a painted decoration of lines, geometric or flowing patterns, - garlands of flowers, dancing nymphs and fluttering cupids, with, not seldom, complete pictures even - their subjects drawn from the mythology of the people. This decoration was extended in many cases to the ceilings, and even where they were not covered with plaster, but the beams that supported the floor and the room above were left in sight, these were also painted in a style harmonious with the walls. The floors were laid in a mosaic formed by small bits of marble arranged in patterns and pressed into a bed of mortar, and in the houses of the rich these floors were spread with rugs or skins.
But when we come to propose this simple and agreeable decoration for our own houses, we are met with a formidable obstacle. Whom shall we call upon to color our walls for us? Who did the work for the people of Pompeii, and not only for them, but for the inhabitants of every other third-rate town in Southern Italy? Who did this work, we may as well ask, for the Italian people in general, since this decoration was not confined to Southern Italy, but was the rule all over the peninsula. There can be no other answer than that it was done by the same class of workmen who do our better house-painting. Artists, in our sense of the term, were certainly not employed in producing this rude but effective decoration. Effective it certainly is, if we look at it as it still remains on many walls in the ruined city, or even in the specimens preserved in the Museum at Naples. But, if we see it divested of color, in the photographic reproductions, where we are obliged to consider the drawing by itself, we see only too painfully that very clumsy hands have been at work. This, however, is not of great importance, since we do not observe the drawing of these figures when we are enjoying the color. It is noticed in a higher domain of art, that, as a rule, the colorist and the draughtsman are seldom found in the same person, and in this humble field of Pompeian wall decoration, the colorist controls the work, and we neither miss, nor regret, the draughtsman.
Yet the color, too, is conventional, and one house so like another that, at last, after running the city over day after day, we detect the Pompeian scheme, of which red, yellow, blue, green, and brown, with red and white, are the constant elements, but combined in infinite variety. The patterns, too, and even the subject of the pictures, are repeated again and again.
At last we come to believe that the Pompeian house-painters had each his pattern book, whether of colors or designs, as out own workmen have, from which the client selected what pleased his eye, or was suitable to his needs or his means. The poorer man must be content with a plain wash for wall or ceiling, with a few lines dividing the field into agreeable spaces, and perhaps a bird or a small cupid, in the centre of each panel; but the man who could pay, might have a frieze with acanthus and honeysuckle, a dado with water-weeds and aquatic birds, and in the middle space some simulated architecture with slender colonnettes, or a stately painting of the Deserted Ariadne, or Paris and the Goddesses on Ida. Whatever was wanted could be supplied, but it was tradesmen, not artists who supplied it.
Here, then, is the practical difficulty that meets us when we propose to adopt the simple, yet rich and effective, Pompeian decoration in our own houses. Our workmen, no matter of what nationality, have not the natural taste, nor the training, that fits them to do the work of the Pompeian house-painter. There may be practical reasons for this growing out of the difference between our way of building and theirs; a difference which made it necessary for them to paint their walls, while we need not do so unless we will. Their houses were very rudely built; the walls laid up in a coarse sort of rubble brought to a roughly even surface on the outside, while the inside was faced with a smooth plaster, laid directly on the wall, and not, as with us, on an inner lining of laths. The consequence was that the inner surface partook of the irregularity of the main wall, and was liable to be cracked or disturbed when that was jarred. Coloring, and the rest of the decorative system, made these imperfections less visible, and it would soon become a universal practice to paint the walls as soon as the plaster was laid on. It would thus follow, even supposing natural genius or aptitude for the work to have been as wanting to these people as it is to us, that such constant practice would have created it or developed it. But I fancy there can be no doubt there was more native aptitude for art among those descendants of the Greek Colonists than there is among us. People who have learned the practice of Art, who have had art forced into them in training-schools and schools-of-design, do not so overflow with art productiveness as did these Southern Italians, who lavished design upon everything that they made, from pots and pans, weighing-scales and lamps, to their houses and temples. Their art had all the abundance and familiarity of nature herself. In Pompeii there is an absolute harmony between the work of nature and the work of man. In Venus' temple we see the Summer matching the intricate patterns of the ruined mosaic pavement with her rosettes and stars of blood-red poppy and blue corn-flower, and tracing the scrolls of her crumbling capitals with sprays of ivy, like musing lines drawn by a regretful finger.
But, with us, all is, thus far, perfunctory and mechanical, and if we trust to our workmen for artistic or agreeable results, we must necessarily be disappointed. We have as good mechanics as are to be found in the world, - carpenters, painters, masons, not to be beat. They are ambitious too, and would stare to be told that grace and elegance are not in their domain. Yet, leave to the best house-painter in New York City the duty of painting the walls, ceiling, woodwork of a room in one of our houses in rich harmonious tones that shall satisfy the artistic or the cultivated eye, and, ten to one, if his life depended on it, he could not do it.