Edith Wharton.

The decoration of houses online

. (page 13 of 16)
Online LibraryEdith WhartonThe decoration of houses → online text (page 13 of 16)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

of the small adjoining cabinets, was used as the family dining-room,
the banqueting-hall being still reserved for state entertainments.

The plan of dining at haphazard in any of the family living-rooms
persisted on the Continent until the beginning of the eighteenth
century: even then it was comparatively rare, in France, to see a
room set apart for the purpose of dining. In small hotels and
apartments, people continued to dine in'the antechamber; where
there were two antechambers, the inner was used for that purpose ;
and it was only in grand houses, or in the luxurious establish-
ments of \.\\Qfemmes galantes, that dining-rooms were to be found.
Even in such cases the room described as a salle a manger was
often only a central antechamber or saloon into which the living-
rooms opened; indeed, Madame du Barry's sumptuous dining-


156 The Decoration of Houses

room at Luciennes was a vestibule giving directly upon the
peristyle of the villa.

In England the act of dining seems to have been taken more
seriously, while the rambling outgrowths of the Elizabethan
residence included a greater variety of rooms than could be con-
tained in any but the largest houses built on more symmetrical
lines. Accordingly, in old English house-plans we find rooms
designated as "dining-parlors"; many houses, in fact, contained
two or three, each with a different exposure, so that they might
be used at different seasons. These rooms can hardly be said to
represent our modern dining-room, since they were not planned
in connection with kitchen and offices, and were probably
used as living-rooms when not needed for dining. Still, it was
from the Elizabethan dining-parlor that the modern dining-room
really developed; and so recently has it been specialized into a
room used only for eating, that a generation ago old-fashioned
people in England and America habitually used their dining-rooms
to sit in. On the Continent the incongruous uses of the rooms
in which people dined made it necessary that the furniture should
be easily removed. In the middle ages, people dined at long
tables composed of boards resting on trestles, while the seats
were narrow wooden benches or stools, so constructed that they
could easily be carried away when the meal was over. With the
sixteenth century, the table-&-trtteaux gave way to various fold-
ing tables with legs, and the wooden stools were later replaced
by folding seats without arms, called perroquets. In the middle
ages, when banquets were given in the grand' salle, the plate was
displayed on movable shelves covered with a velvet slip, or on
elaborately carved dressers; but on ordinary occasions little silver
was set out in French dining-rooms, and the great English side-




The Dining-Room 157

board, with its array of urns, trays and wine-coolers, was un-
known in France. In the common antechamber dining-room,
whatever was needed for the table was kept in a press or cup-
board with solid wooden doors; changes of service being carried
on by means of serving-tables, or servantes narrow marble-
topped consoles ranged against the walls of the room.

For examples of dining-rooms, as we understand the term, one
must look to the grand French houses of the eighteenth century
(see Plate L) and to the same class of dwellings in England. In
France such dining-rooms were usually intended for gala enter-
tainments, the family being still served in antechamber or cabinet;
but English houses of the same period generally contain a family
dining-room and another intended for state.

The dining-room of Madame du Barry at Luciennes, already
referred to, was a magnificent example of the great dining-saloon.
The ceiling was a painted Olympus; the white marble walls were
subdivided by Corinthian pilasters with plinths and capitals of
gilt bronze, surmounted by a frieze of bas-reliefs framed in gold ;
four marble niches contained statues by Pajou, Lecomte, and
Moineau; and the general brilliancy of effect was increased by
crystal chandeliers, hung in the intercolumniations against a back-
ground of looking-glass.

Such a room, the banqueting-hall of the official mistress, repre-
sents the courti&ane' s ideal of magnificence : decorations as splen-
did, but more sober and less theatrical, marked the dining-rooms
of the aristocracy, as at Choisy, Gaillon and Rambouillet.

The state dining-rooms of the eighteenth century were often
treated with an order, niches with statues being placed between
the pilasters. Sometimes one of these niches contained a foun-
tain serving as a wine-cooler a survival of the stone or metal

158 The Decoration of Houses

wall-fountains in which dishes were washed in the mediaeval
dining-room. Many of these earlier fountains had been merely
fixed to the wall; but those of the eighteenth century, though
varying greatly in design, were almost always an organic part of
the wall-decoration (see Plate LI). Sometimes, in apartments
of importance, they formed the pedestal of a life-size group or
statue, as in the dining-room of Madame de Pompadour; while
in smaller rooms they consisted of a semicircular basin of marble
projecting from the wall and surmounted by groups of cupids,
dolphins or classic attributes. The banqueting-gallery of Tria-
non-sous-Bois contains in one of its longitudinal walls two wide
niches with long marble basins ; and Mariette's edition of d' Avi-
ler's Cours d' Architecture gives the elevation of a recessed buffet
flanked by small niches containing fountains. The following de-
scription, accompanying d'Aviler's plate, is quoted here as an
instance of the manner in which elaborate compositions were
worked out by the old decorators: "The second antechamber,
being sometimes used as a dining-room, is a suitable place for the
buffet represented. This buffet, which may be incrusted with
marble or stone, or panelled with wood-work, consists in a re-
cess occupying one of the side walls of the room. The recess
contains a shelf of marble or stone, supported on brackets and
surmounting a small stone basin which serves as a wine-cooler.
Above the shelf is an attic flanked by volutes, and over this attic
may be placed a picture, generally a flower or fruit-piece, or the
representation of a concert, or some such agreeable scene; while
in the accompanying plate the attic is crowned by a bust of
Comus, wreathed with vines by two little satyrs the group
detaching itself against a trellised background enlivened with
birds. The composition is completed by two lateral niches





The Dining-Room 159

for fountains, adorned with masks, tritons and dolphins of
gilded lead."

These built-in sideboards and fountains were practically the
only feature distinguishing the old dining-rooms from other gala
apartments. At a period when all rooms were painted, panelled,
or hung with tapestry, no special style of decoration was thought
needful for the dining-room ; though tapestry was seldom used,
for the practical reason that stuff hangings are always objection-
able in a room intended for eating.

Towards the end of the seventeenth century, when comfortable
seats began to be made, an admirably designed dining-room chair
replaced the earlier benches and perroquets. The eighteenth cen-
tury dining-chair is now often confounded with the light chaise
volante used in drawing-rooms, and cabinet-makers frequently
sell the latter as copies of old dining-chairs. These were in fact
much heavier and more comfortable, and whether cane-seated or
upholstered, were invariably made with wide deep seats, so that
the long banquets of the day might be endured without constraint
or fatigue; while the backs were low and narrow, in order not to
interfere with the service of the table. (See Plates LII and LIII.
Plates XLVI and L also contain good examples of dining-chairs.)
In England the state dining-room was decorated much as it was
in France: the family dining-room was simply a plain parlor, with
wide mahogany sideboards or tall glazed cupboards for the display
of plate and china. The solid English dining-chairs of mahogany,
if less graceful than those used on the Continent, are equally well
adapted to their purpose.

The foregoing indications may serve to suggest the lines upon
which dining-room decoration might be carried out in the present
day. The avoidance of all stuff hangings and heavy curtains is

160 The Decoration of Houses

of great importance: it will be observed that even window-
curtains were seldom used in old dining-rooms, such care being
given to the decorative detail of window and embrasure that they
needed no additional ornament in the way of drapery. A bare
floor of stone or marble is best suited to the dining-room ; but
where the floor is covered, it should be with a rug, not with a
nailed-down carpet.

, The dining-room should be lit by wax candles in side appliques
or in a chandelier; and since anything tending to produce heat
and to exhaust air is especially objectionable in a room used
for eating, the walls should be sufficiently light in color to make
little artificial light necessary. In the dining-rooms of the last cen-
tury, in England as well as on the Continent, the color-scheme was
usually regulated by this principle: the dark dining-room panelled
with mahogany or hung with sombre leather is an invention of
our own times. It has already been said that the old family dining-
room was merely a panelled parlor. Sometimes the panels were
of light unvarnished oak, but oftener they were painted in white
or in some pale tint easily lit by wax candles. The walls were
often hung with fruit or flower-pieces, or with pictures of fish and
game: a somewhat obvious form of adornment which it has long
been the fashion to ridicule, but which was not without decora-
tive value and appropriateness. Pictures representing life and ac-
tion often grow tiresome when looked at over and over again,
day after day: a fact which the old decorators probably had in
mind when they hung what the French call natures mortes in the

Concerning the state dining-room that forms a part of many
modern houses little remains to be said beyond the descriptions
already given of the various gala apartments. It is obvious that

The Dining-Room 161

the banqueting-hall should be less brilliant than a ball-room and
less fanciful in decoration than a music-room : a severer and more
restful treatment naturally suggests itself, but beyond this no spe-
cial indications are required.

The old dining-rooms were usually heated by porcelain stoves.
Such a stove, of fine architectural design, set in a niche corre-
sponding with that which contains the fountain, is of great deco-
rative value in the composition of the room; and as it has the
advantage of giving out less concentrated heat than an open fire,
it is specially well suited to a small or narrow dining-room, where
some of the guests must necessarily sit close to the hearth.

Most houses which have banquet-halls contain also a smaller
apartment called a breakfast-room; but as this generally corre-
sponds in size and usage with the ordinary family dining-room,
the same style of decoration is applicable to both. However
ornate the banquet-hall may be, the breakfast-room must of
course be simple and free from gilding: the more elaborate the
decorations of the larger room, the more restful such a contrast
will be found.

Of the dinner-table, as we now know it, little need be said.
The ingenious but ugly extension-table with a central support,
now used all over the world, is an English invention. There
seems no reason why the general design should not be improved
without interfering with the mechanism of this table; but of
course it can never be so satisfactory to the eye as one of the
old round or square tables, with four or six tapering legs, such
as were used in eighteenth-century dining-rooms before the
introduction of the "extension."


THE history of the bedroom has been incidentally touched
upon in tracing the development of the drawing-room from
the mediaeval hall. It was shown that early in the middle ages
the sleeping-chamber, which had been one of the first outgrowths
of the hall, was divided into the chambre de parade, or incipient
drawing-room, and the cbambre au giste, or actual sleeping-room.

The increasing development of social life in the sixteenth cen-
tury brought about a further change ; the state bedroom being set
aside for entertainments of ceremony, while the sleeping-chamber
was used as the family living-room and as the scene of suppers,
card-parties, and informal receptions or sometimes actually as
the kitchen. Indeed, so varied were the uses to which the
cbambre au giste was put, that in France especially it can hardly
be said to have offered a refuge from the promiscuity of the hall.

As a rule, the bedrooms of the Renaissance and of the seven-
teenth century were very richly furnished. The fashion of raising
the bed on a dais separated from the rest of the room by columns
and a balustrade was introduced in France in the time of Louis
XIV. This innovation gave rise to the habit of dividing the deco-
ration of the room into two parts; the walls being usually panelled

or painted, while the "alcove," as it was called, was hung in

















Bedrooms 163

tapestry, velvet, or some rich stuff in keeping with the heavy cur-
tains that completely enveloped the bedstead. This use of stuff
hangings about the bed, so contrary to our ideas of bedroom
hygiene, was due to the difficulty of heating the large high-
studded rooms of the period, and also, it must be owned, to the
prevalent dread of fresh air as of something essentially unwhole-
some and pernicious.

In the early middle ages people usually slept on the floor;
though it would seem that occasionally, to avoid cold or damp-
ness, the mattress was laid on cords stretched upon a low wooden
framework. In the fourteenth century the use of such frameworks
became more general, and the bed was often enclosed in curtains
hung from a tester resting on four posts. Bed-hangings and
coverlet were often magnificently embroidered ; but in order that
it might not be necessary to transport from place to place the un-
wieldy bedstead and tester, these were made in the rudest
manner, without attempt at carving or adornment. In course
of time this primitive framework developed into the sumptuous
four-post bedstead of the Renaissance, with elaborately carved
cornice and colonncs torses enriched with gilding. Thence-
forward more wealth and skill were expended upon the bed-
stead than upon any other article of furniture. Gilding, carving,
and inlaying of silver, ivory or mother-of-pearl, combined to adorn
the framework, and embroidery made the coverlet and hangings
resplendent as church vestments. This magnificence is explained
by the fact that it was customary for the lady of the house to lie
in bed while receiving company. In many old prints representing
suppers, card-parties, or afternoon visits, the hostess is thus seen,
with elaborately dressed head and stiff brocade gown, while
her friends are grouped about the bedside in equally rich attire.

164 The Decoration of Houses

This curious custom persisted until late in the eighteenth century ;
and under such conditions it was natural that the old cabinet-
makers should vie with each other in producing a variety of ornate
and fanciful bedsteads. It would be useless to enumerate here the
modifications in design marking the different periods of decora-
tion : those who are interested in the subject will find it treated
in detail in the various French works on furniture.

It was natural that while the bedroom was used as a salon it
should be decorated with more elaboration than would otherwise
have been fitting; but two causes combined to simplify its treat-
ment in the eighteenth century. One of these was the new fashion
of petits appartements. With artists so keenly alive to proportion
as the old French designers, it was inevitable that such a change
in dimensions should bring about a corresponding change in deco-
ration. The bedrooms of the eighteenth century, though some-
times elaborate in detail, had none of the pompous richness of the
great Renaissance or Louis XIV room (see Plate LIV). The pre-
tentious dais with its screen of columns was replaced by a niche
Containing the bed; plain wood-panelling succeeded to tapestry
and embroidered hangings; and the heavy carved ceiling with its
mythological centre-picture made way for light traceries on plaster.

The other change in the decoration of French bedrooms was due
to the substitution of linen or cotton bed and window-hangings
for the sumptuous velvets and brocades of the seventeenth cen-
tury. This change has usually been ascribed to the importation
of linens and cottons from the East; and no doubt the novelty
of these gay indiennes stimulated the taste for simple hangings.
The old inventories, however, show that, in addition to the im-
ported India hangings, plain white linen curtains with a colored
border were much used; and it is probably the change in the size

Bedrooms 165

of rooms that first led to the adoption of thin washable hangings.
The curtains and bed-draperies of damask or brocatelle, so well
suited to the high-studded rooms of the seventeenth century,
would have been out of place in the small apartments of the
Regency. In studying the history of decoration, it will generally
be found that the supposed vagaries of house-furnishing were ac-
tually based on some practical requirement; and in this instance
the old decorators were doubtless guided rather by common sense
than by caprice. The adoption of these washable materials cer-
tainly introduced a style of bedroom-furnishing answering to all
the requirements of recent hygiene; for not only were windows
and bedsteads hung with unlined cotton or linen, but chairs and
sofas were covered with removable housses, or slip-covers; while
the painted wall-panelling and bare brick or parquet floors came
far nearer to the modern sanitary ideal than do the papered walls
and nailed-down carpets still seen in many bedrooms. This sim-
ple form of decoration had the additional charm of variety ; for it
was not unusual to have several complete sets of curtains and
slip-covers, embroidered to match, and changed with the seasons.
The hangings and covers of the queen's bedroom at Versailles
were changed four times a year.

Although bedrooms are still "done" in chintz, and though of
late especially there has been a reaction from the satin-damask
bedroom with its dust-collecting upholstery and knick-knacks,
the modern habit of lining chintz curtains and of tufting chairs
has done away with the chief advantages of the simpler style of
treatment. There is something illogical in using washable stuffs
in such a way that they cannot be washed, especially in view of
the fact that the heavily lined curtains, which might be useful
to exclude light and cold, are in nine cases out of ten so hung by

1 66 The Decoration of Houses

the upholsterer that they cannot possibly be drawn at night. Be-
sides, the patterns of modern chintzes have so little in common
with the toiles imprimtes of the seventeenth^ and eighteenth cen-
turies that they scarcely serve the same decorative purpose ; and
it is therefore needful to give some account of the old French bed-
room hangings, as well as of the manner in which they were

The liking for cotonnades showed itself in France early in the
seventeenth century. Before this, cotton materials had been im-
ported from the East ; but in the seventeenth century a manufactory
was established in France, and until about 1800 cotton and linen
curtains and furniture-coverings remained in fashion. This taste
was encouraged by the importation of the toiles des Indes, printed
cottons of gay color and fanciful design, much sought after in
France, especially after the government, in order to protect native
industry, had restricted the privilege of importing them to the
Compagnie des Indes. It was not until Oberkampf established his t
manufactory at Jouy in 1760 that the French toiles began to re-*
place those of foreign manufacture. Hitherto the cottons made in
France had been stamped merely in outline, the colors being fille'd
in by hand; but Oberkampf invented a method of printing in
colors, thereby making France the leading market for such stuffs.

The earliest printed cottons having been imported from India
and China, it was natural that the style of the Oriental designers
should influence their European imitators. Europe had, in fact,
been prompt to recognize the singular beauty of Chinese art, and
in France the passion for chinoi&eries, first aroused by Mazarin's
collection of Oriental objects of art, continued unabated until the
general decline of taste at the end of the eighteenth century. No-
where, perhaps, was the influence of Chinese art more beneficial

Bedrooms 1 67

to European designers than in the composition of stuff-patterns.
The fantastic gaiety and variety of Chinese designs, in which the
human figure so largely predominates, gave fresh animation to
European compositions, while the absence of perspective and
modelling preserved that conventionalism so essential in pattern-
designing. The voluminous acanthus-leaves, the fleur-de-lys,
arabesques and massive scroll-work so suitable to the Genoese
velvets and Lyons silks of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries,
would have been far too magnificent for the cotton stuffs that
were beginning to replace those splendid tissues. On a thin ma-
terial a heavy architectural pattern was obviously inappropriate;
besides, it would have been out of scale with the smaller rooms
and lighter style of decoration then coming into fashion.

The French designer, while influenced by Chinese compositions,
was too artistic to be satisfied with literal reproductions of his Ori-
ental models. Absorbing the spirit of the Chinese designs, he either
blent mandarins and pagodas with Italian grottoes, French land-
scapes, and classical masks and trophies, in one of those delight-
ful inventions which are the fairy-tales of decorative art, or applied
the principles of Oriental design to purely European subjects.
In comparing the printed cottons of the seventeenth and eigh-
teenth centuries with modern chintzes, it will be seen that the lat-
ter are either covered with monotonous repetitions of a geometri-
cal figure, or with realistic reproductions of some natural object.
Many wall-papers and chintzes of the present day represent
loose branches of flowers scattered on a plain surface, with no
more relation to each other or to their background than so many
real flowers fixed at random against the wall. This literal render-
ing of natural objects with deceptive accuracy, always condemned
by the best artists, is especially inappropriate when brought in

1 68 The Decoration of Houses

close contact with the highly conventionalized forms of architec-
tural composition. In this respect, the endlessly repeated geo-
metrical figure is obviously less objectionable; yet the geometri-
cal design, as produced to-day, has one defect in common with
the other that is, lack of imagination. Modern draughtsmen,
in eliminating from their work that fanciful element (always
strictly subordinated to some general scheme of composition)
which marked the designs of the last two centuries, have de-
prived themselves of the individuality and freshness that might
have saved their patterns from monotony.

This rejection of the fanciful in composition is probably due
to the excessive use of pattern in modern decoration. Where
much pattern is used, it must be as monotonous as possible,
or it will become unbearable. The old decorators used few
lines, and permitted themselves more freedom in design ; or
rather they remembered, what is now too often forgotten, that
in the decoration of a room furniture and objects of art help to
make design, and in consequence they were chiefly concerned
with providing plain spaces of background to throw into relief
the contents of the room. Of late there has been so marked a re-
turn to plain panelled or painted walls that the pattern-designer
will soon be encouraged to give freer rein to his fancy. In a
room where walls and floor are of uniform tint, there is no

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 13 15 16

Online LibraryEdith WhartonThe decoration of houses → online text (page 13 of 16)