Edith Wharton.

The decoration of houses online

. (page 4 of 16)
Online LibraryEdith WhartonThe decoration of houses → online text (page 4 of 16)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook


with the Doric order, that he has all the latitude between two and
a half and seventeen for the projecture of its capital ; that he can

1 tA Complete Body of<sJrchitefture } Book II, chap. iii.



Walls



33



proportion this projecture to the general idea of his building any-
where between these extremes and show his authority. This is
an happiness to the person of real genius; ... but as all archi-
tects are not, nor can be expected to be, of this stamp, it is needful
some standard should be established, founded upon what a good
taste shall most admire in the antique, and fixed as a model from
which to work, or as a test to which we may have recourse in
disputes and controversies."

If to these words be added his happy definition of the sense of
proportion as "fancy under the restraint and conduct of judg-
ment," and his closing caution that "it is mean in the undertaker
of a great work to copy strictly, and it is dangerous to give a
loose to fancy without a perfect knowledge bow far a variation
may be justified," the unprofessional reader may form some idea
of the importance of proportion and of the necessity for observing
its rules.

If proportion is the good breeding of architecture, symmetry,
or the answering of one part to another, may be defined as the
sanity of decoration. The desire for symmetry, for balance, for
rhythm in form as well as in sound, is one of the most inveterate
of human instincts. Yet for years Anglo-Saxons have been taught
that to pay any regard to symmetry in architecture or decoration
is to truckle to one of the meanest forms of artistic hypocrisy.
The master who has taught this strange creed, in words magical
enough to win acceptance for any doctrine, has also revealed to
his generation so many of the forgotten beauties of early art that
it is hard to dispute his principles of aesthetics. As a guide
through the byways of art, Mr. Ruskin is entitled to the reverence
and gratitude of all; but as a logical exponent of the causes and
effects of the beauty he discovers, his authority is certainly open



34 The Decoration of Houses

to question. For years he has spent the full force of his un-
matched prose in denouncing the enormity of putting a door or
a window in a certain place in order that it may correspond to an-
other ; nor has he scrupled to declare to the victims of this prac-
tice that it leads to abysses of moral as well as of artistic
degradation.

Time has taken the terror from these threats and architects are
beginning to see that a regard for external symmetry, far from
interfering with the requirements of house-planning, tends to
produce a better, because a more carefully studied, plan, as well
as a more convenient distribution of wall-space; but in the lay
mind there still lingers not only a vague association between out-
ward symmetry and interior discomfort, between a well-balanced
facade and badly distributed rooms, but a still vaguer notion that
regard for symmetry indicates poverty of invention, lack of in-
genuity and weak subservience to a meaningless form.

What the instinct for symmetry means, philosophers may be
left to explain; but that it does exist, that it means something,
and that it is most strongly developed in those races which have
reached the highest artistic civilization, must be acknowledged by
all students of sociology. It is, therefore, not superfluous to point
out that, in interior decoration as well as in architecture, a regard
for symmetry, besides satisfying a legitimate artistic requirement,
tends to make the average room not only easier to furnish, but
more comfortable to live in.

As the effect produced by a room depends chiefly upon the
distribution of its openings, it will be well to begin by consider-
ing the treatment of the walls. It has already been said that the
decorator can often improve a room, not only from the artistic
point of view, but as regards the comfort of its inmates, by




ID
H
Z

UJ

U



>
X



z

o



cc
Z





<



Walls 35

making some slight change in the position of its openings. Take,
for instance, a library in which it is necessary to put the two
principal bookcases one on each side of a door or fireplace. If this
opening is in the centre of one side of the room, the wall-decorations
may be made to balance, and the bookcases may be of the same
width, an arrangement which will give to the room an air of
spaciousness and repose. Should the wall-spaces on either side
of the opening be of unequal extent, both decorations and book-
cases must be modified in size and design; and not only does
the problem become more difficult, but the result, because neces-
sarily less simple, is certain to be less satisfactory. Sometimes,
on the other hand, convenience is sacrificed to symmetry; and in
such cases it is the decorator's business to remedy this defect,
while preserving to the eye the aspect of symmetry. A long
narrow room may be taken as an example. If the fireplace is in
the centre of one of the long sides of the room, with a door di-
rectly opposite, the hearth will be without privacy and the room
virtually divided into two parts, since, in a narrow room, no one
cares to sit in a line with the doorway. This division of the room
makes it more difficult to furnish and less comfortable to live in,
besides wasting all the floor-space between the chimney and the
door. One way of overcoming the difficulty is to move the door
some distance down the long side of the room, so that the space
about the fireplace is no longer a thoroughfare, and the privacy of
the greater part of the room is preserved, even if the door be left
open. The removal of the door from the centre of one side of the
room having disturbed the equilibrium of the openings, this equi-
librium may be restored by placing in a line with the door, at the
other end of the same side-wall, a piece of furniture correspond-
ing as nearly as possible in height and width to the door. This



36 The Decoration of Houses

will satisfy the eye, which in matters of symmetry demands, not
absolute similarity of detail, but merely correspondence of outline
and dimensions.

It is idle to multiply examples of the various ways in which
such readjustments of the openings may increase the comfort and
beauty of a room. Every problem in house decoration demands a
slightly different application of the same general principles, and
the ' foregoing instances are intended only to show how much
depends upon the placing of openings and how reasonable is the
decorator's claim to have a share in planning the background
upon which his effects are to be produced.

It may surprise those whose attention has not been turned to
such matters to be told that in all but the most cheaply con-
structed houses the interior walls are invariably treated as an
order. In all houses, even of the poorest kind, the walls of the
rooms are finished by a plain projecting board adjoining the
floor, surmounted by one or more mouldings. This base, as it is
called, is nothing more nor less than the part of an order between
shaft and floor, or shaft and pedestal, as the case may be. If it
be next remarked that the upper part of the wall, adjoining the
ceiling, is invariably finished by a moulded projection correspond-
ing with the crowning member of an order, it will be clear
that the shaft, with its capital, has simply been omitted, or that
the uniform wall-space between the base and cornice has been
regarded as replacing it. In rooms of a certain height and im-
portance the column or pilaster is frequently restored to its proper
place between base and cornice; but where such treatment is
too monumental for the dimensions of the room, the main lines of
the wall-space should none the less be regarded as distinctly
architectural, and the decoration applied should be subordinate to



Walls



37



the implied existence of an order. (For the application of an
order to walls, see Plates XL1I and L.)

Where the shafts are omitted, the eye undoubtedly feels a lack
of continuity in the treatment: the cornice seems to hang in air
and the effect produced is unsatisfactory. This is obviated by
the use of panelling, the vertical lines carried up at intervals from
base to cornice satisfying the need for some visible connection be-
tween the upper and lower members of the order. Moreover, if
the lines of the openings are carried up to the cornice (as they are
in all well-designed schemes of decoration), the openings may be
considered as intercolumniations and the intermediate wall-
spaces as the shafts or piers supporting the cornice.

In well-finished rooms the order is usually imagined as resting,
not on the floor, but on pedestals, or rather on a continuous
pedestal. This continuous pedestal, or "dado" as it is usually
called, is represented by a plinth surmounted by mouldings, by
an intermediate member often decorated with tablets or sunk
panels with moulded margins, and by a cornice. The use of
the dado raises the chief wall-decoration of the room to a level
with the eye and prevents its being interrupted or concealed by
the furniture which may be placed against the walls. This fact
makes it clear that in all well-designed rooms there should be
a dado about two and a half feet high. If lower than this, it
does not serve its purpose of raising the wall-decoration to a
line above the furniture ; while the high dado often seen in
modern American rooms throws all the rest of the panelling
out of scale and loses its own significance as the pedestal sup-
porting an order.

In rooms of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, when little
furniture was used, the dado was often richly ornamented, being



38 The Decoration of Houses

sometimes painted with delicate arabesques corresponding with
those on the doors and inside shutters. As rooms grew smaller
and the quantity of furniture increased so much that the dado
was almost concealed, the treatment of the latter was wisely
simplified, being reduced, as a rule, to sunk panels and a few
strongly marked mouldings. The decorator cannot do better
than plan the ornamentation of his dado according to the amount
of furniture to be placed against the walls. In corridor or ante-
chamber, or in a ball-room, the dado may receive a more elaborate
treatment than is necessary in a library or drawing-room, where
probably much less of it will be seen. It was not unusual, in
the decoration of lobbies and corridors in old French and Italian
houses, to omit the dado entirely if an order was used, thus bring-
ing the wall-decoration down to the base-board; but this was
done only in rooms or passage-ways not meant to contain any
furniture.

The three noblest forms of wall-decoration are fresco-paint-
ing, panelling, and tapestry hangings. In the best period of
decoration all three were regarded as subordinate to the archi-
tectural lines of the room. The Italian fresco-painters, from
Giotto to Tiepolo, never lost sight of the interrelation between
painting and architecture. It matters not if the connection be-
tween base and cornice be maintained by actual pilasters or
mouldings, or by their painted or woven imitations. The line,
and not the substance, is what the eye demands. It is a curi-
ous perversion of artistic laws that has led certain critics to
denounce painted architecture or woven mouldings. As in
imaginative literature the author may present to his reader as
possible anything that he has the talent to make the reader
accept, so in decorative art the artist is justified in presenting to




z

z

UL!



LU QX _

z 5

. - f. '*J



= C



UJ X

H



x x



LD

LT



o
o

Cei



Walls



39



the eye whatever his skill can devise to satisfy its requirements;
nor is there any insincerity in this proceeding. Decorative art is
not an exact science. The decorator is not a chemist or a physiol-
ogist ; it is part of his mission, not to explain illusions, but to
produce them. Subject only to laws established by the limitations
of the eye, he is master of the domain of fancy, of that pays bleu
of the impossible that it is his privilege to throw open to the
charmed imagination.

Of the means of wall-decoration already named, fresco-painting
and stucco-panelling were generally preferred by Italian deco-
rators, and wood-panelling and tapestries by those of northern
Europe. The use of arras naturally commended itself to the
northern noble, shivering in his draughty 'castles and obliged
to carry from one to another the furniture and hangings that
the unsettled state of the country made it impossible to leave
behind him. Italy, however, long supplied the finest designs
to the tapestry-looms of northern Europe, as the Italian painters
provided ready-made backgrounds of peaked hills, winding
torrents and pinnacled cities to the German engravers and the
Flemish painters of their day.

Tapestry, in the best periods of house-decoration, was always
subordinated to the architectural lines of the room (see Plate
XI). Where it was not specially woven for the panels it was
intended to fill, the subdivisions of the wall-spaces were adapted
to its dimensions. It was carefully fitted into the panelling of the
room, and never made to turn an angle, as wall-paper does in
modern rooms, nor combined with other odds and ends of deco-
ration. If a room was tapestried, it was tapestried, not decorated
in some other way, with bits of tapestry hung here and there at
random over the fundamental lines of the decoration. Nothing



40 The Decoration of Houses

can be more beautiful than tapestry properly used; but hung up
without regard to the composition of the room, here turning an
angle, there covering a part of the dado or overlapping a pilaster,
it not only loses its own value, but destroys the whole scheme of
decoration with which it is thus unmeaningly combined.

Italian panelling was of stone, marble or stucco, while in north-
ern Europe it was so generally of wood that (in England espe-
cially) the term panelling has become almost synonymous with
wood-panelling, and in some minds there is a curious impression
that any panelling not of wood is a sham. As a matter of fact,
wood-panelling was used in northern Europe simply because it
kept the cold out more successfully than a revetement of stone or
plaster; while south of the Alps its use was avoided for the
equally good reason that in hot climates it attracts vermin.

If priority of use be held as establishing a standard in decora-
tion, wood-panelling should be regarded as a sham and plaster-
panelling as its lawful prototype; for the use of stucco in the
panelling of walls and ceilings is highly characteristic of Roman
interior decoration, and wood-panelling as at present used is cer-
tainly of later origin. But nothing can be more idle than such
comparisons, nor more misleading than the idea that stucco is a
sham because it seeks to imitate wood. It does not seek to imi-
tate wood. It is a recognized substance, of incalculable value for
decorative effect, and no more owes its place in decoration to
a fancied resemblance to some other material than the nave of a
cathedral owes its place in architecture to the fancied resemblance
to a ship.

In the hands of a great race of artistic virtuosi like the Italians,
stucco has produced effects of beauty which in any other sub-
stance would have lost something of their freshness, their plastic



Walls 41

spontaneity. From the delicate traceries of the Roman baths and
the loveliness of Agostino da Duccio's chapel-front at Perugia, to
the improvised bravura treatment of the Farnese theatre at Parma,
it has served, through every phase of Italian art, to embody the
most refined and studied, as well as the most audacious and
ephemeral, of decorative conceptions.

It must not be supposed that because painting, panelling and
tapestry are the noblest forms of wall-decoration, they are neces-
sarily the most unattainable. Good tapestry is, of course, very
expensive, and even that which is only mediocre is beyond the
reach of the average purchaser; while stuff hangings and wall-
papers, its modern successors, have less to recommend them than
other forms of wall-decoration. With painting and panelling
the case is different. When painted walls were in fashion, there
existed, below the great creative artists, schools of decorative de-
signers skilled in the art of fresco-decoration, from the simplest
kind to the most ornate. The demand for such decoration would
now call forth the same order of talent, and many artists who are
wasting their energies on the production of indifferent landscapes
and unsuccessful portraits might, in the quite different field of
decorative painting, find the true expression of their talent.

To many minds the mention of a frescoed room suggests the
image of a grandiose saloon, with gods and goddesses of heroic
size crowding the domed ceiling and lofty walls; but the heroic
style of fresco-painting is only one of its many phases. To see
how well this form of decoration may be adapted to small modern
rooms and to our present way of living, it is only necessary to
study the walls of the little Pompeian houses, with their delicate
arabesques and slender, fanciful figures, or to note the manner in
which the Italian painters treated the small rooms of the casino or



42 The Decoration of Houses

garden-pavilion which formed part of every Italian country-seat.
Examples of this light style of decoration may be found in the
Casino del grotto in the grounds of the Palazzo del T at Mantua,
in some of the smaller rooms of the hunting-lodge of Stupinigi
near Turin, and in the casino of the Villa Valmarana near Vicenza,
where the frescoes are by Tiepolo; while in France a pleasing
instance of the same style of treatment is seen in the small octag-
onal pavilion called the Belvedere, frescoed by Le Riche, in the
gardens of the Petit Trianon at Versailles.

As regards panelling, it has already been said that if the effect
produced be satisfactory to the eye, the substance used is a matter
of indifference. Stone-panelling has the merit of solidity, and the
outlines of massive stone mouldings are strong and dignified; but
the same effect may be produced in stucco, a material as well
suited to the purpose as stone, save for its greater fragility.
Wood-panelling is adapted to the most delicate carving, greater
sharpness of edge and clearness of undercutting being obtainable
than in stucco: though this qualification applies only to the
moulded stucco ornaments used from economy, not to those
modelled by hand. Used in the latter way, stucco may be made
to produce the same effects as carved wood, and for delicacy of
modelling in low relief it is superior to any other material. There
is, in short, little to choose between the different substances, ex-
cept in so far as one or the other may commend itself to the
artist as more peculiarly suited to the special requirements of his
design, or to the practical conditions regulating his work.

It is to this regard for practical conditions, and not to any
fancied superiority over other materials, that the use of wood-
panelling in northern Europe may most reasonably be attributed.
Not only was wood easy to obtain, but it had the additional




z

<



J


8


_


X


-


Z

C


o

to


KSMOOR


RCORATI



Z x

O ,



C/2

UJ



C x

?. c



o 3

o ^



Walls



43



merit of keeping out the cold: two qualities sufficient to recom-
mend it to the common sense of French and English architects.
From the decorative point of view it has, when unpainted, one
undeniable advantage over stucco that is, beauty of color and
veining. As a background for the dull gilding of old picture-
frames, or as a setting for tapestry, nothing can surpass the soft
rich tones of oak or walnut panelling, undefaced by the appli-
cation of a shiny varnish.

With the introduction of the orders into domestic architecture
and the treatment of interior walls with dado and cornice, the
panelling of the wall-space between those two members began
to assume definite proportions. In England and France, before
that time, wall-panels were often divided into small equal-
sized rectangles which, from lack of any central motive, pro-
duced a most inadequate impression. Frequently, too, in the
houses of the Renaissance the panelling, instead of being carried
up to the ceiling, was terminated two or three feet below it
a form of treatment that reduced the height of the room and
broke the connection between walls and ceiling. This awkward
device of stunted panelling, or, as it might be called, of an unduly
heightened dado, has been revived by modern decorators; and it
is not unusual to see the walls of a room treated, as regards their
base-board and cornice, as part of an order, and then panelled up
to within a foot or two of the cornice, without apparent regard
to the true raison d'etre of the dado (see Plate XII).

If, then, the design of the wall-panelling is good, it matters
little whether stone, stucco, or wood be used. In all three it is
possible to obtain effects ranging from the grandeur of the great
loggia of the Villa Madama to the simplicity of any wood-
panelled parlor in a New England country-house, and from the



44 The Decoration of Houses

greatest costliness to an outlay little larger than that required
for the purchase of a good wall-paper.

It was well for the future of house-decoration when medical
science declared itself against the use of wall-papers. These
hangings have, in fact, little to recommend them. Besides being
objectionable on sanitary grounds, they are inferior as a wall-deco-
ration to any form of treatment, however simple, that maintains,
instead of effacing, the architectural lines of a room. It was the
use of wall-paper that led to the obliteration of the over-door
and over-mantel, and to the gradual submerging under a flood
of pattern of all the main lines of the wall-spaces. Its merits
are that it is cheap, easy to put on and easy to remove. On the
other hand, it is readily damaged, soon fades, and cannot be
cleaned ; while from the decorative point of view there can be
no comparison between the flat meanderings of wall-paper pattern
and the strong architectural lines of any scheme of panelling,
however simple. Sometimes, of course, the use of wall-paper
is a matter of convenience, since it saves both time and trouble;
but a papered room can never, decoratively or otherwise, be as
satisfactory as one in which the walls are treated in some other
manner.

The hanging of walls with chintz or any other material is even
more objectionable than the use of wall-paper, since it has not the
saving merit of cheapness. The custom is probably a survival of
the time when wall-decorations had to be made in movable
shape; and this facility of removal points to the one good reason
for using stuff hangings. In a hired house, if the wall-decora-
tions are ugly, and it is necessary to hide them, the rooms may
be hung with stuff which the departing tenant can take away.
In other words, stuff hangings are serviceable if used as a tent;



Walls 45

as a permanent mode of decoration they are both unhealthy and
inappropriate. There is something unpleasant in the idea of a
dust-collecting fabric fixed to the wall, so that it cannot be
shaken out at will like a curtain. Textile fabrics are meant to be
moved, folded, shaken: they have none of the qualities of per-
manence and solidity which we associate with the walls of a
room. The much-derided marble curtains of the Jesuit church in
Venice are no more illogical than stuff wall-hangings.

JjQ_decorating the walls of a room, the first point to be consid-
ered is whether they are to form a background for its contents, or
to be in themselves its chief decoration. In many cases the dis-
appointing effects of wall-decoration are due to the fact that this
important distinction has been overlooked. In rooms that are
to be hung with prints or pictures, the panelling or other treat-
ment of the walls should be carefully designed with a view to the
size and number of the pictures. Pictures should never be hung
against a background of pattern. Nothing is more distressing
than the sight of a large oil-painting in a ponderous frame seem-
ingly suspended from a spray of wild roses or any of the other
naturalistic vegetation of the modern wall-paper. The overlaying
of pattern is always a mistake. It produces a confusion of line in

which the finest forms lose their individuality and significance.



It is also important to avoid hanging pictures or prints too close


1 2 4 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16

Online LibraryEdith WhartonThe decoration of houses → online text (page 4 of 16)