Edith Wharton.

The decoration of houses online

. (page 5 of 16)
Online LibraryEdith WhartonThe decoration of houses → online text (page 5 of 16)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

to each other. Not only do the colors clash, but the different
designs of the frames, some of which may be heavy, with deeply
recessed mouldings, while others are flat and carved in low relief,
produce an equally discordant impression. Every one recognizes
the necessity of selecting the mouldings and other ornamental
details of a room with a view to their position in the scheme of
decoration ; but few stop to consider that in a room hung with

46 The Decoration of Houses

pictures, the frames take the place of wall-mouldings, and conse-
quently must be chosen and placed as though they were part of a
definite decorative composition.

Pictures and prints should be fastened to the wall, not hung by
a cord or wire, nor allowed to tilt forward at an angle. The lat-
ter arrangement is specially disturbing since it throws the pic-
ture-frames out of the line of the wall. It must never be forgotten
that pictures on a wall, whether set in panels or merely framed
and hung, inevitably become a part of the wall-decoration. In
the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, in rooms of any im-
portance, pictures were always treated as a part of the decoration,
and frequently as panels sunk in the wall in a setting of carved
wood or stucco mouldings (see paintings in Plates V and XIX).
Even when not set in panels, they were always fixed to the wall,
and their frames, whether of wood or stucco, were made to cor-
respond with the ornamental detail of the rest of the room. Beau-
tiful examples of this mode of treatment are seen in many English
interiors of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, 1 and some
of the finest carvings of Grinling Gibbons were designed for this

Even where the walls are not to be hung with pictures, it is
necessary to consider what kind of background the furniture and
objects of art require. If the room is to be crowded with cabi-
nets, bookcases and other tall pieces, and these, as well as the
tables and mantel-shelf, are to be covered with porcelain vases,
bronze statuettes, ivories, Chinese monsters and Chelsea groups,
a plain background should be provided for this many-colored
medley. Should the room contain only a few important pieces

1 See the saloon at Easton Neston, built by Nicholas Hawkesmoor (Plate XIII), and
various examples given in Pyne's Royal Residences.

Walls 47

of furniture, and one or two vases or busts, the walls against
which these strongly marked objects are to be placed may re-
ceive a more decorative treatment. It is only in rooms used for
entertaining, dining, or some special purpose for which little fur-
niture is required, that the walls should receive a more elaborate
scheme of decoration.

Where the walls are treated in an architectural manner, with a
well-designed dado and cornice, and an over-mantel and over-
doors connecting the openings with the cornice, it will be found
that in a room of average size the intervening wall-spaces may
be tinted in a uniform color and left unornamented. If the funda-
mental lines are right, very little decorative detail is needed to
complete the effect; whereas, when the lines are wrong, no over-
laying of ornamental odds and ends, in the way of pictures, bric-
a-brac and other improvised expedients, will conceal the struc-
tural deficiencies.



THE fate of the door in America has been a curious one, and
had the other chief features of the house such as win-
dows, fireplaces, and stairs been pursued with the same relent-
less animosity by architects and decorators, we should no longer
be living in houses at all. First, the door was slid into the wall;
then even its concealed presence was resented, and it was un-
hung and replaced by a portiere; while of late it has actually
ceased to form a part of house-building, and many recently built
houses contain doorways without doors. Even the front door,
which might seem to have too valid a reason for existence to be
disturbed by the variations of fashion, has lately had to yield its
place, in the more pretentious kind of house, to a wrought-iron
gateway lined with plate-glass, against which, as a climax of in-
consequence, a thick curtain is usually hung.

It is not difficult to explain such architectural vagaries. In
general, their origin is to be found in the misapplication of some
serviceable feature and its consequent rejection by those who did
not understand that it had ceased to be useful only because it
was not properly used.

In the matter of doors, such an explanation at once presents
itself. During the latter half of the eighteenth century it occurred

4 8




Doors 49

to some ingenious person that when two adjoining rooms were
used for entertaining, and it was necessary to open the doors be-
tween them, these doors might be in the way; and to avoid
this possibility, a recess was formed in the thickness of the wall,
and the door was made to slide into it.

This idea apparently originated in England, for sliding doors,
even in the present day, are virtually unknown on the continent;
and Isaac Ware, in the book already quoted, speaks of the sliding
door as having been used "at the house, late Mr. de Pestre's, near
Hanover Square," and adds that "the manner of it there may
serve as an example to other builders," showing it to have been
a novelty which he thought worthy of imitation.

English taste has never been so sure as that of the Latin races;
and it has, moreover, been perpetually modified by a passion for
contriving all kinds of supposed "conveniences," which instead
of simplifying life not unfrequently tend to complicate it. Amer-
icans have inherited this trait, and in both countries the architect or
upholsterer who can present a new and more intricate way of
planning a house or of making a piece of furniture, is more sure
of a hearing than he who follows the accepted lines.

It is doubtful if the devices to which so much is sacrificed in
English and American house-planning always offer the practical
advantages attributed to them. In the case of the sliding door
these advantages are certainly open to question, since there is no
reason why a door should not open into a room. Under ordinary
circumstances, doors should always be kept shut; it is only, as
Ware points out, when two adjoining rooms are used for enter-
taining that it is necessary to leave the door between them open.
Now, between two rooms destined for entertaining, a double door
(a deux battants) is always preferable to a single one; and as an

50 The Decoration of Houses

opening four feet six inches wide is sufficient in such cases, each
of the doors will be only two feet three inches wide, and therefore
cannot encroach to any serious extent on the floor-space of the
room. On the other hand, much has been sacrificed to the
supposed "convenience" of the sliding door: first, the decorative
effect of a well-panelled door, with hinges, box-locks and handle
of finely chiselled bronze ; secondly, the privacy of both rooms,
since the difficulty of closing a heavy sliding door always leads to
its being left open, with the result that two rooms are necessarily
used as one. In fact, the absence of privacy in modern houses
is doubtless in part due to the difficulty of closing the doors be-
tween the rooms.

The sliding door has led to another abuse in house-planning :
the exaggerated widening of the doorway. While doors were
hung on hinges, doorways were of necessity restricted to their
proper dimensions; but with the introduction of the sliding door,
openings eight or ten feet wide became possible. The planning
of a house is often modified by a vague idea on the part of its
owners that they may wish to give entertainments on a large
scale. As a matter of fact, general entertainments are seldom
given in a house of average size; and those who plan their houses
with a view to such possibilities sacrifice their daily comfort to
an event occurring perhaps once a year. But even where many
entertainments are to be given large doorways are of little use.
Any architect of experience knows that ease of circulation de-
pends far more on the planning of the house and on the position
of the openings than on the actual dimensions of the latter.
Indeed, two moderate-sized doorways leading from one room
to another are of much more use in facilitating the movements
of a crowd than one opening ten feet wide.

Doors 5 1

Sliding doors have been recommended on the ground that their
use preserves a greater amount of wall-space; but two doorways
of moderate dimensions, properly placed, will preserve as much
wall-space as one very large opening and will probably permit a
better distribution of panelling and furniture. There was far more
wall-space in seventeenth and eighteenth-century rooms than there
is in rooms of the same dimensions in the average modern Ameri-
can house; and even where this space was not greater in actual
measurement, more furniture could be used, since the openings
were always placed with a view to the proper arrangement of
what the room was to contain.

According to the best authorities, the height of a well-propor-
tioned doorway should be twice its width; and as the height is
necessarily regulated by the stud of the room, it follows that the
width varies; but it is obvious that no doorway should be less
than six feet high nor less than three feet wide.

When a doorway is over three feet six inches wide, a pair of
doors should always be used; while a single door is preferable in
a narrow opening.

In rooms twelve feet or less in height, doorways should not be
more than nine feet high. The width of openings in such rooms
is therefore restricted to four feet six inches; indeed, it is permis-
sible to make the opening lower and thus reduce its width to
four feet; six inches of additional wall-space are not to be despised
in a room of average dimensions.

The treatment of the door forms one of the most interesting
chapters in the history of house-decoration. In feudal castles the
interior doorway, for purposes of defense, was made so small and
narrow that only one person could pass through at a time, and
was set in a plain lintel or architrave of stone, the door itself being

52 The Decoration of Houses

fortified by bands of steel or iron, and by heavy bolts and bars.
Even at this early period it seems probable that in the chief apart-
ments the lines of the doorway were carried up to the ceiling by
means of an over-door of carved wood, or of some painted deco-
rative composition. 1 This connection between the doorway and
the ceiling, maintained through all the subsequent phases of house-
decoration, was in fact never disregarded until the beginning of
the present century.

It was in Italy that the door, in common with the other features
of private dwellings, first received a distinctly architectural treat-
ment. In Italian palaces of the fifteenth century the doorways
were usually framed by architraves of marble, enriched with
arabesques, medallions and processional friezes in low relief,
combined with disks of colored marble. Interesting examples
of this treatment are seen in the apartments of Isabella of Este in
the ducal palace at Mantua (see Plate XIV), in the ducal palace at
Urbino, and in the Certosa of Pavia some of the smaller door-
ways in this monastery being decorated with medallion portraits
of the Sforzas, and with other low reliefs of extraordinary beauty.

The doors in Italian palaces were usually of inlaid wood, elabo-
rate in composition and affording in many cases beautiful in-
stances of that sense of material limitation that preserves one
art from infringing upon another. The intarsia doors of the
palace at Urbino are among the most famous examples of this
form of decoration. It should be noted that many of the woods
used in Italian marquetry were of a light shade, so that the blend-
ing of colors in Renaissance doors produces a sunny golden-
brown tint in perfect harmony with the marble architrave of the

1 See Viollet-le-Duc, Dictionnaire raisonne de I' Architecture francaise, under

Doors 5 3

doorway. The Italian decorator would never have permitted so
harsh a contrast as that between the white trim and the mahog-
any doors of English eighteenth-century houses. The juxtaposi-
tion of colors was disapproved by French decorators also, and
was seldom seen except in England and in the American houses
built under English influence. It should be observed, too, that
the polish given to hard-grained wood in England, and imitated
in the wood-varnish of the present day, was never in favor in
Italy and France. Shiny surfaces were always disliked by the
best decorators.

The classic revival in Italy necessarily modified the treatment
of the doorway. Flat arabesques and delicately chiselled medal-
lions gave way to a plain architrave, frequently masked by an
order; while the over-door took the form of a pediment, or, in
the absence of shafts, of a cornice or entablature resting on
brackets. The use of a pediment over interior doorways was
characteristic of Italian decoration.

In studying Italian interiors of this period from photographs or
modern prints, or even in visiting the partly dilapidated palaces
themselves, it may at first appear that the lines of the doorway
were not always carried up to the cornice. Several causes have
combined to produce this impression. In the first place, the
architectural treatment of the over-door was frequently painted on
the wall, and has consequently disappeared with the rest of the
wall-decoration (see Plate XV). Then, again, Italian rooms
were often painted with landscapes and out-of-door architectural
effects, and when this was done the doorways were combined
with these architectural compositions, and were not treated as
part of the room, but as part of what the room pretended to be.
In the suppressed Scuola della Carita (now the Academy of Fine

54 The Decoration of Houses

Arts) at Venice, one may see a famous example of this treatment
in the doorway under the stairs leading up to the temple, in
Titian's great painting of the "Presentation of the Virgin." 1
Again, in the high-studded Italian saloons containing a mu-
sician's gallery, or a clerestory, a cornice was frequently carried
around the walls at suitable height above the lower range of
openings, and the decorative treatment above the doors, win-
dows and fireplace extended only to this cornice, not to the
actual ceiling of the room.

Thus it will be seen that the relation between the openings and
cornice in Italian decoration was in reality always maintained
except where the decorator chose to regard them as forming a
part, not of the room, but of some other architectural composition.

In the sixteenth century the excessive use of marquetry was
abandoned, doors being panelled, and either left undecorated or
painted with those light animated combinations of figure and ara-
besque which Raphael borrowed from the Roman fresco-painters,
and which since his day have been peculiarly characteristic of
Italian decorative painting. 2

Wood-carving in Italy was little used in house-decoration, and,
as a rule, the panelling of doors was severely architectural in char-
acter, with little of the delicate ornamentation marking the French
work of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. 3

In France the application of the orders to interior doorways
was never very popular, though it figures in French architectural

1 This painting has now been restored to its proper position in the Scuola della
Carita, and the door which had been painted in under the stairs has been removed
to make way for the actual doorway around which the picture was originally painted.

2 See the doors of the Sala dello Zodiaco in the ducal palace at Mantua (Plate XVI).

3 Some rooms of the rocaille period, however, contain doors as elaborately carved
as those seen in France (see the doors in the royal palace at Genoa, Plate XXXIV).










Doors 55

works of the eighteenth century. The architrave, except in
houses of great magnificence, was usually of wood, sometimes
very richly carved. It was often surmounted by an entablature
with a cornice resting on carved brackets; while the panel be-
tween this and the ceiling-cornice was occuped by an over-door
consisting either of a painting, of a carved panel or of a stucco or
marble bas-relief. These over-doors usually corresponded with
the design of the over-mantel.

Great taste and skill were displayed in the decoration of door-
panels and embrasure. In the earlier part of the seventeenth
century, doors and embrasures were usually painted, and nothing
in the way of decorative painting can exceed in beauty and fitness
the French compositions of this period. 1

During the reign of Louis XIV, doors were either carved or
painted, and their treatment ranged from the most elaborate dec-
oration to the simplest panelling set in a plain wooden architrave.
In some French doors of this period painting and carving were
admirably combined; and they were further ornamented by the
chiselled locks and hinges for which French locksmiths were
famous. So important a part did these locks and hinges play in
French decoration that Lebrun himself is said to have designed
those in the Galerie d'Apollon, in the Louvre, when he composed
the decoration of the .room. Even in the simplest private houses,
where chiselled bronze was too expensive a luxury, and wrought-
iron locks and hinges, with plain knobs of brass or iron, were used
instead, such attention was paid to both design and execution
that it is almost impossible to find in France an old lock or hinge,
however plain, that is not well designed and well made (see
Plate XVII). The miserable commercial article that disgraces

1 See the doors at Vaux-le-Vicomte and in the Palais de Justice at Rennes.

56 The Decoration of Houses

our modern doors would not have been tolerated in the most un-
pretentious dwelling.

The mortise-lock now in use in England and America first
made its appearance toward the end of the eighteenth century
in England, where it displaced the brass or iron box-lock; but on
the Continent it has never been adopted. It is a poor substitute
for the box-lock, since it not only weakens but disfigures the
door, while a well-designed box-lock is both substantial and
ornamental (see Plate XVII).

In many minds the Louis XV period is associated with a general
waviness of line and excess of carving. It has already been
pointed out that even when the rocaille manner was at its height
the main lines of a room were seldom allowed to follow the ca-
pricious movement of the ornamental accessories. Openings
being the leading features of a room, their main lines were almost
invariably respected; and while considerable play of movement
was allowed in some of the accessory mouldings of the over-doors
and over-mantels, the plan of the panel, in general symmetrical,
was in many cases a plain rectangle. 1

r: During the Louis XV period the panelling of doors was fre-
quently enriched with elaborate carving; but such doors are to be
found only in palaces, or in princely houses like the Hotels de
Soubise, de Rohan, or de Toulouse (see Plate XVIII). In the
most magnificent apartments, moreover, plain panelled doors
tore as common as those adorned with carving; while in the
average private hotel, even where much ornament was lavished
Oft the panelling of the walls, the doors were left plain.
ooTowards the close of this reign, when the influence of Gabriel

"^Only in the most exaggerated German baroque were the vertical lines of the
door-panels sometimes irregular.

Doors 57

began to simplify and restrain the ornamental details of house-
decoration, the panelled door was often made without carving
and was sometimes painted with attenuated arabesques and
grisaille medallions, relieved against a gold ground. Gabriel gave
the key-note of what is known as Louis XVI decoration, and the
treatment of the door in France followed the same general lines
until the end of the eighteenth century. As the classic influence
became more marked, paintings in the over-door and over-mantel
were replaced by low or high reliefs in stucco: and towards the
end of the Louis XVI period a processional frieze in the classic
manner often filled the entablature above the architrave of the
door (see Plate XVI).

Doors opening upon a terrace, or leading from an antechamber
into a summer-parlor, or salon frais, were frequently made of glass;
while in gala rooms, doors so situated as to correspond with the
windows of the room were sometimes made of looking-glass.
In both these instances the glass was divided into small panes,
with such strongly marked mouldings that there could not be a
moment's doubt of the apparent, as well as the actual, solidity of
the door. In good decorative art first impressions are always
taken into account, and the immediate satisfaction of the eye is
provided for.

In England the treatment of doorway and door followed in a
general way the Italian precedent. The architrave, as a rule, was
severely architectural, and in the eighteenth century the applica-
tion of an order was regarded as almost essential in rooms of a
certain importance. The door itself was sometimes inlaid, 1 but
oftener simply panelled (see Plate XI).

1 The inlaid doors of Houghton Hall, the seat of Sir Robert Walpole, were noted
for their beauty and costliness. The price of each was ,aoo.

58 The Decoration of Houses

In the panelling of doors, English taste, except when rt closely
followed Italian precedents, was not always good. The use of a
pair of doors in one opening was confined to grand houses, and in
the average dwelling single doors were almost invariably used,
even in openings over three feet wide. The great width of some
of these single doors led to a curious treatment of the panels, the
door being divided by a central stile, which was sometimes
beaded, as though, instead of a single door, it were really a pair
held together by some invisible agency. This central stile is
almost invariably seen in the doors of modern American houses.

Towards the middle of the eighteenth century the use of highly
polished mahogany doors became general in England. It has
already been pointed out that the juxtaposition of a dark-colored
door and a white architrave was not approved by French and
Italian architects. Blondel, in fact, expressly states that such
contrasts are to be avoided, and that where walls are pale in
tint the door should never be dark : thus in vestibules and ante-
chambers panelled with Caen stone he recommends painting the
doors a pale shade of gray.

In Italy, when doors were left unpainted they were usually
made of walnut, a wood of which the soft, dull tone harmonizes
well with almost any color, whether light or dark; while in
France it would not be easy to find an unpainted door, except
in rooms where the wall-panelling is also of natural wood.

In the better type of house lately built in America there is seen
a tendency to return to the use of doors hung on hinges. These,
however, have been so long out of favor that the rules regulating
their dimensions have been lost sight of, and the modern door
and architrave are seldom satisfactory in these respects. The
principles of proportion have been further disturbed by a return




Doors 59

to the confused and hesitating system of panelling prevalent in
England during the Tudor and Elizabethan periods.

The old French and Italian architects never failed to respect
that rule of decorative composition which prescribes that where
there is any division of parts, one part shall unmistakably pre-
dominate. In conformity with this rule, the principal panel in
doors of French or Italian design is so much higher than the
others that these are at once seen to be merely accessory;
whereas many of our modern doors are cut up into so many
small panels, and the central one so little exceeds the others
in height, that they do not "compose." .

The architrave of the modern door has been neglected for
the same reasons as the window-architrave. The use of the
heavy sliding door, which could not be opened or shut without
an effort, led to the adoption of the portiere; and the architrave,
being thus concealed, was no longer regarded as. a feature of any
importance in the decoration of the room.

1 2 3 5 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16

Online LibraryEdith WhartonThe decoration of houses → online text (page 5 of 16)