A Paper read before tile Trades’ Guild of Learning and the Birmingham Society of Artists.
I have to-night to talk to you about certain things which my experience in my own craft has led me to notice, and which have bred in my mind something like a set of rules or maxims, which guide my practice. Every one who has followed a craft for long has such rules in his mind, and cannot help following them himself, and insisting on them practically in dealing with his pupils or workmen if he is in any degree a master; and when these rules, or if you will, impulses, are filling the minds and guiding the hands of many craftsmen at one time, they are busy forming a distinct school, and the art they represent is sure to be at least alive, however rude, timid, or lacking it may be; and the more imperious these rules are, the wider these impulses are spread, the more vigorously alive will be the art they produce; whereas in times when they are felt but lightly and rarely, when one man’s maxims seem absurd or trivial to his brother craftsman, art is either sick or slumbering, or so thinly scattered amongst the great mass of men as to influence the general life of the world little or nothing.
For though this kind of rules of a craft may seem to some arbitrary, I think that it is because they are the result of such intricate combinations of circumstances, that only a great philosopher, if even he, could express in words the sources of them, and give us reasons for them all, and we who are craftsmen must be content to prove them in practice, believing that their roots are founded in human nature, even as we know that their first-fruits are to be found in that most wonderful of all histories, the history of the arts.
Will you, therefore, look upon me as a craftsman who shares certain impulses with many others, which impulses forbid him to question the rules they have forced on him? so looking on me you may afford perhaps to be more indulgent to me if I seem to dogmatise over much.
Yet I cannot claim to represent any one craft. The division of labour, which has played so great a part in furthering competitive commerce, till it has become a machine with powers both reproductive and destructive, which few dare to resist, and none can control or foresee the result of, has pressed specially hard on that part of the field of human culture in which I was born to labour. That field of the arts, whose harvest should be the chief part of human joy, hope, and consolation, has been, I say, dealt hardly with by the division of labour, once the servant, and now the master of competitive commerce, itself once the servant, and now the master of civilisation; nay, so searching has been this tyranny, that it has not passed by my own insignificant corner of labour, but as it has thwarted me in many ways, so chiefly perhaps in this, that it has so stood in the way of my getting the help from others which my art forces me to crave, that I have been compelled to learn many crafts, and belike, according to the proverb, forbidden to master any, so that I fear my lecture will seem to you both to run over too many things and not to go deep enough into any.
I cannot help it. That above-mentioned tyranny has turned some of us from being, as we should be, contented craftsmen, into being discontented agitators against it, so that our minds are not at rest, even when we have to talk over workshop receipts and maxims; indeed I must confess that I should hold my peace on all matters connected with the arts, if I had not a lurking hope to stir up both others and myself to discontent with and rebellion against things as they are, clinging to the further hope that our discontent may be fruitful and our rebellion steadfast, at least to the end of our own lives, since we believe that we are rebels not against the laws of Nature, but the customs of folly.
Nevertheless, since even rebels desire to live, and since even they must sometimes crave for rest and peace — nay, since they must, as it were, make for themselves strongholds from whence to carry on the strife — we ought not to be accused of inconsistency, if to-night we consider how to make the best of it. By what forethought, pains, and patience, can we make endurable those strange dwellings — the basest, the ugliest, and the most inconvenient that men have ever built for themselves, and which our own haste, necessity, and stupidity, compel almost all of us to live in? That is our present question.
In dealing with this subject, I shall perforce be chiefly speaking of those middle-class dwellings of which I know most; but what I have to say will be as applicable to any other kind; for there is no dignity or unity of plan about any modern house, big or little. It has neither centre nor individuality, but is invariably a congeries of rooms tumbled together by chance hap. So that the unit I have to speak of is a room rather than a house.
Now there may be some here who have the good luck to dwell in those noble buildings which our forefathers built, out of their very souls, one may say; such good luck I call about the greatest that can befall a man in these days. But these happy people have little to do with our troubles of to-night, save as sympathetic onlookers. All we have to do with them is to remind them not to forget their duties to those places, which they doubtless love well; not to alter them or torment them to suit any passing whim or convenience, but to deal with them as if their builders, to whom they owe so much, could still be wounded by the griefs and rejoice in the well-doing of their ancient homes. Surely if they do this, they also will neither be forgotten nor unthanked in the time to come.
There may be others here who dwell in houses that can scarcely be called noble — nay, as compared with the last-named kind, may be almost called ignoble — but their builders still had some traditions left them of the times of art. They are built solidly and conscientiously at least, and if they have little or no beauty, yet have a certain common-sense and convenience about them; nor do they fail to represent the manners and feelings of their own time. The earliest of these, built about the reign of Queen Anne, stretch out a hand toward the Gothic times, and are not without picturesqueness, especially when their surroundings are beautiful. The latest built in the latter days of the Georges are certainly quite guiltless of picturesqueness, but are, as above said, solid, and not inconvenient. All these houses, both the so-called Queen Anne ones and the distinctively Georgian, are difficult enough to decorate, especially for those who have any leaning toward romance, because they have still some style left in them which one cannot ignore; at the same time that it is impossible for any one living out of the time in which they were built to sympathise with a style whose characteristics are mere whims, not founded on any principle. Still they are at the worst not aggressively ugly or base, and it is possible to live in them without serious disturbance to our work or thoughts; so that by the force of contrast they have become bright spots in the prevailing darkness of ugliness that has covered all modern life.
But we must not forget that that rebellion which we have met here, I hope, to further, has begun, and to-day shows visible tokens of its life; for of late there have been houses rising up among us here and there which have certainly not been planned either by the common cut-and-dried designers for builders, or by academical imitators of bygone styles. Though they may be called experimental, no one can say that they are not born of thought and principle, as well as of great capacity for design. It is nowise our business to-night to criticise them. I suspect their authors, who have gone through so many difficulties (not of their own breeding) in producing them, know their shortcomings much better than we can do, and are less elated by their successes than we are. At any rate, they are gifts to our country which will always be respected, whether the times better or worsen, and I call upon you to thank their designers most heartily for their forethought, labour, and hope.
Well, I have spoken of three qualifications to that degradation of our dwellings which characterises this period of history only.
First, there are the very few houses which have been left us from the times of art. Except that we may sometimes have the pleasure of seeing these, we most of us have little enough to do with them.
Secondly, there are those houses of the times when, though art was sick and all but dead, men had not quite given it up as a bad job, and at any rate had not learned systematic bad building; and when, moreover, they had what they wanted, and their lives were expressed by their architecture. Of these there are still left a good many all over the country, but they are lessening fast before the irresistible force of competition, and will soon be very rare indeed.
Thirdly, there are a few houses built and mostly inhabited by the ringleaders of the rebellion against sordid ugliness, which we are met here to further to-night. It is clear that as yet these are very few — or you could never have thought it worth your while to come here to hear the simple words I have to say to you on this subject.
Now, these are the exceptions. The rest is what really amounts to the dwellings of all our people, which are built without any hope of beauty or care for it — without any thought that there can be any pleasure in the look of an ordinary dwelling-house, and also (in consequence of this neglect of manliness) with scarce any heed to real convenience. It will, I hope, one day be hard to believe that such houses were built for a people not lacking in honesty, in independence of life, in elevation of thought, and consideration for others; not a whit of all that do they express, but rather hypocrisy, flunkeyism, and careless selfishness. The fact is, they are no longer part of our lives. We have given it up as a bad job. We are heedless if our houses express nothing of us but the very worst side of our character both national and personal.
This unmanly heedlessness, so injurious to civilisation, so unjust to those that are to follow us, is the very thing we want to shake people out of. We want to make them think about their homes, to take the trouble to turn them into dwellings fit for people free in mind and body — much might come of that I think.
Now, to my mind, the first step towards this end is, to follow the fashion of our nation, so often, so VERY often, called practical, and leaving for a little an ideal scarce conceivable, to try to get people to bethink them of what we can best do with those makeshifts which we cannot get rid of all at once.
I know that those lesser arts, by which alone this can be done, are looked upon by many wise and witty people as not worth the notice of a sensible man; but, since I am addressing a society of artists, I believe I am speaking to people who have got beyond even that stage of wisdom and wit, and that you think all the arts of importance. Yet, indeed, I should think I had but little claim on your attention if I deemed the question involved nothing save the gain of a little more content and a little more pleasure for those who already have abundance of content and pleasure; let me say it, that either I have erred in the aim of my whole life, or that the welfare of these lesser arts involves the question of the content and self-respect of all craftsmen, whether you call them artists or artisans. So I say again, my hope is that those who begin to consider carefully how to make the best of the chambers in which they eat and sleep and study, and hold converse with their friends, will breed in their minds a wholesome and fruitful discontent with the sordidness that even when they have done their best will surround their island of comfort, and that as they try to appease this discontent they will find that there is no way out of it but by insisting that all men’s work shall be fit for free men and not for machines: my extravagant hope is that people will some day learn something of art, and so long for more, and will find, as I have, that there is no getting it save by the general acknowledgment of the right of every man to have fit work to do in a beautiful home. Therein lies all that is indestructible of the pleasure of life; no man need ask for more than that, no man should be granted less; and if he falls short of it, it is through waste and injustice that he is kept out of his birthright.
And now I will try what I can do in my hints on this making the best of it, first asking your pardon for this, that I shall have to give a great deal of negative advice, and be always saying ‘don’t’— that, as you know, being much the lot of those who profess reform.
Before we go inside our house, nay, before we look at its outside, we may consider its garden, chiefly with reference to town gardening; which, indeed, I, in common, I suppose, with most others who have tried it, have found uphill work enough — all the more as in our part of the world few indeed have any mercy upon the one thing necessary for decent life in a town, its trees; till we have come to this, that one trembles at the very sound of an axe as one sits at one’s work at home. However, uphill work or not, the town garden must not be neglected if we are to be in earnest in making the best of it.
Now I am bound to say town gardeners generally do rather the reverse of that: our suburban gardeners in London, for instance, oftenest wind about their little bit of gravel walk and grass plot in ridiculous imitation of an ugly big garden of the landscape- gardening style, and then with a strange perversity fill up the spaces with the most formal plants they can get; whereas the merest common sense should have taught them to lay out their morsel of ground in the simplest way, to fence it as orderly as might be, one part from the other (if it be big enough for that) and the whole from the road, and then to fill up the flower-growing space with things that are free and interesting in their growth, leaving nature to do the desired complexity, which she will certainly not fail to do if we do not desert her for the florist, who, I must say, has made it harder work than it should be to get the best of flowers.
It is scarcely a digression to note his way of dealing with flowers, which, moreover, gives us an apt illustration of that change without thought of beauty, change for the sake of change, which has played such a great part in the degradation of art in all times. So I ask you to note the way he has treated the rose, for instance: the rose has been grown double from I don’t know when; the double rose was a gain to the world, a new beauty was given us by it, and nothing taken away, since the wild rose grows in every hedge. Yet even then one might be excused for thinking that the wild rose was scarce improved on, for nothing can be more beautiful in general growth or in detail than a wayside bush of it, nor can any scent be as sweet and pure as its scent. Nevertheless the garden rose had a new beauty of abundant form, while its leaves had not lost the wonderfully delicate texture of the wild one. The full colour it had gained, from the blush rose to the damask, was pure and true amidst all its added force, and though its scent had certainly lost some of the sweetness of the eglantine, it was fresh still, as well as so abundantly rich. Well, all that lasted till quite our own day, when the florists fell upon the rose — men who could never have enough — they strove for size and got it, a fine specimen of a florist’s rose being about as big as a moderate Savoy cabbage. They tried for strong scent and got it — till a florist’s rose has not unseldom a suspicion of the scent of the aforesaid cabbage — not at its best. They tried for strong colour and got it, strong and bad — like a conqueror. But all this while they missed the very essence of the rose’s being; they thought there was nothing in it but redundance and luxury; they exaggerated these into coarseness, while they threw away the exquisite subtilty of form, delicacy of texture, and sweetness of colour, which, blent with the richness which the true garden rose shares with many other flowers, yet makes it the queen of them all — the flower of flowers. Indeed, the worst of this is that these sham roses are driving the real ones out of existence. If we do not look to it our descendants will know nothing of the cabbage rose, the loveliest in form of all, or the blush rose with its dark green stems and unequalled colour, or the yellow-centred rose of the East, which carries the richness of scent to the very furthest point it can go without losing freshness: they will know nothing of all these, and I fear they will reproach the poets of past time for having done according to their wont, and exaggerated grossly the beauties of the rose.
Well, as a Londoner perhaps I have said too much of roses, since we can scarcely grow them among suburban smoke, but what I have said of them applies to other flowers, of which I will say this much more. Be very shy of double flowers; choose the old columbine where the clustering doves are unmistakable and distinct, not the double one, where they run into mere tatters. Choose (if you can get it) the old china-aster with the yellow centre, that goes so well with the purple-brown stems and curiously coloured florets, instead of the lumps that look like cut paper, of which we are now so proud. Don’t be swindled out of that wonder of beauty, a single snowdrop; there is no gain and plenty of loss in the double one. More loss still in the double sunflower, which is a coarse-coloured and dull plant, whereas the single one, though a late comer to our gardens, is by no means to be despised, since it will grow anywhere, and is both interesting and beautiful, with its sharply chiselled yellow florets relieved by the quaintly patterned sad-coloured centre clogged with honey and beset with bees and butterflies.
So much for over-artificiality in flowers. A word or two about the misplacing of them. Don’t have ferns in your garden. The hart’s tongue in the clefts of the rock, the queer things that grow within reach of the spray of the waterfall; these are right in their places. Still more the brake on the woodside, whether in late autumn, when its withered haulm helps out the well-remembered woodland scent, or in spring, when it is thrusting its volutes through last year’s waste. But all this is nothing to a garden, and is not to be got out of it; and if you try it you will take away from it all possible romance, the romance of a garden.
The same thing may be said about many plants, which are curiosities only, which Nature meant to be grotesque, not beautiful, and which are generally the growth of hot countries, where things sprout over quick and rank. Take note that the strangest of these come from the jungle and the tropical waste, from places where man is not at home, but is an intruder, an enemy. Go to a botanical garden and look at them, and think of those strange places to your heart’s content. But don’t set them to starve in your smoke-drenched scrap of ground amongst the bricks, for they will be no ornament to it.
As to colour in gardens. Flowers in masses are mighty strong colour, and if not used with a great deal of caution are very destructive to pleasure in gardening. On the whole, I think the best and safest plan is to mix up your flowers, and rather eschew great masses of colour — in combination I mean. But there are some flowers (inventions of men, i.e. florists) which are bad colour altogether, and not to be used at all. Scarlet geraniums, for instance, or the yellow calceolaria, which indeed are not uncommonly grown together profusely, in order, I suppose, to show that even flowers can be thoroughly ugly.
Another thing also much too commonly seen is an aberration of the human mind, which otherwise I should have been ashamed to warn you of. It is technically called carpet-gardening. Need I explain it further? I had rather not, for when I think of it even when I am quite alone I blush with shame at the thought.
I am afraid it is specially necessary in these days when making the best of it is a hard job, and when the ordinary iron hurdles are so common and so destructive of any kind of beauty in a garden, to say when you fence anything in a garden use a live hedge, or stones set flatwise (as they do in some parts of the Cotswold country), or timber, or wattle, or, in short, anything but iron. 10
10 I know that well-designed hammered iron trellises and gates have been used happily enough, though chiefly in rather grandiose gardens, and so they might be again — one of these days — but I fear not yet awhile.
And now to sum up as to a garden. Large or small, it should look both orderly and rich. It should be well fenced from the outside world. It should by no means imitate either the wilfulness or the wildness of Nature, but should look like a thing never to be seen except near a house. It should, in fact, look like a part of the house. It follows from this that no private pleasure-garden should be very big, and a public garden should be divided and made to look like so many flower-closes in a meadow, or a wood, or amidst the pavement.
It will be a key to right thinking about gardens if you consider in what kind of places a garden is most desired. In a very beautiful country, especially if it be mountainous, we can do without it well enough; whereas in a flat and dull country we crave after it, and there it is often the very making of the homestead. While in great towns, gardens, both private and public, are positive necessities if the citizens are to live reasonable and healthy lives in body and mind.
So much for the garden, of which, since I have said that it ought to be part of the house, I hope I have not spoken too much.
Now, as to the outside of our makeshift house, I fear it is too ugly to keep us long. Let what painting you have to do about it be as simple as possible, and be chiefly white or whitish; for when a building is ugly in form it will bear no decoration, and to mark its parts by varying colour will be the way to bring out its ugliness. So I don’t advise you to paint your houses blood-red and chocolate with white facings, as seems to be getting the fashion in some parts of London. You should, however, always paint your sash-bars and window-frames white to break up the dreary space of window somewhat. The only other thing I have to say, is to warn you against using at all a hot brownish-red, which some decorators are very fond of. Till some one invents a better name for it, let us call it cockroach colour, and have naught to do with it.
So we have got to the inside of our house, and are in the room we are to live in, call it by what name you will. As to its proportions, it will be great luck indeed in an ordinary modern house if they are tolerable; but let us hope for the best. If it is to be well proportioned, one of its parts, either its height, length, or breadth, ought to exceed the others, or be marked somehow. If it be square or so nearly as to seem so, it should not be high; if it be long and narrow, it might be high without any harm, but yet would be more interesting low; whereas if it be an obvious but moderate oblong on plan, great height will be decidedly good.
As to the parts of a room that we have to think of, they are wall, ceiling, floor, windows and doors, fireplace, and movables. Of these the wall is of so much the most importance to a decorator, and will lead us so far a-field that I will mostly clear off the other parts first, as to the mere arrangement of them, asking you meanwhile to understand that the greater part of what I shall be saying as to the design of the patterns for the wall, I consider more or less applicable to patterns everywhere.
As to the windows then; I fear we must grumble again. In most decent houses, or what are so called, the windows are much too big, and let in a flood of light in a haphazard and ill-considered way, which the indwellers are forced to obscure again by shutters, blinds, curtains, screens, heavy upholsteries, and such other nuisances. The windows, also, are almost always brought too low down, and often so low down as to have their sills on a level with our ankles, sending thereby a raking light across the room that destroys all pleasantness of tone. The windows, moreover, are either big rectangular holes in the wall, or, which is worse, have ill-proportioned round or segmental heads, while the common custom in ‘good’ houses is either to fill these openings with one huge sheet of plate-glass, or to divide them across the middle with a thin bar. If we insist on glazing them thus, we may make up our minds that we have done the worst we can for our windows, nor can a room look tolerable where it is so treated. You may see how people feel this by their admiration of the tracery of a Gothic window, or the lattice-work of a Cairo house. Our makeshift substitute for those beauties must be the filling of the window with moderate-sized panes of glass (plate-glass if you will) set in solid sash-bars; we shall then at all events feel as if we were indoors on a cold day — as if we had a roof over our heads.
As to the floor: a little time ago it was the universal custom for those who could afford it to cover it all up into its dustiest and crookedest corners with a carpet, good, bad, or indifferent. Now I daresay you have heard from others, whose subject is the health of houses rather than their art (if indeed the two subjects can be considered apart, as they cannot really be), you have heard from teachers like Dr. Richardson what a nasty and unwholesome custom this is, so I will only say that it looks nasty and unwholesome. Happily, however, it is now a custom so much broken into that we may consider it doomed; for in all houses that pretend to any taste of arrangement, the carpet is now a rug, large it may be, but at any rate not looking immovable, and not being a trap for dust in the corners. Still I would go further than this even and get rich people no longer to look upon a carpet as a necessity for a room at all, at least in the summer. This would have two advantages: 1st, It would compel us to have better floors (and less drafty), our present ones being one of the chief disgraces to modern building; and 2ndly, since we should have less carpet to provide, what we did have we could afford to have better. We could have a few real works of art at the same price for which we now have hundreds of yards of makeshift machine-woven goods. In any case it is a great comfort to see the actual floor; and the said floor may be, as you know, made very ornamental by either wood mosaic, or tile and marble mosaic; the latter especially is such an easy art as far as mere technicality goes, and so full of resources, that I think it is a great pity it is not used more. The contrast between its grey tones and the rich positive colour of Eastern carpet-work is so beautiful, that the two together make satisfactory decoration for a room with little addition.
When wood mosaic or parquet-work is used, owing to the necessary simplicity of the forms, I think it best not to vary the colour of the wood. The variation caused by the diverse lie of the grain and so forth, is enough. Most decorators will be willing, I believe, to accept it as an axiom, that when a pattern is made of very simple geometrical forms, strong contrast of colour is to be avoided.
So much for the floor. As for its fellow, the ceiling, that is, I must confess, a sore point with me in my attempts at making the best of it. The simplest and most natural way of decorating a ceiling is to show the underside of the joists and beams duly moulded, and if you will, painted in patterns. How far this is from being possible in our modern makeshift houses, I suppose I need not say. Then there is a natural and beautiful way of ornamenting a ceiling by working the plaster into delicate patterns, such as you see in our Elizabethan and Jacobean houses; which often enough, richly designed and skilfully wrought as they are, are by no means pedantically smooth in finish — nay, may sometimes be called rough as to workmanship. But, unhappily there are few of the lesser arts that have fallen so low as the plasterer’s. The cast work one sees perpetually in pretentious rooms is a mere ghastly caricature of ornament, which no one is expected to look at if he can help it. It is simply meant to say, ‘This house is built for a rich man.’ The very material of it is all wrong, as, indeed, mostly happens with an art that has fallen sick. That richly designed, freely wrought plastering of our old houses was done with a slowly drying tough plaster, that encouraged the hand like modeller’s clay, and could not have been done at all with the brittle plaster used in ceilings nowadays, whose excellence is supposed to consist in its smoothness only. To be good, according to our present false standard, it must shine like a sheet of hot-pressed paper, so that, for the present, and without the expenditure of abundant time and trouble, this kind of ceiling decoration is not to be hoped for.
It may be suggested that we should paper our ceilings like our walls, but I can’t think that it will do. Theoretically, a paper- hanging is so much distemper colour applied to a surface by being printed on paper instead of being painted on plaster by the hand; but practically, we never forget that it is paper, and a room papered all over would be like a box to live in. Besides, the covering a room all over with cheap recurring patterns in an uninteresting material, is but a poor way out of our difficulty, and one which we should soon tire of.
There remains, then, nothing but to paint our ceilings cautiously and with as much refinement as we can, when we can afford it: though even that simple matter is complicated by the hideousness of the aforesaid plaster ornaments and cornices, which are so very bad that you must ignore them by leaving them unpainted, though even this neglect, while you paint the flat of the ceiling, makes them in a way part of the decoration, and so is apt to beat you out of every scheme of colour conceivable. Still, I see nothing for it but cautious painting, or leaving the blank white space alone, to be forgotten if possible. This painting, of course, assumes that you know better than to use gas in your rooms, which will indeed soon reduce all your decorations to a pretty general average.
So now we come to the walls of our room, the part which chiefly concerns us, since no one will admit the possibility of leaving them quite alone. And the first question is, how shall we space them out horizontally?
If the room be small and not high, or the wall be much broken by pictures and tall pieces of furniture, I would not divide it horizontally. One pattern of paper, or whatever it may be, or one tint may serve us, unless we have in hand an elaborate and architectural scheme of decoration, as in a makeshift house is not like to be the case; but if it be a good-sized room, and the wall be not much broken up, some horizontal division is good, even if the room be not very high.
How are we to divide it then? I need scarcely say not into two equal parts; no one out of the island of Laputa could do that. For the rest, unless again we have a very elaborate scheme of decoration, I think dividing it once, making it into two spaces is enough. Now there are practically two ways of doing that: you may either have a narrow frieze below the cornice, and hang the wall thence to the floor, or you may have a moderate dado, say 4 feet 6 inches high, and hang the wall from the cornice to the top of the dado. Either way is good according to circumstances; the first with the tall hanging and the narrow frieze is fittest if your wall is to be covered with stuffs, tapestry, or panelling, in which case making the frieze a piece of delicate painting is desirable in default of such plaster-work as I have spoken of above; or even if the proportions of the room very much cry out for it, you may, in default of hand-painting, use a strip of printed paper, though this, I must say, is a makeshift of makeshifts. The division into dado, and wall hung from thence to the cornice, is fittest for a wall which is to be covered with painted decoration, or its makeshift, paper-hangings. As to these, I would earnestly dissuade you from using more than one pattern in one room, unless one of them be but a breaking of the surface with a pattern so insignificant as scarce to be noticeable. I have seen a good deal of the practice of putting pattern over pattern in paper-hangings, and it seems to me a very unsatisfactory one, and I am, in short, convinced, as I hinted just now, that cheap recurring patterns in a material which has no play of light in it, and no special beauty of its own, should be employed rather sparingly, or they destroy all refinement of decoration and blunt our enjoyment of whatever beauty may lie in the designs of such things.
Before I leave this subject of the spacing out of the wall for decoration, I should say that in dealing with a very high room it is best to put nothing that attracts the eye above a level of about eight feet from the floor — to let everything above that be mere air and space, as it were. I think you will find that this will tend to take off that look of dreariness that often besets tall rooms.
So much then for the spacing out of our wall. We have now to consider what the covering of it is to be, which subject, before we have done with it, will take us over a great deal of ground and lead us into the consideration of designing for flat spaces in general with work other than picture work.
To clear the way, I have a word or two to say about the treatment of the wood-work in our room. If I could I would have no wood-work in it that needed flat painting, meaning by that word a mere paying it over with four coats of tinted lead-pigment ground in oils or varnish, but unless one can have a noble wood, such as oak, I don’t see what else is to be done. I have never seen deal stained transparently with success, and its natural colour is poor, and will not enter into any scheme of decoration, while polishing it makes it worse. In short, it is such a poor material that it must be hidden unless it be used on a big scale as mere timber. Even then, in a church roof or what not, colouring it with distemper will not hurt it, and in a room I should certainly do this to the wood-work of roof and ceiling, while I painted such wood-work as came within touch of hand. As to the colour of this, it should, as a rule, be of the same general tone as the walls, but a shade or two darker in tint. Very dark wood-work makes a room dreary and disagreeable, while unless the decoration be in a very bright key of colour, it does not do to have the wood-work lighter than the walls. For the rest, if you are lucky enough to be able to use oak, and plenty of it, found your decoration on that, leaving it just as it comes from the plane.
Now, as you are not bound to use anything for the decoration of your walls but simple tints, I will here say a few words on the main colours, before I go on to what is more properly decoration, only in speaking of them one can scarce think only of such tints as are fit to colour a wall with, of which, to say truth, there are not many.
Though we may each have our special preferences among the main colours, which we shall do quite right to indulge, it is a sign of disease in an artist to have a prejudice against any particular colour, though such prejudices are common and violent enough among people imperfectly educated in art, or with naturally dull perceptions of it. Still, colours have their ways in decoration, so to say, both positively in themselves, and relatively to each man’s way of using them. So I may be excused for setting down some things I seem to have noticed about these ways.
Yellow is not a colour that can be used in masses unless it be much broken or mingled with other colours, and even then it wants some material to help it out, which has great play of light and shade in it. You know people are always calling yellow things golden, even when they are not at all the colour of gold, which, even unalloyed, is not a bright yellow. That shows that delightful yellows are not very positive, and that, as aforesaid, they need gleaming materials to help them. The light bright yellows, like jonquil and primrose, are scarcely usable in art, save in silk, whose gleam takes colour from and adds light to the local tint, just as sunlight does to the yellow blossoms which are so common in Nature. In dead materials, such as distemper colour, a positive yellow can only be used sparingly in combination with other tints.
Red is also a difficult colour to use, unless it be helped by some beauty of material, for, whether it tend toward yellow and be called scarlet, or towards blue and be crimson, there is but little pleasure in it, unless it be deep and full. If the scarlet pass a certain degree of impurity it falls into the hot brown-red, very disagreeable in large masses. If the crimson be much reduced it tends towards a cold colour called in these latter days magenta, impossible for an artist to use either by itself or in combination. The finest tint of red is a central one between crimson and scarlet, and is a very powerful colour indeed, but scarce to be got in a flat tint. A crimson broken by greyish-brown, and tending towards russet, is also a very useful colour, but, like all the finest reds, is rather a dyer’s colour than a house-painter’s; the world being very rich in soluble reds, which of course are not the most enduring of pigments, though very fast as soluble colours.
Pink, though one of the most beautiful colours in combination, is not easy to use as a flat tint even over moderate spaces; the more orangy shades of it are the most useful, a cold pink being a colour much to be avoided.
As to purple, no one in his senses would think of using it bright in masses. In combination it may be used somewhat bright, if it be warm and tend towards red; but the best and most characteristic shade of purple is nowise bright, but tends towards russet. Egyptian porphyry, especially when contrasted with orange, as in the pavement of St. Mark’s at Venice, will represent the colour for you. At the British Museum, and one or two other famous libraries, are still left specimens of this tint, as Byzantine art in its palmy days understood it. These are books written with gold and silver on vellum stained purple, probably with the now lost murex or fish-dye of the ancients, the tint of which dye-stuff Pliny describes minutely and accurately in his ‘Natural History.’ I need scarcely say that no ordinary flat tint could reproduce this most splendid of colours.
Though green (at all events in England) is the colour widest used by Nature, yet there is not so much bright green used by her as many people seem to think; the most of it being used for a week or two in spring, when the leafage is small, and blended with the greys and other negative colours of the twigs; when ‘leaves grow large and long,’ as the ballad has it, they also grow grey. I believe it has been noted by Mr. Ruskin, and it certainly seems true, that the pleasure we take in the young spring foliage comes largely from its tenderness of tone rather than its brightness of hue. Anyhow, you may be sure that if we try to outdo Nature’s green tints on our walls we shall fail, and make ourselves uncomfortable to boot. We must, in short, be very careful of bright greens, and seldom, if ever, use them at once bright and strong.
On the other hand, do not fall into the trap of a dingy bilious- looking yellow-green, a colour to which I have a special and personal hatred, because (if you will excuse my mentioning personal matters) I have been supposed to have somewhat brought it into vogue. I assure you I am not really responsible for it.
The truth is, that to get a green that is at once pure and neither cold nor rank, and not too bright to live with, is of simple things as difficult as anything a decorator has to do; but it can be done,- -and without the help of special material; and when done such a green is so useful, and so restful to the eyes, that in this matter also we are bound to follow Nature and make large use of that work- a-day colour green.
But if green be called a work-a-day colour, surely blue must be called the holiday one, and those who long most for bright colours may please themselves most with it; for if you duly guard against getting it cold if it tend towards red, or rank if it tend towards green, you need not be much afraid of its brightness. Now, as red is above all a dyer’s colour, so blue is especially a pigment and an enamel colour; the world is rich in insoluble blues, many of which are practically indestructible.
I have said that there are not many tints fit to colour a wall with: this is my list of them as far as I know; a solid red, not very deep, but rather describable as a full pink, and toned both with yellow and blue, a very fine colour if you can hit it; a light orangy pink, to be used rather sparingly. A pale golden tint, i.e., a yellowish-brown; a very difficult colour to hit. A colour between these two last; call it pale copper colour. All these three you must be careful over, for if you get them muddy or dirty you are lost.
Tints of green from pure and pale to deepish and grey: always remembering that the purer the paler, and the deeper the greyer.
Tints of pure pale blue from a greenish one, the colour of a starling’s egg, to a grey ultramarine colour, hard to use because so full of colour, but incomparable when right. In these you must carefully avoid the point at which the green overcomes the blue and turns it rank, or that at which the red overcomes the blue and produces those woeful hues of pale lavender and starch blue which have not seldom been favourites with decorators of elegant drawing- rooms and respectable dining-rooms.
You will understand that I am here speaking of distemper tinting, and in that material these are all the tints I can think of; if you use bolder, deeper or stronger colours I think you will find yourself beaten out of monochrome in order to get your colour harmonious.
One last word as to distemper which is not monochrome, and its makeshift, paper-hanging. I think it is always best not to force the colour, but to be content with getting it either quite light or quite grey in these materials, and in no case very dark, trusting for richness to stuffs, or to painting which allows of gilding being introduced.
I must finish these crude notes about general colour by reminding you that you must be moderate with your colour on the walls of an ordinary dwelling-room; according to the material you are using, you may go along the scale from light and bright to deep and rich, but some soberness of tone is absolutely necessary if you would not weary people till they cry out against all decoration. But I suppose this is a caution which only very young decorators are likely to need. It is the right-hand defection; the left-hand falling away is to get your colour dingy and muddy, a worse fault than the other because less likely to be curable. All right-minded craftsmen who work in colour will strive to make their work as bright as possible, as full of colour as the nature of the work will allow it to be. The meaning they may be bound to express, the nature of its material, or the use it may be put to may limit this fulness; but in whatever key of colour they are working, if they do not succeed in getting the colour pure and clear, they have not learned their craft, and if they do not see their fault when it is present in their work, they are not likely to learn it.
Now, hitherto we have not got further into the matter of decoration than to talk of its arrangement. Before I speak of some general matters connected with our subject, I must say a little on the design of the patterns which will form the chief part of your decoration. The subject is a wide and difficult one, and my time much too short to do it any justice, but here and there, perhaps, a hint may crop up, and I may put it in a way somewhat new.
On the whole, in speaking of these patterns I shall be thinking of those that necessarily recur; designs which have to be carried out by more or less mechanical appliances, such as the printing block or the loom.
Since we have been considering colour lately, we had better take that side first, though I know it will be difficult to separate the consideration of it from that of the other necessary qualifications of design.
The first step away from monochrome is breaking the ground by putting a pattern on it of the same colour, but of a lighter or darker shade, the first being the best and most natural way. I need say but little on this as a matter of colour, though many very important designs are so treated. One thing I have noticed about these damasks, as I should call them; that of the three chief colours, red is the one where the two shades must be the nearest to one another, or you get the effect poor and weak; while in blue you may have a great deal of difference without losing colour, and green holds a middle place between the two.
Next, if you make these two shades different in tint as well as, or instead of, in depth, you have fairly got out of monochrome, and will find plenty of difficulties in getting your two tints to go well together. The putting, for instance, of a light greenish blue on a deep reddish one, turquoise on sapphire, will try all your skill. The Persians practise this feat, but not often without adding a third colour, and so getting into the next stage. In fact, this plan of relieving the pattern by shifting its tint as well as its depth, is chiefly of use in dealing with quite low-toned colours — golden browns or greys, for instance. In dealing with the more forcible ones, you will find it in general necessary to add a third colour at least, and so get into the next stage.
This is the relieving a pattern of more than one colour, but all the colours light, upon a dark ground. This is above all useful in cases where your palette is somewhat limited; say, for instance, in a figured cloth which has to be woven mechanically, and where you have but three or four colours in a line, including the ground.
You will not find this a difficult way of relieving your pattern, if you only are not too ambitious of getting the diverse superimposed colours too forcible on the one hand, so that they fly out from one another, or on the other hand too delicate, so that they run together into confusion. The excellence of this sort of work lies in a clear but soft relief of the form, in colours each beautiful in itself, and harmonious one with the other on ground whose colour is also beautiful, though unobtrusive. Hardness ruins the work, confusion of form caused by timidity of colour annoys the eye, and makes it restless, and lack of colour is felt as destroying the raison d’etre of it. So you see it taxes the designer heavily enough after all. Nevertheless I still call it the easiest way of complete pattern-designing.
I have spoken of it as the placing of a light pattern on dark ground. I should mention that in the fully developed form of the design I am thinking of there is often an impression given, of there being more than one plane in the pattern. Where the pattern is strictly on one plane, we have not reached the full development of this manner of designing, the full development of colour and form used together, but form predominant.
We are not left without examples of this kind of design at its best. The looms of Corinth, Palermo, and Lucca, in the twelfth, thirteenth, and fourteenth centuries, turned out figured silk cloths, which were so widely sought for, that you may see specimens of their work figured on fifteenth-century screens in East Anglian churches, or the background of pictures by the Van Eycks, while one of the most important collections of the actual goods is preserved in the treasury of the Mary Church at Dantzig; the South Kensington Museum has also a very fine collection of these, which I can’t help thinking are not quite as visible to the public as they should be. They are, however, discoverable by the help of Dr. Rock’s excellent catalogue published by the department, and I hope will, as the Museum gains space, be more easy to see.
Now to sum up: This method of pattern-designing must be considered the Western and civilised method; that used by craftsmen who were always seeing pictures, and whose minds were full of definite ideas of form. Colour was essential to their work, and they loved it, and understood it, but always subordinated it to form.
There is next the method of relief by placing a dark figure on a light ground. Sometimes this method is but the converse of the last, and is not so useful, because it is capable of less variety and play of colour and tone. Sometimes it must be looked on as a transition from the last-mentioned method to the next of colour laid by colour. Thus used there is something incomplete about it. One finds oneself longing for more colours than one’s shuttles or blocks allow one. There is a need felt for the speciality of the next method, where the dividing line is used, and it gradually gets drawn into that method. Which, indeed, is the last I have to speak to you of, and in which colour is laid by colour.
In this method it is necessary that the diverse colours should be separated each by a line of another colour, and that not merely to mark the form, but to complete the colour itself; which outlining, while it serves the purpose of gradation, which in more naturalistic work is got by shading, makes the design quite flat, and takes from it any idea of there being more than one plane in it.
This way of treating pattern design is so much more difficult than the others, as to be almost an art by itself, and to demand a study apart. As the method of relief by laying light upon dark may be called the Western way of treatment and the civilised, so this is the Eastern, and, to a certain extent, the uncivilised.
But it has a wide range, from works where the form is of little importance and only exists to make boundaries for colour, to those in which the form is so studied, so elaborate, and so lovely, that it is hardly true to say that the form is subordinate to the colour; while, on the other hand, so much delight is taken in the colour, it is so inventive and so unerringly harmonious, that it is scarcely possible to think of the form without it — the two interpenetrate.
Such things as these, which, as far as I know, are only found in Persian art at its best, do carry the art of mere pattern-designing to its utmost perfection, and it seems somewhat hard to call such an art uncivilised. But, you see, its whole soul was given up to producing matters of subsidiary art, as people call it; its carpets were of more importance than its pictures; nay, properly speaking, they were its pictures. And it may be that such an art never has a future of change before it, save the change of death, which has now certainly come over that Eastern art; while the more impatient, more aspiring, less sensuous art which belongs to Western civilisation may bear many a change and not die utterly; nay, may feed on its intellect alone for a season, and enduring the martyrdom of a grim time of ugliness, may live on, rebuking at once the narrow-minded pedant of science, and the luxurious tyrant of plutocracy, till change bring back the spring again, and it blossoms once more into pleasure. May it be so.
Meanwhile, we may say for certain that colour for colour’s sake only will never take real hold on the art of our civilisation, not even in its subsidiary art. Imitation and affectation may deceive people into thinking that such an instinct is quickening amongst us, but the deception will not last. To have a meaning and to make others feel and understand it, must ever be the aim and end of our Western art.
Before I leave this subject of the colouring of patterns, I must warn you against the abuse of the dotting, hatching. and lining of backgrounds, and other mechanical contrivances for breaking them; such practices are too often the resource to which want of invention is driven, and unless used with great caution they vulgarise a pattern completely. Compare, for instance, those Sicilian and other silk cloths I have mentioned with the brocades (common everywhere) turned out from the looms of Lyons, Venice, and Genoa, at the end of the seventeenth and beginning of the eighteenth centuries. The first perfectly simple in manufacture, trusting wholly to beauty of design, and the play of light on the naturally woven surface, while the latter eke out their gaudy feebleness with spots and ribs and long floats, and all kinds of meaningless tormenting of the web, till there is nothing to be learned from them save a warning.
So much for the colour of pattern-designing. Now, for a space, let us consider some other things that are necessary to it, and which I am driven to call its moral qualities, and which are finally reducible to two — order and meaning.
Without order your work cannot even exist; without meaning, it were better not to exist.
Now order imposes on us certain limitations, which partly spring from the nature of the art itself, and partly from the materials in which we have to work; and it is a sign of mere incompetence in either a school or an individual to refuse to accept such limitations, or even not to accept them joyfully and turn them to special account, much as if a poet should complain of having to write in measure and rhyme.
Now, in our craft the chief of the limitations that spring from the essence of the art is that the decorator’s art cannot be imitative even to the limited extent that the picture-painter’s art is.
This you have been told hundreds of times, and in theory it is accepted everywhere, so I need not say much about it — chiefly this, that it does not excuse want of observation of nature, or laziness of drawing, as some people seem to think. On the contrary, unless you know plenty about the natural form that you are conventionalising, you will not only find it impossible to give people a satisfactory impression of what is in your own mind about it, but you will also be so hampered by your ignorance, that you will not be able to make your conventionalised form ornamental. It will not fill a space properly, or look crisp and sharp, or fulfil any purpose you may strive to put it to.
It follows from this that your convention must be your own, and not borrowed from other times and peoples; or, at the least, that you must make it your own by thoroughly understanding both the nature and the art you are dealing with. If you do not heed this, I do not know but what you may not as well turn to and draw laborious portraits of natural forms of flower and bird and beast, and stick them on your walls anyhow. It is true you will not get ornament so, but you may learn something for your trouble; whereas, using an obviously true principle as a stalking-horse for laziness of purpose and lack of invention, will but injure art all round, and blind people to the truth of that very principle.
Limitations also, both as to imitation and exuberance, are imposed on us by the office our pattern has to fulfil. A small and often- recurring pattern of a subordinate kind will bear much less naturalism than one in a freer space and more important position, and the more obvious the geometrical structure of a pattern is, the less its parts should tend toward naturalism. This has been well understood from the earliest days of art to the very latest times during which pattern-designing has clung to any wholesome tradition, but is pretty generally unheeded at present.
As to the limitations that arise from the material we may be working in, we must remember that all material offers certain difficulties to be overcome, and certain facilities to be made the most of. Up to a certain point you must be the master of your material, but you must never be so much the master as to turn it surly, so to say. You must not make it your slave, or presently you will be a slave also. You must master it so far as to make it express a meaning, and to serve your aim at beauty. You may go beyond that necessary point for your own pleasure and amusement, and still be in the right way; but if you go on after that merely to make people stare at your dexterity in dealing with a difficult thing, you have forgotten art along with the rights of your material, and you will make not a work of art, but a mere toy; you are no longer an artist, but a juggler. The history of the arts gives us abundant examples and warnings in this matter. First clear steady principle, then playing with the danger, and lastly falling into the snare, mark with the utmost distinctness the times of the health, the decline, and the last sickness of art.
Allow me to give you one example in the noble art of mosaic. The difficulty in it necessary to be overcome was the making of a pure and true flexible line, not over thick, with little bits of glass or marble nearly rectangular. Its glory lay in its durability, the lovely colour to be got in it, the play of light on its faceted and gleaming surface, and the clearness mingled with softness, with which forms were relieved on the lustrous gold which was so freely used in its best days. Moreover, however bright were the colours used, they were toned delightfully by the greyness which the innumerable joints between the tesserae spread over the whole surface.
Now the difficulty of the art was overcome in its earliest and best days, and no care or pains were spared in making the most of its special qualities, while for long and long no force was put upon the material to make it imitate the qualities of brush-painting, either in power of colour, in delicacy of gradation, or intricacy of treating a subject; and, moreover, easy as it would have been to minimise the jointing of the tesserae, no attempt was made at it.
But as time went on, men began to tire of the solemn simplicity of the art, and began to aim at making it keep pace with the growing complexity of picture painting, and, though still beautiful, it lost colour without gaining form. From that point (say about 1460), it went on from bad to worse, till at last men were set to work in it merely because it was an intractable material in which to imitate oil-painting, and by this time it was fallen from being a master art, the crowning beauty of the most solemn buildings, to being a mere tax on the craftsmen’s patience, and a toy for people who no longer cared for art. And just such a history may be told of every art that deals with special material.
Under this head of order should be included something about the structure of patterns, but time for dealing with such an intricate question obviously fails me; so I will but note that, whereas it has been said that a recurring pattern should be constructed on a geometrical basis, it is clear that it cannot be constructed otherwise; only the structure may be more or less masked, and some designers take a great deal of pains to do so.
I cannot say that I think this always necessary. It may be so when the pattern is on a very small scale, and meant to attract but little attention. But it is sometimes the reverse of desirable in large and important patterns, and, to my mind, all noble patterns should at least LOOK large. Some of the finest and pleasantest of these show their geometrical structure clearly enough; and if the lines of them grow strongly and flow gracefully, I think they are decidedly helped by their structure not being elaborately concealed.
At the same time in all patterns which are meant to fill the eye and satisfy the mind, there should be a certain mystery. We should not be able to read the whole thing at once, nor desire to do so, nor be impelled by that desire to go on tracing line after line to find out how the pattern is made, and I think that the obvious presence of a geometrical order, if it be, as it should be, beautiful, tends towards this end, and prevents our feeling restless over a pattern.
That every line in a pattern should have its due growth, and be traceable to its beginning, this, which you have doubtless heard before, is undoubtedly essential to the finest pattern work; equally so is it that no stem should be so far from its parent stock as to look weak or wavering. Mutual support and unceasing progress distinguish real and natural order from its mockery, pedantic tyranny.
Every one who has practised the designing of patterns knows the necessity for covering the ground equably and richly. This is really to a great extent the secret of obtaining the look of satisfying mystery aforesaid, and it is the very test of capacity in a designer.
Finally, no amount of delicacy is too great in drawing the curves of a pattern, no amount of care in getting the leading lines right from the first, can be thrown away, for beauty of detail cannot afterwards cure any shortcoming in this. Remember that a pattern is either right or wrong. It cannot be forgiven for blundering, as a picture may be which has otherwise great qualities in it. It is with a pattern as with a fortress, it is no stronger than its weakest point. A failure for ever recurring torments the eye too much to allow the mind to take any pleasure in suggestion and intention.
As to the second moral quality of design, meaning, I include in that the invention and imagination which forms the soul of this art, as of all others, and which, when submitted to the bonds of order, has a body and a visible existence.
Now you may well think that there is less to be said of this than the other quality; for form may be taught, but the spirit that breathes through it cannot be. So I will content myself with saying this on these qualities, that though a designer may put all manner of strangeness and surprise into his patterns, he must not do so at the expense of beauty. You will never find a case in this kind of work where ugliness and violence are not the result of barrenness, and not of fertility of invention. The fertile man, he of resource, has not to worry himself about invention. He need but think of beauty and simplicity of expression; his work will grow on and on, one thing leading to another, as it fares with a beautiful tree. Whereas the laborious paste-and-scissors man goes hunting up and down for oddities, sticks one in here and another there, and tries to connect them with commonplace; and when it is all done, the oddities are not more inventive than the commonplace, nor the commonplace more graceful than the oddities.
No pattern should be without some sort of meaning. True it is that that meaning may have come down to us traditionally, and not be our own invention, yet we must at heart understand it, or we can neither receive it, nor hand it down to our successors. It is no longer tradition if it is servilely copied, without change, the token of life. You may be sure that the softest and loveliest of patterns will weary the steadiest admirers of their school as soon as they see that there is no hope of growth in them. For you know all art is compact of effort, of failure and of hope, and we cannot but think that somewhere perfection lies ahead, as we look anxiously for the better thing that is to come from the good.
Furthermore, you must not only mean something in your patterns, but must also be able to make others understand that meaning. They say that the difference between a genius and a madman is that the genius can get one or two people to believe in him, whereas the madman, poor fellow, has himself only for his audience. Now the only way in our craft of design for compelling people to understand you is to follow hard on Nature; for what else can you refer people to, or what else is there which everybody can understand? — everybody that it is worth addressing yourself to, which includes all people who can feel and think.
Now let us end the talk about those qualities of invention and imagination with a word of memory and of thanks to the designers of time past. Surely he who runs may read them abundantly set forth in those lesser arts they practised. Surely it had been pity indeed, if so much of this had been lost as would have been if it had been crushed out by the pride of intellect, that will not stoop to look at beauty, unless its own kings and great men have had a hand in it. Belike the thoughts of the men who wrought this kind of art could not have been expressed in grander ways or more definitely, or, at least, would not have been; therefore I believe I am not thinking only of my own pleasure, but of the pleasure of many people, when I praise the usefulness of the lives of these men, whose names are long forgotten, but whose works we still wonder at. In their own way they meant to tell us how the flowers grew in the gardens of Damascus, or how the hunt was up on the plains of Kirman, or how the tulips shone among the grass in the Mid-Persian valley, and how their souls delighted in it all, and what joy they had in life; nor did they fail to make their meaning clear to some of us.
But, indeed, they and other matters have led us afar from our makeshift house, and the room we have to decorate therein. And there is still left the fireplace to consider.
Now I think there is nothing about a house in which a contrast is greater between old and new than this piece of architecture. The old, either delightful in its comfortable simplicity, or decorated with the noblest and most meaning art in the place; the modern, mean, miserable, uncomfortable, and showy, plastered about with wretched sham ornament, trumpery of cast-iron, and brass and polished steel, and what not — offensive to look at, and a nuisance to clean — and the whole thing huddled up with rubbish of ash-pan, and fender, and rug, till surely the hearths which we have been bidden so often to defend (whether there was a chance of their being attacked or not) have now become a mere figure of speech the meaning of which in a short time it will be impossible for learned philologists to find out.
I do most seriously advise you to get rid of all this, or as much of it as you can without absolute ruin to your prospects in life; and even if you do not know how to decorate it, at least have a hole in the wall of a convenient shape, faced with such bricks or tiles as will at once bear fire and clean; then some sort of iron basket in it, and out from that a real hearth of cleanable brick or tile, which will not make you blush when you look at it, and as little in the way of guard and fender as you think will be safe; that will do to begin with. For the rest, if you have wooden work about the fireplace, which is often good to have, don’t mix up the wood and the tiles together; let the wood-work look like part of the wall- covering, and the tiles like part of the chimney.
As for movable furniture, even if time did not fail us, ‘tis a large subject — or a very small one — so I will but say, don’t have too much of it; have none for mere finery’s sake, or to satisfy the claims of custom — these are flat truisms, are they not? But really it seems as if some people had never thought of them, for ‘tis almost the universal custom to stuff up some rooms so that you can scarcely move in them, and to leave others deadly bare; whereas all rooms ought to look as if they were lived in, and to have, so to say, a friendly welcome ready for the incomer.
A dining-room ought not to look as if one went into it as one goes into a dentist’s parlour — for an operation, and came out of it when the operation was over — the tooth out, or the dinner in. A drawing- room ought to look as if some kind of work could be done in it less toilsome than being bored. A library certainly ought to have books in it, not boots only, as in Thackeray’s country snob’s house, but so ought each and every room in the house more or less; also, though all rooms should look tidy, and even very tidy, they ought not to look too tidy.
Furthermore, no room of the richest man should look grand enough to make a simple man shrink in it, or luxurious enough to make a thoughtful man feel ashamed in it; it will not do so if Art be at home there, for she has no foes so deadly as insolence and waste. Indeed, I fear that at present the decoration of rich men’s houses is mostly wrought out at the bidding of grandeur and luxury, and that art has been mostly cowed or shamed out of them; nor when I come to think of it will I lament it overmuch. Art was not born in the palace; rather she fell sick there, and it will take more bracing air than that of rich men’s houses to heal her again. If she is ever to be strong enough to help mankind once more, she must gather strength in simple places; the refuge from wind and weather to which the goodman comes home from field or hill-side; the well- tidied space into which the craftsman draws from the litter of loom, and smithy, and bench; the scholar’s island in the sea of books; the artist’s clearing in the canvas-grove; it is from these places that Art must come if she is ever again to be enthroned in that other kind of building, which I think, under some name or other, whether you call it church or hall of reason, or what not, will always be needed; the building in which people meet to forget their own transient personal and family troubles in aspirations for their fellows and the days to come, and which to a certain extent make up to town-dwellers for their loss of field, and river, and mountain.
Well, it seems to me that these two kinds of buildings are all we have really to think of, together with whatsoever outhouses, workshops, and the like may be necessary. Surely the rest may quietly drop to pieces for aught we care — unless it should be thought good in the interest of history to keep one standing in each big town to show posterity what strange, ugly, uncomfortable houses rich men dwelt in once upon a time.
Meantime now, when rich men won’t have art, and poor men can’t, there is, nevertheless, some unthinking craving for it, some restless feeling in men’s minds of something lacking somewhere, which has made many benevolent people seek for the possibility of cheap art.
What do they mean by that? One art for the rich and another for the poor? No, it won’t do. Art is not so accommodating as the justice or religion of society, and she won’t have it.
What then? there has been cheap art at some times certainly, at the expense of the starvation of the craftsmen. But people can’t mean that; and if they did, would, happily, no longer have the same chance of getting it that they once had. Still they think art can be got round some way or other — jockeyed, so to say. I rather think in this fashion: that a highly gifted and carefully educated man shall, like Mr. Pecksniff, squint at a sheet of paper, and that the results of that squint shall set a vast number of well-fed, contented operatives (they are ashamed to call them workmen) turning crank handles for ten hours a-day, bidding them keep what gifts and education they may have been born with for their — I was going to say leisure hours, but I don’t know how to, for if I were to work ten hours a-day at work I despised and hated, I should spend my leisure I hope in political agitation, but I fear — in drinking. So let us say that the aforesaid operatives will have to keep their inborn gifts and education for their dreams. Well, from this system are to come threefold blessings — food and clothing, poorish lodgings and a little leisure to the operatives, enormous riches to the capitalists that rent them, together with moderate riches to the squinter on the paper; and lastly, very decidedly lastly, abundance of cheap art for the operatives or crank turners to buy — in their dreams.
Well, there have been many other benevolent and economical schemes for keeping your cake after you have eaten it, for skinning a flint, and boiling a flea down for its tallow and glue, and this one of cheap art may just go its way with the others.
Yet to my mind real art is cheap, even at the price that must be paid for it. That price is, in short, the providing of a handicraftsman who shall put his own individual intelligence and enthusiasm into the goods he fashions. So far from his labour being ‘divided,’ which is the technical phrase for his always doing one minute piece of work, and never being allowed to think of any other; so far from that, he must know all about the ware he is making and its relation to similar wares; he must have a natural aptitude for his work so strong, that no education can force him away from his special bent. He must be allowed to think of what he is doing, and to vary his work as the circumstances of it vary, and his own moods. He must be for ever striving to make the piece he is at work at better than the last. He must refuse at anybody’s bidding to turn out, I won’t say a bad, but even an indifferent piece of work, whatever the public want, or think they want. He must have a voice, and a voice worth listening to in the whole affair.
Such a man I should call, not an operative, but a workman. You may call him an artist if you will, for I have been describing the qualities of artists as I know them; but a capitalist will be apt to call him a ‘troublesome fellow,’ a radical of radicals, and, in fact, he will be troublesome — mere grit and friction in the wheels of the money-grinding machine.
Yes, such a man will stop the machine perhaps; but it is only through him that you can have art, i.e. civilisation unmaimed, if you really want it; so consider, if you do want it, and will pay the price and give the workman his due.
What is his due? that is, what can he take from you, and be the man that you want? Money enough to keep him from fear of want or degradation for him and his; leisure enough from bread-earning work (even though it be pleasant to him) to give him time to read and think, and connect his own life with the life of the great world; work enough of the kind aforesaid, and praise of it, and encouragement enough to make him feel good friends with his fellows; and lastly (not least, for ‘tis verily part of the bargain), his own due share of art, the chief part of which will be a dwelling that does not lack the beauty which Nature would freely allow it, if our own perversity did not turn Nature out of doors.
That is the bargain to be struck, such work and such wages; and I believe that if the world wants the work and is willing to pay the wages, the workmen will not long be wanting.
On the other hand, if it be certain that the world — that is, modern civilised society — will nevermore ask for such workmen, then I am as sure as that I stand here breathing, that art is dying: that the spark still smouldering is not to be quickened into life, but damped into death. And indeed, often, in my fear of that, I think, ‘Would that I could see what is to take the place of art!’ For, whether modern civilised society CAN make that bargain aforesaid, who shall say? I know well — who could fail to know it? — that the difficulties are great.
Too apt has the world ever been, ‘for the sake of life to cast away the reasons for living,’ and perhaps is more and more apt to it as the conditions of life get more intricate, as the race to avoid ruin, which seems always imminent and overwhelming, gets swifter and more terrible. Yet how would it be if we were to lay aside fear and turn in the face of all that, and stand by our claim to have, one and all of us, reasons for living. Mayhap the heavens would not fall on us if we did.
Anyhow, let us make up our minds which we want, art, or the absence of art, and be prepared if we want art, to give up many things, and in many ways to change the conditions of life. Perhaps there are those who will understand me when I say that that necessary change may make life poorer for the rich, rougher for the refined, and, it may be, duller for the gifted — for a while; that it may even take such forms that not the best or wisest of us shall always be able to know it for a friend, but may at whiles fight against it as a foe. Yet, when the day comes that gives us visible token of art rising like the sun from below — when it is no longer a justly despised whim of the rich, or a lazy habit of the so-called educated, but a thing that labour begins to crave as a necessity, even as labour is a necessity for all men — in that day how shall all trouble be forgotten, all folly forgiven — even our own!
Little by little it must come, I know. Patience and prudence must not be lacking to us, but courage still less. Let us be a Gideon’s band. ‘Whosoever is fearful and afraid, let him return, and depart early from Mount Gilead.’ And among that band let there be no delusions; let the last encouraging lie have been told, the last after-dinner humbug spoken, for surely, though the days seem dark, we may remember that men longed for freedom while yet they were slaves; that it was in times when swords were reddened every day that men began to think of peace and order, and to strive to win them.
We who think, and can enjoy the feast that Nature has spread for us, is it not both our right and our duty to rebel against that slavery of the waste of life’s joys, which people thoughtless and joyless, by no fault of their own, have wrapped the world in? From our own selves we can tell that there is hope of victory in our rebellion, since we have art enough in our lives, not to content us, but to make us long for more, and that longing drives us into trying to spread art and the longing for art; and as it is with us so it will be with those that we win over: little by little, we may well hope, will do its work, till at last a great many men will have enough of art to see how little they have, and how much they might better their lives, if every man had his due share of art — that is, just so much as he could use if a fair chance were given him.
Is that, indeed, too extravagant a hope? Have you not heard how it has gone with many a cause before now? First few men heed it; next most men contemn it; lastly, all men accept it — and the cause is won.
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:53