An Old English Home and Its Dependencies/Chapter 5
WHEN I was a small boy at King's College School, I boarded with one of the masters, at a corner house in Queen's Square. There was a long room in which we boarders—there were some five-and-twenty of us—had our meals, and prepared lessons for the morrow in the evening, under the supervision of an usher.
One day at tea, the usher having been summoned out of the room, we boys essayed who could throw up his piece of bread and butter highest. Mine went against the ceiling, and, the butter being unusually thick, adhered.
I was in great alarm; there was no getting it down: it stuck, and neither the usher nor the master, when he entered for prayers, observed it.
During preparation of lessons, during prayers, my eyes reverted to the piece of bread and butter. It remained unnoticed. That it was also unobserved by the servants, who were supposed to clean the room, is not perhaps matter of surprise.
The next day passed—still the bread and butter hung suspended—but on the third day, during prayers, flop!—down it came in front of the master, and left behind it a nasty, greasy stain on the ceiling.
"Whose piece of bread and butter is that?" asked the master, when Amen had been said.
I had to confess, and was whipped.That stain in the ceiling grew darker daily. The dust of the room adhered to the butter. It was not effaced all the while I remained
THE DRAWING-ROOM, DUNSLAND, DEVON
Years after, when I was a man, and the old master was dead, and the house was in other hands, I ventured to ask the then tenants to be allowed to look at my old school-haunt. And—actually—the bread and butter stain was still there. Like murder—it could not be hid. The ceiling had been repeatedly whitewashed, but ever through the coverings that overlaid it, the butter mark reasserted itself.
I cannot say whether it was this which causes me always, on entering a room, to direct my eyes to the ceiling—but I do, and observe it always with much interest.
The ceiling of the world is not one blank space; it is sprinkled with stars at night, and strewn with clouds by day. Why then should the ceilings of our rooms be blank surfaces? We spread carpets of colour on our floors. We decorate richly our walls. Why should the ceiling alone be left in hideous baldness, in fact, absolutely plain? White ceilings were a product of that worst period of art—save the mark! that age of no art at all, the beginning of the present century.
The ceiling came in in the reign of Henry VIII., and reached its greatest perfection in that of Elizabeth. At a later period the ornamentation became richer, but not so tasteful.
The mouldings were worked with "putty lime," lime finely sifted and mixed with some hair, the lines of the ornamentation were made with ribbons of copper or lead, and the pattern was fashioned by hand over this.
It is supposed that the drops one finds in Tudor ceilings, and which are not of plaster, or plaster only, but of carved wood, are a mere ornament, and purposeless.
This, however, is not the case. Such enriched ceilings are very heavy, and their weight has a tendency to break down the laths to which they adhere, but these pendents are bolted into the rafters, and serve to form so many supports for the entire ceiling, which without them might in time fall.
The Elizabethan ceiling was geometrical in design, but with bands of flower-work, conventional in character, introduced, and sometimes consisted in strap-work, studded with rosettes, wondrously interlacing.
Then came a simpler geometrical pattern, circles enclosing wreaths of flowers copied from nature, exquisitely delicate and beautiful; but the imitation was carried sometimes too far, as when the flower heads are suspended on fine stalks of copper wire.
In a little squirarchical mansion in Cornwall, of no architectural beauty, there was a marvellously beautiful ceiling of the date of Charles II., the flowers and fruit infinitely varied, and wrought with exquisite delicacy. The room was low, and for that reason the artist had taken special pains in the modelling.
A "Brummagem" man bought up the land and the house—this latter was far too small to suit his ideas, and it was left unoccupied.
One day the rector said to him: "I want to have my school treat next Thursday—should rain fall, may I take the children into the old hall?"
"By all means," said the new squire; "but it will be stuffy: I will have it ventilated."
He at once went down with two carpenters and ripped strips through the lovely ceiling from one end of the room to the other, utterly destroying this incomparable work, that must have occupied the artist months of patient labour, and which had called forth the best efforts of his genius.
That is how mulish stupidity is every day destroying the achievements of genius. It is on a level with that of the chawbacon who, having got hold of a Stradella violin, broke it up to light his fire with the splinters.
There was, perhaps, a little heaviness in these ceilings—a little more than there ought to be, and the perfection of plaster work was attained in Germany at a somewhat later period, when the rococo ceilings came in. These were superb—not heavy, but rich with fancy and exquisite in delicacy. This never reached England, or if a foreign workman came here and did a ceiling or two, the art did not take root. Instead it died completely out, and we were left with quite plain ceilings or such as had a centre-piece, cast, of no style—vulgar, tasteless, and mechanical, and of plaster of Paris.
We have come now to recognize, tardily, the right of the ceiling to decoration, and are either papering it or covering it with lincrusta, or papier mâché, or asbestos "salamander" decoration, applied. This is better than nothing, but, of course, is mechanical and monotonous, and can never compete with the work that is the direct outcome of mental effort and manual dexterity.
In connection with a ceiling I subjoin the following story from a friend:
"In 1891 my head mason had an attack of influenza, and this fell on his nerves, and convinced that he had been ill-wished he consulted a white-witch at ———, who informed him that he had been 'overlooked' by one of his own profession, and that he had applied too late for a cure to be effected. The man became terribly depressed; he wandered over the country, disappearing for days, and keeping his family in alarm, lest he should make away with himself.
"This went on for several years. He would do no work, he took no interest in anything, and could speak of nothing but his ailments. 'His heart was broke,' such was his description of himself. Well, I was about to rebuild a wing of my mansion, and to make of one large room a ball-room. I went to my bewitched mason and said to him, 'Thomas, I wish you would help me. I am very anxious to have a first-class decorated ceiling to that ball-room, and you know what these Londoners be: they do all by machinery, and you buy a ceiling by the yard—nasty, vulgar stuff I would be ashamed to have seen here. I'll tell you what it is, Thomas, those Londoners come out of town and sail about the country in the holiday time picking up ideas. I think we must show them how a thing in ceilings ought to be done, and let them understand that we are not such fools as they take us to be. Try your hand at my ball-room ceiling. Get it started at any rate.' The man was not a plasterer by profession, but he had done some plaster work for me, and took an interest in it.
"'Oh, sir!' said he, 'my heart is broke. I couldn't do it.'
"'What,' I answered, 'not to teach the Londoners a lesson?'
"'Well, I'll begin it, but never be able to finish it.'
"'Then begin it, man.'
"So he did. Between us we contrived to model roses and tulips, etc. And then we set to work casting and finishing off. Then came the glorious rainless summer of 1896. 'Thomas,' said I, 'we must get the walls of the ball-room up and roofed over before winter. Do now lend a hand with building. Then when bad weather comes on you can begin to set up the ceiling.' So all the summer he was building—did not miss a day, and this winter he is hard at work at his ceiling, full of interest and delight, and has recovered his good looks, and to a large extent forgotten his maladies, and by the time that the last rose is finished off, I trust he will be a sound man again."
Now what my friend wrote me conveys a moral. Our country workmen, masons, carpenters, smiths, are not fools. They need only to be directed in the paths of good taste, to execute admirable work, as good as anything produced in former days. Do not over-teach and direct them, give them good examples, show them the principles of construction and decoration, and then, as much as may be, leave them to work the details out by themselves. They become intensely interested and proud of their work, and take all their friends and fellow-tradesmen to see it, whether it be in the church or the manor-house; and that this sort of education, producing results in the place, attaches them to their village home, goes without saying.
There was a grand old fellow, George Bevan by name, a mason, who worked in this parish when I was a boy. And now, whenever in alteration or in pulling down a bit of George Bevan's work is come upon, the masons stand still, shake their heads, and say, "As well blast a rock as put a pick into George Bevan's work." Then say I, "Aye, and a hundred years hence folk will say, 'This has been done by the White family. There were giants in those days.'"
Unhappily, many of our landed proprietors think it quite enough to build "neat" farm-houses and cottages, and pay no regard to beauty. It does not cost more to build what is beautiful than what is hideous; if they took pains to educate their local artisans to do work that is pleasing, they would be elevating them in culture, and, what is more, attaching them to those old homes of theirs that they have helped to make a delight to the eye; whereas, set them to build what is ugly, and even though ignorant of the principles of art, they are dimly conscious that the cottage they occupy is not a place pleasant to the eye, and not one they can ever grow to love.