The Country House/Chapter 12
My Dear Sir,
I SHOULD willingly refer you to abler advisers if M. de Chateauneuf's bouse were as real as it deserves to be; but although the conditions which you and the architect have proposed to yourselves have led to very definite arrangements in the structure itself, a pleasing uncertainty may be assumed to exist with regard to the decorations: in a word, I can scarcely shrink from a responsibility as ideal as the subject of our speculation.
I am sorry you have again referred to a certain "Pompeian" room; believe me, too much has been said of what you know was a rough experiment, to see the effect of a particular kind of decoration for small rooms, and which, as regards its details, can only deserve attention from the skill with which Mr. Harvey executed the animals that are introduced.
The word "decoration," however appropriate to fantastic ornaments, and in some degree to insulated figures, has, as you know, been considered vilifying when applied to works that are addressed to the mind. But, as we have no other term, we must consent to use it in both meanings. It is, indeed, important to remember, that no works of art, however elevated, can dispense with the appeal, the impressive or winning appeal, to the eye. Thus much for our definition of terms.
As a general principle in decoration, I would recommend that the eye should be solely or chiefly addressed where a passing glance only can be given to the work, and that the attention should be more taxed where leisure and surrounding circumstances permit or invite contemplation. The reverse of this would be manifestly wrong; but the recommendation itself is not to be understood too literally. Every display has its legitimate exuberance: the "over and above" in decoration can only be that of quality, for mere taste is supposed to define all that relates to quantity. As common poetic description sometimes exalts its subject less by accumulation than by supposing costly materials where mean ones would do, so in art the augmenting excellence ascends from sense to thought. If, therefore, the intention to afford mental pleasure is very apparent even in situations where this may appear superfluous and in a manner thrown away, the impression must of itself be elevating. But the indispensable condition is, that a gradation should still be maintained; that higher excellence should still be in reserve. What must be the character of works of art to which Raphael's Corridor in the Vatican forms the mere approach? The answer is given by the perfection of the works in the Stanze. All that is to be insisted on, therefore, is a due gradation in conformity with the principle first proposed. In the remarks that follow, I cannot strictly follow the plan of the house, but must often generalize; the observations submitted, if tenable at all, will, however, be easily applicable to your purpose.
The pavement of the halls might be enriched, but I can hardly approve the occasional practice of the ancients in placing mosaic "histories" under their feet: the objections are sufficiently obvious. The forms and hues employed should be merely calculated to gratify the sight. Among other preliminary considerations, I would also include the nature of the mere surface, as well as the distinction of every apartment. Thus a pavement, however decorated, should still express the character of firmness and solidity. For this reason I would banish even the lowest kind of life, (that of plants,) and every approach to perspective. Geometrical forms would thus be alone admissible: the variety is infinite; but even here I would again exclude abrupt and irregular contrasts of colour, which have sometimes the effect of making the evenness of the surface doubtful: the last consideration is even applicable to carpets. With respect to the classic fashion of inscriptions on the threshold, I merely remark, that letters are only ornamental in architecture when disposed symmetrically, and enclosed in a regular frame-work.
In approving the common practice of placing statues and bas-reliefs in statue has generally the advantage of being seen in various points of view, and thus commands attention in situations where paintings could not. The rich effect of bas-reliefs is sufficient to recommend them; associations of classic taste are naturally connected with the classic materials of marble or the principal hall, I do not depart from the spirit of our first principles. A bronze; and architecture, when displayed as such, seems to acquire additional solidity by the presence of sculpture. But works of sculpture of the first excellence should be admitted to the library or drawing room, and even fragments of rare beauty should be enshrined with like distinction. For the present, however, we are in the hall. I do not recommend mixing mural painting and sculpture: no painted devices should compete injudiciously with the bas-reliefs. But let us suppose that your bas-reliefs are in the outer hall, and that you have only some sculptured vases on detached pedestals in the inner hall or corridor, then by all means decorate the walls of the latter with arabesques: to these we shall return. In the staircase, also, it will be necessary to make your election between the two arts. I will assume that you decide for painting. Few people linger in a staircase; still fewer break their necks to look at a painted ceiling. If the scene affects the eye and the imagination agreeably, this may be considered sufficient. When we see the whole Pantheon on the ceiling and walls of great staircases, this undoubtedly might be defended on the ground that a mere passing impression of magnificence is intended: but the exuberance of quantity rather than of quality is here obvious. In whatever mode the walls of the staircase are adorned, the decoration should be entirely subservient to the architectural effect. This involves a more radical objection to the mythologic crowds before alluded to, because they have frequently the effect (and intentionally so) of destroying all idea of the angles of the building. I am of opinion, on the contrary, that the decorator should dispose his paintings in shapes which shall appear to grow out of and complete the architecture. The inclination of the panelling of the wall to agree with the line of the stairs, may be considered incompatible with paintings: a horizontal termination, perhaps level with the chief landing-place, is essential, and the triangular spaces, or sections of such spaces, between this and the stairs, had better be left nearly plain, and not very light in colour. Of all mistakes, that of introducing painted figures, sometimes the size of life, where living figures must so often come in contact with them, is the worst.
The compartment or compartments above the horizontal line might be painted in fresco, certainly not in oil on the wall, nor in the newly revived encaustic, at least not till it has been further tried. The figures should not extend to the angles of the walls where the staircase turns; the pseudo or real compartments which form the frames might finish at a little distance from the angle; the real wall is, in short, never to be lost sight of; and whatever merits ocular illusion may have in paintings generally, it would be injudicious to attempt it here. Where the light is unfavourable for painting, the flattest style of bas-relief is still admissible. But as you are especially desirous of having your staircase coloured, I really can propose nothing fitter to gratify the eye and imagination merely, than the more refined and at the same time familiar subjects of the Greek mythology; such as the personifications of Poetry, the progress of the Hours and of Light, and so forth. Such subjects afford the best materials for mere beauty of line and drapery, for composition generally, and, if not too statue-like, for colour; and even when they suggest no profounder range of thought, (not that their import is necessarily thus superficial,) they leave an elegant impression on the mind. The objection is, that they are old; but there would be some novelty in treating them as detached compositions, instead of beclouding and peopling the whole space in the style of the seventeenth century. It is to be remarked, that Raphael and Michael Angelo bounded their compositions of this kind by definite forms, especially on ceilings. Pietro da Cortona and the machinists generally, were as intent on destroying the connection between painting and architecture as the great masters were to preserve it.
But this separation of the compositions into compartments supposes at once a great latitude in the choice of subjects. Milton's smaller poems, and many other English sources, might be preferred to classic inventions; only it should be remembered, that fresco, from the nature of its means, is privileged to aim at the ideal rather than the actual world, and that the character of the decorations required for the place must necessarily influence the selection and treatment of the subjects. Dark effects are equally unfit for the situation and for the powers of fresco. In the ornamented divisions of the compartments, perhaps partial gilding might be employed with better effect than colours; on the ceiling both might be introduced, (in merely decorative forms,) unless your staircase ends in light, in which case your glass must of course be ornamented, even if colourless.
Dining rooms, strictly so called and employed, are generally unadorned with pictures: this hardly seems necessary. In theory we may admit that subjects requiring some contemplation would be out of place in a room exclusively devoted to "the table;" but portraits of celebrated individuals, and landscapes, although they cannot be duly examined in such moments, may convey associations, to which the spectator, even if not particularly conversant in pictures, is supposed to be alive at all times. Portraits of the class alluded to, as historic texts, are connected with time; and landscape, especially if founded on actual scenes, suggests the conditions of place. A room used for the purpose in question, and for nothing else, is, however, not the place where fine works of art should be bestowed; and I incline to think that this is the fittest field for small frescos and arabesques. This, in short, is one of the occasions to please the eye and the imagination merely. Accordingly, in the mode proposed, no definite idea is presented to the mind, but an air of elegant and festive splendour surrounds the guests. There should, however, be endless variety; scarcely a form should be repeated in the details, although an architectural symmetry is, as usual, to be preserved in the masses.
A dining room per se is not uncommon; but a professed and exclusive breakfast room supposes a degree of order in the family migrations, to which the muses could hardly be expected to accommodate themselves. Nevertheless, to complete my catalogue, I will suppose one; or rather I will suppose that one of your drawing rooms is used chiefly as a morning room. Indeed, without condemning a family to betake themselves to particular rooms at stated hours, it may be allowable to decorate and furnish apartments on such a supposition, by way of ensuring a marked and agreeable variety of character. Lucullus had even a series of dining rooms from the "Apollo" downwards; and we learn from Vitruvius, that the opulent Romans changed the scene of their banquets according to the season of the year. The morning has its own feelings even for those whom affluence frees from any kind of labour. The purposes of the day are unfinished—every thing is contingent. Under such circumstances the character or subject of pictures is to be adapted to the mind—not the mind to the subject. The open face of nature by sea and land may here enliven the walls, and agree with the excursive feelings of the hour. The chase and its incidents may here triumph. The English pastoral is here strictly in its place. Solemn themes, solemn effects, should not be admitted; while all that responds to buoyancy of spirit would, on the contrary, be appropriate. It need not be gravely objected, that accidental or even average states of feeling may be little in unison with the impressions which the arts profess to give; for the same objection is frequently applicable to all of the accompaniments of civilized life, nay, to the beauties of nature, which so often appeal even to cultivated human sympathies in vain. The occasional contradiction is unavoidable, where, of two conditions, one is permanent, the other mutable.
Corridors on the ground-floor, or even upstairs in houses where pictures do not abound, may be fitly decorated with arabesques. The same kind of ornament might be applied to garden pavilions, and, in the present instance, even to your portico next the lake, if there are no statues there, but not to conservatories, where the conventional forms and tints of art would contend injudiciously with nature. In these decorations it is absolutely necessary to set out with an architectural scheme, and subdivide the spaces with some attention to congruity and subordination. In the details, pleasing masses and forms are essential, because here nothing can be concealed; there is, strictly speaking, no chiaro-scuro, no perspective: form and colour are the chief means. The possibility of approaching and even coming in contact with the painted wall, suggests the necessity of a small scale in the objects, and of precision and delicacy of outline; yet, from the circumstance of the forms and hues being relieved on a light ground, they are at the same time effective at a considerable distance. Stucco ornaments in very low relief, mixed with the painting, are admissible, (as they can hardly be said to come under the head of sculpture,) but they require a strong light to display them.
I cannot recommend frescos for the sitting rooms of dwelling houses. The sum of enjoyment to be derived from one or two large paintings is not to be compared to that which the contributions of various schools can afford, even assuming the highest merit. It is true, frescos like those of the Villa Madama near Rome, from the school of Raphael, may be beautifully executed in a small size, but they still seem fitter for open galleries than for rooms. (I have only ventured to except the dining room.) The impossibility of change in such situations is an unpleasant feeling; in a public building, on the contrary, it is satisfactory, and a staircase approaches this character. I may here observe, that a staircase covered with ancient family portraits is seldom agreeable to the eye; indeed if it were a desirable kind of decoration, centuries must often elapse before the materials would be ready. The first impression on seeing a quantity of portraits in a staircase is, that it is an accidental if not a troublesome accumulation, and that there is no room for the pictures in better situations. Far be it from me to speak with any disrespect of the taste for family portraits so peculiar to the English. The domestic "charities," it has been often observed, are pleasingly fostered by them; but I hold it not always necessary to place the portraits of the household in prominent situations. The interest such works inspire is in most cases strictly domestic and private. The portrait has, in short, no pretension to be conspicuous to all eyes till the individual is celebrated, or till the work of art is canonized. These conditions, I admit, may often exist from the first; but then, à fortiori, a staircase is not the place for such a production. The Romans appropriated one of the most public rooms of the house (the tablinum) to genealogies, records, and inscriptions relating to the family history, and covered the remaining space—often the atrium as well—with the portraits and busts of their ancestors. This does not appear to have been the custom with the Athenians.
We have decided against frescos in what are called sitting rooms: your oil pictures are, however, to be selected. I shall consider the library as distinct from the drawing rooms; but it is quite possible to blend their character. The library in the ducal palace at Urbino, had a room or study adjoining it, decorated with portraits (in this case, by the way, they appear to have been frescos) of learned men of all ages. In a library, literally to be used as such, pictures of extensive interest seem to be inappropriate. They may be said to divert the attention from the business or amusement of the place. But the portrait of the poet, or the sage, is a source of pleasing and elevating associations, and may sometimes command a deep interest. The library may contain the cabinets of gems and medals, the collections of engravings, the terra cottas, &c.; or if the drawing room is ample enough, all these treasures of virtù may be deposited there. I prefer a library without coloured decorations; the wood-work may be carved in flat relief, even to the panels of the walls; a mode of decoration now beautifully supplied by embossed leather, which need not be dark in colour. Whatever colour appears, except in the portraits, miniatures, or illuminations hung around, should be in the books; these should strike the eye, and be, so to speak, in the foreground of the picture. Vases, or busts, may surmount the cases. The ancients preferred the latter; and many, like Asinius Pollio, collected in their libraries the authentic, and even imaginary, portraits of great men. Among the latter was the bust of Homer. The light is generally so unfavourable in the upper part of modern rooms, that busts when placed so high, are reduced to mere ornaments, and require the addition of names. This, indeed, is not objectionable in any case, for the interest of a portrait commonly depends on historical associations. I see no objection even to inscribing both the subject and the name of the master under works of art generally: a volume bears its title and author's name; and pictures, to many, are as sealed books till inquiry is stimulated or interest quickened by similar means. When the description is too long to admit of this, the words "see Catalogue, No. —" might be added.
If colour is admitted any where in the library, it might be in subjects on the ceiling, allowable here, if at all, in the region of easy chairs and occasional meditation; perhaps too, to a certain extent, in the windows. The introduction of subjects on ceilings has not been recommended generally, but in the system of arabesque painting the universal decoration of the walls requires to be carried into the ceiling. Sculpture, from the reasons already given, or rather in accordance with the same taste, is quite admissible in the library. Cicero frequently writes to his friend at Athens, to send him any good works in sculpture, fit to adorn the library and residence of a man of letters. 
But the choicest works of taste should unquestionably be in the room most occupied in hours of calm seclusion and leisure; and in order to find wall enough for the pictures, this may be assumed to be the principal drawing room. Here, therefore, may be the best specimens of painting, and even of sculpture, if the space permits: here, the chimney-piece may be by Flaxman, and the doors of the print-case by Stothard. The pictures cannot be very large, on account of their number and the size of the room. This, the objection which in a great measure excludes the grandest works from our dwelling houses, was met by the Italians, and by Nicolo Poussin, by reducing the grand to domestic conditions. If you have only small pictures, however, you cannot cover the upper part of the walls, for you are not supposed to have any work of art here which can be sacrificed.
Enlightened connoisseurs see excellence both in the Dutch and Italian schools, but they are often embarrassed in arranging them together. I am convinced, however, from instances I have seen, that this is to be accomplished satisfactorily. It is sometimes argued, that no one reads Milton and Crabbe alternately; but this is hardly a parallel case. Many go to a gallery to look at a particular picture, and see nothing else; the eye is blind when the attention is not actively exerted. So in a room, the spectator selects his favourites—his favourites at least for the time, and scarcely looks beyond them. At another moment, he will perhaps direct his undivided attention to works which he passed over on a former occasion. A certain congruity is sometimes to be accomplished, by attending to impressions rather than names and schools. Many an Italian picture would not be out of place with the Flemish and Dutch school; while Vandyck, Rembrandt, Cuyp, and others, might sometimes harmonize in many respects with the genius of the south. The arrangement of pictures comprehends some of the difficulties which the artist experiences in the production of one; for a certain balance and repose are as essential for the eye, as an harmonious impression for the mind. Much must, therefore, depend on the nature of the materials; and the (assumed) different character of your two drawing rooms may here be an advantage.
You, I know, will not ask whether the productions of the English school are admissible in this "Tribune" as well as elsewhere. Such is the variety of English art, that the more refined Dutch, the Flemish, and the Italian taste, may be recognized in it by turns, and no modern pictures harmonize with the scheme of colour and effect which characterize the master-works of former ages so well as the English of the last century. Thus much of schools, and those we have not mentioned may be tried by the same tests.
With regard to subjects, the mind as well as the eye must be respected: the ethos of painting is quite compatible with familiar and homely subjects; and, on the other hand, the greatest Italian masters have sometimes sought for poetic impressions in regions where it would be unsafe to follow them. But, with this reservation, you must not be exclusive: various minds, or the same mind in various moods, will like variety of aliment. In other situations, which we have had occasion to consider, the subject has been in a great degree calculated on the probable feelings of the spectator; here, the subject is independent, because the attention is free, and the whole art appeals by turns to the whole range of thought. The leisure of cultivated human beings should be so far complimented as to assume that all the strivings of the mind are worthy to be ministered to. It is a mistake to suppose that solemn or even terrible themes are always objectionable; I believe it will be found that the grander efforts of invention (I speak of works by the ancient masters) are very generally appreciated by the gentler sex. On the other hand, the fondness for humbler subjects is not always referable to the homeliness of the incident represented. The subject often acquires elevation, and commands respect, by the evidence of mental labour and power in the artist. To a true connoisseur, this skilful application of principles derived from universal nature, supersedes the mere subject; and the idea which he recognizes, whatever may be its vehicle, is grand and poetical. Less experienced observers are often deceived by the title of pictures: "A Court Yard" (de Hooghe) sounds unpromising enough; but when it is seen that the painter has represented daylight with magical truth, and that all is subservient to this, his aim must be acknowledged to be dignified. It is to be observed too, that the influence of this high aim on the part of the artist, often extends itself to the treatment of the materials which constitute his ostensible subject. It is easy to see from the unaffected feeling, as well as from the relative character of the execution in some (though not all) of the Dutch masters, that the real subject of their meditation was noble. I should like to see a catalogue raisonné on the principle to which I have alluded, distinguishing the title of a picture from the real intention of the artist. Many frequenters of the National Gallery criticise Reynolds's Three Graces, whence it appears they are not sufficiently aware that the personages in question are portraits of three fashionable ladies of the day, under the name of the Graces, &c. If some titles were translated, what a contrast the real import of the work would present to the actual name! What a change, for instance, from the modesty of some of ——'s titles, "Crossing the Brook,"—"Coal-barges in the Thames: Night," to the beauty and grandeur that would have to be clothed in language! But what language would be adequate?
With respect to the colour of the walls on which pictures are hung, my opinion is singular without being novel. I am quite aware that it is necessary to consider wall, pictures, gold frames, and all, in relation to general effect: the gold, especially, is to be treated as part of the coup d'œil. But, though I remember examples of light walls hung with pictures, producing an agreeable effect, I prefer a colour which displays the pictures more, and must also maintain, that living pictures are seldom seen to the best advantage against a bright ground; the quantity of actual light (it may always be assumed) making reflected light unnecessary: my idea, in one word, is, that the wall should not be so light as the lights of the pictures; and this supposes a sufficiently low tint. Of such colours, the most agreeable is the long established rich red, which might be sufficiently allied to purple, to give value to the gold frames and the warm colour of the pictures. I need not recommend you to avoid too much unbroken polish in the frames, since this is now very generally disapproved of.
I have, as you see, exercised, apparently without scruple, the dictatorial authority with which you have invested me ; but the frequent recurrence of "my opinion" becomes painful even to the arbiter who has a carte blanche to lay down the law. As a relief, I intended to have given you some extracts from an Italian ethical work (printed about the middle of the 16th century) in which there is a chapter on the "ornamenti della casa;" but they would have been, perhaps, little suited to your purpose, and I have already far exceeded the space I ought to occupy. As I may not, however, again have an opportunity of alluding to this work, which is not unimportant in the history of Italian art, I wish briefly to advert to one or two points.
The list of pictures given seems to prove that the Italians long remained faithful to the older masters. The names of Titian and Coreggio do not appear! (I hope you will not follow the Catalogue in such defects.) This is not to be explained, by supposing that the writer speaks for himself only; for he repeatedly says, "Some like to ornament their rooms with the works of ——, others, with those of ——," and so on, as if professing to give a variety of tastes. I can only account for this in one way: the author lived in Milan, and it would appear, that the taste of Leonardo, closely allied as it was to that of the schools of Central Italy, long continued to influence the Milanese amateurs as well as the Milanese painters.
I pass over the musical instruments, which, beside their chief use, "piacciono assai al'occhio," especially when made by Lorenzo da Pavia, or Bastiano da Verona. Donatello, Michael Angelo, Alfonso Lombardi, and Cristoforo Romano, are the sculptors he enumerates. The terra cottas are by Pagaino da Modena; the bronzes by Verocchio and Pollaiuolo. Beside antique medals, he admires those of Giovanni Corona of Venice, together with the chasings of Caradosso. Among the works of the latter, he mentions a silver inkstand in basso rilievo, "fatica d'anni venti sei! ma certo divina." Cameos and intaglios should be, he thinks, by the hand of Pietro Maria, Tagliacarne, &c. but above all by Giovanni di Castello.
Now for his list of painters: Filippo Lippi, Mantegna, Giovanni Bellini, Leonardo da Vinci, although, he adds, he left but few works. Then follow the younger Lippi, and Perugino, and, heralded with appropriate honours, Raphael, accompanied by Giulio Romano. Pietro della Francesca, and Melozzo da Forli, are characterized well, as indeed are all the painters. He next mentions some artists, all monks, who wrought in inlaid wood; (commesso, tarsia;) but his highest praises in this department are reserved for Fra Damiano da Bergamo, the artist of the choir of S. Domenico at Bologna. The engravings he speaks of are by Albert Durer and Lucas van Leyden.
Tapestries from Flanders, carpets from Syria, Turkey, and Barbary, figured leather from Spain, are all admitted to be desirable ornaments: "Tutti questi ornamenti ancora commendo perchè arguiscono ingegno, politezza, civilita e cortegiania." The author next describes his own treasures; but, except a head by Donatello and some rare books, he has nothing to boast of. His tastes are characteristic of the age: though a priest, his ambition is to have a collection of arms and armour, if wrought by a good Italian or German armourer; and above all, he aspires to the possession of a large steel mirror, of the kind made by Giovanni della Barba, a German: the mirrors of glass then in use, were, it appears, very small and imperfect. The author's judicious observations (to which I refer you) on the chief use of mirrors, may reconcile you to their occasional introduction over chimney pieces, which, for the rest, are by no means the best places for pictures.
The chapter ends with a pleasing story about a mirror and a lady, and Galeazzo Visconti, Duke of Milan, a story not unworthy to be a pendant for "Collalto," and which might have furnished a subject for the graceful pencil of Stothard; but it is time to make an end.
C. L. Eastlake.
- The passion for this kind of decoration was carried so far that the ornamented floor of the dining-room sometimes represented the scattered fragments of a repast. Plin. I. xxxvi. c. 25.
- Even the Mosaic floor at the entrance to bed-rooms, had inscriptions; a pavement of this kind was found at Brindisi, with the words bene dormio.
- De Architect I vi. c.7
- The best examples of decorations of this kind are now accessible to all, in a recently published work by Thurmer and Gutensohn, containing the arabesques of the Vatican, the Farnesina, the Villa Lanti, and the Villa Madama: edited by Ludwig Gruner, to be had of Mr. Murray, Albemarle Street: with this work may be classed the publications of Zahn, on the ornamental inventions of Giulio Romano at Mantua, and on the decorations of Pompeii.
- Juv. Sat. 8; Plin. 1. xxxv. c. 2.
- Plin. I. XXXV. c. 2.
- Epist. ad Attic. I. i. c. 3, 8, 9, 10, &c. It is remarkable that a bas-relief, in the finest Greek style, representing a philosopher reading, was found in the ruins of Cicero's Tusculan villa. Some English sculptors and myself, during an excursion from Rome, first, I may almost say, discovered this marble, walled into the staircase of the Episcopal palace at Grotta Ferrata. A mould was afterwards taken from it, through the exertions of Mr. Gibson, and the cast is now common in Rome. The marble was, I think, afterwards removed to the Vatican.
- Castiglione Saba, Ricordi ovvero Ammaestramenti, &c. Milano, 1559.
- The author says he was an eye-witness of the Gascon crossbowmen making a target of Leonardo's model for the equestrian statue of Francesco Sforza.
- See Rogers's Italy.
Maistre, il sembleroit que ne fussiet grandement de nous escrire ces baliverues!
LONDON : C. WHITTINGHAM, TOOKS COURT,