The Country House/Chapter 2
OR your letter, accept my thanks. It is doubly flattering to me, being a foreigner, to be commissioned to make the designs for the country house you intend to build. Yet while I derive great satisfaction from the task, I am impressed with the difficulties attending it, one of which is, that I am at present prevented by business from discussing the matter with you in person, and am therefore compelled to put my ideas upon paper. Simple as the commission appears, it however involves considerations of some moment, and which render it necessary that I should previously state to you my opinion in detail in regard to the style I propose to adopt. I have not forgotten what you once said to me, namely, that in order to make himself intelligible to others, it is essential that the artist should be clear as to his own meaning. I even suspect that opinions once defined, if not clearly and sincerely put down, may lead to misapprehension, and (inasmuch as they commit the person who gives them) to the misleading; of the artist himself. You invite me, however, to give my opinion, and having freely stated the difficulties of the undertaking, I begin with more confidence.
What then, with a view to your individual taste, is the style I would recommend as most suitable for the intended situation and purpose? And if such a question is now become not an uncommon one, you must allow that, sixty years ago, no one would have thought of proposing it to an architect for his consideration. Every architect would then have at once answered it by saying, "In that style which is in general use, and according to my own particular views of it." Or during any of the various epochs of the art, would any one have thought of suggesting to a Greek, an Italian, or native of the north of Europe, &c. to build in any other style than that belonging to their respective countries? It ought also to be borne in mind, that if we occasionally meet with an intermixture of styles, it is only in buildings of transition periods, during the change from one mode to another; and such periods were of only short duration, because the previous style had already outlived itself. Circumstances are now totally altered. We recognize and practically adopt various styles indiscriminately: nor is it difficult to explain how it happens that we now employ one and then another. For this, two reasons may be assigned: the first (a very meritorious one) is, that we with a generalizing view, anxiously study and investigate the most difficult examples of art. The second reason however, is of a very unsatisfactory nature, which is that in our weak hands no style has been so naturalized among us as to constitute a permanent canon by which to regulate the modifications of any and every architectural purpose. This is the cause of that indecision of style which manifests itself more or less in modern edifices, and of that changeableness of taste which has hitherto hindered us from establishing the art upon fixed principles, regulated according to the high requisites which our modern cultivation requires.
We seem to be of opinion that variety of character is attainable only by variety of style: hence our Museums are classically antique, our churches after the mode of the middle ages, and so forth, according as the buildings happen to belong to the class in which any particular period was most distinguished for buildings of that class. The character of such examples strikes us by its expressiveness; nor do we find it difficult, with models before us that we are now acquainted with and understand, to produce the same kind of effect and expression by merely copying their physiognomy and style. He, however, who is well grounded in the study, is aware that at different periods the art was treated according to its own principles as resulting from different modes of culture; and that consequently the adoption of a style previously discarded, though it may suit the vitiated taste of the artist, as the haut gout pleases the fastidious palate of the Epicure, yet it can never be pleasing to a really cultivated taste. You may think me somewhat fantastical, but it appears to me that we cannot read Homer with perfect relish in a saloon à la Louis Quatorze, or Shakespeare beneath the roof of a Grecian impluvium; and that it is only where the character of the surrounding forms and objects in some degree accord, at least do not harshly contrast with our mental occupation, that we can fully abandon ourselves to the imaginings of genius. I might, however, without impropriety, substitute "character" for "style" in the question you put to me, and my answer would then be: Let it be as noble and as cheerful as possible. Still the making a distinction between style and character does not entirely get rid of the difficulty; for a person who is as intelligent as you are in matters of art will say, "Even if you hit the character, the mere desire to invent an appropriate style does not of itself satisfy me, and on this account I wish you to state more explicitly which of former styles you intend mainly to select." This I will now attempt to do, and begin by stating it as my opinion, that the most perfect architectural style is that which admits at the same time of a refined style both of sculpture and of painting:—that which, while it serves as the vehicle of graceful embellishment, can maintain an equal excellence in itself. Such, as it appears to me, is the ideal which an architect of the present day ought to keep in his mind's eye. Yet before we proceed to inquire which of the principal styles we are acquainted with possesses such a quality in the most eminent degree, it will be proper to consider what is the kind of relationship which the three separate arts of architecture, painting, and sculpture, bear to each other.
According to the usual metaphor, the consanguinity is that of sisterhood. Yet in my opinion this is somewhat incorrect. In its origin and development every organic style of architecture has preceded the other two arts, consequently the relationship in which it stands to them may more properly be termed maternal, it being under her fostering protection that they have afterwards grown up: nor would it be difficult to exemplify this sort of connexion between the three arts by instances taken from different styles of architecture; and one who has applied himself to studying the motives and principles governing the formation of those different styles, will easily follow me in my remarks.
The two daughter arts were unknown to, or did not exist for the earliest Asiatic architecture; on which account, imposing as its gigantic remains are, they oppress the mind by the feeling they excite of stern and monstrous vastness. In the Egyptian style the growth of the children arts appears to have been stunted and repressed by the servitude in which they were kept; nor have any later race or nation attempted to rival the massiveness of its edifices, tattooed over with hieroglyphics.
It is only in the genuine architecture of ancient Greece itself, and in the Italian style of the fifteenth century, that we meet with all the three arts growing up to completeness together, and as is universally acknowledged, brought to a very high degree of refinement and perfection.
Notwithstanding the long continued progressive formation and manifold development of Gothic architecture, that style failed to attach to, and as it were to incorporate with itself the two kindred arts, which were checked both by unfavourableness of climate, and by war and political disturbances. Architecture was therefore compelled to trust chiefly to its own power and resources, employing sculpture and painting merely as subordinate decoration. And who shall say that this style, so full of creative power, would not have preserved itself more pure, have avoided falling into the cold and gloomy on the one hand, the bizarre and overloaded on the other, could it have availed itself of the assistance of sculpture and painting, so that they should have accompanied it in all the varieties of its times and developments? This was to an extent the case with Arabian architecture, which, both in regard to the dominion it obtained and its organization, has many points of similarity with the nearly contemporary Gothic style, notwithstanding the marked distinctions which prevail between them. This reminds me of the remark of a poetical friend, who once said to me, "Like a rainbow on the horizon of art, Gothic architecture stretches itself across Europe from Byzantium to Portugal; while Arabian architecture may be compared to its reflection, somewhat flattened however, commencing from the same point, and crossing along the north coast of Africa till it reaches Spain: or to a reflection in the water, whose wavy surface occasions some little difference of appearance; and in fact we behold both styles united together in the amphibious city of Venice." This simile would be more literally appropriate had the uses to which the two styles were applied been more nearly alike.
With respect to modern architecture, it may be said that it has quite rejected the services of the other two arts, and, as I fear, greatly to its own detriment; while these latter arts, notwithstanding the eminence they have attained apart from architecture, are not so solidly united as they otherwise would be, nor capable of so completely developing their powers, had the union of the three been complete.
It is well known that, owing to the fetters imposed upon them in Egypt by the religion of the people and its priesthood, it was only in Europe that sculpture and painting could at different epochs attain to maturity. But it is not perhaps so generally known or considered, that it is one characteristic mark of European architecture, that it has at all times, whether those of its progress and advancement, or its decline, availed itself of natural forms, both vegetable and animal, for purposes of decoration; while the Asiatic styles were confined to geometrical figures for the ornaments.
The above cursory glance at the history of the art, may at least serve tohow incumbent it is upon the architect of the present day to make himself acquainted with the creative power and processes of his art, by studying them as they actually manifest themselves at different epochs, and according to the different views and purposes to which the art was applied. By so doing, however, he is in some danger of being worked upon by conflicting impressions, occasioned by the diversity of styles and the opposite tastes they exhibit. Yet, unless I am greatly mistaken, the whole system of the art, as developed in the different styles, must henceforth have considerable influence upon our modern architecture.
Limiting our views for the present to those architectural productions in which a union with the other arts is more directly attainable, we find Grecian or early Italian architecture the predominating style. The last grafted on the former, may be said to be more or less complete in the greater or less proportion in which it derives its nourishment from the parent stem. If we look, for example, to the progress or course of painting in Italy, that art flourished there in proportion to the nourishment it derived from the antique. The works of Mantegna, M. Angelo, Pericles, or of that of Pompey, would not have been without its influence upon such men as Bramante, San Gallo, and Baldassore Peruzzi, nor have failed of being turned to account by them: observe, however, that this remark is not intended to depreciate what they actually accomplished, nor to disparage the style which they formed. These explorers had unquestionably discovered new veins in the rich mine which had been opened by the Greeks; as the Romans, who were the immediate imitators of the Greeks, had already extended the one first of all worked. In all subsequent operations, as in what the French term the Renaissance style, nothing more was done than to go on excavating, seldom, however, with sufficient pains or caution, so as to separate completely the gold from the dross. When, therefore, I propose to make a design in the "Greek style," I wish you to observe that I understand by this term a striving after the purity of this canon, but at the same time with a reserved right to the free use of those modes and motives with which later European architecture supplies us. If a determinate name must be given to the style, I propose I should call it, "the Renaissance style of the nineteenth century."da Vinci, and Raphael bear testimony to this; and those great men would probably have attained to a higher degree of excellence, had they been as well acquainted with the sculptures of the Parthenon, and the Greek bronzes, as they were with the works of the Romans. Most assuredly a knowledge of the architecture of the time of
But many may say, "How conveniently he contrives to get rid of the Gothic architecture!" while others will exclaim, "According to such principles, a very pretty sort of medley is likely to be produced." In answer to the first set of objections I reply: "If you can introduce modern sculpture and painting into Gothic architecture without prejudice to them or it, I will say that you have attained a great end." To the others I should reply: "You misunderstand or pervert my meaning. I have not spoken of a merely mixing up of different styles, but of compounding them together; between which two processes there is, I conceive, a wide difference, the ingredients being merely put together in the one case, without losing their respective qualities; while in the other they amalgamate with each other, and produce an entirely new combination: and it is in accomplishing combinations of this kind that the power of genuine art manifests itself; and the distinction may be likened to the difference between a mechanical and a chemical combination. Nor are some compound styles of architecture less beautiful than others which are quite unmixed."
I know not whether these remarks will prove of much service to you, but I trust they will at least enable you, after seeing what are my views generally on the subject, to make your own suggestions in return for my further guidance.
I am, &c.
- As regards Arabian architecture, the parent art may be said to have been entirely childless, depending entirely on its own resources, discarding all representation of annual life, whether in painting or sculpture.