The Country House/Chapter 3
HANKS for your letter in answer to mine, or rather in part answer to it, for you have confined yourself solely to a discussion of the style to be selected. A subject which has hitherto, I think, not been sufficiently considered; at least in England. I believe that amateurs order a Grecian Palladian, or Elizabethan house without having much speculated on what are the different merits or demerits of each, but merely with reference to some one example which may be in their recollection, and which may have pleased them; or what is oftener the case, they submit to be guided by the bent of their architect, who in general, are wedded to some particular favourite style. Thus, we have Mr. ——, all Gothic and Elizabethan; Mr. ——, all Italian, with a dash of the Byzantine, Renaissance, &c.
I am, I own, much pleased as well as instructed by this discussion, and I hope you will not consider me as intruding too much upon your time and patience, if I venture to seek further elucidations of some of the positions in your letter. I quite agree it is clear that as yet we have a style to choose, and that in future ages, no architect will be able to apply any definite character to our present mode of building. I must, however, premise what indeed my letter will fully prove, that your partiality has induced you to give me credit for greater knowledge in matters of art, especially as regards architecture, than I possess.
I agree that the style which best admits of being combined with the sister arts (or filial if you please) of painting and sculpture, must be the one to adopt, and that it is clear their union is always a mutual improvement. It seems you come to the conclusion that the pure Greek style of architecture is that which best admits of this union. Now, as regards domestic architecture, I am not sure that I have any very clear perception of what is pure Greek style. I suspect our notion as regards a house of pure Greek style, is a cube of building of mock stone with a portico, if a large house; or if a small one, with some thin paste-like pilasters, and a certain number of parallelogram holes cut into the walls for windows, with two smaller cubes for wings; and, in the inside, a repetition of the outside, in the shape of the rooms; that is, two oblong rooms for dining and drawing rooms, with an oblong hall placed the other way: the usual accompaniment of folding doors, and two or three small and often dark rooms at the back. There are certainly some changes rung on these forms, but the theme is always the same. I call Sir R. Smirties' Post Office a gigantic small Grecian house. I am aware that the Palladian improvements, or additions, (which ever you will) have multiplied the resources, and have given us much to delight; namely, the circular dome, pillars, and gallery, and the consequent change in the disposition of the apartments. I mention these points to let you see the nakedness of the land, and trust to your kindness for better instruction.
You assume that the Grecian style is the best adapted to pictorial and sculptural decoration, but I do not see the reason of this; in fact, without a more precise definition of what you mean by Greek style, as adapted to domestic architecture, I do not see how this can be shewn. You state that the Gothic style is not so well adapted to the union with the filial arts, and that hitherto when so used they were subordinate only. I shall be the more ready to agree when I have some further exposition on this point. Though not so distrustful as our Royal Society who adopt "Nullius in verba" as their motto, yet cling to an old monkish law maxim of Lord Coke; I may say of your position what he says of law, " " I am aware that the Gothic churches are often overloaded with ornament, and that the sculpture often seems as if merely stuck on, and the pictures are hung up as ornaments, not as part and parcel of the building; and, I believe, that tapestry was often called in aid to decorate our cathedrals, and with great effect; but is it of necessity so? Are there no exceptions? at all events, it is not so in the Byzantine style, which approaches so nearly to the Gothic; and, as regards the Arabian, (take for instance the Alhambra) the fair daughters unite in great harmony with their beautiful mother. You have besides omitted, I think, one point in which Gothic architecture has been greatly aided by the pictorial art, namely, the painted windows:
With hues romantic tinged the gorgeous pane,
To fill with holy light this wondrous fane.
To aid the builder's model richly rude,
By no Vitruvian symmetry subdued.
I begin to feel that it is probable I have entirely mistaken what you mean by Grecian style, and that it does not preclude the use of arches, groined ceilings, domes, &c. I have been the more diffuse on this point because I own I have a leaning to what we have called Elizabethan; conceiving, whether true or not, that there is more fitness in it for domestic architecture than in the Grecian style; that the regularity and repetition of form, which in a great building is delightful, in a small one does not please from the diminutive size of the objects. And, again, as regards the material and colour, as we use Grecian style in this country, the material is either white stone or white stucco, which in our climate appears cold, and does not give half so much the notion of warmth and comfort as the fine rich-toned red brick; and what refers to the exterior, is perhaps equally applicable to the interior. Although in a building on a grand scale the mind is pleased with symmetry and regularity, "in little" this is irksome, and gives the notion of poverty, in fact, too soon lets you into the secret of the whole house; there is no surprise, no discovery to make. Shew me a Palladian villa a mile off, and I could draw you the plan of the inside at once. Indeed, I could walk blindfolded into the drawing-room, dining-room, library, and boudoir, and go up to bed in the best bed-room, without a guide, or a light. Here are no
Rich windows that exclude the light,
And passages that lead to nothing.
A good deal also, I am willing to own, arises from association and national prejudices; some of our most delightful houses are built in this style, and they have, at all events within, signs of harmony in the style of decoration, and in the accessories. The gardens and out-buildings were often made more appropriate and better suited to the house than in any other architectural attempts that we have made; and, I believe, no Englishman ever fancied building a house that did not have the large bay window and the large fire-place (against all principles of good grates and Arnott's stoves I admit,) and the low groined passage and the panelled hall in his mind. But it seems you think it most difficult
The willing graces to the Gothic pile,"
or rather say coy than willing. I beg you will not suppose I am opposing your views, all I mean is to canvass and to be sure that I understand them.
I have to repeat that I agree entirely that the style is best which is most susceptible of uniting the three arts; but I only wish to know why the Greek is most susceptible; and what is the kind of sculpture and painting you wish to unite; in order to see that such a union is suitable to our climate, and can be obtained at a reasonable cost, for you must bear in mind that I want to build a country-house, not a palace!
It is a long time since I was in Italy, and when I was there I did not pay so much attention to architecture as I should do, if I were to go over the same ground again, now that I have got a house to build; but there is a strong impression on my mind that the other parts of Europe may rival or surpass us in palaces and grand architectural monuments, yet that there is no country which would present so many good hints in domestic architecture as England; always referring to the great points, convenience, and comfort; for I own, as fitness is the guiding principles of all perfection in building, I conceive it essential in purely domestic architecture, that a character of fitness for habitation and comfort should always be prominent.
I am a great admirer of Balzac, and I think one of his best descriptions of still life is the account of the house in his "Recherche de l'absolu;" it is so good that I should be tempted, if it were not too long for a letter, to copy and send it to you as a model, if not of what a house should be, at least of how one should be described.
- Unfortunately these letters were written long before the appearance of Mr. Fonnereau's very intelligent and instructive Observations on Architecture were printed.