Popular Science Monthly/Volume 38/January 1891/The Principles of Decoration

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By Prof. G. AITCHISON.[1]

WE have, in our cities, three things that are adverse to the embellishment of our lives: First, we live, as a rule, in hired houses. No one will ornament his house with that which is beautiful, permanent, and costly, if some one that he neither knows nor cares for will, after a few years, enjoy it, and that without paying one farthing as compensation for the outlay. Secondly, our clothes are not only ugly, but ignoble in form. Sculpture or statuary, when used to portray man in the costume worn in England, is impossible; the ablest sculptor can but turn out a scare-crow if he is bound to reproduce the actual clothes. Thirdly, in our buildings the atmosphere and its accompaniments almost forbid external color in monumental materials. Those materials that are unaffected by wet, frost, and the vitriol of the atmosphere, are soon covered with a pall of soot and dust. If we could once get Englishmen to love something beautiful, the fine arts might then enter on a new career. Our machinery and mechanical appliances could furnish almost the poorest houses with copies of first-rate works of art if the demand once arose. It is, however, much more important that the outsides of buildings should be enriched with color and lovely form than their insides. I may say that they are wanting in their first duty to the public if they are not beautiful, for they have not only taken some sky and air from us, and possibly flowers, trees, or herbage, but they help to poison the air by their smoke, dust, and exhalations.

In using decoration we are strictly following Nature, who not only makes the most of her works of beautiful form and of beautiful color, but enriches them with a variety of texture, of patterns, and of colors that would in man's work be most strictly decoration. No doubt some of this is protective, but much also, as far as we can judge, is purely ornamental.

The schemes for decoration are purely architectural, not only when they apply to buildings but also in the case of separate articles that are movable, and that are not wholly covered with one scheme of ornament, and for this reason, that architecture deals with harmonic proportions, and with the contrast of primitive forms.

What may be called formal ornament is the application of certain observed facts in Nature that please. Up to a certain point the repetition of some simple form is pleasing: lines are said to be divided harmonically when they have certain ratios to one another, and spaces may have similar proportions, and these as well as certain curves give more pleasure than others; the combination of some flat and sharp curves is also found to be beautiful; the contrast of certain forms and of certain colors also gives pleasure. It is the application by man of these observations properly worked out to things he wants that makes them ornamental, and their superposition on elegant forms is said to decorate them. That which is the most perfect in ornament is the work of people gifted with high artistic fiber, and faultless execution, to whom Nature appeals in her masterpieces, who assimilate some of the matchless grace they see in a flower, in the turn of a leaf, in the curves that mark the growth of a creeper, in the wing of a bird, the curve of a lizard, or the knots or spirals of a serpent, who can so arrange these forms as to perfectly satisfy the cultivated eye, and keep them subordinated to the containing lines; such things may be seen in examples of Greek and Tuscan, or rather north Italian, ornament. This sort of ornament by some mishap has got christened conventional, a term which has no meaning as applied to ornament; it should rather be called abstracted.

Color is another species of ornament that, like form, has doubtless its laws, though as yet neither have been discovered, and we call form and color, like medicine, empirical arts. We observe that the collocation of certain spaces, or masses of certain colors, give us more pleasure than others, and we try and recollect these collocations if we deal in color, and use them when we have occasion. It has been observed that the primaries that are complementary—i. e., whose mixture produces white—go well together, and that certain secondaries and tertiaries set off primary colors. Chevreul found that the saturation of the eye with a color caused it to see the complementary color if a white surface was looked on; and Chevreul also found out that, if we looked at another color, it was modified by the complementary color of the first.

In choosing color we should be careful to have such a tone as we can live with, for most people have their dislikes and preferences. The color of a lady's boudoir is mostly chosen because it sets off her complexion. In a room where we work we are soon conscious of an objectionable color which irritates instead of soothing us. Certain colors and certain tones are beneficial or prejudicial to health. Very dark rooms are prejudicial, and red or yellow will also have a prejudicial effect on our health if we have to remain in rooms of either color all day and every day. A manufacturer had a women's workshop painted yellow, and found much more than the usual sickness among his hands. His doctor recommended whitewash, and the normal health was restored. Growers of hyacinths have noticed a marked effect on their blooming when they are put in glasses of certain colors.

This age is a peculiarly health-seeking one, and it does not seek health, as the Greeks did, by early rising, temperance, open-air exercise, and training; but it asks how health can be preserved and promoted by the removal of external sources of disease, so that it may have freedom to infringe with comparative impunity Nature's laws. External poisons are the most important things to protect ourselves from, especially when we have enfeebled our bodies, and these are mostly conveyed to us by mephitic vapors and what the doctors call septic dust. We want our houses and other buildings so constructed that they can be freed outside from their palls of dust and soot by means of a fire-engine or a sponge, and inside by the broom, the dusters, and the flannels of the housemaid.

Foul and poisonous air has scarcely any connection with decoration, but, with one or two exceptions, is in relation with pure science and its applications. The exceptions are when some of the materials used for decoration have a pernicious chemical action on the air, or parts of their substance readily come off and poison us when we breathe, or when in contact with our skin. The former is said to be the case when preparations of arsenic and some other dyes and pigments are used and are not varnished. The dust that is not septic consists of minute particles of raw or cooked earth, stone, and metal, and the ill effect it may produce can only be from irritation of the mucous surfaces, by clogging fine vessels, or by getting into parts where it is not wanted. Particles of some metals, if numerous enough, may poison us, as fire-gilders are poisoned by mercurial fumes. The septic dust consists of particles of vegetable or animal fiber, sometimes laden with the germs of disease, the pollen of flowers, by some of which hay fever is said to be produced, the eggs of microscopic creatures, and microscopic creatures themselves. Another source of poisoning is by animal and human exhalations.

Anything that forms a dust-trap is as far as possible to be avoided, particularly when these traps can only be partially emptied at long intervals, for every breath of air dislodges some of the lighter particles. The absorbents of the foul-smelling exhalations have also the property of imparting them to damp air, by which we are poisoned or repoisoned. Consequently we want to avoid as much as possible all woven and felted stuffs in our houses, and to have all wood and paper protected by varnish.

Few of us can expect to live in houses built of polished granite, porphyry, and jasper, and adorned with precious stones, but we may expect to live in those protected and embellished with enameled terra-cotta, glass slabs, or glass mosaic, and that our streets may at least present a clean, gay, and cheerful appearance.

I beg you to observe the Chinese, Japanese, and Persian pottery exhibited, mostly in the shape of tiles, and I ask you if these would not make a lovely alternative to our present fronts of dingy brick or plain or painted compo. When I was in Cairo, many house-fronts and some fronts of mosques were faced with these Persian or Rhodian tiles. If any one would start a gorgeous front of enameled pottery, there would be an outcry at first; but we should gradually get accustomed to beauty and color, and become reconciled to the loss of dingy and blackened brick. Even now there is no outcry when the platforms of a railway station are lined with white glazed bricks banded with green or gray, and the small extra cost would soon be repaid by better health and the saving of painting. At first this could only be done by tasteful, benevolent, and patriotic men who were wealthy, or by enterprising ones, who thought a house so fronted would advertise itself; but as this sort of facing came into fashion, window jambs and reveals, panels, strings, and cornices would be kept in stock, probably printed in colors instead of hand-painted, and would be cheap enough. There is one use of enameled pottery I have not mentioned—roofing tiles. In parts of France and Italy these prevail. At Lugo, in the Rornagna, I saw the steeple of a church covered with enameled pottery of different colors, which wound round it, the steeple being a cone; the visible glazed parts were semicircular in section, and, though I do not know how they were fixed, they looked as if they were stuck into mortar, like the enameled terra-cotta cones found at Babylon, and used to ornament wall surfaces. Most of the tile patterns I have seen in France are, to say the least, more ingenious than beautiful; but there are gold and green tiles used at Vienna and at Botzen that are ornamental enough.

Even the Romans were more alive to the use that might be made of broken glass than we are, for we learn from Martial that the collection of broken glass was a trade, and the glass, he says, was exchanged for brimstone matches. I can not say how these glass slabs or tiles would stand our climate, but, if they could be fixed in no other way, they might be set in frames of cast iron, barffed.

I hardly know if I should include sgraffito. It would certainly be useless in the denser parts of London, as it would soon be a uniform dingy black; but we know that there are still examples that are visible at South Kensington, and that it lasts well in the country. It is done in this way: Any colored ground that may be chosen is first prepared of mortar or cement, colored with earthy or mineral pigments; it is then laid on the wall. White, black, yellow, red, or gray are the usual colors. On one of these grounds, before it is dry, about one eighth of an inch of cement of one of the other colors is laid, the pattern is pounced on, and the parts outside the pouncing are scraped off with a modeling-tool, a knife, or a bit of stick. When the whole has set, you have a picture or a pattern in two colors. This sort of work has stood in England for over twenty years when executed in the country, and in Italy the whole fronts of many large palaces have been adorned in this way, and have stood for centuries.

Public buildings built of polished marble, granite, porphyry, jasper, agate, or onyx, or faced with these, are sometimes ornamented by inlaying pictures or patterns with colored marble or precious stones; but I do not know of any external example in England. This work is called pietra dura. The Taj Mahal in India is a celebrated example. There are plenty of slabs, basins, vases, paper-weights, and jewelry imported from India and Italy of pietra dura work.

All external work in calcareous marbles soon perishes in the atmosphere of London, whether plain or inlaid, and all incised work filled with mastic so soon gets blackened that to execute it is merely labor lost. The only other work that can be used externally is in metal. Iron rusts unless constantly painted, and almost all other metals turn black. Real block-tin, not tinned iron, is said to stand the climate of London, but of course does not lack its pall of soot. Iron plates tinned are much used in Switzerland for the covering of steeples, but even there they get rusty. Lead takes its own blackish gray, but, as it otherwise stands the climate well, I wonder it is not more used for ornamental purposes, as vases, statues, roof-crestings, and the like. When I was a boy, some plumbers' shops were ornamented with leaden statues, vases, and ornamental cistern fronts. Lead is still used for ornamental roof-crestings in France, often heightened by gold, black varnish, and color. Lead is still much used for ornamental accessories in Holland—or perhaps I ought to say, was once used. Up to a short time ago there were leaden statues and vases in the gardens of the stately mansions in Mark Lane, near the Tower of London; there are still some at Hampton Court, and they would do very well in the niches or on the pedestals of our red brick fronts, if we could not afford bronze.

It is unnecessary to speak of the ordinary freestones that weather in London, the sandstones, the brick, both cut and moulded, the red, yellow, or gray terra-cotta, for all these have more or less granulated surfaces that can only be cleaned by tooling or rubbing, but plaster has never of late, as far as I know, been even tried—I mean plaster of common sand and lime, or, what is still better, of lime and marble-dust. Vitruvius tellS us that old Roman walls covered with this material were so hard, so beautiful, and so finely polished, that in his time slabs of it were cut out and used for table-tops. In speaking of plaster, I did not mean compo, either Roman, Portland, or mastic, but that plaster that is made workable for modeling, which the Italians call gesso duro. It was once common in England; the "Peter Pindar," in Bishopsgate, is an example, or was an example a few years ago, and many admirable specimens still exist in our country towns. Some of the vaulted ceilings of Hadrian's villa, at Tivoli, now open to the air, are still adorned with it, the grace, freedom, and delicacy of whose modeling we still admire, although it was done at least seventeen hundred years ago. In few things has England declined more than in plastering, from the prevalence of casting, which allows the employment of the least skilled mechanic. Most of us have seen the magnificent ceilings of Elizabeth, James, and Charles I's time, on whose flowers, fruit, etc., you can even now see the grain of the plasterer's hand, and the holes made by his thumb to get shadow. Even in plastered ceilings of Sir W. Chambers's time, who died in 1796, you see beautiful work in high relief of fruit, flowers, and foliage, and I believe the skill did not die out completely till the end of the first quarter of this century. The infinite variety that hand-stamping produces would to refined tastes be worth the expense, for cast work is all alike.

It is highly benevolent to encourage skilled handwork, for you not only liberate the better sort from that mechanical work which frets and eventually destroys a man by its unvarying and unthinking monotony, but you encourage higher skill, and you allow a man to put his soul instead of his fingers into the work.

Do not suppose I am finding fault with those excellent materials, Roman and Portland cement, or even mastic; all I mean is that, as yet, we have found no way of using them ornamentally in London, except as imitation of stone and stone carving. If we had a pure atmosphere, the first two would be invaluable for inlaying, but in a very short time stone and inlay are indistinguishable from the general grime, and that, too, even when the inlay is black mastic.

In the present day, most of our internal plaster-work of any pretension is done in canvas plaster. A thin coat of fine plaster of Paris is brushed into the mold, very thin open canvas in strips is pressed into this, and brushed over with coarse stuff; the whole is then stiffened with slips of wood, attached to the backing with canvas and plaster; it is then dried in a hot room, and screwed up in its place, and can be painted on at once; its greatest merit is its lightness. The defects of canvas plaster are its want of flatness in the larger panels and of straightness in the cornices.

Bronze, though it becomes a blackish green, has this advantage for the decoration of buildings, that it can be reproduced as often as you please from the modeled clay of the statuary. You may, therefore, get through its means first-rate work at low cost, if the repetition is great, and its use may be called benevolent as well, for it does not condemn skillful men to the brainless work of constantly reproducing the same thing.

It is needless to speak of wrought iron, which can be made into any form you like, and of any size and thickness, from the stem of an anchor to a leaf, and chased or engraved, polished or lacquered, tinned or gilt. I am happy to say that wrought-iron work is receiving great attention again both from architects, painters, and iron-workers, and can be made nearly as well as it ever could. I think cast iron has been needlessly depreciated and needlessly neglected in this truly iron age. You can not get the fineness of bronze, and you can not chase it, but you can get really beautiful work done in it, and the wit of man can never be better employed than in using good materials at hand in the proper way—i. e., by only asking them to do what they can do readily and properly. As far as I know, the only real drawback to cast iron is its liability to rust. If Mr. Barff's process can be applied cheaply and will resist the attacks of the atmosphere for a long time, all we have to put up with is blackness, and, if the parts of a front we must have blank were filled in with glass slabs, you need have very little more black than you want.

Cast iron is a difficult material to use—I mean it wants to be calculated for its strength, it requires much thought to ornament, and everything, even to a bolt-hole, has to be settled beforehand, and, except there is much repetition, it is costly. Its neglect is greatly owing to this, that no one will pay for the extra skill, time, and trouble required of the architect, so this admirable material is almost ignored.

As regards marble, I can not quite agree with M. Charles Garnier, that "even when it has lost its polish it still looks like a shabby gentleman, and is not to be mistaken for a vulgar fellow in his Sunday clothes" Except in rainy weather, when the marble is temporarily polished by the wet, its unpolished surface, in my opinion, can not be regarded as worth the outlay; and I say this with hesitation and regret, for the exquisite harmonies produced by the decayed marble of St. Mark's was a thing to be remembered; still, as an architect, I can not reconcile myself to using a precious material merely to give a flavor when I know that, in giving it, it is going to decay; I might, perhaps, if I were a painter. But for the inside of a building marble is the richest material you have for the production of lovely color music without words—painted as it is by Nature's hand, with every tint and tone of delicacy and subtleness, and enlivened, too, by the wildest caprices of beauty.

The bar to its use in England is the damp, for when the air is full of vapor the marble condenses the moisture, which stands on it in drops or trickles down it. But as most houses and buildings are now warmed, this need not stand for much, and if we panel our rooms below with wood, there is no reason why the upper part should not be of marble. Marbles are of every hue except blue, for blue Beige is black and white, and blue Napoleon, or imperial, is but bluish gray; and brown is scarce, though we have rosewood marble and Californian spar. Marbles are found in most countries of the world, and there are such vast varieties in Europe that they can hardly be catalogued.

Great taste in color is requisite for the proper arrangement of colored marbles; at present no one cares to exercise this taste as a profession, as there is so little effective demand, and, in spite of the low tone of marble generally, it is much easier to make a vulgar or discordant arrangement than a strikingly good or harmonious one. The fashion of using white marble chimney-pieces, white marble bas-reliefs, white marble statues and busts in decorated apartments, is absolutely fatal to low-toned schemes of color decoration, and, as a rule, all gorgeous schemes of color are low-toned, and white must then be used most sparingly as a jewel. White can only be sparingly ornamented with morsels of full color, or very high-toned decoration must be used in conjunction with it, as this alone can sustain masses of white.

Considering the wealth of this country, which mainly goes in useless feasting, useless men and maid servants, useless carriages and horses, and hideous as well as useless clothes, I do not think those who will not use marble from poorness of spirit are included in the beatitudes.

As I am now on marbles, I may as well include mosaic pavements. These must be greatly restricted in so cold and damp a place as England. Few of us love to walk on a marble floor without shoes or stockings, as all would do in a warm or hot climate, but it can be used for the pavement of Protestant cathedrals, for hall floors, for the center aisles of churches, for conservatories, porches, terraces, and the like; and when we can afford it, porphyry is by far the best material for the patterns, as it only polishes by the friction of dusty boots, unlike marble, which roughens, and unpolished marble is not more attractive than stone. Plain geometrical and flat floral patterns are the best, in marble or pottery floor mosaic, for the smallness of the pieces rather helps the scale of the room or building, and does not ruin it like marble squares.

The objection to pottery as mosaic in floors is its softness, so that it soon wears away under much traffic. Figure-pictures, for a floor to be walked on, are a mistake, though they may be used as a center-piece to be looked at from above, and be surrounded by plants or flowers; but nothing can be more appropriate for internal wall decoration than figure-subjects, or floral ornament in marble or tile mosaic; in either case it is permanent, and can be easily cleaned, and that in marble, at least, must be low in tone, for it can have but two colors of complete purity, white and black.

England has got rich these last sixty years by flooding the world with rubbish, so nothing can be more patriotic than having a piece of the best workmanship you can obtain put in your house, and by that I mean attached to the freehold, if it be your own, and let this piece be adorned by the hand of an artist, for his workmanship is transcendental, and, if possible, let it portray a noble example, or evoke a noble reminiscence, and be of such materials that it can not well be sold or destroyed for the value of the material.

  1. Abridged from Ins lectures before the Society of Arts.