This section is from the book "Ideals In Art: Papers Theoretical Practical Critical", by Walter Crane . Also available from Amazon: Ideals in Art: Papers Theoretical, Practical, Critical.
That modern conditions of life are destructive to the sense of beauty I do not doubt, yet I am by no means sure that sensitiveness to beauty - or to its absence - in our daily surroundings is so very common (or even that there is a common understanding as to the idea of beauty), that such a proposition would obtain general assent without further explanation, and, as I have undertaken to open the case for the prosecution, if I may so term it, I will try to make clear my reasons and conclusions on the matter.
My first witness shall be London, as London is typical and focuses most of the effects of modern, social, and economic conditions. Now we hear a great deal of the beauty of London, but probably those who talk of her beauty are really only thinking of certain beauty-spots. Vast as London is, most of us really live for the most part in a comparatively small London. Outside our usual haunts lies a vast unknown region, of which, indeed, we obtain occasional glimpses on being obliged to travel across or through the multi-county city.
Those whose London is bounded on the west by Kensington Gardens and on the east by Mayfair, do not figure to themselves Clerken-well or Ratcliff Highway, Bethnal Green or Bow, and would not care to embrace the vast new suburbs spreading over the green fields in every direction, or even the comparatively select slums in the shadow of Belgravian mansions.
Supposing we approached our metropolis by any one of the great railway lines - there is nothing to indicate we are entering the greatest and wealthiest city in the world. We pass rows and rows of mean dwellings - yellow brick boxes with blue slate lids - crowded close to the railway in many places, with squalid little backyards. We fly over narrow streets, and complex webs and net-works of railway lines, telegraph and telephone wires, myriad smoking chimney-pots, steaming, throbbing works of all kinds, sky-signs and the wonders of the particoloured poster-hoardings, which pursue one into the station itself, flaring on the reluctant and jaded sight with ever-increasing importunity and iteration, until one recalls the philosopher who remarked: "Strange that the world needs so much pressing to accept such apparently obvious - and sometimes startlingly obvious - advantages."
All sense of architectural proportion inside the station, however large, is lost by the strident labels of all sorts and sizes; and images of all sorts of scales and colours, stick, like huge postage stamps, wherever likely to catch the eye.
The same thing meets us in the streets; in the busier commercial quarters, too, it is a common device to hang the name of the firm in gigantic gilt letters all over the windows and the upper stories of the shops; while the shops themselves become huge warehouses of goods, protected by walls of plate-glass, upon the edges of which apparently rest vast superstructures of flats and offices, playfully pinned together by telegraph poles, and hung with a black spider's web of wires as if to catch any soaring ideas of better things that might escape the melee of the streets.
In the streets themselves a vast crowd of all sorts, sizes, and conditions is perpetually hurrying to and fro, presenting the sharpest contrasts in their appearance and bearing. Here the spruce and prosperous business man, there the ragged cadger, the club idler and the out-o'-work. Here the lady in her luxurious carriage in purple and fine linen, and there the wretched seller of matches. Modern street traffic, too, is of the most mixed and bewildering kind, and the already perilous London streets have been made much more so by the motor in its various forms of van and bus, business or private car. The aspect of a London street during one of the frequent blocks is certainly extraordinary, so variously sorted and sized are the vehicles wedged in an apparently inextricable jumble; while the railways and tubes burrowed underground only add fresh streams of humanity to the traffic instead of relieving it. Yet it has been principally to relieve the congested traffic that the great changes have been made which have practically transformed the town, sweeping away many historic buildings and relics of the past, and giving a general impression of rapid scene-shifting to our streets.
From a Photograph by F. Frith and Co.
Westworth Street. Whitechapel of London
The most costly and tempting wares are displayed in the shops in clothing, food, and all the necessities of life, as well as fantastic luxuries and superfluities in the greatest profusion - "things that nobody wants made to give to people who have no use for them" - yet, necessities or not, removed only by the thickness of the plate glass from the famished eyes of penury and want.
The shops, too, are not work-shops. The goods appear in the windows as if by magic. Their producers are hidden away in distant factories, working like parts of a machine upon parts of wholes which perhaps they never see complete.
Turning to the residential quarters we see ostentation and luxury on the one hand and cheap imitation, pretentiousness, or meanness and squalor on the other. We see the aforesaid brick boxes which have ruined the aspect of most of our towns; we have the pretentious villa with its visitors' and servants' bells; we have the stucco-porticoed town "mansion," with its squeezy hall and umbrella stand; or we have the desirable flat, nearer to heaven, like the cell of a cliff-dweller, where the modern citizen seeks seclusion in populous caravansaries which throw every street out of scale where they rear their Babel-like structures.
I have not spoken of the gloom of older-fashioned residential quarters, frigid in their respectability, which, whatever centres of light and leading they may conceal, seem outwardly to turn the cold shoulder to ordinary humanity, or peep distrustfully at a wicked world through their fanlights.