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.
The use of gilding in decoration of all kinds seems to be as fascinating to the artist as its pursuit in the solid form appears to be to a large proportion of the human race. In both instances, too, there are risks to be run; in both there is use or abuse of the material involved.
The uses of gilding- in art are manifold. We may regard it as the most precious and beautiful means of emphasis in design. A method of heightening certain important parts, such as the initial letters of an illuminated manuscript, where, by raising the letter in gesso, or gold size and burnishing, an additional richness and lustre is obtained, especially with the use of full colours, such as ultramarine, the deep blue and vermilion which warm the heart in looking at the manuscripts of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. The jewel-like sparkle, too, of the burnished gold used for raised leaves and fruits here and there among the delicate arabesque page-borders as in French manuscripts of the early fourteenth century has a most charming effect, and contains Apparta-menti Borgia, Vatican, Rome, showing Pintur-icchio's fresco: "The Salutation " and a Portion of the Decoration of the Vault suggestions for the use of gold in larger kinds of decorative work.
From a Photograph by Anderson
Apparta-menti Borgia, Vatican, Rome, showing Portion of " The Salutation " fresco, with Enrichments raised in Gesso
From a Photograph by Anderson
Gold, too, may be used as light in drawing, as a heightening to take the place of white on a dark-toned paper. Burne-Jones revived this method with fine results.
Gold is a most valuable means of harmonizing- different colours used in the same design or decoration, and is often useful as an outline in flat decoration, and while it can be effectively used with the full range of colour where very rich effects are sought, it also combines well with any single colour in decoration.
The late G. F. Watts told me he considered blue and gold to be the typical colours of the universe.
Certainly they form one of the most - if not the most - beautiful of harmonies.
In the Appartamenti Borgia in the Vatican at Rome - a series of vaulted rooms decorated by Pinturicchio - the prevailing harmony is blue and gold, the field of the vaulting being blue with raised arabesques in gold emphasizing the ribs, while the arched spaces formed by the vaulting on the side walls are filled with figure subjects in fresco, in which the gold note is re-echoed by certain parts such as armour, weapons and caskets being raised in gesso and gilded. The whole has a very rich and splendid but quiet effect. There is a reproduction to scale of a portion in South Kensington Museum - and also one of the room of Isabella d'Este at Mantua, which has a rich ceiling in gold and colour.
Palermo: Cappella Reale, Interior
From a Water-colour
Sketch by Walter Crane
The lining of a certain dining-room in Prince's Gate lately sold and removed might be quoted as a modern instance of blue and gold decoration. It is supposed to have cost an architect his reason, and both the painter and the patron more than either bargained for, as well as their friendship, but the result was most artistic, original and beautiful. Need I say the motive was the peacock, and the artist Mr. Whistler?
"There is safety in a swallow-tail," says Car-lyle in "Sartor Resartus." That there is safety in white and gold appears to be the creed of the modern decorator. I heard a lady say she liked white and gold; it "always reminded her of champagne," possibly it may remind others of a balance at their bankers. There is a well-known firm of architects in New York by the name of Mackim, Meade and White, who have been re-christened in the profession as "Mackim, White and Gold," owing to their fondness for that blend in interior decoration, in association with what is called "old colonial" architecture.
One can obtain every variety of metallic tint related to gold by lacquering over silver leaf. I adopted this method in a room, using a coffered ceiling; with the design of a vine in relief, and a frieze panelled with figure subjects (AEsop's "Fables"). The light came from a large bay window at one end of the room, and so the edges of the reliefs caught the light. The general effect being subdued silver and bronze tones, relieved by touches of ruddy gold. (See illustration, p. 261.)
From a Photograph by Brooks and Son, Salisbury.
The Double Cube Room, Wilton House.
Showing the Inigo Jones Decoration of the Walls, with the Vandyke Portraits in the Panels
The use of gold as an isolator has long been established in the form of picture frames - the gilded "flat" or moulding clearing a picture from its surroundings more effectually and easily than any other known method ; but the picture frame, as I think I have before said, is only a relic of the architectural relation of the picture to the wall, where it originally formed a panel, as may be seen, for instance, in the Vandyke room at Wilton House.
Gold also forms a most valuable field or ground for colours, as in decorative painting and mosaic work, or may be used in painting with charming effect as a colour, as the early painters used it, for rich brocades and patterned stuffs, rays of light, the emblazoning of heraldic devices, inscriptions, and small fine details of all kinds.
Gold in Byzantine art always seems to have been used with a sense of dignity and of solemnity. The gold tesserae which form the field of the mosaic decoration in the subdued light in St. Mark's at Venice impress one with an effect of quiet splendour. There is nothing gaudy or flaming. The light falls through the narrow windows of the dome, and moves softly over the concave gilded surface, reflected backwards and forwards in every variety of tone as the sunlight travels, and the great figures and emblems loom majestically and mysteriously upon the gold field.
Another splendid example, and again chiefly a harmony of blue and gold, is seen in that exquisite gem of architecture and mosaic decoration, the Cappella Palatina in the Royal Palace at Palermo.
From a Photograph by Brooks and Son,
Salisbury The Double Cube Rom Wilton House
The opposite principle in the use of gilding is illustrated in St. Peter's at Rome, and in many renascence interiors when the mouldings, capitals, cornices, and architectural enrichments of all kinds in relief are picked out in gold. The splendour may be there - if only in the impression of costliness - but it seems of a more obvious kind, more conscious and self-assertive, and when the principle is carried thoroughly out of gilding every prominence, the effect may easily become ostentatious and vulgar.
I think it is important not to lose the sense of preciousness in the use of gilding, and, as with costly marbles and beautiful materials of all kinds, one should be careful not to put them to base uses, or lose their artistic value by excess.
It is comparatively easy to offer up pious opinions on the use of gold; but the real problems only begin in front of the particular work in hand, and the conditions under which the decorative artist works continually vary. One may be guided by certain principles, but much more by feeling and judgement, which go to form what is called taste. Every work must be finer in proportion to the thought and feeling put into it, but no amount of gold-leaf will cover the absence of taste and sense of proportion.