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.
Now, I take it, a painter or a decorator must be primarily concerned with producing something of beauty, even if, owing to circumstances over which he has no control, it cannot be "a joy for ever." Let his problem be of the simplest - the choice of a flat tint for a wall, for instance - the important element of individual taste comes in. This, again, must be checked by considerations of adaptability and utility, such as aspect and conditions of lighting in the room, the kind of room, its proportions and purpose.
View in Bournville
Cottages at Bournville
Designed by Alex. W. Harvey
We all know what a different effect the same tint has in full or in half-light, in sunlight or in shadow, and what transformations are effected in rooms by simply changing the tint or the wall-paper.
The effect, too, of the same tint upon different surfaces should be noted. Any texture or granulation of surface improves the quality of a flat tint, and for this reason wall coverings with a texture in them; such as are known under the name of Burlaps, are excellent, providing a variety of plain tints of pleasant texture for wall coverings, or admirable grounds for the decorator to work upon.
A good sense of colour, therefore, is of the first importance. A knowledge of how to produce certain tints; the effect of one tint upon, or in juxtaposition to, another; the effect of one tint and of different tints in the same light; the best grounds for different tints; all these things, in addition to the workman's skill of hand in laying on paint evenly, are essential parts of a painter's and decorator's training and equipment.
The complex elements out of which have been evolved our ideas of harmonious decoration are not more complex than those out of which the varieties of the modern house have been produced. True taste, as well as common sense, would say, "cut your coat according to your cloth" - build your house and decorate it according to what you can spend upon it: let it represent your own ideas of taste and comfort, after due thought, and not be an imitation of another's, or of something in the mode which you think you ought to like, neither something costly because of the cost, or a cheap imitation of something costly.
How few nouses seem to be built or decorated upon these principles. How few, indeed, build their houses at all, or have much choice in the matter - except perhaps that of Hobson, who must also have been a jerry builder.
There is an old saying that fools build houses and wise men live in them. However that may be, certainly town-dwellers are often like hermit-crabs, glad to creep into more or less in-convenient empty shells erected by former generations, happy it they succeed in adapting them to their own requirements more or less. In a book on architecture of about the date 1836, elevations and plans are given of "a First-rate House," "a Second-rate House," "a Third-rate House," and even "a Fourth-rate" - quite on the principle of railway carriages, but going one better, or one worse. They all present modest street frontages of about twenty feet, duly cemented and painted. They differ chiefly in the number of their stories, and consequently windows, but the plans and elevations are all of the same type, slightly varied in the details. The "first-rate" house, though a little more ornate and classic in some ways is by no means a palace, and the fourth-rate house is not exactly a cottage; the second-rate is only a cheaper edition of the first-rate, and the third-rate tries to look like the second-rate, but is conscious of having only one window to the dining-room. All sport balconies to the first-floor front windows and iron railings, guarding the ground-floor and basement, only the fourth-rate has no basement. It is as if the architect started with one elevation and literally cut it down to meet the exigencies of second, third, and fourth-rate tenants - I had almost said passengers - and in strict accordance with the then building acts.
Those building acts, perhaps, are responsible for the monotony of our modern streets. Although they have in some respects been modified of late, houses in a street or road are obliged to dress up to a straight building line, toeing the mark like a file of soldiers. Or, perhaps, more suggestive of a train of railway carriages, which only needs a locomotive attached to the end of the row to pull them along, and one might hope, out of sight, also. There are miles of houses of this type still existing in our towns, notably London, for which in fact the designs I speak of were intended, but I have seen their like in Liverpool, Dublin, and elsewhere.
Though carefully graded in classes and adjusted to certain rentals, the aim of the builder has been to make each present, on the outside, an equally neat and respectable appearance.
This is thoroughly characteristic of mid-nineteenth century ideas, and the love of neatness has always been characteristic of the English. The compromise, also, between modest requirements, or shall we say, between 5 per cent, and a respect for the Five Orders, which the street frontages of this period exhibit, is equally characteristic. We see the last results of the wave of Greco-Roman taste which ruled from the end of the eighteenth century to the early Victorian time. Of course we have got beyond all that now, though the type remains, and in some cases even, with its remnants of style, affords a slight relief and sense of repose after certain flamboyant erections in terra-cotta and plate glass which have appeared in our streets, with the up-to-date builders.
The type, as I have said, of these middle-class dwellings remains, their chief charm as well as decorative point being in the design of the street doorway, with classical columns or pilasters and a fanlight often with a graceful design in leaded glazing, too often ruthlessly scooped out to make way for blank plate glass. We know those iron railings (protecting the area and kitchen quarters from the attacks of the soldier and policeman), the windows of the basement timidly peeping above the ground as with half-closed eyes; the steps to the front door whitened by successive generations of devoted housemaids; the more or less Doric front door; the entrance hall, or long squeezy passage with the umbrella stand as a principal decoration; the staircase at the end leading to the upper rooms; the dining-room opening out of the aforesaid passage, with perhaps a dismal window in the rear, commanding a fine prospect of back yards, unless considerately veiled by ferns, or stopped out by some would-be stained glass. The bedrooms over, back and front, follow naturally from such an obvious plan.