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.
House-Decoration, it would seem, is almost synonymous with civilization, and certainly has been co-extensive with its development in the world. The domestic interior, so far as we are able to realize it, and all that it implies, affords the best visible evidence of the standard of living and refinement, and sense of beauty existing among a race or people of any age or country.
In proportion as the conditions of human life become more and more artificial; and removed from nature, man seems to require the aid of art.
Decoration, indeed, might be regarded as a sort of aesthetic compensation for the increased artificiality, complexity, and restraint of civilized life.
Sheltered from the storm in a rain-proof, well-drained house, by a comfortable fireside, the comfort of a citizen who sits at home at ease is perhaps increased by the contemplation of pictures of wild landscape, perilous coasts, and even shipwrecks, upon his drawing-room wall; but when the sun smiles and the long days come, something of the instinct of primitive man moves him, and he wants to be off to the woods and moors, seeking nature rather than art.
Thoreau, in his delightful book, "Walden," describes his endeavours to return to nature and reduce his life to the simplest conditions; he found the woods of Walden and its denizens, and the pond with its wild fowl, and the contemplation of the changeful drama of nature quite sufficient, beyond a little rough wooden shanty, with a bed, a chair, and a writing-desk in it The only attempt at decoration he seems to have made was when he introduced some curious stones, by way of ornament, but quickly got rid of them again, as they needed dusting and arranging. Here he seems to have reached the zero of house-decoration.
Decoration with primicive and pre-histork man may be considered chiefly personal and possible. The taste for decorative pattern was gratified upon his own skin in the form of tattoo or war-paint, or in strings of beads feather head-dresses, and the carved handler of his weapons. Not that modern man - stil less modern woman - has given up persona decoration, in fact, I suppose feathers and beads were never so much in demand, but it seems that modern painters and decorator: having provided so much more elaborate and becoming backgrounds they have to be "lived up to." One has heard of the man (in "Punch") who was looking- for a wife "to suit his furni ture." Well, the background is an important element of a picture, after all.
Cave-walls, though not neglected in primitive times, no doubt had rather severe limitations, regarded as fields for decoration, and until the art of constructing dwellings had been developed to a certain extent, it is obvious that mural decoration could hardly exist in any ordered form.
Tent-dwellers, like the Tartars and the Arabs, developed the mat and rug, the carpet and cover, and thus, on the textile side, made their historic contribution to an important element in modern house-decoration, as well as to certain typical forms of pattern well known to decorators; but the ancient Egyptian, with his plastered surface over the sun-baked bricks which formed the wall of his dwelling was, so far as we know, the initiator of painted mural decoration. The definite but abstract forms, the primary colours cleared by black outlines, and the resulting flat decorative effect of early Egyptian art, have set the abstract type for mural painting for all ages.
With the Egyptians, however, as with the ancients generally, the buildings most regarded for decorative purposes, owing, of course to their social and religious customs, were the temple, the palace, and the tomb. The Greeks and Romans, and the nations of mediaeval Europe, broadly speaking, followed the same order, inspired by very different ideas, and under the influence of very different habits of life and climatic differences. The classic temple and the mediaeval cathedral became alike the depositories of the most beautiful decorative art. They are the great representative monuments of the art of the age and of the races that produced them, truly collective and typical.
The individual citizen under Greek, Roman, and especially Christian ideas, and the development of commerce becoming of more and more importance, we find the private house considered more and more as a field for the decorator's art, and for the expression of individual feeling and taste.
As regards walls, fresco and tempera painting appear to have been the chief and most general methods of decoration from classical times to the middle ages, and it is still to those methods we look for the higher forms of mural work.
The remains of Pompeii, disclosed from beneath their pall of volcanic ashes, have furnished a mine of examples to the mural painter, and, indeed, the influence of the Roman and Pompeian taste and methods of treatment seems to have remained almost traditional with the Italian decorator, who has never lost his skill as a workman in tempera painting, though one may not always be able to admire his taste.
Yet, in regard to such a marked and distinct type of decoration as the Pompeian, one cannot but feel that in the endeavour (which has often been made) to adapt such types of decoration to modern domestic interiors there is an uncomfortable feeling of anachronism and incongruity. The style, the fancy, the colour, the treatment, the motives, all belong so essentially to another race, and to a different climate. To live surrounded by such imported decorations would be like masquerading in classical costume, and, indeed, to be consistent, the dwellers in a Pompeian room ought to pose in classical draperies, and endeavour to emulate an Alma-Tadema picture in the aspects of their everyday life.
Every race and every age, however, acted upon by all sorts of influences, climatic, social, economic, commercial, political, historic, evolves its own ideas of home and comfort - and appropriate decorative surroundings as a necessary part of home and comfort. These, in the long run, are the fittest to the circumstances and conditions, but by no means always ideally the best, in fact, but rarely so, being the result, as a rule, of certain compromises; but the forces which fashion our lives and characters, which determine our habits and pursuits, also determine the character of our surroundings.
The very ideas of home and comfort which one might consider more fixed and permanent - more traditional - than most human notions, seem, with the increased complexity of modern life, especially on the lines of the present development of large cities, or commercial centres, liable to change. The practice of living in flats and residential hotels must surely tend to displace or modify in the mind of the ordinary citizen the older ideas of what constitutes the completeness and organic relation proper to an independently constructed dwelling. The contraction of space, and sometimes of light, commonly associated with flats, cannot have a favourable physical effect, and the impossibility of any garden setting - beyond a window box - must again, one would think, affect both the general health as well as a healthy sense of decoration.
The decorative designer certainly depends largely for freshness of inspiration and suggestion in design and colour upon growing plants and flowers, upon the sight of birds and animals, of the ever-changing sea and sky, and the colours of the landscape. If the sense from which is produced the very elements of decoration thus requires to be kept alive and in health, surely the sense which appreciates the product, which selects and uses, needs also similar access to nature to preserve a healthy tone. But having provided small brick boxes with slate lids as homes for our people, and packed them together in straight rows all alike on the eligible building land of our towns, we next proceed to economize space (and secure more unearned increment to the square foot) by packing such boxes one on the top of the other and calling them "mansions" or "residential flats."
On the other hand the collective dwelling, of which perhaps we see the germ in the better type of modern flats, with a common kitchen and dining-hall, may have an important future, and there is no reason why, given favourable conditions, good sites, and ample ground and careful planning with due regard to light, air, and aspect, dwellings on the plan of collective living,