This section is from "The Horticulturist, And Journal Of Rural Art And Rural Taste", by P. Barry, A. J. Downing, J. Jay Smith, Peter B. Mead, F. W. Woodward, Henry T. Williams. Also available from Amazon: Horticulturist and Journal of Rural Art and Rural Taste.
THERE fashions in all things, and so far from underrating the importance of imitation as a means of improvement, we are inclined to value it for all it is worth. Many a man who would never be led to make any progress in mental, moral, or social culture, for the intrinsic value of these things in themselves, is induced to do so because he finds others considering them essential. The powerful, original, inventive minds lead; the merely imitative and dull are content to follow. The misfortune is, that in following, they often lose the spirit, and pertinaciously adhering to the letter, they blunder into errors, sometimes more ludicrous than those they seek to cure.
We are led to these remarks by observing how, when the absurdity of an old idea is pointed out, and it begins to be abandoned by those who think and act first in such matters - those who think and act from some principle - it is often taken up and carried to excess, by those who see or understand no principle at all, but merely adopt it because it is the fashion to do so.
An amusing example of this is the rage now in vogue in New-York, for painting all dwellings of a dingy brown color - " Victoria brown," we believe the painters call it. It so happened, that along with the building of Trinity Church, in New-York, some ten years ago, sprung up quite a new and improved taste in architecture. This grew partly out of the novelty of seeing, for the first time, a really good church built of solid stone, the beautiful details of which were finely executed in the comparatively soft sandstone used in that building, and also from the fact, made manifest by the extensive use of that material, that the beauty resulting from enriched architecture, a thing almost impossible in cold, hard granite, was not only possible, but delightful in a more pliant material. Captivated by the use of a building material in which edifices no longer frowned in the sternness of gray rock, but smiled in the softness of " freestone," granite and bricks were almost abandoned, and churches, shop-fronts, and private dwellings, with solid-looking fagades of this brown stone, have sprang up all over New-York, as if by magic.
It is undeniable, that the use of this stone has amazingly improved the character of the buildings, both public and private, that adorn all the newer and better portions of the city; for there can sever be any comparison instituted between the expressionless brick walk that formerly made up all of New-York, (and that still make up all of Philadelphia and Baltimore, and the more expressive and architectural effects that have grown tip since freestone has come into general use. Architecture, like sculpture, demands stone before it can develop and blossom in all its fair proportions - and dull and monotonous as much of the brown sandstone* used in New-York, is, we owe to its greater facility under the chisel, the only just pretension to architectural beauty, that any of our cities have yet made.
So far, it is all very well. There is something real in the color of any stone, and therefore, in a certain degree satisfactory, because it is the natural oolor - -though the stone may be by no means the best one.
But now comes the imitation - the false instead of the real - the paste instead of the diamond. Brown stone houses are the best houses in town - therefore they are the fashion. Now, unfortunately, there are many brick houses that cannot by any conjuror's wand be turned into brown stone. Still, the owner is very unhappy, not to live in a brown stone house - it is such a miserable thing not to be d la mode. What is to be done? The house painter is the only man who alone can solve this problem. And he solves it - by 'painting his house "Victoria brown" - i. e., the fashionable dingy brown stone color, (in imitation of our freestone).
Now, as we think few things uglier than red brick walls, we have no objection to calling in the help of the painter to impart the agreeable impression of a pleasing color, instead of an ugly one - to the otherwise insipid, meagre, brick surface. All that we complain of, is, that any body should be forced to swallow, as a quack medicine to cure all diseases that the optic nerve is heir to, this eternal, dingy "Victoria brown".
The only object of painting the surface, (beyond that of preserving it,) is to please the eye. Why not, therefore, choose a pleasing drab, or a soft, warm gray, or a light mellow fawn, or any one of the many quiet, neutral tints, that are as easily mixed in a paint-pot as this dingiest and most melancholy color - the color of dead leaves in an tumn? Why not take two or three shades, (only shades, not distinct colors,) of the same drab, or gray, and by painting the body of the house one shade, the window-dressings and the cornice another, and the blinds another, give some pleasing variety of expression, (for color alone is capable of doing wonders in this way,) to our otherwise monotonous meagre piles of brick houses? Why not - but it is useless to inquire ! The painter, shaking bis "Victoria brown" brush at you, stops your mouth with that answer from which, in the opinion of the multitude, there is no appeal, " this is the color, sir, everybody prefers now".
If fashionable Victoria brown is simply an error of taste in town, it is an abomination - a miserable cockneyism in the country. But in the country it has come, (at least everywhere within 300 miles of New- York,) and we, who used to put oar eyes out with the everlasting glare of white paint, (with only the vulgar relief of very green Minds)- - are now being " done brown" - Victoria-ized - (poor innocent republicans as we are) - simply because Trinity Church was built of brown stone, and some ignorant John Bull of a house painter took it into his head to daub over all the brick houses in Gotham, as nearly like brown stone as he could make them.
* We notice with pleasure, that several of the newer structures in New-York, are of a sandstone of • much lighter shade - the color of which is very handsome.
Seriously, we protest against this snuff-colored mixture, with which all our dwellings, good, bad, .and indifferent, are likely to be painted out of existence - for " Victoria brown" is a most suicidal, melancholy color. There are, to be sure, many houses so little calculated to awaken any emotion but those of wonder as to how they came to be built - houses that we would like to see deeply dyed of some hue that would render them quite invisible to mortal gase. But others there are, that the eye rests on with delight - beautiful country houses - perhaps modest cottages, with latticed porches half overgrown with the " lush woodbine," or pretty villas, embowered in shrubbery and smooth lawns, or pleasant, rambling farm houses, seated amid blossoming orchards, or, may-hap, stately mansions with park-like meadows, studded with noble groups of that loveliest and most graceful of all American trees, the Weeping Elm; and for all such we implore a respite! We beg all true lovers of good taste to protect these fair homes in the country, from the rude assaults of these Knights of the Brush - these valiant Bow Quixotes of the Victoria. Brown regiment, who go about attacking all that does not wear their color, more desperately and omnipotently than Don Quixote of old did the windmills of La Mancha.
This is the epidemic of New-Tork. That of New-England has taken a widely different shape. The tendencies of our eastern neighbors always take a more subtle and spiritual direction, and accordingly, we find that while the rural districts of New York are brown-stone-blind - or rather blind to everything but brown, the country folks down east are equally distracted on the subject of lightning rods!
We have never heard from scientific men, that New-England is a land peculiarly liable to be struck by lightning, (rather famous it is, generally, for strikes of another sort,) but certainly, any person travelling for the first time through that part of the Union, at the present day, would set it down as a fixed fact, that it was " down east" alone, that Spenoer could have had in his imagination when he was led to say, The sky in pieces teeming to be rent Throws lightning forth, and hail, and harmful showers.
Why, there is scarcely a house worth five hundred dollars in Connecticut or Massachusetts, which has not, within the last half docen years, mounted a chevaux de frieze of bristling steel conductors, as terrible to the eye of a lover of repose in the country, as the serried ranks of one of Napoleon's invincible hollow squares, presenting innumerable bayonets at all conceivable points of attack, were to his enemies. A new neighbor strolling out for the first time, and encountering one of these domicils armed from top to toe with iron rods, and " presenting arms" at every angle, at the top of every chimney, the turn of every corner, yes, and at intervals of every half dozen feet where along the straight ridge of the roof there are no angles - would he not turn back with dismay, with all thoughts of seeking hospitality at such a home driven clean out of his head?
We are at a loss to know how our shrewd neighbors of New-England hare been persuaded into such a very considerable item of needless expenditure as this same hideous display of lightning conductors on every house must have cost, all over that populous country. We suppose some magician, "cuter" than the "cutest," must have waved his iron rod over them, with some potent spell of incantation, to have produced such an effect on a whole people, where the school-master is so thoroughly abroad as he is there. We have questioned and cross-questioned, and for the life of us, cannot ascertain that any greater damage is sustained in the farm buildings and village dwellings of New York and Pennsylvania, where one lightning rod answers for a whole building, than in New-England, where it takes 50 or 100 points of the very sharpest description, shooting up into the air in all directions.
We know very well the philosophy of protection which the savans have laid down - that only a certain circle beyond the conductor's point of radius, is protected by that point - but, in good truth, it is but very rarely that a dwelling is struck at all - because tall trees standing near and about it, conduct away the fluid first, and any barn with a cupola ventilator, and a single high rod surmounting it, one which may be made most useful and ornamental, would be amply protected.
At any rate, we would as soon have a fire engine, with all its customary accessories of noisy boys, and red flannel shirts, and hoarsely bellowing trumpets, standing perpetually before our front door, because a fire might break out once in fifty years, as to have our house skewered and stuck with sharp points in all imaginable directions, because such a misfortune might happen as for the electric fluid to step out of its usual ear-rent to pay us a visit. In the town where we live, with a population of 11,000 souls, not one house in five has even one lightning conductor, and we do not remember in the whole of our life, of a single death by lightning, or one house damaged to the extent of one hundred dollars. Certainly, a wise man will not build a good house and neglect a reasonable share of precaution to guard it against possible mischance - but this hysterical nervousness of our good New-England friends, about lightning, is a mania about which they have not the less run " clear daft," than we, in this part of the country, have with that optical abomination, the "Victoria brown" disease.