This section is from the book "The Practical Book Of Interior Decoration", by Harold Donaldson Eberlein, Abbot Mcclure, Edward Stratton Holloway. See also: The Victorian House Book: A Practical Guide to Home Repair and Decoration.
In considering the use of the more ornamental backgrounds a question at once arises. As will now have been seen, great differences existed in the treatment of the interiors of the various nationalities under Renaissance influence, and in exterior architecture the dissimilarity was still more fundamental. It is obvious that, in general, exterior and interior architecture should agree, so that with our system of the use of international furnishings and furniture the enquiry at once springs to the fore: Is it permissible and is it feasible to employ the fixed architectural backgrounds of the various nationalities under Renaissance influence under one roof?
To this question the writers are not going to give as answer a categorical, but a qualified yes. This procedure has been followed by Stanford White and a few other architects of great ability - and it requires genius of this order satisfactorily to combine such elements. We know that Italian architects and craftsmen working in England and France grafted Renaissance characteristics upon the national developments of architecture both exterior and interior, and did it successfully, too. How far such national characteristics may today successfully be mingled will depend largely upon the ability of the architect or decorator employed. • Suffice it to say that if he be a genius his versatility will be tempered by discretion and the result of his efforts will in no wise resemble a museum or a melange. If architecture is to be more than correct archaeology it is well to ask ourselves if it is not in this very direction of the blending of elements that are largely congruous, because informed with the same spirit, that architectural life and development lies. Absolute originality - a start de novo, a breaking with the traditions of the past - means foredoomed failure; intelligent combination may put new vigour into the architecture of today. Especially might this be true of American architecture - America being itself a combination, and, by its associations in the past war likely to become still more cosmopolitan.
In deciding upon any period decoration it is not only interesting but necessary to learn how far our choice is free and unhampered and how much it is determined for us by existing exterior architectural conditions. Where this exterior is definite it must naturally exert a largely determining influence. But this general rule is, like every other, subject to qualifications. It does not follow that because a New York apartment house is in style French Chateau or Flemish, each one of the fifty or hundred apartments it contains must preserve that style of decoration - in apartments we may choose any style desirable in other respects. Nor, if we are reasonable and liberally inclined, should the narrow front of a city house not pronouncedly definite be allowed to impede our catholicity. The old brown-stone front of New York is of a debased period that we may well ignore, and the brick houses of Philadelphia and Boston, though derived from the earlier Georgian, need not cause us many qualms. What there is good in them is mainly classical and so sufficiently adapted to most styles of decoration. A country house, with all sides exposed and of definite exterior architecture, is another story. If one does not care to live in an interior in accordance with the epoch of its outward appearance he had better secure another house. The mere mention of an Elizabethan house with Rococo panelling will be sufficient to point the lesson.
As has been said, we may choose the less elaborate phases of Renaissance, or any other wall decoration. In such cases also, unless one has knowledge and facility, the services of a decorator will be required. If the architectural lines and details are not already quite approximately correct they should be made so before panelling or decoration is applied. Either may be comparatively simple but should be according to the period. Elaborate carving of mantels, cornices and door-jambs may be omitted, but architecturally they should be right. In rented apartments or houses, inconsistencies, if not pronounced, may be excused. If the Italian Renaissance style is chosen, the diapered wall is an excellent resource. What may be done in the way of intelligent adaptation is admirably shown in the living-room illustrated by Plate 70 B in the chapter on Wall Treatment, where also is described the manner in which this attractive effect was gained.
Italian walls, when plain, were in sand-finished or smooth-finished plaster and in natural tones or of creams, ochres, light chocolate or grey. It is, therefore, evident that any such existing wall will admirably answer for a Renaissance interior. If the walls have been papered, a sand-finished paper may be applied. If the property is rented and the existing paper is in too good condition to be replaced, it would answer, providing that it has the general appearance of a perfectly plain surface in the right colouring - such as a cream felt or granite paper would afford.
An illustration is shown (Plate 128) of a remodelled farmhouse with plain walls, in which the Renaissance effect is excellently given by the tapestry and well-chosen furniture of England and Spain, with an Oriental touch in the lamp and rug.
At this point the decorator, retailer or householder arrives at much easier going than hitherto; for it is a fact that all movable decorative objects are in all ages much more likely to be affected by the decorative influence then prevailing than is the more massive and fixed architectural structure; and so the furnishings and furniture under that influence approach each other much more nearly, though always somewhat differentiated by national characteristics. It is this very difference that adds variety and charm in our system of international decoration and gives it its value. By this plan also, as has been intimated, we are enabled to bring within our scope many beautiful objects from other lands, or their reproductions, which would be forbidden us by a closer adherence to the one-period, one-country method of furnishing. How far this immense advantage will still further be enlarged we shall realise when we come to the consideration and addition of the inter-period element of this method.
It has been felt advisable, in these chapters, to give as many illustrations of the furniture of Continental Europe as limits permit rather than to exhaust space with cuts of the well-known English furniture. Those who wish to make comparisons can readily do so by referring to "The Practical Book of Period Furniture" by Eberlein and McClure, where British and American forms are described and illustrated in detail.
There is little of the movable furnishing of strictly Renaissance provenance originating in one country that may not be employed in the interiors of another. The word "strictly" is here used because not a great while after the full flowering of this influence another movement arose - the Baroque - which blended with it. For the avoidance of all confusion, however, this will later and separately be treated, so that for the present we may confine ourselves to the furnishings of the Renaissance.
As has been mentioned, wall hangings were largely employed and may be considered one of the notes of Renaissance furnishing. These were of tapestry, brocade, velvet or embroidery. Any such Renaissance pieces, or reproductions thereof, may be used.
Floors were largely uncovered. In England, however, rushes were spread over them, and when these were, to phrase it gently, soiled, more rashes were spread over these again, till sanatory conditions became what would be as horrifying to us as we trust the present state of our streets would be to those living a few years hence. Oriental rugs have always been employed to some extent and may be used in Renaissance interiors today. Plain or bordered rugs might also well be employed provided the borders are plain, or of lines, or of a dignified design appropriate to a Renaissance setting (Plate 80).
The fact that the furniture of other nations in a particular period may be introduced in the interiors of any one, is fortunate for the owners of Elizabethan or Tudor houses. Probably the most creditable action of Henry VIII of tainted memory was the introduction of the Renaissance into England. There it had its influence, but England was then a less polished nation than Italy in the domestic arts, and till early Stuart times the furnishings of British houses were few. Wall furniture (chests, buffets, cupboards and cabinets) composed its bulk. Tables were but few, their place being mostly supplied by boards on trestles. Benches and joint-stools usually comprised the seating furniture. Chairs were most infrequent and were at first of the character known as wainscot chairs, and there was little upholstered furniture till the Restoration or near it. The bedsteads always occupied a position of state, and these were immensely large and heavily carved. The furniture of Renaissance England must, therefore, be supplemented from that of the succeeding epoch or from other countries under Renaissance influence if we are to have what is now considered an habitable home (Plates 136 and 3).
"With such barrenness and to some extent rudeness as has been described we may contrast the dignified and elegant furnishings of Continental Europe during the same period. There, too, the rooms were of enormous proportions, and anything approaching the crowding of furniture was sedulously avoided. The pieces were large and generally of the same materials - oak and walnut. Wall furniture there also occupied a position of much importance, but tables and seating furniture existed in great variety and beauty, the latter being upholstered in rich velvets, brocades, damasks and needlework. In addition to wall-hangings there were mural ornaments, pictures and carved ornaments of wood, often painted and gilt. Sculpture and pottery were abundant. Candlesticks and candelabra were of carved and gilded wood and of iron with ornament of colour and gilt.
The chests, or cassoni, were frequently carved by the great sculptors of Italy, the panels often embellished by the painters whose names are household words with us. These and other wall-pieces were often treated with gesso and then with colour and gilding.
No one knowing the indebtedness of English literature to Italian sources, realising the spread of Renaissance influence, and appreciating that only time and the march of progress were necessary to bring this added refinement to England, will hesitate to select from such furnishings and add them to those belonging to a British interior of Tudor times.
Common sense will give us the general precept that the correct course is to use principally and as a foundation the furniture appertaining to the nationality of the architectural background, supplementing it by that of other nations under the same influence. Where there is no distinctive background we may choose as a basis what we will, and give variety by the addition of these other pieces. National characteristics will always assert themselves through a general resemblance, and they give us a happy many-sidedness and versatility of decoration impossible of being realised when we confine ourselves to an absolute reproduction of an English, French, Italian, Flemish or Spanish style. A study of the pieces of furniture illustrated herewith will demonstrate both this unity and variety. In viewing them we shall at once see their generally rectilinear character. Curves there are, to be sure, but we shall only have to become familiar with those of the succeeding Baroque and Bococo influences to realise the Classic features everywhere informing Benaissance design. It is by this comparison of varying forms that stylistic differences are quickly apprehended, rather than through reams of detailed description.