This section is from the book "Hints On Household Taste In Furniture, Upholstery And Other Details", by Charles L. Eastlake. Also available from Amazon: Hints on Household Taste in Furniture, Upholstery and Other Details.
THE external aspect of a house, which has not been built expressly for its occupants, is, of course, a question of taste utterly beyond their control. Those who are lucky enough to reside in the picturesque old country mansions which were in vogue long before the nineteenth-century type of cockney villa architecture was introduced, will have no reason to complain; while they whose means have enabled them to combine in their abode the beauty of mediaeval design with the necessary comforts and appliances of modern life, may be reckoned still more fortunate. But these are exceptions to the general rule. Most of us are obliged to accept the outward appearance of our abode as we find it. In London it is sure to be irretrievably ugly, and any attempt to alter its character would be met not only by a remonstrance on the part of our landlords, but by an universal objection shared by all of us, and founded upon an inherent disinclination to differ conspicuously from our neighbours. So long as the present system of tenure remains as it is, and the interest of house-proprietors is to run up buildings which are only required to last a limited number of years, we must remain content with plain brick fronts pierced with the traditional number of square openings, or decorated (in the suburbs) with stucco and cement ornaments, as perishable as they are commonplace and tasteless. Our only license, indeed, is to conceal what we cannot alter. The practice of training ivy and creepers from the basement story to the first-floor, and that of filling the drawing-room balcony with flowering plants, is one which is much increasing in Tyburnia and the neighbourhood of Belgrave Square, and it is really the best means by which we can invest our street-fronts, as they are at present designed, with even the smallest degree of interest. The only external feature, therefore, on which it would be worth while to remark, is the front-door. And here I fear I must begin to differ from those whose principles of taste are derived from long-accepted conventionalism. The practice of graining wood has not, however, been so long in vogue in this country as to command a traditional respect. It is an objectionable and pretentious deceit, which cannot be excused even on the ground of economy. In the last century, when English oak and Spanish mahogany could be procured at a reasonable price, the grainer's work was, of course, unneeded. In modern days the usual substitute for those now expensive woods is deal; but deal is so soft and absorbent in its fibre that it becomes quickly soiled, and in most situations, especially when exposed to the air, it soon requires painting. But why should we paint it in imitation of oak? Everybody can see at a glance that it is not oak, and, as far as appearance is concerned, there are many modes of treatment which would be far more effective. For newly-hung doors in country-houses the staining fluids now sold are infinitely preferable, and, when varnish is superadded, the wood thus protected not only resists the effects of weather, but reveals its own natural vein, which is often very pretty. In London we find our house-doors painted before we take possession, and therefore we have no choice but to continue painting them. A good flat tint of dark green or chocolate colour will, however, answer all practical purposes, and, besides being a more honest and artistic, is really a less expensive style of decoration.
It is a great pity that the old-fashioned brass knocker has become obsolete. Though seldom elegant in form, there was something in its brightness indicative of a hospitable, well-ordered house. The present cast-iron knocker is a frightful invention; the only possible fact I can see in its favour is that it saves work for the housemaid's arm, and gives a little more employment to the footman's. Good wrought-iron knockers, of very fair design and manufacture, may be bought of the many mediaeval metal-workers whose branch of art has now become a recognised institution in this country. Ladies are seldom called upon to choose between the merits of wrought and cast-iron for objects of domestic use. But when this is the case, it should be remembered that the work of the hammer and anvil is infinitely superior in every way to the production of the mould. Annexed are two specimens of wrought-iron door-knockers from Wurzburg in Bavaria, dating probably from the close of the sixteenth century - somewhat too late to exhibit quite the right spirit of design. They are conceived and fashioned, however, in thorough accordance with the nature of the material employed, and afford a pleasant contrast to the hackneyed portraits of tame lions and grinning satyrs which have been adopted as types of the modern door-knocker.
Of the two smaller examples engraved on page 41, that on the left hand is from a door in the ancient Manor house of Wear GifFord in Devonshire, the other is a modern specimen, manufactured by Messrs. Benham and Froud, to whose excellent 'mediaeval' metal-work, exemplified in other articles of household use, I shall have occasion to refer in another chapter. All cast-iron ornament, except under rare conditions, * is bad in style, and when employed to represent carving, must be detestable in the eyes of a true artist. Better the simplest form of grate and fender than one loaded with this mean and spiritless system of decoration. Perhaps some of my readers may be curious to know why I condemn such an application of this material. Although it will not be always possible in this work to enter upon a lengthy justification of opinions which I do not offer on my own authority alone, let me briefly explain, at the outset, a principle universally accepted by those who have made a study of decorative design. Every material used in art-manufacture is obviously restricted by the nature of its substance to certain conditions of form. Thus glass, which in a state of fusion can be blown or cut into a thousand fantastic shapes, admirably adapted for drinking-vessels, etc, would, from its brittleness, be utterly unfit for any constructive purpose in which even moderate strength was required. The texture of ordinary free-stone, though capable of being treated with delicacy and refinement by the chisel of a practised sculptor, does not admit of that minute elaboration which we admire in wood-carving. In the manufacture of porcelain, and all kinds of ceramic wares, rotundity is the prominent type of form, while furniture and cabinet-work are generally quadrangular in their main outline, the general treatment in each case being suggested by the character and properties of the raw material. Whenever this condition is lost sight of, and the material is allowed to assume in design an appearance which is foreign to its own peculiar attributes, the result is invariably inartistic and vulgar. For instance, a glass or plaster column would convey an idea of weakness at once destructive of any sense of beauty which its mere form could inspire. A carpet, of which the pattern is shaded in imitation of natural objects, becomes an absurdity when we remember that if it were really what it pretends to be, no one could walk on it with comfort.
* The low relief ornament of old Sussex stoves is one of a very few instances in which cast iron has been judiciously applied for decorative purposes.