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.
IN the field of taste, whether moral or aesthetical, it is always much easier to point out paths which should be avoided than to indicate the road which leads to excellence. And although, while endeavouring to define the errors of bad art in its application to manufacture, it is my wish to explain those principles which should guide the reader in appreciating good and sound design, I have found some difficulty in illustrating such principles by familiar example. Thus, with regard to furniture, it would be useless to direct attention to any one particular style of modern workmanship, while all styles are equally open to objection. The time may yet come when some enterprising upholsterer will take up the subject in an artistic spirit, and, instead of entrusting the design of his chairs and tables to the caprice of ignorant mechanics, whose notions of beauty are generally based on conventional ugliness, will either remodel his own taste by the study of ancient examples, or seek the assistance of those who have received an art-education.
Meanwhile there will be a large majority of the public who cannot afford to have furniture made expressly for them, but who are obliged to buy whatever articles may be 'in fashion' at the shops. Now there are degrees of excellence in all things, and as it is just possible some of these articles may be less objectionable than the rest, I venture to offer a few hints which may guide the inexperienced purchaser in choosing.
In the first place, never attach the least importance to any recommendation which the shopman may make on the score of taste. If he says that one form of chair is stronger than another form, or that the covering of one sofa will wear better than that which is used for another, you may believe him, because on that point he can judge, and it is to his interest that you should be correctly informed so far. But on the subject of taste his opinion is not likely to be worth more, but rather less, than that of his customers, for the plain reason that the nature of his occupation can have left him little time to form a taste at all. He neither made the furniture in his shop nor superintended its design. His business is simply to sell it, and it will generally be found that his notions of beauty are kept subservient to this object. In other words, he will praise each article in turn, exactly as he considers your attention is attracted to it with a view to purchase. If he has any guiding principles of selection, they are chiefly based on two considerations - viz. the relative price of his goods, and the social position or wealth of those customers in whose eyes they find favour.
The public are frequently misled by terms of approbation now commonly used by shopmen in a sense widely remote from their original significance. Thus, the word 'handsome' has come to mean something which is generally showy, often ponderous, and almost always encumbered with superfluous ornament; the word 'elegant' is applied to any object which is curved in form (no matter in what direction, or with what effect). If it succeeds in conveying to the spectator a false idea of its purpose, and possesses the additional advantage of being so fragile that we cannot handle it freely without danger, it is not only 'elegant' but 'graceful.' If an article is of simple and good design, answering its purpose without ostentatious display of ornament, and pretending to be neither more nor less than it is, they only call it 'neat' in the shops. I will not go so far as to recommend every 'neat' article of household use which may be displayed for sale, but I strongly advise my readers to refrain from buying any article of art-manufacture which is 'handsome,' 'elegant,' or 'graceful,' in commercial slang : it is sure to be bad art.
The best and most picturesque furniture of all ages has been simple in general form. It may have been enriched by complex details of carved-work or inlay, but its main outline was always chaste and sober in flesign, never running into extravagant contour or unnecessary curves. Any one who will take the trouble to examine the few specimens of Egyptian furniture which are to be seen in the British Museum, the illustrations of ancient Greek and Roman art which have been published, or the mediaeval examples which still exist in many an old sacristy abroad, and in most of our English country mansions, cannot fail to be struck with two qualities which distinguish this early handiwork from our own, viz. solidity and (what we should call) rudeness of construction.
The sofa at Knole, which dates from the same period as the chair which I have already described, is an example of thoroughly good design in its class. In the first place, its general shape is rectangular, clearly indicating the construction of its wooden framework, the joints of which are properly 'tenoned' and pinned together in such a manner as to ensure its constant stability. The back is formed like that of the chair, with a horizontal rail only at its upper edge, but receives additional strength from the second rail, which is introduced at the back of the seat. By means of an iron rack attached to each end, the sides can be raised or lowered to any angle, thus enabling the sofa to be used as a couch or a settee, at pleasure. These moveable sides, like the back, are stuffed with feathers, while the seat itself is provided with two ample cushions of the same material. A more luxurious form of couch - to say nothing of the richness and elegance of its external covering - could hardly have been devised, and yet there is not a single curve in its outline. After 250 years of use, this sofa is still comfortable, and, with the exception that the velvet and trimmings are necessarily faded by age, remains in excellent preservation. It was introduced by Mr. Marcus Stone in his recently painted and very clever picture of the 'Stolen Keys,' which some of my readers may remember at the Royal Academy Exhibition. Can we suppose that in the year of Grace 2120 any English artist of taste will be found willing to paint the 'elegant' fauteuils with which English ladies now furnish their drawing-rooms ? And if such a painter is forthcoming, where will he find such an object to depict ? Possibly in some 'Chamber of Horrors' which may be devised at the South Kensington Museum to illustrate the progress of bad taste in this century, but certainly not in any private house. It is hardly too much to say that fifty years hence all the contents of our modern upholsterers' shops will have fallen into useless lumber, only fit to be burnt for firewood.
Ancient Sofa, in the Long Gallery, Kncle.