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.
HAVING already considered the subject of paper-hangings, I will now offer a few hints on what may be called the wall-furniture of rooms in general, and of the drawing-room in particular. In most houses the chief example of this class is the mantel-piece mirror. Custom and convenience have long since determined its position, and, considering the nature of our social habits in this country, and the importance which we attach to a fireside in almost every apartment, one can scarcely doubt that, if a glass is to be fixed anywhere on the internal walls of a modern house, this is the place for it. Unfortunately, however, while it gives apparent size and real brightness to a room, it is a feature which, as ordinarily designed, is in itself eminently uninteresting. The mere fact that it presents to the eye a reflection of every object in front of its plane is of course not sufficient to make it decorative. Accordingly we find it enclosed in a gilt frame, or, to speak more correctly, a wooden frame plastered over with composition to imitate carving of a most extravagant kind, and then gilded - a bad style of work, even if the design were tolerable. But it is usually in the worst taste. Now old frames made in the last and previous centuries, whatever their style may have been, had at least this advantage, that they were moulded and carved out of solid wood, and the difference between them and those of modern manufacture is scarcely less than the difference between well-modelled statuettes and the common plaster-casts which are sold by an itinerant image-man. We should be ashamed to place the latter on our mantel-pieces. Why are we to tolerate in one class of decorative art the vulgarities which we despise in another ? If real carved work cannot be afforded, it is far better to let such mirrors be fitted in plain solid frames of wood, say three or four inches in width, enriched with delicate mouldings or incised ornament. If executed in oak, they may be left of their natural colour : if in the commoner kinds of wood, they can be ebonised (i.e. stained black), and further decorated with narrow gold stripes running transversely over the mouldings. This ought to be a less expensive, as it certainly would be a more effective, process than that of gilding the entire surface.
But we have other examples of wall-furniture to consider. The practice of hanging up oil and water-colour paintings, engravings, and photographs in our sitting-rooms, is one which I need scarcely say contributes greatly to that appearance of comfort which is the especial characteristic of an English house. And it can do more than this. Independently of the intrinsic value which such works of art may possess, they become collectively an admirable means of legitimate ornamentation. Assuming, then, that the prints and pictures we wish to hang are of some artistic interest, the question arises how we can dispose them on our walls to the best advantage. Success in this respect will mainly depend on two points, viz., their judicious association, and the design of frames. The first step should be to classify. Oil-paintings should, if possible, be kept in a room by themselves. The force of their colour is always greater than that which can be attained by other 'vehicles,' and will therefore, in juxtaposition with water-colour drawings, make the latter look poor and feeble in effect. It is an old English custom to hang family portraits in the dining-room, and it seems a reasonable custom. Generally large in size, and enclosed in massive frames, they appear well suited to an apartment which experience has led us to furnish in a more solid and substantial manner than any other in the house. Besides, the dining-room is especially devoted to hospitality and family gatherings, and it is pleasant on such occasions to be surrounded by mementos of those who once, perhaps, formed members of a social circle which they have long ceased to join. But where such portraits are few in number, there can be no objection to add to this group such other oil pictures as may be in the house, unless they are sufficiently numerous to fill another room by themselves. Of course, by filling a room I do not mean crowding its walls almost from the wainscot to the ceiling - a practice which, so long as there is a convenient space elsewhere, is much to be avoided. In annual public exhibitions, the enormous number of works sent for display frequently renders it necessary to hang them three or four deep on the walls; but in the rooms of an ordinary private house there is no necessity for such an arrangement. To see pictures with anything like comfort or attention, they should be disposed in one row only, and that opposite the eye, or on an average about 5 feet 6 inches from the floor to the centre of the canvas. (I refer now to ordinary-sized pictures; of course, full-length portraits of life-size and other large works require to be hung higher.) A row thus formed will make a sort of coloured zone around the room, and though the frames themselves may vary in shape and dimensions, they can generally be grouped with something like symmetry of position, the larger ones being kept in the centre, and the smaller ones being ranged on either side in corresponding places along the line.