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.
As this is especially the case with those articles of household use on which the eye has constantly to rest, we can scarcely be surprised that there is so little popular sympathy with works of high aim in pictorial art. People fall into a way of calling things 'quaint' and 'peculiar' which happen to differ from the conventional ugliness of the modern drawing-room. When crinoline, for instance, was in the height of its fashion, any young lady who had the courage to appear without it would have been called 'a fright' in regard to her toilet, without reference to the patent fact that the folds of her dress thus fell much more gracefully than when stretched over the steel hoop which, happily for us, is once more to be trundled into oblivion. Now, if we reflect on the baneful influence which this wretched invention must have had for the last ten years on the tastes of the rising generation - how children must have grown up in the belief that it actually lent a sort of charm to the skirts of their mothers' dresses, we shall begin to feel by how much the less than ourselves little misses who are still in their teens will be capable of appreciating the Venus of Milo or the drapery of any other antique statue. In the same way, if we contemplate with satisfaction - nay, if we even tolerate the extravagant and graceless appointments of the modern boudoir, let us not be surprised that we find it mirrored on the modern canvas. The most natural instinct of the painter's mind is, after all, to depict life as he finds it; and in all the best ages of art this was practically done, even by those whose aim tended towards the ideal. Phidias, Raphael, and (if we venture to place their names together), Hogarth may here be said to meet on common ground. We can hardly hope, then, in our own time, to sustain anything like a real and national interest in art while we tamely submit to the ugliness of modern manufacture. We cannot consistently have one taste for the drawing-room and another for the studio; but, perhaps, the best discipline which could be devised for the latter would be initiated by a thorough reform of the first. The faculty of distinguishing good from bad design in the familiar objects of domestic life is a faculty which most educated people - and women especially - conceive that they possess. How it has been acquired, few would be able to explain. The general impression seems to be that it is the peculiar inheritance of gentle blood, and independent of all training; that while a young lady is devoting at school, or under a governess, so many hours a day to music, so many to languages, and so many to general science, she is all this time unconsciously forming that sense of the beautiful, which we call taste - that this sense, once developed, will enable her, unassisted by special study or experience, not only to appreciate the charms of nature in every aspect, but to form a correct estimate of the merits of art-manufacture. That this impression has gained ground so far as to amount to positive conviction, may be inferred from the fact that there is no single point on which well-bred women are more jealous of disparagement than on this. We may condemn a lady's opinion on politics - criticise her handwriting - correct her pronunciation of Latin, and disparage her favourite author with a chance of escaping displeasure. But if we venture to question her taste - in the most ordinary sense of the word, we are sure to offend. It is, however, a lamentable fact that this very quality is commonly deficient, not only among the generally ignorant, but also among the most educated classes in this country. How should it be otherwise ? Even the simplest and most elementary principles of decorative art form no part of early instruction, and the majority of the public, being left completely uninformed of them, is content to be guided by a few people who are themselves not only uninformed but misinformed on the subject. It is scarcely too much to say that ninety-nine out of every hundred English gentlewomen who have the credit of dressing well depend entirely upon their milliners for advice as to what they may, and what they may not, wear. The latest novelty from Paris is recommended, not because it has any special merit on the score of artistic beauty, but simply because it is a novelty. Of course, it would be useless to urge, in answer to this, that a certain form of dress, once accepted as good, must always be good; or to deny that a particular combination of colours, recognised as harmonious, can become discordant, simply because it does not appear in the pages of Le Follet. Unfortunately, the world of fashion is so constituted that people who move in it are obliged to conform more or less to its rules; and as no lady likes to make herself conspicuous by her attire, she may reasonably abstain from wearing what has been long out of date. But there is a limit to all things; and the capricious tyranny which insists on a monthly change of dress ought to be firmly resisted by women who are too sensible to give up their whole time and attention to their toilet. Of course it is the interest of milliners to multiply these changes as frequently as possible, and the waste of money thus incurred (to say nothing of higher considerations) has been a just cause of complaint with many a husband and father. Leaving the moral aspect of the matter, however, out of the question, it must be confessed that to hear a young shopman defining to his fair customers across the counter what is 'genteel' or 'ladylike,' sounds very ludicrous, and even impertinent. Yet in this sort of advice is absolutely contained the only guiding principle of their selection. They choose not what they like best, but what is 'very much worn,' or what their obsequious adviser recommends them as suitable.
Counsel of such a kind, and the easy confidence in its worth, are, unfortunately, not confined to the haberdasher's shop. They seem inseparable from the purchase of every article which, from the nature of its design or manufacture, can claim to be of an ornamental character. When Mater-familias enters an upholsterer's warehouse, how can she possibly decide on the pattern of her new carpet, when bale after bale of Brussels is unrolled by the indefatigable youth who is equal in his praises of every piece in turn ? Shall it be the 'House of Lords' diaper, of a yellow spot upon a blue ground; or the 'imitation Turkey,' with its multifarious colours; or the beautiful new moire design; or yonder exquisite notion of green fern-leaves tied up with knots of white satin ribbon? * The shopman remarks of one piece of goods, that it is 'elegant'; of another, that it is 'striking'; of a third, that it is 'unique', and so forth. The good lady looks from one carpet to another until her eyes are fairly dazzled by their hues. She is utterly unable to explain why she should, or why she should not, like any of them. Perhaps a friend is appealed to, who, being a strong-minded person (with the additional incentive of a wish to bring the matter to an issue as speedily as possible), at once selects the very pattern which Materfamilias pronounced to be 'a fright' only two minutes ago. In this dilemma the gentleman with the yard-wand again comes to the rescue, imparts his firm opinion as to which is most 'fashionable,' and this at once carries the day. The carpet is made up, sent home, and takes its chance of domestic admiration together with all other household appointments. It may kill by its colour every piece of tapisserie in the room. It may convey the notion of a bed of roses, or a dangerous labyrinth of rococo ornament - but if it is 'fashionable,' that is all-sufficient. While new, it is admired; when old, everybody will agree that it was always 'hideous.'