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.
There is a notion very prevalent among people who have given themselves but little trouble to think at all on the matter, that to ensure grace in furniture, it must be made in a flimsy and fragile manner. Thus we constantly hear the expression 'light and elegant' applied to a set of drawing-room chairs which look as if they must sink beneath the weight of the first middle-aged gentleman who used them. Now, lightness and elegance are agreeable qualities in their way, and, under certain conditions of design, art should be aimed at. For instance, the treatment of mere surface ornament, such as painted arabesques, etc, or of details purely decorative and useless, as the filagree gold of a lady's earring, may well be of this character; but objects intended for real and daily service, such as a table which has to bear the weight of heavy books or dishes, or a sofa on which we may recline at full length, ought not to look light and elegant, but strong and comely; for comeliness, whether in nature or art, is by no means incompatible with strength. The Roman gladiator had a grace of his own, but it was not the grace of Antinous. Our modern furniture is essentially effeminate in form. How often do we see in fashionable drawing-rooms a type of couch which seems to be composed of nothing but cushions ! It is really supported by a framework of wood or iron, but this internal structure is carefully concealed by the stuffing and material with which the whole is covered. I do not wish to be ungallant in my remarks, but I fear there is a large class of young ladies who look upon this sort of furniture as 'elegant.' Now, if elegance means nothing more than a milliner's idea of the beautiful, which changes every season - so that a bonnet which is pronounced 'lovely' in 1868 becomes 'a fright' in 1869 - then no doubt this sofa, as well as a score of other articles of modern manufacture which I could mention, is elegant indeed. But if elegance has anything in common with real beauty - beauty which can be estimated by a fixed and lasting standard - then I venture to submit that this eccentric combination of bad carpentry and bloated pillows is very inelegant, and, in fact, a piece of ugliness which we ought not to tolerate in our houses.
Most of us, who know anything of country life, have seen the common wooden settle which forms so comfortable and snug-looking a seat by rustic hearths. No artist who ever studied the interior of a cottage would hesitate to introduce so picturesque an object in his sketch. But imagine such a sofa as I have described, in a view of the most magnificent and chastely-decorated chamber in Europe, and it would at once appear commonplace and uninteresting. Perhaps my readers may feel inclined to urge that a great deal of the interest with which we are accustomed to regard old rustic furniture is due to its age and dilapidation. It may be so; but can we expect or believe that a modern chair or couch, as they are at present manufactured, will ever, by increasing years, attain the dignified appearance of Tudor or Jacobean furniture ? The truth is that our household gods become dingy under our very eyes, and the very best of them will not survive the present generation.
Now I am far from saying that we should fit up our drawing-rooms with cottage settles, or adopt any sort of furniture which is not perfectly consistent with ordinary notions of comfort and convenience. If our social habits differ from those of our forefathers, the fittings of our rooms must follow suit. But, in point of fact, there is a great deal of ignorant prejudice on these points. I know, for instance, that the old low-seated chair, with its high padded back (commonly called Elizabethan), is considered awkward and uncomfortable, simply because its proportions are strange to us. I know, too, that the 'occasional' chair of modern drawing-rooms, with a moulded bar, and perhaps a knot of carving, which chafes our shoulder-blades as we lean back upon it, is looked on as an article of refined luxury. As to the comparative merit of their respective designs, I say nothing, because there can be but little question on that point; but if any of my readers have any doubt which is the more comfortable, I would strongly advise them to try each, after a fatiguing walk. Perhaps they will find that the art of chair-making has not improved to such an extent as they imagine since the days of good Queen Bess. But, however much opinions may vary on this point, one thing remains certain - viz., that beauty of form may be perfectly compatible with strength of material, and that good design can accommodate itself to the most fastidious notions of convenience.
Settee in Billiard-room at Knole.
A familiar and apparently very obvious distinction has been made, from time immemorial, between the useful and the ornamental, as if the abstract qualities represented by these words were completely independent of each other. It would, however, be a shortsighted philosophy which failed to recognise, even in a moral sense, many points of contact between the two. If that which pleases the eye - if that which charms the ear - if that which appeals to the more imaginative faculties of the human mind do not exercise a directly beneficial influence on our intellectual nature, then poets, painters, and musicians have, indeed, lived and wrought for us in vain. And if, on the other hand, we are unable to perceive, even in the common concerns and practical details of daily toil - in the merchant's calling, in the blacksmith's forge, and in the chemist's laboratory - the romantic side of life's modern aspect, it must be but a weakly order of sentiment with which we are inspired by songs and books and pictures.