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 sphere of what is called industrial art, use and beauty are, in theory at least, closely associated : for not only has the humblest article of manufacture, when honestly designed, a picturesque interest of its own, but no decorative feature can legitimately claim our admiration without revealing by its very nature the purpose of the object which it adorns. Yet, among half-educated minds, nothing is more common than to retain two distinct and utterly opposed ideals of beauty - one of a poetic and sentimental kind, which leads people to prefer certain conditions of form and colour in pictorial representations of 'still life '; and the other of a conventional and worldly kind, through which we not only tolerate, but approve, the dubious 'elegancies' of fashionable upholstery. Let us suppose, for example, a young lady, of average taste and intelligence, suddenly called upon to sketch some familiar article of household use for her drawing-master. She would surely rather choose the housemaid's bucket or an Italian oil-flask for a subject, than her own work-table; and she would be right. Yet, if she were asked to say candidly which she considered the prettiest of the three, her decision would probably be in favour of the work-table to four inches wide, and about half an inch thick. These staves are arranged concentrically, edge to edge, and gradually diminish in width downwards, because the bucket, for convenience of use as well as of manufacture, is made smaller at its lower end. They are held together by strong bands of hoop-iron, which are slipped over the lower and smaller diameter of the bucket, and driven back as far as they will go towards the larger diameter. This makes a tighter cincture than it would be possible to ensure by any other means. The staves have previously been grooved on their inner side to receive the bottom of the bucket, which is a circular and generally solid disc of wood. In order to save the latter from wear, it is inserted an inch or so higher than the bottom edge of the staves; and because buckets have frequently to be set down in wet sloppy places, three of the staves are allowed to project a trifle longer than the rest, so that in washing a floor or pavement the water may actually flow underneath the bottom of the bucket. The bucket-staves are rounded at their upper end, in order that there may be no sharp edge to injure fingers. The handle is a bow of wrought-iron twisted into a hook at each end, and thus attached to iron staple-rings which are nailed at opposite sides of the bucket. The handle is expressly hammered wider and convex in section just at its centre, in order that a hand may grasp it with ease.
- and she would be wrong. For if there be any true principles of design at all, no article of manufacture can be rightly called 'pretty' in which those principles are violated. Buckets and oil-flasks, we all know, are plain articles of honest handicraft, pretending to be neither more nor less than what they are. If you examine one of the former, you will find it constructed of oak, or some other tough wood, cut into narrow strips or staves, from three
Now, the cooper who made this bucket had no more notion of high art than of the Binomial Theorem. He merely adopted a type which has been in use, perhaps, for centuries, and is at once the most convenient and comely in form which could have been invented for the purpose. Luckily, buckets are common articles of English manufacture, costing so little that it is not worth while to cheapen them further by inferior workmanship. They are, moreover, used for purposes too homely to need 'elegance' of contour. The consequence is, that they are simply sound in design and construction.
Now let us look at the Florence flask, and note how admirably both its shape and material are fitted for their purpose. Glass is an extremely ductile substance, capable of being blown and twisted into an endless variety of forms. But this bottle is intended to contain olive-oil, an article of common consumption in every Italian household. It must, therefore, be cheaply and lightly made, but strongly enough to be handled freely, and hung up when not in use on the nearest nail of a kitchen-wall. The oval outline, therefore, which the flask assumes at its lower and more bulky end, is precisely the strongest which could have been invented for the material. It is the very form which Nature adopts for the purpose of holding a denser fluid in a more fragile vessel. But even eggs require to be packed carefully in straw for market; moreover they will not stand, on end, nor are we able to pour out their contents without breaking the shell. So the Tuscan bottle-makers ingeniously set to work to meet these requirements for their flask. They pull out its upper end into a long narrow neck, which serves both as a duct and a handle. They twist a cord of dried grass in rings round the bulbous part of the bottle, and make them fast by three or four broad straps of the same material stretching longitudinally from top to bottom, so as to form a complete and effective suit of straw armour. Finally, they continue the spiral cord downwards and outwards at the foot of the bottle, so as to form a little base for it to stand on, and they finish the cord upwards in a long twisted loop, which is just the thing to hang it up by. Thus, it will be seen that, besides being an exceedingly picturesque object (for in the whole range of common ware it would be difficult to find a prettier one), this Florence flask is constructed on as sound and practical principles as the strictest utilitarian could wish.
But the modern English work-table, or any similar article of manufacture designed for fashionable households, is sure to belie its purpose in some way. It will probably have doors which look like drawers, or drawers which assume an appearance of doors. It will shroud up part of its wooden framing with silken plaits fringed with straight bands of gimp, and decorated at each angle with lumpy little tassels. It will be made of deal and veneered with walnut and mahogany. It will be 'enriched' with fictitious carving, and plastered over with delusive varnish.