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.
The mural decoration of the hall is a point concerning which modern conventionalism and true principles of design are sure to clash. There can be little doubt that the most agreeable wall-lining which could be devised for such a place is marble, and next to that real wainscoting. In former days, when wood was cheaper than it is now, oak panels were commonly used, not only in the halls and passages, but in many rooms of even a small-sized London house. At the present time, when both marble and oak are beyond the reach of ordinary incomes, the usual practice is to cover the walls with a paper stained and varnished in imitation of marble. This is, perhaps, a more excusable sham than others to which I have alluded; but still it is a sham, and ought therefore to be condemned. Of course, when people find themselves in a house where such an expedient has been already adopted, any alteration in this respect would involve considerable expense. But in cases where the difficulty may be anticipated, it is as well to remember that modern manufacture, or rather the revival of an ancient art, has supplied an admirable substitute for marble veneering at a comparatively low price. An inlay of encaustic tiles, to a height, say, of three or four feet from the ground, would form an excellent lining for a hall or ground-floor passage. Above that level the wall might either be painted in the usual manner, or the plaster washed with flatted colour. The latter is certainly more liable to be soiled than oil-paint, but is far pleasanter in effect, and at a level of four feet from the floor-line would be safely removed from contact with ladies' dresses and the chance of careless finger-marks.
Mural Decoration, executed by Messrs. Heaton, Butler, & Bayne.
A cheaper and, in good hands, a very effective mode of wall-decoration for a hall is by distemper-painting. The example here given is from a sketch by Mr. C. Heaton (of the firm of Heaton, Butler, & Bayne), whose excellent taste in the design of stained-glass windows and mural decoration is well known.
The colour of the walls must necessarily depend on circumstances, the amount of light admitted being the first consideration. In cases where, as is too often the case, a small fanlight over the entrance-door is all the provision made for illumining the hall, it will be as well to choose a delicate green or warm grey tint. Where, on the contrary, there is plenty of light, the dull red hue, which may still be traced on the walls of Pompeii, and on the relics of ancient Egypt, will be found an excellent surface colour.
Before discussing the subject of the hall-furniture, it will be as well to say something on the subject of furniture in general.
And here, perhaps, I should astonish my readers if I were to state that there is no upholsterer in London at whose establishment good artistic furniture of modern date is kept in stock for sale. Yet such a statement would not be very far from the truth. For years past this branch of art-manufacture has been entrusted to those whose taste, if it may be called taste at all, can be no more referred to correct principles of design than the gimcrack decorations of a wedding-cake could be tested by any standard of sculpturesque beauty. It may be urged, in answer to this parallel, that in the latter case it would be superfluous to apply such a test. Without even admitting this to be so (for in the best ages of art the commonest article of household use, down to the very door-nails, had an appropriate form and beauty of its own), it is obvious that although we may tolerate insipid prettiness in perishable confectionery, we ought not to do so in objects which become associated with our daily life, and which are so eminently characteristic of our national habits. There are few persons of education and refinement who do not feel interested in architecture, but I would ask, of what use is it to decorate the interior of our country-houses if we are to permit ugliness within them? - and ugliness we shall be sure to have if the choice of furniture is left to ordinary upholsterers. Indeed, their notions of the beautiful are either centred in mere novelty, or derived from traditions of the Louis Quatorze period. That school of decorative art, bad and vicious in principle as it was, had a certain air of luxury and grandeur about it which was due to elaboration of detail and richness of material. Its worst characteristic was an extravagance of contour, and this is just the only characteristic which the tradition of upholstery has preserved. Our modern sofas and chairs aspire to elegance, not with gaily embossed silk or a delicate inlay of wood, but simply because there is not a straight line in their composition. Now a curve, especially of such a kind as cannot be drawn by artificial means, is a beautiful feature when rightly applied to decorative art, whether we find it as the appendage to an old Missal letter, or bounding the entasis of a Greek column. But a curve at the back of a sofa means nothing at all, and is manifestly inconvenient, for it must render it either too high in one place or too low in another to accommodate the shoulders of a sitter. The tendency of the present age of upholstery is to run into curves. Chairs are invariably curved in such a manner as to ensure the greatest amount of ugliness with the least possible comfort. The backs of sideboards are curved in the most senseless and extravagant manner; the legs of cabinets are curved, and become in consequence constructively weak; drawing-room tables are curved in every direction - perpendicularly and horizontally - and are therefore inconvenient to sit at, and always rickety. In marble wash-stands the useful shelf, which should run the whole length of the rear, is frequently omitted in order to ensure a curve. This detestable system of ornamentation is called 'shaping.' It always involves additional expense in manufacture, and therefore, by avoiding 'shaped' articles of furniture, the public will not only gain in an artistic point of view, but save their pockets.