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.
With regard to the association of tints, it would not be difficult to quote from Chevreul, and others who have given scientific reasons for their various theories - who teach that blue is best suited for concave surfaces, and yellow for those which are convex - that the primary colours should be used on the upper portions of objects, and the secondary and tertiary on the lower.* But, unfortunately, most of these precepts, however ingeniously they may be based on science, are continually belied by Nature, who is, after all, the best and truest authority on this subject. It has indeed been argued that all who consult her works with love and attention, will in time appreciate the right value of decorative colour, and that those who have learnt in that school need learn in no other. But this seems to be a conclusion which is not based on practical experience. The conditions of beauty in pictorial art are widely remote from those which are fulfilled in judicious decoration. An accurate knowledge of the proportions of the human form is doubtless indispensable to the loftiest inventions of the architect; but it will not of itself enable him to determine the best proportions for a building. No one is better acquainted with the subtle charms of nature's colour than a good landscape painter; but what landscape painter - as such - could be trusted to design a paper for his drawing-room wall ? The blue sky which is over our heads and the green grass which springs beneath our feet would not, even if we could match the delicacy of their hues, afford us a strict and perfect precedent for the colour of our floors and ceilings; nor are the fairest flowers which bloom suitable objects to be copied literally for surface ornament. The art of the decorator is to typify, not to represent, the works of Nature, and it is just the difference between this artistic abstraction and pseudo-realisms which separates good and noble design from that which is commonplace and bad.
There is usually a kind of frieze running round the top of a bookcase, between the books and the cornice above them. This space may well be decorated with painted ornament in the form of arabesques, armorial bearings, and appropriate texts. Any of these would be far more pleasant to look at than the cold and formally-moulded panels into which this part is usually divided. The pilasters, also (I use the generally accepted term), which separate one compartment of the bookcase from another, might be effectively treated in the same manner.
It used to be the fashion to place a plaster urn or bust at the top of each bookcase, to give what upholsterers call a 'finish' to the room. Urns are, however, but meaningless things in these days of Christian burial; and busts at so high an elevation, especially in a small room, convey a very distorted notion of the features which they represent. In such a situation I think statuettes are preferable to either. Good plaster casts, about two feet high, copied from the antique, may now be procured for five or six shillings apiece, and such figures as the Gladiator, the Discobolos, and the Antinous, would, to my mind, constitute a much better 'finish' for the top of a bookcase than the clumsy vases and other objects usually sold for this purpose.
Unless the cases are intended for books of great value or for those rarely referred to, it is hardly advisable to enclose them with glass doors; such an expedient often involves unnecessary trouble, and may prevent ready access to books when every moment is of value to the reader. Small keys, too, are easily lost or confounded with each other, and this causes delay when the case is locked. Two doors may be opened at the same time and come in contact so as to break the glass, etc. After all, books are required for use, not for ornament, and if handled carefully, will last for more than one generation, even without the protection of a glass case.
A library table, open under the centre, and fitted on either side with a set of useful little drawers, is, of course, indispensable to the room. This piece of furniture, so commonly met with in upholsterers' shops, is a singularly unobjectionable specimen of English manufacture. It has some of the inevitable faults of modern joinery, viz., adhesive mouldings, 'mitred' joints, etc.; but taken as a whole it is not unpicturesque. Its upper surface is usually covered with leather, glued to the table-top all over, within an inch or so of its edge. The colour of this leather should either match or contrast well with that of the curtains and carpet in the room. Green is incomparably the best suited to oak.
There is no better kind of seat for a library than the 'Cromwell' chair, which I have already described, and the general form of which dates, no doubt, from the seventeenth century, although it has since undergone various modifications in regard to detail. Old examples of this chair are still to be met with in farmhouses and country cottages, and their framework, at least, can be copied at a trifling cost by any intelligent village carpenter.
At the beginning of this chapter I (Street Architecture) observed that 'knick-knacks' were usually banished from the library. By that expression I meant to include that heterogeneous assemblage of modern rubbish which, under the head of 'china ornaments' and various other names, finds its way into the drawing-room or boudoir. But my readers must not therefore suppose that I intended to discourage the collection of really good specimens of art-manufacture. The smallest example of rare old porcelain, of ivory carving, of ancient metal-work, of enamels, of Venetian glass, of anything which illustrates good design and skilful workmanship, should be acquired whenever possible, and treasured with the greatest care. It is impossible to overrate the influence which such objects may have in educating the eye to appreciate what really constitutes good art. An Indian ginger-jar, a Flemish beer-jug, a Japanese fan, may each become in turn a valuable lesson in decorative form and colour.