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.
By and by I may have more to say on this subject. Meanwhile I would suggest to those who possess such things that they should associate and group them together as much as possible. A set of narrow shelves ranged at the back, and forming part of the dining-room sideboard, would be admirable for this purpose, and would certainly form a very picturesque feature in the room. Failing this arrangement (and I can imagine certain conventional prejudices being brought to bear against it), I think the library is the next best repository in a house. Few men care for a mirror in such a room; but if it is indispensable to the mantel-piece, let it be a long low strip of glass, stretching across the width of the chimney-breast, about eighteen inches in height, and divided into panels. Over this may be raised a capital set of narrow shelves - say six inches wide and twelve inches apart - for specimens of old china, etc. The plates should be placed upright on their edges, and may be easily prevented from slipping off by a shallow groove sunk in the thickness of each shelf. A little museum may thus be formed, and remain a source of lasting pleasure to its possessors, seeing that 'a thing of beauty is a joy for ever.'
The most formidable obstacle which lies in the way of any attempt to reform the arts of design in this country, is perhaps the indifference with which people of even reputed taste are accustomed to regard the products of common industry. There is many a connoisseur of pictures and of sculpture, many a virtuoso now haunting auctions and curiosity shops with a view to gratify his particular hobby, who would be surprised if he were asked to pass his opinion on the merits of a door-knocker or set of fire-irons. By such people - and they represent a very numerous class - art can only be valued as an end in itself, and not as the means to an end. The sense of pleasure, which in civilised life we derive from fair forms and colour, is to a great extent instinctive; but in so far as it is the result of education, it seems absurd to limit its range of enjoyment to this or that field of human labour. What should we think of a musical amateur who, while fully competent to appreciate the performance of a Joachim, could listen with indifference to the machine-made melodies of a grinding organ, or hear with approval a pianoforte played out of time and tune ? Yet this is exactly what people do who applaud the works of Leighton and Millais at the Royal Academy Exhibition, and go straightway off to the shops to buy and fill their houses with articles of manufacture which are distinguished not only by an absence of real beauty, but by the presence of much definite ugliness.
Mantle-piece Shelves, executed from a Design by Charles L. East lake.
Even where a tolerable taste for upholstery prevails, it does not descend to details. We have come to take the form and fashion of some minor objects of ordinary use upon trust, or rather we have ceased to associate them with the interests of art altogether. This state of things, no doubt, finds apology in a popular conviction that in the case of certain practical appliances it would be impossible to unite convenience with anything like artistic design; that any attempt to do so would be equally fatal to both, and that the carpenter or metal-worker must know, better than we can teach them, the conditions and requirements of their trades. * But all this is perfectly erroneous. So far from good design being under any circumstances incompatible with strong and sturdy service, it is only in bad design that use is not kept in view as the first and guiding principle in manufacture. The artizan's work of a former age is interesting chiefly because it is pre-eminently practical work. Our own mechanics' work becomes mean chiefly when its ultimate object is lost sight of in an endeavour to get things up cheaply, or give them an appearance which belies their purpose.
This is especially the case with modern ironmongery and common metal work. Let us take the familiar instance of an ordinary house door, and note how the hinges are kept carefully out of sight, as if they were something to be ashamed of. It is almost impossible to construct such hinges as these which shall be of sufficient strength to support a door of any important weight. Hence the not unfrequent expense and discomfort occasioned by doors drooping at the end furthest from the hinge. The carpenter is called in, perhaps to shift the lock 'catch,' or to shave the lower edge of the door. This, of course, must leave a corresponding gap above. In course of time the hinge is partially torn from its screw holes, and a further outlay required. Now the old hinges were not 'half butts,' as our ordinary modern ones are called, but stout straps of iron, which, more or less decorated, stretched across the surface of the door on either side, and being bolted through the thickness, gave it ample support. Very beautiful examples of this hinge may still be seen on old church doors, and even in modern farm-buildings the type is still preserved, though in a ruder way. The ancient locks, too, instead of being concealed and let into the door by cutting away, and thus weakening the lock rail, as in the modern fashion, were boldly attached to its outer surface, and were often, as well as the keys which belonged to them, objects of real art in their way. The bolts and 'spindle' handles of the modern door are always getting out of order, besides being thoroughly unpicturesque. The common Norfolk thumb-latch, used in most English cottages, is really both a more artistic and a more practical contrivance. Bolts should not be let into the thickness of a door, but appear in their proper place on its surface.
* I allude here, of course, to modern handicraft. There was a time when every workman was to some extent an artist, and might be safely trusted with the details of any design which he was called upon to execute.