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Decoration of Houses - Chapter Guide | Decorating Children's Playroom & Nursery [Previous Chapter] | Concluding Decorating Tips & Advice [Next Chapter]

XVI

BRIC-A-BRAC

IT is perhaps not uninstructive to note that we have no English word to describe the class of household ornaments which

French speech has provided with at least three designations, each indicating a delicate and almost imperceptible gradation of quality. In place of bric-a-brac, bibelots, obfets d'art, we have only knick-knacks—defined by Stormonth as "articles of small value."

This definition of the knick-knack fairly indicates the general level of our artistic competence. It has already been said that cheapness is not necessarily synonymous with trashiness; but hitherto this assertion has been made with regard to furniture and to the other necessary appointments of the house. With knick-knacks the case is different. An artistic age will of course pro­duce any number of inexpensive trifles fit to become, like the Tanagra figurines, the museum treasures of later centuries; but it is hardly necessary to point out that modern shop-windows are not overflowing with such immortal toys. The few objects of art produced in the present day are the work of distinguished artists. Even allowing for what Symonds calls the "vicissitudes of taste," it seems improbable that our commercial knick-knack will ever be classed as a work of art.

It is clear that the weary man must have a chair to sit on, the


PLATE LVl.

BRONZE. ANDIRON;   VENETIAN SCHOOL

                 XVI CENTURY

hungry man a table to dine at; nor would the most sensitive judgment condemn him for buying ugly ones, were no others to be had; but objects of art are a counsel of perfection. It is quite possible to go without them; and the proof is that many do go without them who honestly think to possess them in abundance. This is said, not with any intention of turning to ridicule the natural desire to "make a room look pretty," but merely with the purpose of inquiring whether such an object is ever furthered by the indiscriminate amassing of "ornaments." Decorators know how much the simplicity and dignity of a good room are dimin­ished by crowding it with useless trifles. Their absence improves even bad rooms, or makes them at least less multitudinously bad. It is surprising to note how the removal of an accumulation of knick-knacks will free the architectural lines and restore the fur­niture to its rightful relation with the walls.

Though a room must depend for its main beauty on design and furniture, it is obvious that there are many details of lux­urious living not included in these essentials. In what, then, shall the ornamentation of rooms consist ? Supposing walls and furniture to be satisfactory, how put the minor touches that give to a room the charm of completeness ? To arrive at an answer, one must first consider the different kinds of minor embellish­ment These may be divided into two classes: the object of art per se, such as the bust, the picture, or the vase; and, on the other hand, those articles, useful in themselves,—lamps, clocks, fire-screens, bookbindings, candelabra,—which art has only to touch to make them the best ornaments any room can contain. In past times such articles took the place of bibelots. Few purely ornamental objects were to be seen, save in the cabinets of col­lectors; but when Botticelli decorated the panels of linen chests,


186                 The Decoration of Houses

and Cellini chiselled book-clasps and drinking-cups, there could be no thought of the vicious distinction between the useful and the beautiful. One of the first obligations of art is to make all useful things beautiful: were this neglected principle applied to the manufacture of household accessories, the modern room would have no need of knick-knacks.

Before proceeding further, it is necessary to know what consti­tutes an object of art. It was said at the outset that, though cheapness and trashiness are not always synonymous, they are apt to be so in the case of the modern knick-knack. To buy, and even to make, it may cost a great deal of money; but artistically it is cheap, if not worthless; and too often its artistic value is in inverse ratio to its price. The one-dollar china pug is less harmful than an expensive onyx lamp-stand with moulded bronze mountings dipped in liquid gilding. It is one of the mis­fortunes of the present time that the most preposterously bad things often possess the powerful allurement of being expensive. One might think it an advantage that they are not within every one's reach; but, as a matter of fact, it is their very unattainable-ness which, by making them more desirable, leads to the produc­tion of that worst curse of modern civilization—cheap copies of costly horrors.

An ornament is of course not an object of art because it is ex­pensive—though it must be owned that objects of art are seldom cheap. Good workmanship, as distinct from designing, almost always commands a higher price than bad; and good artistic workmanship having become so rare that there is practically no increase in the existing quantity of objects of art, it is evident that these are more likely to grow than to diminish in value. Still, as has been said, costliness is no test of merit in an age when


Bric-a-Brac     187

large prices are paid for bad things. Perhaps the most convenient way of defining the real object of art is to describe it as any ornamental objeft which adequately expresses an artistic con­ception. This definition at least clears the ground of the mass of showy rubbish forming the stock-in-trade of the average " antiquity " dealer.

Good objects of art give to a room its crowning touch of dis­tinction. Their intrinsic beauty is hardly more valuable than their suggestion of a mellower civilization—of days when rich men were patrons of " the arts of elegance/' and when collecting beau­tiful objects was one of the obligations of a noble leisure. The qualities implied in the ownership of such bibelots are the mark of their unattainableness. The man who wishes to possess ob­jects of art must have not only the means to acquire them, but the skill to choose them—a skill made up of cultivation and judg­ment, combined with that feeling for beauty that no amount of study can give, but that study alone can quicken and render profitable.

Only time and experience can acquaint one with those minor peculiarities marking the successive "manners" of a master, or even with the technical nuances which at once enable the collector to affix a date to his Sevres or to his maiolica. Such knowledge is acquired at the cost of great pains and of frequent mistakes; but no one should venture to buy works of art who cannot at least draw such obvious distinctions as those between old and new Saxe, between an old Italian and a modern French bronze, or be­tween Chinese peach-bloom porcelain of the Khang-hi period and the Japanese imitations to be found in every "Oriental em­porium."

Supposing the amateur to have acauired this proficiency, he is


188                 The Decoration of Houses

still apt to buy too many things, or things out of proportion with the rooms for which they are intended. The scoffers at style— those who assume that to conform to any known laws of decora­tion is to sink one's individuality—often justify their view by the assertion that it is ridiculous to be tied down, in the choice of bibelots, to any given period or manner—as though Mazarin's great collection had comprised only seventeenth-century works of art, or the Colonnas, the Gonzagas, and the Malatestas had drawn all their treasures from contemporary sources! As a matter of fact, the great amateurs of the past were never fettered by such absurd restrictions. All famous patrons of art have encouraged the talent of their day; but the passion for collecting antiquities is at least as old as the Roman Empire, and Greco-Roman sculptors had to make archaistic statues to please the popular fancy, just as our artists paint pre-Raphaelite pictures to attract the disciples of Ruskin and William Morris. Since the Roman Empire, there has probably been no period when a taste for the best of all ages did not exist.1 Julius II, while Michel Angelo and Raphael worked under his orders, was gathering antiques for the Belvedere cortile; under Louis XIV, Greek marbles, Roman bronzes, cabinets of Chinese lacquer and tables of Florentine mosaic were mingled without thought of discord against Lebrun's tapestries or Berain's arabesques; and Marie-Antoinette's collection united Oriental por­celains with goldsmiths' work of the Italian Renaissance. Taste attaches but two conditions to the use of objects of art:

* "A little study would probably show that the Ptolemaic era in Egypt was a re­naissance of the Theban age, in architecture as in other respects, while the golden period of Augustus in Rome was largely a Greek revival. Perhaps it would even be discovered that all ages of healthy human prosperity are more or less revivals, and have been marked by a retrospective tendency." The Architecture of the Renaissance in Italy, by W. J. Anderson.   London, Batsford, 1896.


Bric-a-Brac                                  189

that they shall be in scale with the room, and that the room shall not be overcrowded with them. There are two ways of being in scale: there is the scale of proportion, and what might be called the scale of appropriateness. The former is a matter of actual measurement while the latter is regulated solely by the nicer standard of good taste. Even in the matter of actual measure­ment, the niceties of proportion are not always clear to an un-- practised eye. It is easy to see that the Ludovisi Juno would be out of scale in a boudoir, but the discrepancy, in diminishing, naturally becomes less obvious. Again, a vase or a bust may not be out of scale with the wall-space behind it, but may appear to crush the furniture upon which it stands; and since everything a room contains should be regarded as a factor in its general com­position, the relation of bric-a-brac to furniture is no less to be studied than the relation of bric-a-brac to wall-spaces. Much of course depends upon the effect intended; and this can be greatly modified by careful adjustment of the contents of the room. A ceiling may be made to look less high by the use of wide, low pieces of furniture, with massive busts and vases; while a low-studded room may be heightened by tall, narrow commodes and cabinets, with objects of art upon the same general lines.

It is of no less importance to observe the scale of appropriate­ness. A bronze Pallas Athene or a cowled mediaeval pleureur would be obviously out of harmony with the spirit of a boudoir; while the delicate graces of old Saxe or Chelsea would become futile in library or study.

Another kind of appropriateness must be considered in the rela­tion of objects of art to each other: not only must they be in scale as regards character and dimensions, but also —and this, though more important, is perhaps less often considered—as regards


190                 The Decoration of Houses

quality. The habit of mixing good, bad, and indifferent in furni­ture is often excused by necessity: people must use what they have. But there is no necessity for having bad bric-4-brac Trashy "ornaments" do not make a room more comfortable; as a general rule, they distinctly diminish its comfort; and they have the further disadvantage of destroying the effect of any good piece of work. Vulgarity is always noisier than good breeding, and it is instructive to note how a modern commercial bronze will "talk down " a delicate Renaissance statuette or bust, and a piece of Deck or Minton china efface the color-values of blue-and-white or the soft tints of old Sevres. Even those who set down a preference for old furniture as an affectation will hardly maintain that new knick-knacks are as good as old bibelots; but only those who have some slight acquaintance with the subject know how wide is the distance, in conception and execution, between the old ob­ject of art and its unworthy successor. Yet the explanation is simple. In former times, as the greatest painters occupied them­selves with wall-decoration, so the greatest sculptors and model­lers produced the delicate statuettes and the incomparable bronze mountings for vases and furniture adorning the apartments of their day. A glance into the window of the average furniture-shop probably convinces the most unobservant that modern bronze mountings are not usually designed by great artists; and there is the same change in the methods of execution. The bronze formerly chiselled is now moulded; the iron once wrought is cast; the patina given to bronze by a chemical process making it a part of the texture of the metal is now simply applied as a surface wash; and this deterioration in processes has done more than anything else to vulgarize modern ornament It may be argued that even in the golden age of art few could


Bric-a-Brac     191

have walls decorated by great painters, or furniture-mountings modelled by great sculptors; but it is here that the superiority of the old method is shown. Below the great painter and sculptor came the trained designer who, formed in the same school as his superiors, did not attempt a poor copy of their masterpieces, but did the same kind of work on simpler lines; just as below the skilled artificer stood the plain artisan whose work was executed more rudely, but by the same genuine processes. This explains the supposed affectation of those who "like things just because they are old." Old bric-a-brac and furniture are, indeed, almost always worthy of liking, since they are made on good lin^s by a good process.

Two causes connected with the change in processes have con­tributed to the debasement of bibelots: the substitution of machine for hand-work has made possible the unlimited repro­duction of works of art; and the resulting demand for cheap knick-knacks has given employment to a multitude of untrained designers having nothing in common with the virtuoso of former times.

It is an open question how much the mere possibility of un­limited reproduction detracts from the intrinsic value of an object of art To the art-lover, as distinguished from the collector, uniqueness per se can give no value to an inartistic object; but the distinction, the personal quality, of a beautiful object is cer­tainly enhanced when it is known to be alone of its kind— as in the case of the old bronzes made d cire perdue. It must, how­ever, be noted that in some cases—as in that of bronze-casting— the method which permits reproduction is distinctly inferior to that used when but one object is to be produced.

In writing on objects of art, it is difficult to escape the charge


192                 The Decoration of Houses

of saying on one page that reproductions are objectionable, and on the next that they are better than poor "originals." The United States customs laws have drawn a rough distinction be­tween an original work and its reproductions, defining the former as a work of art and the latter as articles of commerce; but it does not follow that an article of commerce may not be an ade­quate representation of a work of art. The technical differences incidental to the various forms of reproduction make any general conclusion impossible. In the case of bronzes, for instance, it has been pointed out that the are perdue process is supe­rior to.that by means of which reproductions may be made; nor is this the only cause of inferiority in bronze reproductions. The nature of bronze-casting makes it needful that the final touches should be given to bust or statue after it emerges from the mould. Upon these touches, given by the master's chisel, the expressiveness and significance of the work chiefly depend; and multiplied reproductions, in lacking this individual stamp, must lack precisely that which distinguishes the work of art from the commercial article.

Perhaps the safest general rule is to say that the less the repro­duction suggests an attempt at artistic interpretation,—the more literal and mechanical is its rendering of the original,—the better it fulfils its purpose. Thus, plaster-casts of sculpture are more satisfactory than bronze or marble copies; and a good photograph of a painting is superior to the average reproduction in oils or water-color.

The deterioration in gilding is one of the most striking exam­ples of the modern disregard of quality and execution. In former times gilding was regarded as one of the crowning touches of magnificence in decoration, was little used except where great


Bric-a-Brac                                  193

splendor of effect was desired, and was then applied by means of a difficult and costly process. To-day, after a period of reac­tion during which all gilding was avoided, it is again unsparingly used, under the mistaken impression that it is one of the chief characteristics of the French styles now once more in demand. The result is a plague of liquid gilding. Even in France, where good gilding is still done, the great demand for cheap gilt furniture and ornaments has led to the general use of the inferior process. The prevalence of liquid gilding, and the application of gold to furniture and decoration not adapted to such treatment, doubtless explain the aversion of many persons to any use of gilding in decoration.

In former times the expense of good gilding was no obstacle to its use, since it was employed only in gala rooms, where the whole treatment was on the same scale of costliness: it would never have occurred to the owner of an average-sized house to drench his walls and furniture in gilding, since the excessive use of gold in decoration was held to be quite unsuited to such a purpose. Nothing more surely preserves any form of ornament from vulgarization than a general sense of fitness.

Much of the beauty and propriety of old decoration was due to the fact that the merit of a work of art was held to consist, not in substance, but in design and execution. It was never thought that a badly designed bust or vase could be saved from medioc­rity by being made of an expensive material. Suitability of sub­stance always enhances a work of art; mere costliness never. The chryselephantine Zeus of Olympia was doubtless admirably suited to the splendor of its surroundings; but in a different set­ting it would have been as beautiful in marble. In plastic art everything depends on form and execution, and the skilful hand-


194                 The Decoration of Houses

ling of a substance deliberately chosen for its resistance (where another might have been used with equal fitness) is rather a tour deforce than an artistic achievement

These last generalizations are intended to show, not only that there is an intrinsic value in almost all old bibelots, but also that the general excellence of design and execution in past times has handed down to us many unimportant trifles in the way of fur­niture and household appliances worthy of being regarded as minor objects of art In Italy especially, where every artisan seems to have had the gift of the plasticatore in his finger-tips, and no substance was thought too poor to express a good de­sign, there are still to be found many bits of old workmanship — clocks, appliques, terra-cottas, and carved picture-frames with touches of gilding—that may be characterized in the terms applied by the builder of Buckingham House to his collection of pictures:—"Some good, none disagreeable." Still, no accu­mulation of such trifles, even where none is disagreeable, will give to a room the same distinction as the presence of a few really fine works of art. Any one who has the patience to put up with that look of bareness so displeasing to some will do better to buy each year one superior piece rather than a dozen of middling quality.

Even the buyer who need consult only his own pleasure must remember that his very freedom from the ordinary restrictions lays him open to temptation. It is no longer likely that any col­lector will be embarrassed by a superfluity of treasures; but he may put too many things into one room, and no amount of individual merit in the objects themselves will, from the deco­rator's standpoint, quite warrant this mistake. Any work of art, regardless of its intrinsic merit, must justify its presence in a room


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by being more valuable than the space it occupies—more valu­able, that is, to the general scheme of decoration.

Those who call this view arbitrary or pedantic should consider, first, the importance of plain surfaces in decoration, and secondly the tendency of overcrowding to minimize the effect of each sep­arate object, however striking in itself. Eye and mind are limited in their receptivity to a certain number of simultaneous impres­sions, and the Oriental habit of displaying only one or two objects of art at a time shows a more delicate sense of these limitations than the Western passion for multiplying effects.

To sum up, then, a room should depend for its adornment on general harmony of parts, and on the artistic quality of such ne­cessities as lamps, screens, bindings, and furniture. Whoever goes beyond these essentials should limit himself in the choice of ornaments to the "labors of the master-artist's hand/'



Decoration of Houses - Chapter Guide | Decorating Children's Playroom & Nursery [Previous Chapter] | Concluding Decorating Tips & Advice [Next Chapter]