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Decoration of Houses - Chapter Guide | Decorating Den, Library, Smoking Lounge [Previous Chapter] | Decorating Bedroom [Next Chapter]



THE dining-room, as we know it, is a comparatively recent innovation in house-planning. In the early middle ages the noble and his retainers ate in the hall; then the grand'saBe, built for ceremonial uses, began to serve as a banqueting-room, while the meals eaten in private were served in the lord's chamber. As house-planning adapted itself to the growing complexity of life, the mediaeval bedroom developed into a private suite of living-rooms, preceded by an antechamber; and this antechamber, or one of the small adjoining cabinets, was used as the family dining-room, the banqueting-hall being still reserved for state entertainments.

The plan of dining at haphazard in any of the family living-rooms persisted on the Continent until the beginning of the eighteenth century: even then it was comparatively rare, in France, to see a room set apart for the purpose of dining. In small bdtels and apartments, people continued to dine in the antechamber; where there were two antechambers, the inner was used for that purpose; and it was only in grand houses, or in the luxurious establish­ments of the femmes galantes, that dining-rooms were to be found. Even in such cases the room described as a saUe a manger was often only a central antechamber or saloon into which the living-rooms opened; indeed, Madame du Barry's sumptuous dining room


156                 The Decoration of Houses

at Luciennes was a vestibule giving directly upon the peristyle of the villa.

In England the act of dining seems to have been taken more seriously, while the rambling outgrowths of the Elizabethan residence included a greater variety of rooms than could be con­tained in any but the largest houses built on more symmetrical lines. Accordingly, in old English house-plans we find rooms designated as " dining-parlors "; many houses, in fact, contained two or three, each with a different exposure, so that they might be used at different seasons. These rooms can hardly be said to represent our modern dining-room, since they were not planned in connection with kitchen and offices, and were probably used as living-rooms when not needed for dining. Still, it was from the Elizabethan dining-parlor that the modern dining-room really developed; and so recently has it been specialized into a room used only for eating, that a generation ago old-fashioned people in England and America habitually used their dining-rooms to sit in. On the Continent the incongruous uses of the rooms in which people dined made it necessary that the furniture should be easily removed. In the middle ages, people dined at long tables composed of boards resting on trestles, while the seats were narrow wooden benches or stools, so constructed that they could easily be carried away when the meal was over. With the sixteenth century, the table-a-trtteaux gave way to various fold­ing tables with legs, and the wooden stools were later replaced by folding seats without arms, called perroquets. In the middle ages, when banquets were given in the grand'salle, the plate was displayed on movable shelves covered with a velvet slip, or on elaborately carved dressers; but on ordinary occasions little silver was set out in French dining-rooms, and the great English side-




The Dining-Room                               157

board, with its array of urns, trays and wine-coolers, was un­known in France. In the common antechamber dining-room, whatever was needed for the table was kept in a press or cup­board with solid wooden doors; changes of service being carried on by means of serving-tables, or servants—narrow marble-topped consoles ranged against the walls of the room.

For examples of dining-rooms, as we understand the term, one must look to the grand French houses of the eighteenth century (see Plate L) and to the same class of dwellings in England. In France such dining-rooms were usually intended for gala enter­tainments, the family being still served in antechamber or cabinet; but English houses of the same period generally contain a family dining-room and another intended for state.

The dining-room of Madame du Barry at Luciennes, already referred to, was a magnificent example of the great dining-saloon. The ceiling was a painted Olympus; the white marble walls were subdivided by Corinthian pilasters with plinths and capitals of gilt bronze, surmounted by a frieze of bas-reliefs framed in gold; four marble niches contained statues by Pajou, Lecomte, and Moineau; and the general brilliancy of effect was increased by crystal chandeliers, hung in the intercolumniations against a back­ground of looking-glass.

Such a room, the banqueting-hall of the official mistress, repre­sents the courtisane's ideal of magnificence: decorations as splen­did, but more sober and less theatrical, marked the dining-rooms of the aristocracy, as at Choisy, Gaillon and Rambouillet.

The state dining-rooms of the eighteenth century were often treated with an order, niches with statues being placed between the pilasters. Sometimes one of these niches contained a foun­tain serving as a wine-cooler—a survival of the stone or metal

158                 The Decoration of Houses

wall-fountains in which dishes were washed in the mediaeval dining-room. Many of these earlier fountains had been merely fixed to the wall; but those of the eighteenth century, though varying greatly in design, were almost always an organic part of the wall-decoration (see Plate LI). Sometimes, in apartments of importance, they formed the pedestal of a life-size group or statue, as in the dining-room of Madame de Pompadour; while in smaller rooms they consisted of a semicircular basin of marble projecting from the wall and surmounted by groups of cupids, dolphins or classic attributes. The banqueting-gallery of Tria-non-sous-Bois contains in one of its longitudinal walls two wide niches with long marble basins; and Mariettas edition of d'Avi-ler's Cours d'Arcbitefiure gives the elevation of a recessed buffet flanked by small niches containing fountains. The following de­scription, accompanying d'Aviler's plate, is quoted here as an instance of the manner in which elaborate compositions were worked out by the old decorators: "The second- antechamber, being sometimes used as a dining-room, is a suitable place for the buffet represented. This buffet, which may be incrusted with marble or stone, or panelled with wood-work, consists in a re­cess occupying one of the side walls of the room. The recess contains a shelf of marble or stone, supported on brackets and surmounting a small stone basin which serves as a wine-cooler. Above the shelf is an attic flanked by volutes, and over this attic may be placed a picture, generally a flower or fruit-piece, or the representation of a concert, or some such agreeable scene; while in the accompanying plate the attic is crowned by a bust of Comus, wreathed with vines by two little satyrs—the group detaching itself against a trellised background enlivened with birds.    The composition is completed by two  lateral  niches




The Dining-Room                               159

for fountains, adorned with masks, tritons and dolphins of gilded lead."

These built-in sideboards and fountains were practically the only feature distinguishing the old dining-rooms from other gala apartments. At a period when all rooms were painted, panelled, or hung with tapestry, no special style of decoration was thought needful for the dining-room; though tapestry was seldom used, for the practical reason that stuff hangings are always objection­able in a room intended for eating.

Towards the end of the seventeenth century, when comfortable seats began to be made, an admirably designed dining-room chair replaced the earlier benches and perroquets. The eighteenth cen­tury dining-chair is now often confounded with the light chaise volante used in drawing-rooms, and cabinet-makers frequently sell the latter as copies of old dining-chairs. These were in fact much heavier and more comfortable, and whether cane-seated or upholstered, were invariably made with wide deep seats, so that the long banquets of the day might be endured without constraint or fatigue; while the backs were low and narrow, in order not to interfere with the service of the table. (See Plates L1I and LIU. Plates XLV1 and L also contain good examples of dining-chairs.) In England the state dining-room was decorated much as it was in France: the family dining-room was simply a plain parlor, with wide mahogany sideboards or tall glazed cupboards for the display of plate and china. The solid English dining-chairs of mahogany, if less graceful than those used on the Continent, are equally well adapted to their purpose.

The foregoing indications may serve to suggest the lines upon which dining-room decoration might be carried out in the present day.   The avoidance of all stuff hangings and heavy curtains is

160                 The Decoration of Houses

of great importance: it will be observed that even window-curtains were seldom used in old dining-rooms, such care being given to the decorative detail of window and embrasure that they needed no additional ornament in the way of drapery. A bare floor of stone or marble is best suited to the dining-room; but where the floor is covered, it should be with a rug, not with a nailed-down carpet.

The dining-room should be lit by wax candles in side appliques or in a chandelier; and since anything tending to produce heat and to exhaust air is especially objectionable in a room used for eating, the walls should be sufficiently light in color to make little artificial light necessary. In the dining-rooms of the last cen­tury, in England as well as on the Continent, the color-scheme was usually regulated by this principle: the dark dining-room panelled with mahogany or hung with sombre leather is an invention of our own times. It has already been said that the old family dining-room was merely a panelled parlor. Sometimes the panels were of light unvarnished oak, but oftener they were painted in white or in some pale tint easily lit by wax candles. The walls were often hung with fruit or flower-pieces, or with pictures offish and game: a somewhat obvious form of adornment which it has long been the fashion to ridicule, but which was not without decora­tive value and appropriateness. Pictures representing life and ac­tion often grow tiresome when looked at over and over again, day after day: a fact which the old decorators probably had in mind when they hung what the French call natures mortes in the dining-room.

Concerning the state dining-room that forms a part of many modern houses little remains to be said beyond the descriptions already given of the various gala apartments.    It is obvious that

The Dining-Room

the banqueting-hall should be less brilliant than a ball-room and less fanciful in decoration than a music-room: a severer and more restful treatment naturally suggests itself, but beyond this no spe­cial indications are required.

The old dining-rooms were usually heated by porcelain stoves. Such a stove, of fine architectural design, set in a niche corre­sponding with that which contains the fountain, is of great deco­rative value in the composition of the room; and as it has the advantage of giving out less concentrated heat than an open fire, it is specially well suited to a small or narrow dining-room, where some of the guests must necessarily sit close to the hearth.

Most houses which have banquet-halls contain also a smaller apartment called a breakfast-room; but as this generally corre­sponds in size and usage with the ordinary family dining-room, the same style of decoration is applicable to both. However ornate the banquet-hall may be, the breakfast-room must of course be simple and free from gilding: the more elaborate the decorations of the larger room, the more restful such a contrast will be found.

Of the dinner-table, as we now know it, little need be said. The ingenious but ugly extension-table with a central support, now used all over the world, is an English invention. There seems no reason why the general design should not be improved without interfering with the.mechanism of this table; but of course it can never be so satisfactory to the eye as one of the old round or square tables, with four or six tapering legs, such as were used in eighteenth-century dining-rooms before the introduction of the "extension."

Decoration of Houses - Chapter Guide | Decorating Den, Library, Smoking Lounge [Previous Chapter] | Decorating Bedroom [Next Chapter]