Is it a gift, or may it be acquired—and if so, how? This is a question which should interest every progressive woman.
ANNE ELIZABETH WILSONNovember11926
CAN GOOD TASTE BE ACQUIRED?
The Home Beautiful
ANNE ELIZABETH WILSON
Is it a gift, or may it be acquired—and if so, how? This is a question which should interest every progressive woman.
HOW can you tell,” a very earnest woman once asked me, “whether a thing is, or is not, in good taste?” The question certainly was a poser. Good taste, it had seemed to me, was an instinct. One knew instantly that this or that was amiss—that one line was flagrant, ugly—that another was pure, beautiful. Was it a matter of association, of early surroundings or acquired knowledge? Or was it solely innate? Then it came home to me quite strongly that undoubtedly there are two types of people to whom that aesthetic element, which for lack of a better name we call ‘taste,’ applies quite differently. For the fortunate few, it is a gift, inbred, like a beautiful voice, a flair for writing or histrionic ability. It is a form of artistic genius. Of such are the great decorators, architects and craftsmen made. For the rest of us, it is a latent sense much bound up with the simple but inexplicable sense of what we ‘like.’ And what we ‘like’ may, in turn, be greatly affected by what we have been accustomed to, what our opportunities of seeing what the world has to offer may have been, and our natural appreciation of beauty.
And on that basis there is no one devoid of ‘taste.’ There is no one, who, given a choice of two pieces of furniture, of period or treatment, cannot lay his or her finger on one in particular and say, I like this. Then, presuming that one had placed herself in the hands of a practitioner in Taste Analysis, the next question would be, “why?”
Probably the patient could not tell. It appealed to her—it expressed something inspiring, stimulating or restful to her nature; it reminded her of something in her early surroundings that made her feel at home; it satisfied some dream of elegance and richness long and secretly cherished.
Suppose, nowever, that from the standpoint of every tenet of ‘the true and the beautiful’ her choice was execrable? It would merely indicate that, once having expressed her tendencies, these needed directing into the right channels. And this directing, any thoughtful woman may do for herself with a little study. There is an expression for every taste in something good, pure and suitable, and it is the prerogative of every woman to be so surrounded.
Feeling the Aesthetic Pulse
FOR instance, the patient points to a room of the ‘Gay Nineties.’ The practitioner eyes the choice sagely, noting that here is expressed a considerable tendency toward a love of the massive, the rich, and colorful. But he'must point out that
the furniture, in fact almost every ensemble of that most trying period, was largely counterfeit. The honest types of the tendency which she expresses, are to be found in the English Tudor and Jacobean, the Spanish Renaissance, all the age of oak, and seventeenth century walnut, which in England reached its height in the reign of William and Mary. Another applicant for diagnosis may enthusiastically turn to a representation of twist-leg iron highly gilded, on which a slab of blushing marble rests—the perilous taboret of the early nineteen hundreds. Hopeless taste? Not at all—she has merely expressed a preference for delicate lines, perhaps an appreciation for the occasional metallic touch. Her taste is easily satisfied in examples of some of the loveliest craftsmanship of the ages. She will, undoubtedly, appreciate the lines of Louis XVI pieces; the metallic treatments of the French Empire style, which Sheraton introduced in England and Duncan Phyfe in America; the beautifully graceful metal types designed, in the eighteenth century by the Adam brothers in England,
and the modern wrought-iron triumphs of line and stability.
“Yes, but who is going to tell you what is right or wrong? How are we to know that one expression of the same idea is false, the other true?” It simply is a matter of the appreciation of honest types, and my definition of an honest one is this: From the days when comfort first became a consideration which, barring ancient times, developed after the Middle Ages, there had grown out of the tendencies, talents and available materials and influences of various cycles of time, the elements of domestic furnishing. I would call ‘honest’ furniture, that which reflects the best output of the sincere craftsmen of each time. When good workmanship was at any time sacrificed to fashion, wayward and mixed design or commercialism, the results stand as an illustration of the meaning of the word ‘counterfeit.’
Because we are an Anglo-Saxon race, it is best for our purposes to trace the history of furniture as it evolved in England. The Tudor furniture and architecture which expressed the beginning of comfort,
adopted, to a great extent, the noble tendencies of the Gothic feeling. Its makers were those craftsmen who in the sixteenth century still retained the traditions of joinery and workmanship sacred to the old Guilds. The Renaissance, sweeping up from Rome, reached England later than the Latin countries, but in the time of Elizabeth, it brought with it artisans and artificers well equipped to introduce a note of richness into the austere and solid conception of furniture as the early English workman saw it. So the embellishment of furniture continued until the time of Cromwell, wheiî che Puritanical tendencies of the Commonwealth impressed even the furnishing of the home with severity. With the Restoration, the luxury of the Stuarts was revived with new vigor, and Charles the Second brought in a new conception of furniture. It was the beginning of the age of walnut. The age of oak was closing and with it a tradition for a certain primitive type of workmanship. A great influx of foreign cabinet makers ensued, and what was lost in the way of principles of construction, was gained in beauty, grace and variety. William and Mary continued in the age of walnut, bringing with them the arts of the Dutch, introducing lacquer and veneers, and leading up to Queen Anne and mahogany. So into the age of a third wood, and the golden age of furniture—the eighteenth century. So far there had been no departure from the theory of ‘honesty’ in furniture. One cycle had presented its offering, merged into the next and been replaced, in accordance with the progress of its time. With the eighteenth century, furniture had reached its final height, and like most zeniths, it was not possible that such perfection should be maintained. Such immortal names as Chippendale, Sheraton, the Adam brothers and Hepplewhite appear— and of these, at least two were finally obscured in the mazes of artificiality and fashion of the latter part of the century. Chippendale, that inspired man, whose superb conceptions borrowed so much from foreign styles, failed at last in the over-elaborate adaptation of the Chinese taste—and Sheraton, in his enthusiasm for design, became so heedless that his last work merged into the meaningless confusion of the Regency. Honest construction in the later work of these two great prophets had been sacrificed to design. They had been carried away by fashion.
Almost contemporary with the apogee of English furniture was a similar development in France. Louis XV and XVI, styles both well known to anyone even casually acquainted
withjfurniture, and later the Empire mode, much associated with the use of metal, both exercised their influence. The Adam brothers adapted Louis XVI tendencies into their slender models in England, often translating the delicate fluted conceptions of wood into terms of metal, and Sheraton did much to introduce the Empire influence.
But the Regency with its gew-gaws and blatancy, presaging the later trials of the Victorian era, was the beginning of ¿he end of ‘honest’ furniture for at least a century. I will say more about early Victorian walnut later.
Furniture Design in America
AS FOR the continent of America, it had developed a history of its own, paralleling that of the old world. There were three distinct types of Colonial furniture. Among the earliest, was the crude and severe type produced by the Pilgrim Fathers, and the second that of a sirrilar genre brought over and produced by the peasant French and Dutch, and last, the Cavalier type, transplanted bodily from the fine old homes of England and France,
! and scattered from Jamestown to Quebec 1 on seigneury settlement, and plantation. This last comprised an agglomeration of the best the seventeenth and eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries had to offer in fine furniture.
The second break in the sequence of ‘honest’ furniture occurred to the greatest extent on the continent of America. The unlimited resources of virgin forest made us wood-rich, and under the prevalent influence of design and proportion gone mad in the mid-Victorian lapse from grace, that resource was commercialized to a heinous degree in the craze for black walnut. Whole rooms containing heirloom of sweet old mahogany and light walnut were actually jettisoned for the behemoth atrocities of sideboard, settee and whatnot. And rosewood, too, was belabored into distorted and elaborately carved ‘reproductions’ of the earlier French styles. t; It was all as ‘dishonest* as well could be imagined—and the worst of it was, that it continued, in one way and another, into the twentieth century. There was even an oriental taste expressed in teetering gilt furniture, rickety metal stands and lighting fixtures of bronze that sat anywhere and everywhere, alive with I flowers and bead fringe!
There was one prophet crying aloud in the wilderness, and that was William Morris. He was the forerunner of the present-day craftsman who seeks to reproduce faithfully the honest old forms. His particular hobby was the old oak type, and he did all that was possible to
instil a love of real values into his generation—not, however, to much avail. They finally succeeded, in fact, in making a fad, even, of his doctrines!
The Maligned Walnut
BUT I promised to touch on early Victorian walnut. It is not, strictly speaking, one of the standard forms of furniture. Many people sneer at it, and laugh at those who cherish it in the name of tradition. True, that in certain finesse of line and proportion, it is lacking, but I think it must be included in my category of honest furniture. It falls within my definition. It sprang out of the available material of its time, which was fine, solid hardwood, and it expresses with undeniable quaintness the spirit of its age. It is well-made as a rule, not over-ornamented. It is to be confused neither with the Colonial of earlier, nor the black walnut of later, development, however. It is a type of furniture particularly appealing to Canadians, for it is in this style that many of the old homes were furnished, particular^ in Ontario, and the spirit of it is dear to many people.
The only way to guide one’s taste then, appears to be in diagnosis of what one likes and a guiding of preference in the right direction. It will take only a little and pleasant study, and it will mean a new appreciation of the graciousness of home-making. We have prepared a list of suitable books for just such reading if you care to send a self-addressed envelope for its mailing.
Remember, however, when you are acting on your preferences—though you keep details in keeping—not to go to the extreme of being too pedantic. ‘Period’ rooms sometimes are uninterestingly stilted. Remember that ‘periods’ did not exist when they were forming—they glided into one another, and the old homes in which they were manifested, partook of them cycle by cycle. True, the ages of oak, of walnut and mahogany were distinct and should always be so treated in reproduction, but within each was a flowing tide of harmony. Remember, too, the everlasting rule of suitability. You cannot put a duke’s chair in a hunter’s cottage with propriety, no matter how rich your taste may be!
And there are many charming backgrounds from which you may borrow in foreign countries where the traditional old forms are still produced. Normandy, Holland, the Mediterranean countries, South America—all have something genuine and original to offer which may satisfy your particular ‘taste.’
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