It requires a far search to gather up examples of furniture really
representative in this kind, and thus to gain a point of view for a
prospect into the more ideal where furniture no longer is bought to look
expensively useless in a boudoir, but serves everyday and commonplace
need, such as must always be the wont, where most men work, and exchange
in some sort life for life.
The best present-day example is the deal table in those last places to
be vulgarised, farm-house or cottage kitchen. But in the Middle Ages
things as simply made as a kitchen table, mere carpenters' framings,
were decorated to the utmost stretch of the imagination by means simple
and rude as their construction. Design, indeed, really fresh and
penetrating, co-exists it seems only with simplest conditions.
Simple, serviceable movables fall into few kinds: the box, cupboard, and
table, the stool, bench, and chair. The box was once the most frequent,
useful, and beautiful of all these; now it is never made as furniture.
Often it was seat, coffer, and table in one, with chequers inlaid on the
top for chess. There are a great number of chests in England as early as
the thirteenth century. One type of construction, perhaps the earliest,
is to clamp the wood-work together and beautifully decorate it by
branching scrolls of iron-work. Another kind was ornamented by a sort
of butter-print patterning, cut into the wood in ingenious fillings to
squares and circles, which you can imitate by drawing the intersecting
lines the compasses seem to make of their own will in a circle, and
cutting down each space to a shallow V. This simple carpenter's
decoration is especially identified with chests. The same kind of work
is still done in Iceland and Norway, the separate compartments often
brightly painted into a mosaic of colour; or patterns of simple
scroll-work are made out in incised line and space. In Italy this
charming art of incising was carried much farther in the cassoni, the
fronts of which, broad planks of cypress wood, are often romantic with
quite a tapestry of kings and ladies, beasts, birds, and foliage, cut in
outline with a knife and punched with dots, the cavities being filled
with a coloured mastic like sealing-wax. Panelling, rough inlaying in
the solid, carving and painting, and casing with repousse or pierced
metal, or covering with leather incised into designs, and making out
patterns with nail-heads, were all methods of decoration used by the
maker of boxes: other examples, and those not the least stately, had no
other ornament than the purfling at the edges formed by ingeniously
elaborate dovetails fitting together like a puzzle and showing a pattern
like an inlay.
When people work naturally, it is as wearisome and unnecessary often to
repeat the same design as to continually paint the same picture. Design
comes by designing. On the one hand tradition carefully and continuously
shapes the object to fill its use, on the other spontaneous and eager
excursions are made into the limitless fields of beautiful device.
Where construction and form are thus the result of a long tradition
undisturbed by fashion, they are always absolutely right as to use and
distinctive as to beauty, the construction being not only visible, but
one with the decoration. Take a present-day survival, the large country
cart, the body shaped like the waist of a sailing ship, and every rail
and upright unalterably logical, and then decorated by quaint
chamferings, the facets of which are made out in brightest paint. Or
look at an old table, always with stretching rails at the bottom and
framed together with strong tenons and cross pins into turned posts, but
so thoughtfully done that every one is original and all beautiful.
Turning, a delightful old art, half for convenience, half for beauty,
itself comes down to us from long before the Conquest.
The great charm in furniture of the simplest structure may best be seen
in old illuminated manuscripts, where a chest, a bench, and against the
wall a cupboard, the top rising in steps where are set out tall "Venice
glasses," or a "garnish" of plate under a tester of some bright stuff,
make up a whole of fairy beauty in the frank simplicity of the forms and
the innocent gaiety of bright colour. Take the St. Jerome in his study
of Duerer or Bellini, and compare the dignity of serene and satisfying
order with the most beautifully furnished room you know: how vulgar our
good taste appears and how foreign to the end of culture--Peace.
From records, and what remains to us, we know that the room, the
hangings, and the furniture were patterned all over with scattered
flowers and inscriptions--violets and the words "bonne pensee"; or
vases of lilies and "pax," angels and incense pots, ciphers and
initials, badges and devices, or whatever there be of suggestion and
mystery. The panelling and furniture were "green like a curtain," as the
old accounts have it; or vermilion and white, like some painted chairs
at Knole; or even decorated with paintings and gilt gesso patterns like
the Norfolk screens. Fancy a bed with the underside of the canopy having
an Annunciation or spreading trellis of roses, and the chamber carved
like one in thirteenth-century romance:--
"N'a el monde beste n'oisel
Qui n'i soit ovre a cisel."
If we would know how far we are from the soul of art, we have but to
remember that all this, the romance element in design, the joy in life,
nature, and colour, which in one past development we call Gothic, and
which is ever the well of beauty undefiled, is not now so much
impossible of attainment as entirely out of range with our spirit and
life, a felt anachronism and affectation.
All art is sentiment embodied in form. To find beauty we must consider
what really gives us pleasure--pleasure, not pride--and show our
unashamed delight in it; "and so, when we have leisure to be happy and
strength to be simple we shall find Art again"--the art of the workman.
W. R. LETHABY.
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