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The Decoration of Houses By Ogden Codman Characters: 18324

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:02

One of the most important and interesting problems in the planning and decoration of a house is that which has to do with the arrangement of the children's rooms.

There is, of course, little opportunity for actual decoration in school-room or nursery; and it is only by stretching a point that a book dealing merely with the practical application of ?sthetics may be made to include a chapter bordering on pedagogy. It must be remembered, however, that any application of principles presupposes some acquaintance with the principles themselves; and from this standpoint there is a certain relevance in studying the means by which the child's surroundings may be made to develop his sense of beauty.

The room where the child's lessons are studied is, in more senses than one, that in which he receives his education. His whole view of what he is set to learn, and of the necessity and advantage of learning anything at all, is tinged, more often than people think, by the appearance of the room in which his studying is done. The ?sthetic sensibilities wake early in some children, and these, if able to analyze their emotions, could testify to what suffering they have been subjected by the habit of sending to school-room and nurseries whatever furniture is too ugly or threadbare to be used in any other part of the house.

In the minds of such children, curious and lasting associations are early established between the appearance of certain rooms and the daily occupations connected with them; and the aspect of the school-room too often aggravates instead of mitigating the weariness of lesson-learning.

There are, of course, many children not naturally sensitive to artistic influences, and the parents of such children often think that no special care need be spent on their surroundings-a curious misconception of the purpose of all ?sthetic training. To teach a child to appreciate any form of beauty is to develop his intelligence, and thereby to enlarge his capacity for wholesome enjoyment. It is, therefore, never idle to cultivate a child's taste; and those who have no pronounced natural bent toward the beautiful in any form need more guidance and encouragement than the child born with a sense of beauty. The latter will at most be momentarily offended by the sight of ugly objects; while they may forever blunt the taste and narrow the views of the child whose sluggish imagination needs the constant stimulus of beautiful surroundings.

If art is really a factor in civilization, it seems obvious that the feeling for beauty needs as careful cultivation as the other civic virtues. To teach a child to distinguish between a good and a bad painting, a well or an ill-modelled statue, need not hinder his growth in other directions, and will at least develop those habits of observation and comparison that are the base of all sound judgments. It is in this sense that the study of art is of service to those who have no special aptitude for any of its forms: its indirect action in shaping ?sthetic criteria constitutes its chief value as an element of culture.

The habit of regarding "art" as a thing apart from life is fatal to the development of taste. Parents may conscientiously send their children to galleries and museums, but unless the child can find some point of contact between its own surroundings and the contents of the galleries, the interest excited by the pictures and statues will be short-lived and ineffectual. Children are not reached by abstract ideas, and a picture hanging on a museum wall is little better than an abstraction to the child's vivid but restricted imagination. Besides, if the home surroundings are tasteless, the unawakened sense of form will not be roused by a hurried walk through a museum. The child's mind must be prepared by daily lessons in beauty to understand the masterpieces of art. A child brought up on foolish story-books could hardly be expected to enjoy The Knight's Tale or the Morte d'Arthur without some slight initiation into the nature and meaning of good literature; and to pass from a house full of ugly furniture, badly designed wall-papers and worthless knick-knacks to a hurried contemplation of the Venus of Milo or of a model of the Parthenon is not likely to produce the desired results.

The daily intercourse with poor pictures, trashy "ornaments," and badly designed furniture may, indeed, be fittingly compared with a mental diet of silly and ungrammatical story-books. Most parents nowadays recognize the harmfulness of such a régime, and are careful to feed their children on more stimulating fare. Skilful compilers have placed Mallory and Chaucer, Cervantes and Froissart, within reach of the childish understanding, thus laying the foundations for a lasting appreciation of good literature. No greater service can be rendered to children than in teaching them to know the best and to want it; but while this is now generally conceded with regard to books, the child's eager eyes are left to fare as best they may on chromos from the illustrated papers and on carefully hoarded rubbish from the Christmas tree.

The mention of the Christmas tree suggests another obstacle to the early development of taste. Many children, besides being surrounded by ugly furniture and bad pictures, are overwhelmed at Christmas, and on every other anniversary, by presents not always selected with a view to the formation of taste. The question of presents is one of the most embarrassing problems in the artistic education of children. As long as they are in the toy age no great harm is done: it is when they are considered old enough to appreciate "something pretty for their rooms" that the season of danger begins. Parents themselves are often the worst offenders in this respect, and the sooner they begin to give their children presents which, if not beautiful, are at least useful, the sooner will the example be followed by relatives and friends. The selection of such presents, while it might necessitate a little more trouble, need not lead to greater expense. Good things do not always cost more than bad. A good print may often be bought for the same price as a poor one, and the money spent on a china "ornament," in the shape of a yellow Leghorn hat with a kitten climbing out of it, would probably purchase a good reproduction of one of the Tanagra statuettes, a plaster cast of some French or Italian bust, or one of Cantagalli's copies of the Robbia bas-reliefs-any of which would reveal a world of unsuspected beauty to many a child imprisoned in a circle of articles de Paris.

The children of the rich are usually the worst sufferers in such cases, since the presents received by those whose parents and relations are not "well off" have the saving merit of usefulness. It is the superfluous gimcrack-the "ornament"-which is most objectionable, and the more expensive such articles are the more likely are they to do harm. Rich children suffer from the quantity as well as the quality of the presents they receive. Appetite is surfeited, curiosity blunted, by the mass of offerings poured in with every anniversary. It would be better if, in such cases, friends and family could unite in giving to each child one thing worth having-a good edition, a first-state etching or engraving, or some like object fitted to give pleasure at the time and lasting enjoyment through life. Parents often make the mistake of thinking that such presents are too "serious"-that children do not care for good bindings, fine engravings, or reproductions of sculpture. As a matter of fact, children are quick to appreciate beauty when pointed out and explained to them, and an intelligent child feels peculiar pride in being the owner of some object which grown-up people would be glad to possess. If the selection of such presents is made with a reasonable regard for the child's tastes and understanding-if the book chosen is a good edition, well bound, of the Morte d'Arthur or of Chaucer-if the print represents some Tuscan Nativity, with a joyous dance of angels on the thatched roof, or a group of splendid horsemen and strange animals from the wondrous fairy-tale of the Riccardi chapel-the present will give as much immediate pleasure as a "juvenile" book or picture, while its intrinsic beauty and significance may become important factors in the child's ?sthetic development. The possession of something valuable, that may not be knocked about, but must be handled with care and restored to its place after being looked at, will also cultivate in the child that habit of carefulness and order which may be defined as good manners toward inanimate objects.

Children suffer not only from the number of presents they receive, but from that over-crowding of modern rooms that so often makes it necessary to use the school-room and nurseries as an outlet for the overflow of the house. To the children's quarters come one by one the countless objects "too good to throw away" but too ugly to be tolerated by grown-up eyes-the bead-work cushions that have "associations," the mildewed Landseer prints of foaming, dying animals, the sheep-faced Madonna

and Apostles in bituminous draperies, commemorating a paternal visit to Rome in the days when people bought copies of the "Old Masters."

Those who wish to train their children's taste must resolutely clear the school-room of all such stumbling-blocks. Ugly furniture cannot always be replaced; but it is at least possible to remove unsuitable pictures and knick-knacks.

It is essential that the school-room should be cheerful. Dark colors, besides necessitating the use of much artificial light, are depressing to children and consequently out of place in the school-room: white woodwork, and walls tinted in some bright color, form the best background for both work and play.

Perhaps the most interesting way of decorating the school-room is that which might be described as the rotation system. To carry out this plan-which requires the co?peration of the children's teacher-the walls must be tinted in some light color, such as turquoise-blue or pale green, and cleared of all miscellaneous adornments. These should then be replaced by a few carefully-chosen prints, photographs and plaster casts, representing objects connected with the children's studies. Let it, for instance, be supposed that the studies in hand include natural history, botany, and the history of France and England during the sixteenth century. These subjects might be respectively illustrated by some of the clever Japanese outline drawings of plants and animals, by Holbein's portrait of Henry VIII, Clouet's of Charles IX and of Elizabeth of Austria, Dürer's etchings of Luther and Erasmus, and views of some of the principal buildings erected in France and England during the sixteenth century.

The prints and casts shown at one time should be sufficiently inexpensive and few in number to be changed as the child's lessons proceed, thus forming a kind of continuous commentary upon the various branches of study.

This plan of course necessitates more trouble and expense than the ordinary one of giving to the walls of the school-room a permanent decoration: an arrangement which may also be made interesting and suggestive, if the child's requirements are considered. When casts and pictures are intended to remain in place, it is a good idea to choose them at the outset with a view to the course of studies likely to be followed. In this way, each object may serve in turn to illustrate some phase of history or art: even this plan will be found to have a vivifying effect upon the dry bones of "lessons."

In a room decorated in this fashion, the prints or photographs selected might represent the foremost examples of Greek, Gothic, Renaissance and eighteenth-century architecture, together with several famous paintings of different periods and schools; sculpture being illustrated by casts of the Disk-thrower, of one of Robbia's friezes of child-musicians, of Donatello's Saint George, and Pigalle's "Child with the Bird."

Parents who do not care to plan the adornment of the school-room on such definite lines should at least be careful to choose appropriate casts and pictures. It is generally conceded that nothing painful should be put before a child's eyes; but the deleterious effects of namby-pamby prettiness are too often disregarded. Anything "sweet" is considered appropriate for the school-room or nursery; whereas it is essential to the child's artistic training that only the sweetness which proceeds de forte should be held up for admiration. It is easy to find among the world's masterpieces many pictures interesting to children. Vandyck's "Children of Charles I"; Bronzino's solemn portraits of Medici babies; Drouais' picture of the Comte d'Artois holding his little sister on the back of a goat; the wan little princes of Velasquez; the ruddy beggar-boys of Murillo-these are but a few of the subjects that at once suggest themselves. Then, again, there are the wonder-books of those greatest of all story-tellers, the Italian fresco-painters-Benozzo Gozzoli, Pinturicchio, Carpaccio-incorrigible gossips every one, lingering over the minor episodes and trivial details of their stories with the desultory slowness dear to childish listeners. In sculpture, the range of choice is no less extended. The choristers of Robbia, the lean little St. Johns of Donatello and his school-Verrocchio's fierce young David, and the Capitol "Boy with the Goose"-these may alternate with fragments of the Parthenon frieze, busts of great men, and studies of animals, from the Assyrian lions to those of Canova and Barye.

Above all, the walls should not be overcrowded. The importance of preserving in the school-room bare wall-spaces of uniform tint has hitherto been little considered; but teachers are beginning to understand the value of these spaces in communicating to the child's brain a sense of repose which diminishes mental and physical restlessness.

The furniture of the school-room should of course be plain and substantial. Well-designed furniture of this kind is seldom made by modern manufacturers, and those who can afford the slight extra expense should commission a good cabinet-maker to reproduce some of the simple models which may be found in the manuals of old French and English designers. It is of special importance to provide a large, solid writing-table: children are too often subjected to the needless constraint and fatigue of writing at narrow unsteady desks, too small to hold even the books in use during the lesson.

A well-designed bookcase with glass doors is a valuable factor in the training of children. It teaches a respect for books by showing that they are thought worthy of care; and a child is less likely to knock about and damage a book which must be taken from and restored to such a bookcase, than one which, after being used, is thrust back on an open shelf. Children's books, if they have any literary value, should be bound in some bright-colored morocco: dingy backs of calf or black cloth are not likely to attract the youthful eye, and the better a book is bound the more carefully it will be handled. Even lesson-books, when they become shabby, should have a covering of some bright-colored cloth stitched over the boards.

The general rules laid down for the decoration of the school-room may, with some obvious modifications, be applied to the treatment of nursery and of children's rooms. These, like the school-room, should have painted walls and a floor of hard wood with a removable rug or a square of matting. In a house containing both school-room and nursery, the decoration of the latter room will of course be adapted to the tastes of the younger children. Mothers often say, in answer to suggestions as to the decoration of the nursery, that little children "like something bright"-as though this precluded every form of art above the newspaper chromo and the Christmas card! It is easy to produce an effect of brightness by means of white wood-work and walls hung with good colored prints, with large photographs of old Flemish or Italian pictures,-say, for example, Bellini's baby-angels playing on musical instruments,-and with a few of the Japanese plant and animal drawings already referred to. All these subjects would interest and amuse even very young children; and there is no reason why a gay Japanese screen, with boldly drawn birds and flowers, should not afford as much entertainment as one composed of a heterogeneous collection of Christmas cards, chromos, and story-book pictures, put together without any attempt at color-harmony or composition.

Children's rooms should be as free as possible from all superfluous draperies. The windows may be hung with either shades or curtains: it is needless to have both. If curtains are preferred, they should be of chintz, or of some washable cotton or linen. The reproductions of the old toiles de Jouy, with pictures from ?sop and La Fontaine, or from some familiar myth or story, are specially suited to children's rooms; while another source of interest and amusement may be provided by facing the fireplace with blue and white Dutch tiles representing the finding of Moses, the story of David and Goliath, or some such familiar episode.

As children grow older, and are allotted separate bedrooms, these should be furnished and decorated on the same principles and with the same care as the school-room. Pieces of furniture for these bedrooms would make far more suitable and interesting presents than the costly odds and ends so often given without definite intention. In the arrangement of the child's own room the expression of individual taste should be encouraged and the child allowed to choose the pictures and casts with which the walls are hung. The responsibility of such selection will do much to develop the incipient faculties of observation and comparison.

To sum up, then: the child's visible surroundings form the basis of the best, because of the most unconscious, cultivation: and not of ?sthetic cultivation only, since, as has been pointed out, the development of any artistic taste, if the child's general training is of the right sort, indirectly broadens the whole view of life.

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