Colour In Houses

"Heaven gives us of its colour, for our joy,

Hues which have words and speak to ye of heaven."

Although the very existence of a house is a matter of construction, its

general interior effect is almost entirely the result of colour

treatment and careful and cultivated selection of accessories.

Colour in the house includes much that means furniture, in the way of

carpets, drape
ies, and all the modern conveniences of civilization, but

as it precedes and dictates the variety of all these things from the

authoritative standpoint of wall treatment, it is well to study its laws

and try to reap the full benefit of its influence.

As far as effect is concerned, the colour of a room creates its

atmosphere. It may be cheerful or sad, cosy or repellent according to

its quality or force. Without colour it is only a bare canvas, which

might, but does not picture our lives.

We understand many of the properties of colour, and have unconsciously

learned some of its laws;--but what may be called the science of

colour has never been formulated. So far as we understand it, its

principles correspond curiously to those of melodious sound. It is as

impossible to produce the best effect from one tone or colour, as to

make a melody upon one note of the harmonic scale; it is skilful

variation of tone, the gradation or even judicious opposition of tint

which gives exquisite satisfaction to the eye. In music, sequence

produces this effect upon the ear, and in colour, juxtaposition and

gradation upon the eye. Notes follow notes in melody as shade follows

shade in colour. We find no need of even different names for the

qualities peculiar to the two; scale--notes--tones--harmonies--the words

express effects common to colour as well as to music, but colour has

this advantage, that its harmonies can be fixed, they do not die with

the passing moment; once expressed they remain as a constant and

ever-present delight.

Notes of the sound-octave have been gathered by the musicians from

widely different substances, and carefully linked in order and sequence

to make a harmonious scale which may be learned; but the painter,

conscious of colour-harmonies, has as yet no written law by which he can

produce them.

The "born colourist" is one who without special training, or perhaps in

spite of it, can unerringly combine or oppose tints into compositions

which charm the eye and satisfy the sense. Even among painters it is by

no means a common gift. It is almost more rare to find a picture

distinguished for its harmony and beauty of colour, than to see a room

in which nothing jars and everything works together for beauty. It seems

strange that this should be a rarer personal gift than the musical

sense, since nature apparently is far more lavish of her lessons for the

eye than for the ear; and it is curious that colour, which at first

sight seems a more apparent and simple fact than music, has not yet been

written. Undoubtedly there is a colour scale, which has its sharps and

flats, its high notes and low notes, its chords and discords, and it is

not impossible that in the future science may make it a means of

regulated and written harmonies:--that some master colourist who has

mechanical and inventive genius as well, may so arrange them that they

can be played by rule; that colour may have its Mozart or

Beethoven--its classic melodies, its familiar tunes. The musician, as I

have said--has gathered his tones from every audible thing in

nature--and fitted and assorted and built them into a science; and why

should not some painter who is also a scientist take the many variations

of colour which lie open to his sight, and range and fit and combine,

and write the formula, so that a child may read it?

We already know enough to be very sure that the art is founded upon

laws, although they are not thoroughly understood. Principles of masses,

spaces, and gradations underlie all accidental harmonies of

colour;--just as in music, the simple, strong, under-chords of the bass

must be the ground for all the changes and trippings of the upper


It is easy, if one studies the subject, to see how the very likeness of

these two esthetic forces illustrate the laws of each,--in the

principles of relation, gradation, and scale.

Until very recently the relation of colour to the beauty of a house

interior was quite unrecognised. If it existed in any degree of

perfection it was an accident, a result of the softening and beautifying

effect of time, or of harmonious human living. Where it existed, it was

felt as a mysterious charm belonging to the home; something which

pervaded it, but had no separate being; an attractive ghost which

attached itself to certain houses, followed certain people, came by

chance, and was a mystery which no one understood, but every one

acknowledged. Now we know that this something which distinguished

particular rooms, and made beautiful particular houses, was a definite

result of laws of colour accidentally applied.

To avail ourselves of this influence upon the moods and experiences of

life is to use a power positive in its effects as any spiritual or

intellectual influence. It gives the kind of joy we find in nature, in

the golden-green of light under tree-branches, or the mingled green and

gray of tree and rock shadows, or the pearl and rose of sunrise and

sunset. We call the deep content which results from such surroundings

the influence of nature, and forget to name the less spiritual, the more

human condition of well-being which comes to us in our homes from being

surrounded with something which in a degree atones for lack of nature's


It is a different well-being, and lacks the full tide of electric

enjoyment which comes from living for the hour under the sky and in the

breadths of space, but it atones by substituting something of our own

invention, which surprises us by its compensations, and confounds us by

its power.