Walls Ceilings And Floors

The true principle of wall treatment is to make the boundary stand for

colour and beauty, and not alone for division of space.

As a rule, the colour treatment of a house interior must begin with the

walls, and it is fortunate if these are blank and plain as in most new

houses with uncoloured ceilings, flat or broken with mouldings to suit

the style of the house.

The range of possible treatme
t is very wide, from simple tones of wall

colour against which quiet cottage or domestic city life goes on, to the

elaboration of walls of houses of a different grade, where stately

pageants are a part of the drama of daily life. But having shown that

certain rules are applicable to both, and indeed necessary to success

in both, we may choose within these rules any tint or colour which is

personally pleasing.

Rooms with an east or west light may carry successfully tones of any

shade, without violating fundamental laws.

The first impression of a room depends upon the walls. In fact, rooms

are good or bad, agreeable or ugly in exact accordance with the

wall-quality and treatment. No richness of floor-covering, draperies, or

furniture can minimise their influence.

Perhaps it is for this reason that the world is full of papers and other

devices for making walls agreeable; and we cannot wonder at this, when

we reflect that something of the kind is necessary to the aspect of the

room, and that each room effects for the individual exactly what the

outer walls of the house effect for the family, they give space for

personal privacy and for that reserve of the individual which is the

earliest effect of luxury and comfort.

It is certain that if walls are not made agreeable there is in them

something of restraint to the eye and the sense which is altogether

disagreeable. Apparent confinement within given limits, is, on the

whole, repugnant to either the natural or civilised man, and for this

reason we are constantly tempted to disguise the limit and to cover the

wall in such a way as shall interest and make us forget our bounds. In

this case, the idea of decoration is, to make the walls a barrier of

colour only, instead of hard, unyielding masonry; to take away the sense

of being shut in a box, and give instead freedom to thought and pleasure

to the sense.

It is the effect of shut-in-ness which the square and rigid walls of a

room give that makes drapery so effective and welcome, and which also

gives value to the practice of covering walls with silks or other

textiles. The softened surface takes away the sense of restraint. We

hang our walls with pictures, or cover them with textiles, or with paper

which carries design, or even colour them with

pigments--something--anything, which will disguise a restraining bound,

or make it masquerade as a luxury.

This effort or instinct has set in motion the machinery of the world. It

has created tapestries and brocades for castle and palace, and invented

cheap substitutes for these costly products, so that the smallest and

poorest house as well as the richest can cover its walls with something

pleasant to the eye and suggestive to the mind.

It is one of the privileges and opportunities of art to invent these

disguises; and to do it so thoroughly and successfully as to content us

with facts which would otherwise be disagreeable. And we do, by these

various devices, make our walls so hospitable to our thoughts that we

take positive and continual pleasure in them.

We do this chiefly, perhaps, by ministering to our instinctive love of

colour; which to many temperaments is like food to the hungry, and

satisfies as insistent a demand of the mind as food to the body.

At this late period of the world we are the inheritors of many methods

of wall disguise, from the primitive weavings or blanket coverings with

which nomadic peoples lined the walls of their tents, or the arras which

in later days covered the roughness and rudeness of the stone walls of

kings and barons, to the pictured tapestries of later centuries. This

latter achievement of art manufacture has outlived and far outweighed

the others in value, because it more perfectly performs the object of

its creation.

Tapestries, for the most part, offer us a semblance of nature, and cheat

us with a sense of unlimited horizon. The older tapestries give us, with

this, suggestions of human life and action in out-of-door scenes

sufficiently unrealistic to offer a vague dream of existence in fields

and forests. This effectually diverts our minds from the confinements of

space, and allows us the freedom of nature.

Probably the true secret of the never-failing appreciation of

tapestries--from the very beginning of their history until this day--is

this fact of their suggestiveness; since we find that damasks of silk or

velvet or other costly weavings, although far surpassing tapestries in

texture and concentration of colour, yet lacking their suggestiveness to

the mind, can never rival them in the estimation of the world.

Unhappily, we cannot count veritable tapestries as a modern recourse in

wall-treatment, since we are precluded from the use of genuine ones by

their scarcity and cost.

There is undoubtedly a peculiar richness and charm in a tapestry-hung

wall which no other wall covering can give; yet they are not entirely

appropriate to our time. They belong to the period of windy palaces and

enormous enclosures, and are fitted for pageants and ceremonies, and not

to our carefully plastered, wind-tight and narrow rooms. Their mission

to-day is to reproduce for us in museums and collections the life of

yesterday, so full of pomp and almost barbaric lack of domestic comfort.

In studios they are certainly appropriate and suggestive, but in

private houses except of the princely sort, it is far better to make

harmonies with the things of to-day.

Nevertheless if the soul craves tapestries let them be chosen for

intrinsic beauty and perfect preservation, instead of accepting the rags

of the past and trying to create with them a magnificence which must be

incomplete and shabby. Considering, as I do, that tapestries belong to

the life and conditions of the past, where the homeless many toiled for

the pampered few, and not to the homes of to-day where the man of

moderate means expects beauty in his home as confidently as if he were a

world ruler, I find it hardly necessary to include them in the list of

means of modern decoration, and indeed it is not necessary, since a

well-preserved tapestry of a good period, and of a famous manufacturer

or origin, is so costly a purchase that only our bounteous and

self-indulgent millionaires would venture to acquire one solely for

purposes of wall decoration. It would be purchased as a specimen of art

and not as furnishing.

Yet I know one instance of a library where a genuine old foliage

tapestry has been cut and fitted to the walls and between bookcases and

doors, where the wood of the room is in mahogany, and a great

chimney-piece of Caen stone of Richardson's designing fills nearly one

side of the room. Of course the tapestry is unapproachable in effect in

this particular place and with its surroundings. It has the richness and

softness of velvet, and the red of the mahogany doors and furniture

finds exactly its foil in the blue greens and soft browns of the web,

while the polished floor and velvety antique rugs bring all the richness

of the walls down to one's feet and to the hearth with its glow of

fire. But this particular room hardly makes an example for general

following. It is really a house of state, a house without children, one

in which public life predominates.

There is a very flagrant far-away imitation of tapestry which is so far

from being good that it is a wonder it has had even a moderate success,

imitation which does not even attempt the decorative effect of the

genuine, but substitutes upon an admirably woven cotton or woollen

canvas, figure panels, copied from modern French masters, and suggestive

of nothing but bad art. Yet these panels are sometimes used (and in fact

are produced for the purpose of being used) precisely as a genuine

tapestry would be, although the very fact of pretence in them, brings a

feeling of untruth, quite at variance with the principles of all good

art. The objection to pictures transferred to tapestries holds good,

even when the tapestries are genuine.

The great cartoons of Raphael, still to be seen in the Kensington

Museum, which were drawn and coloured for Flemish weavers to copy, show

a perfect adaptation to the medium of weaving, while the paintings in

the Vatican by the same great master are entirely inappropriate to

textile reproduction.

A picture cannot be transposed to different substance and purpose

without losing the qualities which make it valuable. The double effort

to be both a tapestry and a picture is futile, and brings into disrepute

a simple art of imitation which might become respectable if its

capabilities were rightly used.

No one familiar with collections of tapestries can fail to recognise the

largeness and simplicity of treatment peculiar to tapestry subjects as

contrasted with the elaboration of pictures.

If we grant that in this modern world of hurry, imitation of tapestries

is legitimate, the important question is, what are the best subjects,

and what is the best use for such imitations?

The best use is undoubtedly that of wall-covering; and that was, indeed,

the earliest object for which they were created. They were woven to

cover great empty spaces of unsightly masonry; and they are still

infinitely useful and beautiful in grand apartments whose barren spaces

are too large for modern pictures, and which need the disguise of a

suggestion of scenery or pictorial subject.

If tapestries must be painted, let them by all means follow the style of

the ancient verdure or foliage tapestries, and be used for the same

purpose--to cover an otherwise blank wall. This is legitimate, and even

beautiful, but it is painting, and should be frankly acknowledged to be

such, and no attempt made to have them masquerade as genuine and costly

weavings. It is simply and always painting, although in the style and

spirit of early tapestries. Productions of this sort, where real skill

in textile painting is used, are quite worthy of admiration and respect.

I remember seeing, in the Swedish exhibit of women's work in the Woman's

Building at the Columbian Exposition, a screen which had evidently been

copied from an old bit of verdure tapestry. At the base were

broad-leaved water-plants, each leaf carefully copied in blocks and

patches of colour, with even the effect of the little empty space--where

one thread passes to the back in weaving, to make room for one of

another colour brought forward--imitated by a dot of black to simulate

the tiny shadow-filled pen-point of a hole.

Now whether this was art or not I leave to French critics to decide, but

it was at least admirable imitation; and any one able to cover the wall

spaces between bookcases in a library with such imitation would find

them as richly set as if it were veritable tapestry.

This is a very different thing from a painted tapestry, perhaps enlarged

from a photograph or engraving of a painting the original of which the

tapestry-painter had never even seen--the destiny of which unfortunate

copy, changed in size, colour, and all the qualities which gave value to

the original, is probably to be hung as a picture in the centre of a

space of wall-paper totally antagonistic in colour.

When I see these things I long to curb the ambition of the unfortunate

tapestry-painter until a course of study has taught him or her the

proper use of a really useful process; for whether the object is to

produce a decoration or a simulated tapestry, it is not attained by

these methods.

The ordinary process of painting in dyes upon a wool or linen fabric

woven in tapestry method, and fixing the colour with heat, enables the

painter--if a true tapestry subject is chosen and tapestry effects

carefully studied--to produce really effective and good things, and this

opens a much larger field to the woman decorator than the ordinary

unstudied shams which have thrown what might become in time a large and

useful art-industry into neglect and disrepute.

I have seen the walls of a library hung with Siberian linen, stained in

landscape design in the old blues and greens which give tapestry its

decorative value, and found it a delightful wall-covering. Indeed we may

lay it down as a principle in decoration that while we may use and adapt

any decorative effect we must not attempt to make it pass for the

thing which suggested the effect.

Coarse and carefully woven linens, used as I have indicated, are really

far better than old tapestries for modern houses, because the design can

be adapted to the specific purpose and the texture itself can be easily

cleaned and is more appropriate to the close walls and less airy rooms

of this century.

For costly wall-decoration, leather is another of the substances which

have had a past of pomp and magnificence, and carries with it, in

addition to beauty, a suggestion of the art of a race. Spanish leather,

with its stamping and gilding, is quite as costly a wall covering as

antique or modern tapestry, and far more indestructible. Perhaps it is

needlessly durable as a mere vehicle for decoration. At all events

Japanese artists and artisans seem to be of this opinion, and have

transferred the same kind of decoration to heavy paper, where for some

occult reason--although strongly simulating leather--it seems not only

not objectionable, but even meritorious. This is because it simply

transfers an artistic method from a costly substance, to another which

is less so, and the fact may even have some weight that paper is a

product of human manufacture, instead of human appropriation of animal

life, for surely sentiment has its influence in decoration as in other


Wood panelling is also a form of interior treatment which has come to us

by inheritance from the past as well as by right of natural possession.

It has a richness and sober dignity of effect which commends it in large

or small interiors, in halls, libraries, and dining-rooms, whether they

are public or private; devoted to grand functions, or to the constantly

recurring uses of domesticity. Wood is so beautiful a substance in

itself, and lends itself to so many processes of ornamentation, that

hardly too much can be said of its appropriateness for interior

decoration. From the two extremes of plain pine panellings cut into

squares or parallelograms by machinery, and covered with paint in tints

to match door and window casings, to the most elaborate carvings which

back the Cathedral stalls or seats of ecclesiastical dignity, it is

always beautiful and generally appropriate in use and effect, and that

can hardly be said of any other substance. There are wainscotted rooms

in old houses in Newport, where, under the accumulated paint of one or

two centuries, great panels of old Spanish mahogany can still be found,

not much the worse for their long eclipse. Such rooms, in the original

brilliancy of colour and polish, with their parallel shadings of

mahogany-red reflecting back the firelight from tiled chimney-places and

scattering the play of dancing flame, must have had a beauty of colour

hard to match in this day of sober oak and painted wainscottings.

One of the lessons gained by experience in treatment of house interiors,

is that plain, flat tints give apparent size to small rooms, and that a

satisfying effect in large ones can be gained by variation of tint or

surface; also, that in a bedroom or other small room apparent size will

be gained by using a wall covering which is light rather than dark.

Some difference of tone there must be in large plain surfaces which lie

within the level of the eye; or the monotony of a room becomes

fatiguing. A plain, painted wall may, it is true, be broken by pictures,

or cabinets, or bits of china; anything in short which will throw parts

of it into shadow, and illumine other parts with gilded reflections; but

even then there will be long, plain spaces above the picture or cabinet

line, where blank monotony of tone will be fatal to the general effect

of the room.

It is in this upper space, upon a plain painted wall, that a broad line

of flat decoration should occur, but on a wall hung with paper or cloth,

it is by no means necessary.

Damasked cloths, where the design is shown by the direction of woven

threads, are particularly effective and satisfactory as wall-coverings.

The soft surface is luxurious to the imagination, and the play of light

and shadow upon the warp and woof interests the eye, although there is

no actual change of colour.

Too much stress can hardly be laid upon the variation of tone in

wall-surfaces, since the four walls stand for the atmosphere of a room.

Tone means quality of colour. It may be light or dark, or of any tint,

or variations of tint, but the quality of it must be soft and

charitable, instead of harsh and uncompromising.

Almost the best of modern inventions for inexpensive wall-coverings are

found in what are called the ingrain papers. These have a variable

surface, without reflections, and make not only a soft and impalpable

colour effect, but, on account of their want of reflection, are good

backgrounds for pictures.

In these papers the colour is produced by a mixture in the mass of

paper pulp of atoms of varying tint, which are combined in the substance

and make one general tint resulting from the mixture of several. In

canvases and textiles, which are a more expensive method of producing

almost the same mixed effect, the minute points of brilliance of threads

in light and darkness of threads in shadow, combine to produce softness

of tone, impossible to pigment because it has but one plain surface,

unrelieved by breaking up into light and shadow.

Variation, produced by minute differences, which affect each other and

which the eye blends into a general tone, produce quality. It is at the

same time soft and brilliant, and is really a popular adaptation of the

philosophy of impressionist painters, whose small dabs of pure colour

placed in close juxtaposition and fused into one tone by the eye, give

the purity and vibration of colour which distinguishes work of that


Some skilful painters can stipple one tone upon another so as to produce

the same brilliant softness of effect, and when this can be done,

oil-colour upon plaster is the best of all treatment for bedrooms since

it fulfils all the sanitary and other conditions so necessary in

sleeping-rooms. The same effect may be produced if the walls are of

rough instead of smooth plaster, so that the small inequalities of

surface give light and shadow as in textiles; upon such surfaces a

pleasant tint in flat colour is always good. Painted burlaps and certain

Japanese papers prepared with what may be called a textile or canvas

surface give the same effect, and indeed quality of tint and tone is far

more easily obtained in wall-coverings or applied materials than in

paint, because in most wall-coverings there are variations of tint

produced in the very substance of the material.

This matter of variation without contrast in wall-surface, is one of the

most important in house decoration, and has led to the increased use of

textiles in houses where artistic effects have been carefully studied

and are considered of importance.

Of course wall-paper must continue to be the chief means of

wall-covering, on account of its cheapness, and because it is the

readiest means of sheathing a plaster surface; and a continuous demand

for papers of good and nearly uniform colour, and the sort of

inconspicuous design which fits them for modest interiors will have the

effect of increasing the manufacture of desirable and artistic things.

In the meantime one should carefully avoid the violently coloured

papers which are made only to sell; materials which catch the eye of the

inexperienced and tempt them into the buying of things which are

productive of lasting unrest. It is in the nature of positive masses and

strongly contrasting colours to produce this effect.

If one is unfortunate enough to occupy a room of which the walls are

covered with one of these glaring designs, and circumstances prevent a

radical change, the simplest expedient is to cover the whole surface

with a kalsomine or chalk-wash, of some agreeable tint. This will dry in

an hour or two and present a nearly uniform surface, in which the

printed design of the paper, if it appears at all, will be a mere

suggestion. Papers where the design is carried in colour only a few

shades darker than the background, are also safe, and--if the design is

a good one--often very desirable for halls and dining-rooms. In

skilfully printed papers of the sort the design often has the effect of

a mere shadow-play of form.

Of course in the infinite varieties of use and the numberless variations

of personal taste, there are, and should be, innumerable differences in

application of both colour and materials to interiors. There are

differences in the use of rooms which may make a sense of perfect

seclusion desirable, as, for instance, in libraries, or rooms used

exclusively for evening gatherings of the family. In such semi-private

rooms the treatment should give a sense of close family life rather than

space, while in drawing-rooms it should be exactly the reverse, and this

effect is easily secured by competent use of colour.