Timeless Gems from Eastlake’s “Hints on Household Taste”

While 19th Century British author Charles Eastlake often gets a bad rap for being a pretentious, opinionated snob (and yes, that’s true to an extent), I found some charming little pieces in his classic Hints on Household Taste.  Opinionated he may be, but the man was a poet.

A little background on Eastlake — his book was wildly popular and had a significant influence on decorating, primarily 1870’s to 1890’s. But it didn’t really have the effect he intended. Ironically, “Eastlake style” pieces are in complete contradiction to the principles he espoused; while still better quality than most pieces today, Eastlake furniture was machine-carved, and Eastlake hardware mass-produced.

On making sure that all your household items, not just your “art,” are well-designed: “Real art has no recourse to such tricks as these. It can accommodate itself to the simplest and most practical shapes which the carpenter or potter has invented, as well as to the most delicate and subtle forms of refined manufacture.  There is not limit to the height of dignity which it can reach; there is no level of usefulness to which it will not stoop.”

“[T]he principles of good design are not confined to mere objects of luxury, but are applicable to every sort and condition of manufacture. Does not Nature herself teach this great truth? The tender plants which we cultivate in a greenhouse must once have grown wild somewhere. They may surpass the flowers of our English hedgerows in fulness [sic] of leaf or delicacy of hue, but the humblest daisy which springs on the hillside is really a work of high art, perfect after its kind, planned with a specific intention, and in direct accordance with one great scheme of grace and harmony.”

Why you shouldn’t buy anything just because it’s the latest and greatest, and the futility of slavishly following trends:
“I suppose by and by everybody will discover that everybody has bought it, and from that moment its value will be gone.”

On learning good taste — because it DOES have to be learned:
“The ‘pretty,’ in short, is too frequently held in higher estimation than the beautiful, and nothing but experience, based on a frequent inspection of good examples, with a general knowledge of, and reverence for, the principles of sound art, will teach people to value the importance of this distinction.”

On the beauty of handmade objects:
“But all these are defects of little moment in the eyes of an artist who recognizes the dexterity and cunning of the hands that moulded the clay and decorated its surface. He feels instinctively, and perhaps without reflecting why, that the imperfections of manual labor are preferable to the cold and expressionless accuracy which can be insured by the help of a machine.”

On old glassware:
“But to the eye of the artist the delicate gradations of natural color, the slight imperfections and streakiness of old glass, render it infinitely more attractive than a purity of texture which has nothing but its clearness to recommend it, and which can only be acquired by a sacrifice of more precious qualities.”

A very good philosophy:
“In the manufacture of porcelain, and all kinds of ceramic wares, rotundity is the prominent type of form, while furniture and cabinet-work are generally quadrangular in their main outline, the general treatment in each case being suggested by the character and properties of the raw material.  Whenever this condition is lost sight of, and the material is allowed to assume in design an appearance which is foreign to its own peculiar attributes, the result is invariable inartistic and vulgar. For instance, a glass or plaster column would convey an idea of weakness at once destructive of any sense of beauty which its mere form could inspire.  A carpet of which the pattern is shaded in imitation of natural objects becomes an absurdity when we remember that if it were really what it pretends to be, no one could walk on it with comfort.”

He would totally flip if he met a piece of pressboard furniture:”We ought to be ashamed of furniture which is continually being replaced. At all events, we cannot possibly take any interest in such furniture.”  AMEN, BROTHER EASTLAKE!

And again:
“But, unfortunately, our modern furniture does not become picturesque with time — it only grows shabby. The ladies like it best when it comes like a new toy from the shop, fresh with recent varnish and gilding. And they are right, for in this transient prettiness rests the single merit which it possesses.”

I like simple curtains best, too.
“The curtains . . . are made immoderately long, in order that they may looped up in clumsy folds over two large and eccentric-looking metal hooks on either side of the window. The result of this needless and ugly complication is that in a London house the curtains are seldom drawn; dust gathers thickly in their folds, the stuff is prematurely worn out, and comfort as well as artistic effect is sacrificed to meet an upholsterer’s notion of ‘elegance.'”

“Bad ornament was multiplied into vicious elaboration.”

This made me think of those ghastly, tasteless carpets that you see hanging up for sale in mall parking lots occasionally:
“The quasi-fidelity with which the forms of a rose, or a bunch of ribbons, or a ruined castle [or, today, lions and tigers — ugh] can be reproduced on carpets, crockery, and wallpapers will always possess a certain kind of charm for the uneducated eye, just as the mimicry of natural sounds in music, from the rolling of thunder to the cackling of poultry, will delight a vulgar ear. Both are ingenious, amusing, attractive for the moment, but neither lie within the legitimate province of art.”

“In all chromatic decoration, I need scarcely say that bright and violent hues en masse should be avoided.”

“[T]hat heterogeneous assemblage of modern rubbish which, under the head of ‘china ornaments’ and various other names, finds its way into the drawing-room or the boudoir.”

I am in complete agreement on his assessment of carpets. You should be, too, if you’ve ever pulled up a corner of your carpet and surveyed the filth underneath it.
“Carpets are now so universally used to cover every portion of the floors throughout an English house, that few people find themselves comfortable without one, yet there is no doubt that the old custom of laying down a bedside rug, and leaving the rest of the floor bare, was, especially in London houses, where dust accumulates so insidiously and rapidly, a healthier and more cleanly, as well as a more picturesque fashion, than that now in vogue.”

“No one wants a carpet in the nooks and corners of a room; and it is pleasant to feel that there, at all events, the floor can assert its independence.”

And finally, my favorite quotes:  Eastlake on the transience of fads.
“When did people first adopt the monstrous notion that the ‘last pattern out’ must be the best? Is good taste so rapidly progressive that every mug which leaves the potter’s hands surpasses in shape the last which he moulded?”

“While new, it is admired; when old, everybody will agree that it was always ‘hideous.'”

About Charity

I have an inexcusable number of cookbooks (and like to experiment with them), have worked in architectural antiques, and have been sewing most of my life. I recently graduated with a Ph.D. in Apparel, Merchandising, & Design from Iowa State University. Doing household things (except for cleaning!) and hunting for antiques are my favorite pastimes.
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