House Decoration by Oscar Wilde
IN my last lecture I gave you something of the history of Art in
England. I sought to trace the influence of the French Revolution
upon its development. I said something of the song of Keats and
the school of the pre-Raphaelites. But I do not want to shelter
the movement, which I have called the English Renaissance, under
any palladium however noble, or any name however revered. The
roots of it have, indeed, to be sought for in things that have long
passed away, and not, as some suppose, in the fancy of a few young
men - although I am not altogether sure that there is anything much
better than the fancy of a few young men.

When I appeared before you on a previous occasion, I had seen
nothing of American art save the Doric columns and Corinthian
chimney-pots visible on your Broadway and Fifth Avenue. Since
then, I have been through your country to some fifty or sixty
different cities, I think. I find that what your people need is
not so much high imaginative art but that which hallows the vessels
of everyday use. I suppose that the poet will sing and the artist
will paint regardless whether the world praises or blames. He has
his own world and is independent of his fellow-men. But the
handicraftsman is dependent on your pleasure and opinion. He needs
your encouragement and he must have beautiful surroundings. Your
people love art but do not sufficiently honour the handicraftsman.
Of course, those millionaires who can pillage Europe for their
pleasure need have no care to encourage such; but I speak for those
whose desire for beautiful things is larger than their means. I
find that one great trouble all over is that your workmen are not
given to noble designs. You cannot be indifferent to this, because
Art is not something which you can take or leave. It is a
necessity of human life.

And what is the meaning of this beautiful decoration which we call
art? In the first place, it means value to the workman and it
means the pleasure which he must necessarily take in making a
beautiful thing. The mark of all good art is not that the thing
done is done exactly or finely, for machinery may do as much, but
that it is worked out with the head and the workman's heart. I
cannot impress the point too frequently that beautiful and rational
designs are necessary in all work. I did not imagine, until I went
into some of your simpler cities, that there was so much bad work
done. I found, where I went, bad wall-papers horribly designed,
and coloured carpets, and that old offender the horse-hair sofa,
whose stolid look of indifference is always so depressing. I found
meaningless chandeliers and machine-made furniture, generally of
rosewood, which creaked dismally under the weight of the ubiquitous
interviewer. I came across the small iron stove which they always
persist in decorating with machine-made ornaments, and which is as
great a bore as a wet day or any other particularly dreadful
institution. When unusual extravagance was indulged in, it was
garnished with two funeral urns.

It must always be remembered that what is well and carefully made
by an honest workman, after a rational design, increases in beauty
and value as the years go on. The old furniture brought over by
the Pilgrims, two hundred years ago, which I saw in New England, is
just as good and as beautiful to-day as it was when it first came
here. Now, what you must do is to bring artists and handicraftsmen
together. Handicraftsmen cannot live, certainly cannot thrive,
without such companionship. Separate these two and you rob art of
all spiritual motive.

Having done this, you must place your workman in the midst of
beautiful surroundings. The artist is not dependent on the visible
and the tangible. He has his visions and his dreams to feed on.
But the workman must see lovely forms as he goes to his work in the
morning and returns at eventide. And, in connection with this, I
want to assure you that noble and beautiful designs are never the
result of idle fancy or purposeless day-dreaming. They come only
as the accumulation of habits of long and delightful observation.
And yet such things may not be taught. Right ideas concerning them
can certainly be obtained only by those who have been accustomed to
rooms that are beautiful and colours that are satisfying.

Perhaps one of the most difficult things for us to do is to choose
a notable and joyous dress for men. There would be more joy in
life if we were to accustom ourselves to use all the beautiful
colours we can in fashioning our own clothes. The dress of the
future, I think, will use drapery to a great extent and will abound
with joyous colour. At present we have lost all nobility of dress
and, in doing so, have almost annihilated the modern sculptor.
And, in looking around at the figures which adorn our parks, one
could almost wish that we had completely killed the noble art. To
see the frock-coat of the drawing-room done in bronze, or the
double waistcoat perpetuated in marble, adds a new horror to death.
But indeed, in looking through the history of costume, seeking an
answer to the questions we have propounded, there is little that is
either beautiful or appropriate. One of the earliest forms is the
Greek drapery which is exquisite for young girls. And then, I
think we may be pardoned a little enthusiasm over the dress of the
time of Charles I., so beautiful indeed, that in spite of its
invention being with the Cavaliers it was copied by the Puritans.
And the dress for the children of that time must not be passed
over. It was a very golden age of the little ones. I do not think
that they have ever looked so lovely as they do in the pictures of
that time. The dress of the last century in England is also
peculiarly gracious and graceful. There is nothing bizarre or
strange about it, but it is full of harmony and beauty. In these
days, when we have suffered dreadfully from the incursions of the
modern milliner, we hear ladies boast that they do not wear a dress
more than once. In the old days, when the dresses were decorated
with beautiful designs and worked with exquisite embroidery, ladies
rather took a pride in bringing out the garment and wearing it many
times and handing it down to their daughters - a process that
would, I think, be quite appreciated by a modern husband when
called upon to settle his wife's bills.

And how shall men dress? Men say that they do not particularly
care how they dress, and that it is little matter. I am bound to
reply that I do not think that you do. In all my journeys through
the country, the only well-dressed men that I saw - and in saying
this I earnestly deprecate the polished indignation of your Fifth
Avenue dandies - were the Western miners. Their wide-brimmed hats,
which shaded their faces from the sun and protected them from the
rain, and the cloak, which is by far the most beautiful piece of
drapery ever invented, may well be dwelt on with admiration. Their
high boots, too, were sensible and practical. They wore only what
was comfortable, and therefore beautiful. As I looked at them I
could not help thinking with regret of the time when these
picturesque miners would have made their fortunes and would go East
to assume again all the abominations of modern fashionable attire.
Indeed, so concerned was I that I made some of them promise that
when they again appeared in the more crowded scenes of Eastern
civilisation they would still continue to wear their lovely
costume. But I do not believe they will.

Now, what America wants to-day is a school of rational art. Bad
art is a great deal worse than no art at all. You must show your
workmen specimens of good work so that they come to know what is
simple and true and beautiful. To that end I would have you have a
museum attached to these schools - not one of those dreadful modern
institutions where there is a stuffed and very dusty giraffe, and a
case or two of fossils, but a place where there are gathered
examples of art decoration from various periods and countries.
Such a place is the South Kensington Museum in London, whereon we
build greater hopes for the future than on any other one thing.
There I go every Saturday night, when the museum is open later than
usual, to see the handicraftsman, the wood-worker, the glass-blower
and the worker in metals. And it is here that the man of
refinement and culture comes face to face with the workman who
ministers to his joy. He comes to know more of the nobility of the
workman, and the workman, feeling the appreciation, comes to know
more of the nobility of his work.

You have too many white walls. More colour is wanted. You should
have such men as Whistler among you to teach you the beauty and joy
of colour. Take Mr. Whistler's 'Symphony in White,' which you no
doubt have imagined to be something quite bizarre. It is nothing
of the sort. Think of a cool grey sky flecked here and there with
white clouds, a grey ocean and three wonderfully beautiful figures
robed in white, leaning over the water and dropping white flowers
from their fingers. Here is no extensive intellectual scheme to
trouble you, and no metaphysics of which we have had quite enough
in art. But if the simple and unaided colour strike the right
keynote, the whole conception is made clear. I regard Mr.
Whistler's famous Peacock Room as the finest thing in colour and
art decoration which the world has known since Correggio painted
that wonderful room in Italy where the little children are dancing
on the walls. Mr. Whistler finished another room just before I
came away - a breakfast room in blue and yellow. The ceiling was a
light blue, the cabinet-work and the furniture were of a yellow
wood, the curtains at the windows were white and worked in yellow,
and when the table was set for breakfast with dainty blue china
nothing can be conceived at once so simple and so joyous.

The fault which I have observed in most of your rooms is that there
is apparent no definite scheme of colour. Everything is not
attuned to a key-note as it should be. The apartments are crowded
with pretty things which have no relation to one another. Again,
your artists must decorate what is more simply useful. In your art
schools I found no attempt to decorate such things as the vessels
for water. I know of nothing uglier than the ordinary jug or
pitcher. A museum could be filled with the different kinds of
water vessels which are used in hot countries. Yet we continue to
submit to the depressing jug with the handle all on one side. I do
not see the wisdom of decorating dinner-plates with sunsets and
soup-plates with moonlight scenes. I do not think it adds anything
to the pleasure of the canvas-back duck to take it out of such
glories. Besides, we do not want a soup-plate whose bottom seems
to vanish in the distance. One feels neither safe nor comfortable
under such conditions. In fact, I did not find in the art schools
of the country that the difference was explained between decorative
and imaginative art.

The conditions of art should be simple. A great deal more depends
upon the heart than upon the head. Appreciation of art is not
secured by any elaborate scheme of learning. Art requires a good
healthy atmosphere. The motives for art are still around about us
as they were round about the ancients. And the subjects are also
easily found by the earnest sculptor and the painter. Nothing is
more picturesque and graceful than a man at work. The artist who
goes to the children's playground, watches them at their sport and
sees the boy stoop to tie his shoe, will find the same themes that
engaged the attention of the ancient Greeks, and such observation
and the illustrations which follow will do much to correct that
foolish impression that mental and physical beauty are always

To you, more than perhaps to any other country, has Nature been
generous in furnishing material for art workers to work in. You
have marble quarries where the stone is more beautiful in colour
than any the Greeks ever had for their beautiful work, and yet day
after day I am confronted with the great building of some stupid
man who has used the beautiful material as if it were not precious
almost beyond speech. Marble should not be used save by noble
workmen. There is nothing which gave me a greater sense of
barrenness in travelling through the country than the entire
absence of wood carving on your houses. Wood carving is the
simplest of the decorative arts. In Switzerland the little
barefooted boy beautifies the porch of his father's house with
examples of skill in this direction. Why should not American boys
do a great deal more and better than Swiss boys?

There is nothing to my mind more coarse in conception and more
vulgar in execution than modern jewellery. This is something that
can easily be corrected. Something better should be made out of
the beautiful gold which is stored up in your mountain hollows and
strewn along your river beds. When I was at Leadville and
reflected that all the shining silver that I saw coming from the
mines would be made into ugly dollars, it made me sad. It should
be made into something more permanent. The golden gates at
Florence are as beautiful to-day as when Michael Angelo saw them.

We should see more of the workman than we do. We should not be
content to have the salesman stand between us - the salesman who
knows nothing of what he is selling save that he is charging a
great deal too much for it. And watching the workman will teach
that most important lesson - the nobility of all rational

I said in my last lecture that art would create a new brotherhood
among men by furnishing a universal language. I said that under
its beneficent influences war might pass away. Thinking this, what
place can I ascribe to art in our education? If children grow up
among all fair and lovely things, they will grow to love beauty and
detest ugliness before they know the reason why. If you go into a
house where everything is coarse, you find things chipped and
broken and unsightly. Nobody exercises any care. If everything is
dainty and delicate, gentleness and refinement of manner are
unconsciously acquired. When I was in San Francisco I used to
visit the Chinese Quarter frequently. There I used to watch a
great hulking Chinese workman at his task of digging, and used to
see him every day drink his tea from a little cup as delicate in
texture as the petal of a flower, whereas in all the grand hotels
of the land, where thousands of dollars have been lavished on great
gilt mirrors and gaudy columns, I have been given my coffee or my
chocolate in cups an inch and a quarter thick. I think I have
deserved something nicer.

The art systems of the past have been devised by philosophers who
looked upon human beings as obstructions. They have tried to
educate boys' minds before they had any. How much better it would
be in these early years to teach children to use their hands in the
rational service of mankind. I would have a workshop attached to
every school, and one hour a day given up to the teaching of simple
decorative arts. It would be a golden hour to the children. And
you would soon raise up a race of handicraftsmen who would
transform the face of your country. I have seen only one such
school in the United States, and this was in Philadelphia and was
founded by my friend Mr. Leyland. I stopped there yesterday and
have brought some of the work here this afternoon to show you.
Here are two disks of beaten brass: the designs on them are
beautiful, the workmanship is simple, and the entire result is
satisfactory. The work was done by a little boy twelve years old.
This is a wooden bowl decorated by a little girl of thirteen. The
design is lovely and the colouring delicate and pretty. Here you
see a piece of beautiful wood carving accomplished by a little boy
of nine. In such work as this, children learn sincerity in art.
They learn to abhor the liar in art - the man who paints wood to
look like iron, or iron to look like stone. It is a practical
school of morals. No better way is there to learn to love Nature
than to understand Art. It dignifies every flower of the field.
And, the boy who sees the thing of beauty which a bird on the wing
becomes when transferred to wood or canvas will probably not throw
the customary stone. What we want is something spiritual added to
life. Nothing is so ignoble that Art cannot sanctify it.
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