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    House Decoration

    by Oscar Wilde
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    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
    divorced.

    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
    workmanship.

    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.
    If you're writing a House Decoration essay and need some advice, post your Oscar Wilde essay question on our Facebook page where fellow bookworms are always glad to help!

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