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Authentic Color Schemes for VICTORIAN HOUSES
Comstock's Modern House Painting, 1883
By E.K. Rossiter, F.A. Wright
Dover Publications, Inc.Copyright © 2014 Dover Publications, Inc.
All rights reserved.
IN all departures from generally accepted standards, and in all innovations that embody anything of a startling nature, the radicals are the prime movers, and usually come to the front as the men of action, who inaugurate, and set in motion, the machinery designed to carry out the new idea. This, naturally, often results in extreme measures at first; but, afterwards there comes the inevitable conservative reaction which tends to moderation and temperance. That which the reform embodies of good is carefully garnered up, while that which is fanatical and meretricious is gradually sifted out and rejected. The final working out of the new ideas may be said to result in neither the one extreme of radical innovation, nor in the other of conservative inaction; but in the golden mean between the two, which is tolerance within reasonable and well defined limits.
Some such process as this is at the present time being worked out in architecture. The present architectural renaissance of the so-called Queen Anne, Free Classic, and English Domestic styles, represents an important movement in the right direction, which has all the characteristics of a true reform. The renaissance of the architectural styles prevalent over a century ago is marked by efforts of a new and original nature, resulting in elaborate complexity, and wild vagaries, not strictly warranted by ancient authority. The movement is now fairly inaugurated, with all its inconsistencies, absurdities, oddities, and extreme fanatical tendencies, brought prominently to the foreground, in full accordance with the general law we have noted. The reaction has not yet set in, but already have been heard the mutterings which presage its coming, in the protests entered here and there against some of the more especially indefensible examples, and in the growing tendency to reject features which will not adapt themselves to modern exigencies and practical requirements. Some of the good features of the new style—features that have stood the crucial test of adaptability and utility—have also been recognized by this time, and have been unhesitatingly adopted as among the architectural ideas that will live. There has grown up with the present style, as indeed an integral part of it, an ever inrceas-ing demand for and love of color. The broken surfaces and picturesque outlines of the modern Queen Anne country house offer many advantages for almost endless artistic color treatment, not possessed by former types, and it is very gratifying to find that this is seen and appreciated. This is in itself one of the most important of the good results of the revival. Color bears such an intimate relation to it that, at the risk of having it considered somewhat out of place, we cannot refrain from broadly analyzing the new style.
This is the more necessary because of the very widespread ignorance as to what is, and what is not, real Queen Anne work. Any piece of modern work in which some old and quaint effect has been introduced, or in which some ancient detail has been copied, has been unblushingly christened Queen Anne. The name has been made to do duty for classifying any departure from ordinary and well accepted standards. Not infrequently we see two buildings whose characteristic features are diametrically opposed, classed as Queen Anne, when the truth is that neither of them partakes in any degree of what can strictly speaking be so designated. Modern Queen Anne, or Free Classic, is based upon English examples of domestic buildings erected during the reigns of William and Mary, Queen Anne, and the first two Georges, and also upon buildings of a later date of a nondescript character, which resulted from an exceedingly lively effort of an eclectic school of designers to break away from English Domestic Gothic. Drawing its features from so many sources, it is not easy to clearly define them. Generally speaking, however, they are such as result from the application of classical details to Gothic forms and mediæval principles of construction. The general form and arrangement of these buildings was after the Gothic manner: i.e. they were designed from the inside; the plan was the first consideration, and was made to meet the practical requirements of the times, while the exterior was left in a great measure to take care of and adapt itself to the plan. Breaking away from the bad precedents established by the Renaissance, especially the practice of subordinating the convenience of plan and interior effects to the requirements of a classical exterior, symmetry began to be considered as no longer the all essential characteristic of good architecture. Picturesqueness was aimed at and, while the claims of convenience and utility may have been often sacrificed to whims and quaint conceits, yet, in general the result was an advance beyond the elaborate baldness of the Palladian class of renaissance buildings which were at one time becoming very numerous. The new school of designers was, and is now, eclectic, claiming the right to use the special features and details of any and every style, which can be bent to harmonize with the requirements of their buildings. The tendency is to substitute for the heavy and clumsy Gothic detail, the more delicate, graceful, and refined features which characterize the renaissance of the Grecian and Roman styles. There are strictly speaking but two great styles of architecture, the underlying principles of which are based upon the construction. One is the classical style, based upon the lintel as its chief constructive feature, and the other the mediaeval Gothic in which the arch is used to span openings. Modern styles are chiefly the result of a compromise between these two great systems. They are transitions from one to the other in which characteristic features of both are blended.
The prototypes of the present style in England were generally executed in brick or stone, and for real Queen Anne these are the materials required. Our country houses are for the most part of wood, and in working out the problem of keeping to the essential features of the style while the material is different, many modifications of old, and new features have resulted. Colonial architecture affords many examples in wood which take the place of brick prototypes. The differences between colonial work and contemporaneous Queen Anne are such as arise chiefly from their being worked out in different materials. In the better class of Colonial houses these differences are more marked. In some of these examples the symmetrical planning is evident, and they partake of the classical idea more than of the Gothic. They are very valuable for the detail which they contain, and much of the best in modern work is drawn from this source.
Modern Queen Anne, using the term to cover in a general way all the present reigning styles, is founded upon these various examples in our own land and abroad, and thus partakes of the characteristics of many local styles. In its better phases, however, it is very different from its prototypes, being marked by greater freedom of treatment, and being broken up more in outline and form. The detail has also undergone considerable change. Greater refinement, richness, and delicacy of expression, has been attempted, than in the old examples, and the result is, perhaps, a more harmonious whole. A modern style must reflect modern tastes and modern ways of life, and it must fail where it attempts to copy the old without regard to adaptability or fitness. It is in this respect that the extreme of unreasonable fanaticism is reached.
Modern styles cover a wider range, and embrace a larger school of purely eclectic designers than ever before. They have not yet crystalized into any very definite forms. They are respectively called Queen Anne, English Domestic, Colonial, or Free Classic, as the different supposed characteristics of these various styles are thought to pro-dominate, but they all elude any definite architectural analysis. Things are in a state of transition, for the most part. Buildings that are recognizably definable in any distinct style are rare. It is, perhaps, well that it should be so. There is no good reason why we should not learn all that we can from the past, and recall from oblivion all that is good and adaptable to modern life. This is what is now taking place, and it cannot be denied that our houses are, in consequence, gradually assuming a more homelike and picturesque character much to be preferred to the manufactured style so monotonously prevalent at one period.
If for nothing else, let us be thankful for the opportunity offered for better color treatment. Exterior house decoration has been obliged to keep pace with the new ideas, and effects which do not admit of commonplaceness in coloration. The old puritanical hatred of color, which found its natural outcome in white houses with green blinds, has had to give way; at first, to a compromise, in which neutral and sickly drab tints played a prominent part and, later, to more advanced notions, in which the more positive colors find a chance of expression. The old rule, which only allowed two colors to be used on the exterior of a house, one for body color and the other, a shade darker, for the trimmings and blinds, is undergoing modification, and numerous exceptions are being taken to it. The present style of architecture does not oblige its enforcement, but rather tempts to the use of more colors and a diversified treatment. Where the lines and surfaces are so much broken up as they are now, the old ideas are, indeed, out of place, and cannot rigorously apply. The use of shingles for covering wall spaces, exterior paneling, and the treatment of gables, offer many advantages for coloring never given before. But behind the opportunities thus afforded lies an awakened love for color itself, the sense of which has only lain dormant. Much has been written that has tended to stifle this sense. Real positive colors have been thought to be inharmonious with the quiet and subdued tones of northern landscape, and hence condemned. Cold, grey, neutral tints and light drabs have been urged as the only kind of colors that go well with surrounding landscape. The result has been that violence has been done to nature by glaring effects and contrasts that are hideous. There is no good reason why a house, no matter what its surroundings, should not be gratifying to one's sense of color. It is well that a certain fitness of things should obtain, but this is not incompatible with the use of as much real color as individual taste may desire. Positive colors, if not too harsh, but mellowed and softened down in hue, or dulled in tone, will be found to harmonize with natural objects as well as anything distinctly artificial can, or ought.
There are a great many attempts of the new school, which, in coloring and combination of colors, are miserable in the extreme. This is only natural, and to be looked for. Yet already, notwithstanding repeated failures and absurdities, good is being felt, and we find that real progress has been made, such that at no distant day we are lead to believe that our villages and towns will be dotted with attractively painted houses—houses which are gratifying to our sense of color, and which will always convey a certain pleasure when looked at.
There seems to be an earnest desire on the part of the people at large to fall in with the new ideas, and improve the coloring of their homes. This is noticeable in the widespread inquiry in relation to new methods of house decoration, and the reception accorded every publication on the subject. The few isolated examples of particolored painting in some of the seaboard towns, that a few years ago were looked upon as startling innovations, are no longer considered as such, and people are now, with more or less success, engaged in copying what has been done, or in trying to get something of like character. Many who want to do what will be considered in good taste are puzzled to know what colors to use, and how to direct their painter so as to give him a tolerably clear idea of what they want. For all such our colored plates will, perchance, be found of use. It is believed that there is a demand for a book of this kind, and that even if the results set forth by the plates may not be exactly what each individual reader would choose, it will be of benefit to both the painter and the house owner as a partial guide. It is put forth, not as containing things which should be directly imitated, but as pointing out some of the methods of the new school, and as illustrating, as well as the art of chromo-lithography will permit, some of the newer ways in which a house may be decorated.
It may be well to note that the colors obtained after the plates had passed through the hands of the printer, varied considerably from the original designs, and in few cases are they just what the authors had in particular view. The difficulties in the way of getting the colors right in the printing are as great as getting the colors right on the house. Even with the colors placed before his eyes, the printer as well as the painter often fails to match the desired tones. The results, however, are sufficiently near the originals to convey the meaning intended, and will answer, at any rate, as practical suggestions to all who choose to avail themselves of them.CHAPTER 2
THE limit and scope of this work forbid any extended treatment of the subject of color, a subject, be it said, that has suffered too much already from incompetent handling to be lightly undertaken. Those of our readers who expect to find lists comprising all the various scales of color, giving definite information as to what particular color should be used to harmonize with this or that shade, and telling just what combinations are allowable, and just what are to be condemned, will, therefore, be disappointed. Something of this sort will be attempted in outline, but it is not intended to lay down definite rules for the guidance of the novice; such rules would be apt to prove as confusing as they are sometimes misleading, for the subject does not admit of exact prescription. It is best that the element of individual taste should have plenty of room for exercise, governed only by that sense of the fitness of things which limits all originality and prevents violence being done to well accepted canons. We are more concerned that the results themselves should be plainly set forth, with simple explanation of the means and a few of the underlying principles, than that a treatise should be presented with complex investigation as to why certain combinations are pleasing, and what are the scientific relations of one color to another.
We are far from asserting, however, that study in this direction is useless. It has undoubted value in determining many points, but it can never quite supply the lack of a natural taste, or "good eye for color." An investigation of this kind, leading to formulas applicable to every case, may prove of benefit in educating the taste to a certain extent; but, after all, it is the fine, innate perception of color, conceived without reference to any particular rule that reaches the most satisfactory results. The great difficulty in the way of furnishing a formal set of rules that will be of value lies in the fact that no two persons have precisely the same idea of the same color, and that there is no absolute standard to which appeal can be conveniently taken. The variations of hue, tint and shade are indefinite for each color and all its combinations. How difficult, then, must it be to satisfactorily write an alphabet of color, that will enable the uncultivated eye to grow into a knowledge of the fullness and richness of the language!
It is just as difficult to deal with the practical side of the question as it is with the theoretical. A rule prescribing the various quantities of pigments that enter into the composition of a given tone, must, of necessity, presuppose pure materials; but pure materials are not to be uniformly obtained. In fact, they are the exception and not the rule. Perhaps, four times out of five, the material will be highly adulterated, and a formula for mixing, which is based on the pure article, would, of course, give far different results with adulterated pigments. The proportions must be altered to suit the special impurity, and nothing but a trained eye to perceive the right degree and intensity of the color sought will answer. For these reasons, it will, perhaps, be better for us not to attempt what, from the nature of the case, must lead to uncertain results; but to confine ourselves to a discussion of general principles, pointing out the path that leads in the right direction, trusting to the general good taste of the individual reader to follow it to good advantage. At the outset, it may be well to glance at the generally accepted classification of colors, with incidental comment and definition.
Excerpted from Authentic Color Schemes for VICTORIAN HOUSES by E.K. Rossiter, F.A. Wright. Copyright © 2014 Dover Publications, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
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