Xxxvi

IT is the bric-à-brac, the curious trifles, the movable ornaments and gewgaws used for filling up the picture, for giving an enhanced brilliancy, and creating interest — the things that "notable housewives" call trash and trumpery—that have about as much to do with the impression a room conveys as the heavier articles and their arrangement do. Indeed, a few moments' observation in the drawing-room of any family will usually give much information concerning the grade of that family's culture by nothing more than the character of the bric-à-brac to be seen there.

To be sure, people of moderate means must take their ornaments as they can get them — this an heirloom to be preserved with pride, if not with admiration ; that a gift, and to be treated with honor, whether desired or not, although too frequently purchased with reference only to the giver's eye, and without thought of its future surroundings—so that they are by no means responsible for the whole burden of their bric-àrbrac. Yet almost every one can now and then find some small but characteristic treasure within reach, and that single characteristic thing, given due prominence, may be the one righteous individual of a perfect Sodom of worthless baubles. The absence of all trifles, though, is as betraying as the presence of inferior articles is, for if there is any evidence of much free expenditure elsewhere in the room, it is apt to show that articles sought for by the vulgar are in more esteem than those where sometimes one looks for beauty twice before finding it ; and yet just as tale-telling is the presence of a multitude of the smaller affairs that have no especial value, for they declare a too eager love of acquisition and a less fastidious taste than full purse. The mere shape 'of a lamp shows whether people buy what their neighbors buy, or have any individual taste of their own to exercise, or give a thought to the matter of educating what we may call the aesthetic senses.

It is not for what they tell of us to outsiders, though, that we want our pretty trifles ; they answer a requirement of our own, and give us a gratification that renews itself every time we look at ihem—not that of possession merely, but food for the appetite, given by the lovely outlines, the pure colore, and the precious histories drawn out of the past by the little thread they hold. Who can take up an ornament of old green-crusted bronze, dug from the earth that has covered it for two thousand years, without wondering to what purpose lived and died a people so perfect in the arts, and losing one's self in the problems of creation aud the economies of the universe ? Who can see a broken drinking-cup of glass, whose long decay and disintegration have coated it with richer dyes than the opal's, without wondering what bearded lips of mighty heroes last it kissed ? Who can see a worn and blackened ring of Egyptian gold without thinking of the romance of two lovers that it bound in its magic circle, whose very dust no longer blows about the earth ? And in the more modern articles, where no such story clings, who can take up the bronze bird poised lightly on his bending wheat-ear, or the china cup with its wreaths of blossoms, without bringing sunshine and all out-doors within the four walls of the house ?

It is true that bric-à-brac costs money, and vastly more, in proportion, than the larger, more solid, and what the majority of the world considère the more indispensable, furniture, although there are some people so fond of the pride of the eye that they quite agree with the worthy economist who was willing to forego the necessaries of life if he could only have the luxuries, and will revel over the bit of wonderful bronze or curious china while they sit in a deal chair to enjoy it. But it may be that those people, in their turn, have a defect of taste in not demanding fit surroundings for their bit of china, and in enjoying beauty as a mere detail without requiring it as a whole.

It is these details, however, that go very far toward securing beauty as a whole ; they supply a lack here, and give the dash of opposite or of continuing color just where it is needed, draw attention to a point there by adding the bit of lustre that brings a surface out of the gloom, and they engraft a life and vivacity upon what would frequently be but a dead dulness without them. In order to do this they do not need to be of the most costly description. If the little wooden bracket is cut upon artistic principles, it answers the purpose of general effect nearly as well as if Grinling Gibbons had carved it, although, of course, infinitely more desirable if informed with genius ; and if it upholds a statuette whose subject is fine and treated with spirit, it is no matter whether that statuette be a copy or an original. Nor, indeed, does the material of the statuette or bust signify so much as we are accustomed to consider that it should ; for if the work is good and the copy faithful, almost as much can be gained in the appearance of the room and in the personal pleasure of outline and proportion from a choice plaster cast that the master has superintended as

from the real bronze; and in the unconscious action of the mind the owner gathers satisfaction from the knowledge of what is intended if not reached, and the beholder from perception of an atmosphere of thought and fancy where such a selection of subject is made. We do not, however, mean that any plaster cast can ever equal the perfection of the original, the sharp precision of the.bronze, the transfigured splendor of the marble, but only to assert that the one will answer where the other cannot be had ; and where the more precious materials are quite beyond one's power, that by careful search and by keeping on the lookout for them, very nice things in the plaster or the inferior metal composition will be found, and will give great contentment ; for it is surprising how things of the sort turn up the moment we really begin to look for them. But one or two small bits of real bronze are hardly out of the reach of anybody who has a drawing-room to furnish at all; exquisite things in it are to be had in the San Francisco markets at small prices—inkstands of quaint and ingenious device, paper-weights, knives, Oriental gods; and many curious oddities are brought home, and can be had of those engaged in the East India and China trade.

Nor need we despise a little of our grandmother's old china because it is not Sèvres, or Capo-di-Monte, or Raffaelle ware. It is usually better than anything we are likely to be able to buy, if our incomes are at all circumscribed ; and one of her best platters on the top of the cabinet will add a note to the chord we are trying to strike ; one of her bowls, with its roses and butterflies, on a wall bracket beneath, will take up and carry down the flowers of the water-color that hangs above, and correct the spotty look such little pictures sometimes give. It is not uncommon now to find these odd pieces of china for sale with the dealers in old furniture in our large country towns; and if one takes pains to secure information from books or actual examples, one can sometimes bring that information to bear, and secure a piece of something really valuable. For our ancestresses, even in this country, did not so value the contents of their china closets for nothing ; many of them, indeed, in tolerably comfortable circumstances at home, before they came here with their ambitious or restless husbands, and with relatives there to send them what they wished, brought out with them, or received afterward, as their proper equipage of house-keeping, china which then was valuable and now is invaluable. We have ourselves seen many precious pieces for sale for a mere song in the hands of these old dealers, who, with a general idea of what they can " make a trade on," travel round the country and inspect the contents of one farmer's house after another, and collect such available material as will be parted with by the wives, who, although they hold this or that thing as their last link with an ancient gentility, now need tho money enough to be tempted by it. Perhaps it is not faience de Rouen, or Rennes, or Strasburg, or any of the priceless Italian majolicas; but it is not unlikely that it should be a bit of genuine Delft, and not absolutely impossible that it should be the early Bow, with the bee beneath the handle, or the Chelsea, its last owners utterly ignorant of its value; for in those later colonial days it was Oriental china that met the fashionable mania under royal patronage, and china of English and Dutch manufacture was used in whole sets upon the breakfast-table, a single piece of which we are now proud to have in our cabinet.

It is not to be denied that every woman loves china, and every man knows it, and perhaps in the depths of his inner consciousness loves it himself. It certainly supplies a more feminine grace to the drawing-room if there is some treasure of it there. Addison said, more than a hundred and fifty years ago, that there was no inclination of women that more surprised him than this passion for china. " When a woman is visited with it," said he, " it generally takes possession of her for life. China vessels are playthings for women of all ages. An old lady of fourscore shall be as busy in cleaning an Indian mandarin as her great-granddaughter is in dressing her baby." The great writer forgot that there might be some real excellence in an article.a passion for which takes possession of one for life. But women are not alone in the matter, for men have been the most famous collectors and writers on the theme, and of Horace Walpole it was said:

" China's the passion of his soul; A cup, a plate, a dish, a bowl, Can kindle wishes in his breast, Inflame with joy, or break his rest."

There must be reason for such a passion, and it would not be amiss for every lady to inform herself thoroughly concerning its object—a part of it, to be sure, being due to the influence of a fashion, but a greater part to the sealing of fine shape and color under this almost indestructible glaze, so that a flower painted and fired on china is beauty made imperishable, as a diamond is a drop of dew eternalized. We say imperishable, meaning, of course, under proper treatment; for a thing which can almost defy the elements is at the mercy of a child's fingers, and that sort of fragility acquires value through the very action of the care we take of it. Those who laugh at the love of china have the laugh against them, for they only expose their ignorance. It is impossible that men should spend their lives, and kings their treasure, in securing a certain glaze to a certain kind of porcelain unless it is worth doing, unless it is a victory wrung from raw material and crude nature; and not only has this been the case, but as fine genius and accomplished art have been expended on the production of china as on gems and marbles, gold and silver. A Palissy mug, with its embedded shells, its raised reptiles, insects, flowers, and leaves, is a work of high art, although utterly out of our reach; a Henri Deux pitcher, with the amber glaze over its inlaid ornaments, and its rosy reliefs of masks and garlands; pieces of Sevres, with their tints of bleu du roi, jonquille, vert pre, and rose du Barri, with their paintings by Watteau, and their incrusted gems; Dresden candelabra, whose life-like figures are in fact statuettes, and where the detail, in its rich and delicate colors, is so perfect that the lace, for instance, imitated there (an intricate piece of point de Yenise or a delicate gossamer of Brussels) is said to be secured by pressing the real lace into the clay—a story, perhaps, no truer than the corresponding one that the excellence of certain Chinese porcelain is secured by dropping a young child into the furnace; a Wedgwood copy of the Portland Yase, with its classic white cameos upon the blue ground; a plate of Luca della Robbia's majolica, with its Cupids and wreaths and fruit and ivory enamel; or of Fontana's, with its designs from Raffaelle, for which Louis XIY. offered the counterparts in gold: these are each and all just as pure and fine works of art in their way as the sculptures of Ghiberti, the old enamels of Limousin, the golden vases and coins and jewel-work of Cellini, although the latter are all more keenly and generally appreciated, in the one case, perhaps, for size, and in the other for native value of material. It is better to strive to reach such things by an imitation than not to care for them at all; and as we cannot comfortably use the big sculptures in the drawing-room, and the chinas or their imitations remain at command, we may be thankful that the latter are much the more decorative. The majolica, indeed, is a peculiarly interesting product of art, for its ornamentation requires singular facility and talent: the vessel of common terra-cotta, fashioned on the wheel and burned, then dipped into a paste whose moisture its porous substance absorbs, leaving a soft and exceedingly tender coating on the surface, is painted in enamel colors by artists who know that every line must tell and be complete at one stroke, that no erasure can be made, and that even to delay with a lingering brush one instant is to cause a ruinous suffusion of color; the vessel is then enclosed in another of the same clay, and again cast into the flames, out of which at last it arises glorified.

It is idle to suppose that this genius, this care, this labor, this money, are wasted. For those who can see it, they bring the beauty of the world into the house fortunate enough to have the result. But it is a beauty that is unattainable by most of us, for not even money can purchase it, bric-A-brac.

princes and collectors and museums having monopolized the genuine existing specimens; and the many must content themselves with imitations, with counterfeits, with modern reproductions of the old, and with inferior productions of the present. Yet neither Dresden nor Sevres, in small articles, is impossible to the average person who really desires it, and is willing to forego some other luxury in order to have it; bits of real majolica are not very expensive; and plates of the lovely Doulton-ware, painted after designs by some of the best living designers, and which, made in all its beauty, as it is, of the common drain-pipe stuff at one firing, reminds us of nothing so much as of Swedenborg's Beauty from Ashes, ought to content those who can afford that which costs far more. Whatever it is that we can have in that line, whether precious and priceless, or mere brightening bits of color that some untaught 6ailor has brought home from the East, an atom of coral-ware, of blue-and- white Nankin, a little teapot of crackly Satsuma, there is nothing more decorative to a room, among the lesser objects, and the flat articles may be framed and hung, or be held by hooks in the wall, or may stand protected by a groove on the top of the cabinet, or on any shelf. Then, too, a modern Venetian goblet, with its twisted strings of colored glass, is not beyond reach of those that know its charm, now that the manufacture is again encouraged ; and we have seen in old country-houses, that will one day bo rifled of them, tall cylindrical glasses of greenish tinge, with bosses and gilt and colored ornament, that will very well take the place of an almost priceless German original. Close upon china and glass, too, come wonderful things in the Chinese jade—vases, candlesticks, cups, trinkets—sometimes of the deep green of shallow water running in limestone regions, sometimes of a pure creamy tint almost transparent. This is exceedingly precious and costly; but we have seen it imitated for tiles, paper-weights, and such articles, in the noble serpentine, so that it defied detection, and, for ornaments of personal wear, an oak-leaf-shaped brooch, a pin of the four-ribbed cornel leaves, ear-rings imitating those made of the rattlesnake's rattle, thin, translucent, and utterly lovely.

With the rest, if we have no myrrhine cups or unicorns' horns, there are the countless things that our travelling friends bring us; there are our card-receivers, our tortoise-shell work-boxes, our brass appliques and candlesticks, our carved coral card-cases, our fans, our hand-screens, our albums between plaques of ivory, our vases of famous shape, even if of commonest blown glass, our lacquered trays and cases, our sandal-wood boxes, our bite of the strange Bombay work, our thousand and one fancy things, grotesque or severe, the tiny Navajo basket that holds water, the bit of gold-work of Montezuma's day, the drinking-cup of a chamois' horn, the little Spanish dagger, whose damascene-work makes one remember the wonderful Moorish weapons with rubies set in their back like drops of blood, the brier-wood pipe that had a new intaglio cut upon it after every battle of the war, and that never will be smoked again—all these babioles can be made to illuminate a room and help its picturesque idea, even if they amount to nothing at all in the eye6 of a dealer in bric-à-brac.

0 0

Post a comment