The Room In Yellow
( Originally Published 1907 )
POOR Deborah Franklin, while her Benjamin (who must have had admirable domestic discipline!) was in Europe on one of his extended absences, refused to put in place some pictures which needed hanging, so fearful was she of displeasing the eminent man, her husband, by driving nails in places of which his superior judgment would not approve. Many a house owner of today dreads the blemish of nail-holes, and yet they are not nearly so much of an injury to appearance as are the triangles of wire which reach from the pictures to a molding just under the ceiling line. It seems strange that such unnecessary and disturbing wires should be tolerated, for they are a jarring feature in any carefully-planned room.
For our own part, we permit no marring sign of nail or wire or picture molding to appear. The wire is stretched tightly across the back of the picture, and hung upon a small wire nail, driven down at an acute angle into the wall. If driven straight in, the nail is liable to crush down in the plaster; neither does a nail driven in straight hold so great a weight as does one driven in on a downward angle. Lath and plaster will hold any ordinary picture; almost, indeed, an extraordinary one, and it is not necessary to go tapping in search of joist or scantling. The pictures are hung on what may be called the "eye line," and with nothing considered but the needs of the room and the light on the pictures.
Should it be desired to change the position of a picture, the nail can be drawn out, upward, and the hole will not be seen if it was made with a small and pointed nail; or, even if sharp eyes detect it, it does not compare as a blemish with the lines of wire which the other method of hanging tolerates in sight at all times.
Should fear be felt for the safety of a heavy picture or mirror, use a screw instead of a nail, and set it in with plaster of paris, and to this, when hard, the heaviest picture may be trusted.
The first room opening from the great old hall is distinctively a room in yellow, and all of its pictures are framed in simple gilt. The tall windows look out at the roadway and the triangular green, and another window looks upon the garden, but the light that comes into the room is softened by the greenery of maple trees in front and by the quivering leaves of locusts at the side.
The windows are recessed, for the walls are heavy and eighteen inches thick, and these recesses are paneled, long and gracefully, up the sides and at the tops.
Beneath the windows, between the sill and the floor, there are broad panels of wainscoting in harmony with the woodwork of the room.
The ceiling is bordered by a delicate cornice. It is of charming design, and very simple, with moldings and corner squares which repeat the moldings of the door-frames and window-frames. An engirding line of stucco traces its course along the ceiling, about nine inches from the cornice design, and has graceful ogee curves to mark the angles of the room and the projection of the fireplace.
The fine old ceiling and the walls had not passed through the years entirely unscathed, for there were holes where lamps had hung, and there was a tin pot-lid which covered a huge round space connecting with a register above, and there were sundry other blemishes as well. Great pleasure was it to have the ceiling and cornice carefully mended by a good workman, and the walls, after each crevice and nail-hole was smoothed, covered with a paper of rich yellow, of the shade known as Colonial. This room and the adjoining dining room-rooms almost of a size, and with the same characteristics of cornice and fireplace and windows, and opening into each other with a broad archway, fitted with sliding doors-were papered with precisely the same design. The ceilings being unusually high, a stripe was carefully avoided, and a conventional pattern chosen which, at the length of the room, merges into a plain surface. The paper runs from baseboard to cornice without border or break.
The windows have net curtains next to the glass, with one small wreath, and a margin of tape, and straight and simple folds reaching from a plain brass rod at the top, to the floor, thus defining the recess of the windows.
Handwoven curtains of dull, soft yellow were hung in the archway; and, to continue the effect, the ceiling was washed, in distemper, in a light cream.
The problem of floor covering was then to be met, and many a shop was visited and many a rug spread down, for our requirements were not precisely easy to meet. The rug must be large, must not be beyond a modest price, and must be in yellow or a color in harmony with that.
At last, we came across a Persian rug, which we knew was precisely the thing we sought. Its back-ground was a dull yellow and it was thirteen feet by ten.
"I will give you this rug at a very low price," said the dealer, "if you can use it, for there is little demand for this color." And he named a price absurdly low. Thus do even the collector's requirements sometimes become a final advantage.
The brass knobs on the dark doors, the yellow up-holstering of the dark furniture, a fox skin in front of the hearth, brass andirons and fire shovel, all add to the soft yellow effect of the room. And in the corner, upon a bandy-legged table, stands a jar from Palermo, of common glazed earthenware, but of perfect and ancient curves seldom found even in Italy and of a rare dull yellow hue. Something from Europe, if characteristic of the real Europe and not of the tourist trade, and if it was made naturally, a bit of metal or pottery by a handicrafts-man working as his ancestors worked, and after the same models, seems old and harmonizes with the old for it has essential characteristics of age.
There was little hesitation about the placing of furniture in this room, for it was schemed into position, in day dreams, even before paste and paint brush were used.
A sofa was naturally to be a principal piece, and we had one of Empire design.
Chippendale looked upon the sofa, which was beginning to make itself felt in England in his time, as something French, and his own most distinguished sofa, a style which it is still possible to find although extremely difficult, looks like three chairs built in a row and is really a settee rather than a sofa. At the recent dispersion of the furniture of an old Baltimore house, such a Chippendale settee was sold.
Sofas did not become common until the time of Heppelwhite and Sheraton, both of whom made extremely beautiful ones, in their respectively characteristic styles.
The early Empire furnished fine sofa designs, which were copied and adapted by the best workers in our own country.
Our sofa stands, long and hospitable, between the two front windows, and it is not so far from the fire-place as to miss the influence of the friendly glow. "What did he mean by ah-peer?" demanded Silas Lapham, of his wife, after the departure of the priggish architect; and his question did not display an altogether unreasonable ignorance, for it is so needless, in America, to pronounce such a word in the French way.
Most old furniture puts its best feet foremost, and this sofa is like the rest, in that its front legs are elaborate wing-and-claw, while the rear legs are uncarved.
This sofa is of San Domingo mahogany, the kind of mahogany most highly esteemed by old cabinet-makers. For some years past the principal commercial source of San Domingo mahogany has been doors from old houses and leaves from old tables. West India mahogany means practically the same thing.
This kind of mahogany is heavy, weighing some six pounds to the square foot, one inch thick, and much of the Honduras and Mexican mahogany is not much more than a third as heavy, and is softer and of coarser grain.
A great deal, and probably by far the greater part, of the so-called mahogany of to-day is nothing but birch.
Mahogany has been used in furniture making for only two hundred years and came into real vogue some quarter of a century after its introduction. Its admirable texture and color, and its susceptibility to carving and polish, and its strength, won for it wide popularity in England and America. In France it also became popular, but never succeeded in displacing French walnut.
The subject of woods is an interesting one. In the United States, a hundred years ago, in addition to the familiar kinds of wood, the cabinet-makers used, largely for insets and veneers, holly and button and king and tulip wood, snake and purple and zebra wood, Alexandria and Manila wood, cedar and satin and yew (the yew was a favorite of Louis the Fourteenth, for furniture), and rosewood. This last wood came into considerable use for entire pieces in the time of Victoria, but in spite of certain good points, and its fortunate name, it is of a rather unbeautiful purplish black, not to be compared with the serene beauty of mahogany or the dignity and reserve of walnut.
The cabinet-makers who worked in such queer woods did queer things with them-or at least we might fairly suppose so on reading of their charges for plinthing and therming and dovetailing, for plowing and tonguing ends, for making cross-bands and octagonals and toad-back moldings.
The piano, between the door and window, is, naturally, not old. It is, perforce, a youthful interloper. Yet its dark wood, and perhaps a sense of the very inevitableness of its lack of an old age, make it seem entirely fitting. The imagination feels the fascination of spinet and virginal, of clavichord and harpsichord, and pictures fair women of the past lightly touching their keys. But, after all, the modern piano is more desirable than any of these, even in the eyes of the most confirmed lover of the antique. The old forms look very decorative though-and it seems that they may even be utilitarian, for there comes to mind an old harpsichord, with finely tapered legs, and distinguished appearance, which is utilized by a Savannah family for the storage of bath towels!
So far back as the close of the eighteenth century, a New York advertisement declares that "the piano forte is become so exceedingly fashionable in Europe that few polite families are without it," and it was many years ago that the manufacture of domestic pianos succeeded importations.
Near the side window of this room, in the corner beside the arch, is the old tilting table from the East-ern Shore, with its graceful snake feet, and its great glowing disc of mahogany glimmering softly with lights from the windows and from the fire, and ready to be drawn forward for use as the afternoon moves toward its close.
The place of honor beside the hearth is held by one of the "seats of the mighty." It is a chair, which was once the property of General Anthony Wayne at his home at Waynesborough, and came to us from a friend who had obtained it thirty years before from a certain Lydia, widow of a relative of the General. The entire furniture of the old home-stead at the time of General Wayne's occupancy still remains there, the treasured possession of his descendant-except this chair, which descended collaterally and finally came our way.
It is a Chippendale, and is broad in the seat, and strong, for Chippendale designed chairs for men who wore great-skirted coats and women with full-hooped petticoats, not for fragile maidens in skimpy, high-waisted gowns or for gallants all sentiment and incroyables. Sheraton and Heppelwhite made chairs for these latter, so slender and delicate that few survive for our delectation.
The front legs of the Wayne chair are cabriole and end in webbed feet. The back of the chair has an en-laced splat of graceful jar shape. The spaces between this splat and the side pieces of the back are as carefully planned as is the splat itself.
So well proportioned is this chair, and so perfect a specimen of Chippendale's art, that we are of the opinion that it came from the master's own workshop. Anthony Wayne was a man of wealth and prominence and position, even before the Revolution. What more likely than that he, like many other rich men, should send to London for furniture, and that, sending there, he should order from the cabinet-maker of greatest distinction, of that time. It is certain that some of Chippendale's chairs came to America.
The chair is of sober brown walnut and has come down through all these years unscathed and unharmed, for it has always been carefully cared for. The seat lifts from the frame, which shows as a margin around the upholstering. This seat was high when we first saw the chair, and was covered with a log-cabin pattern in patchwork. On removing this cover, two waistcoats of ancient cut and snuff-colored cloth came to light, capacious and many-buttoned; but not military! Under them was the original cover of the chair, a dark deep red stuff of heavy, coarse weave, with a brocade-like pattern in still deeper red. Chippendale's own words come to mind as to the best covering for such a chair: "If the seats are covered with red morocco they will have a fine effect," he writes, adding, "They are usually the same stuff as the curtains."
As the cover was quite worn through, and the cushion was much flattened, the seat was reupholstered. For our room, red would not do, so a piece of dull yellow silk brocade, with a small square pat-tern, was used. The original hair was used for pad-ding the seat-white horse-hair, as straight as when it grew on a horse-and as many as possible of the old hand-made tacks were also replaced.
The top rail of the back of a pure Chippendale chair is a thing of beauty. On the Wayne chair it is the shape of a bow, dipping to join the splat, gently sweeping toward the sides, and ending in a slightly projecting. curve at either end.
The back is exactly twenty-two inches high, which is a height spoken of as admirable by Chippendale. Just twenty-two inches is the front width of the generous seat.
The gentle art of finding Chippendales has given us, for this room, two other chairs of this design, each with straight heavy legs and graceful backs, and quite different from the Wayne chair. One of these chairs has a splat so perforated as to look like several separate reed-like pieces, rising and joining, and then spreading to meet the top rail.
Near the fireplace is a chair of the slender-legged type of Sheraton, with a curved and crested sort of top. It might be called a Sheraton-Gothic, and is one of the many examples which remind the collector how easy it has been to combine styles, and how useless it is to attempt to classify every chair arbitrarily.
A slender-spoked Windsor, of graceful proportions, is also here. It is marked with the name of the maker, burned in, but without giving his town or State. It can be definitely traced back, however, to 1790 and to Pennsylvania.
Windsors are of considerable variety in shape, but there are always unmistakable characteristics. The curving back, of slender spokes of hickory or similar wood, is the principal distinguishing mark. The seat is always of one piece of wood and it is usually saddle-shaped. The legs, set firmly into holes bored in the wooden seat, are lathe-turned. It may almost be said that there never was an ungraceful Windsor. They are by no means among the most precious of old chairs, but they are always honored and desirable. There are a couple of Windsors in a corner of old St. Paul's in New York-and when a Colonial Society attends service there, it is a matter of jestful comment that the sexton jealously holds down one of the chairs and his assistant the other, so that the chairs shall be safe.
The bandy-legged table upon which stands the yellow jar, is the one which we found, as a wreck, for one dollar in Maryland. The andirons are those from Blennerhassett that were among our earliest possessions and are still among our most prized.
The pictures are mostly paintings of scenes well known and loved; one shows our old stone house environed by apple trees; another, the red-tiled roofs of the Ohio town of Zoar; another, the valley of the Seine from Meudon.
Following the admirable French idea of simplicity in furnishing the mantel, only a clock, and two tall candlesticks, and one single slim glass vase, stand there. The clock is old, with Empire case and ornaments, and has two small sphinxes, in brass, at the sides, surmounting narrow lines of brass pedestal; and the front of the case, beneath the white porcelain face, is of mahogany overlaid with curious brass arabesques.
The candlesticks are tall, being eleven inches high, and have beaded bands around the base; in two places, in the stem, they become very slim; between these slim places are concave panels, making a graceful and unusual design. They are of Sheffield plate; a treatment of silver highly valued by connoisseurs and collectors, but to a great extent superseded by electro-plating, since its discovery.
Sheffield plating, a name so important to collectors, is-one may almost say was!-an interesting process. Thin plates of silver are wired upon one or both sides of an oblong ingot of copper. The ingot is placed in a furnace so arranged that its interior can be constantly watched, for the metal must be withdrawn at the exact instant of adhesion, as fusion would otherwise take place. After the removal of the wire, the ingot is put back and forth between rollers until it has become a sheet of the required thickness. No matter how thin it is made, the relative thickness between the copper and the layers of silver is maintained. Ornamental borders, how-ever, were necessarily plated by a separate process or were often of solid silver.
Across the mantel stands an old Empire mirror, of a kind which came into common use shortly after 1800, and of which many were made from 1810 to 1820. This measures five feet and an inch in length and two feet in height, and two upright moldings divide it into three sections of glass. Very simple in design is the whole thing, with gently swelling puffs in the moldings of top and sides, and without extravagance of outline or decoration.
We found this in Delaware. It had fallen from its sometime high estate, and was painted an unanimated mud color. Four dollars was the purchase price, and it was sent to a gilder's to have it put in order. There, many discouragements were offered, among them the strange idea, fixed in so many modern workers' minds, that a new mirror could be made for less money than the restoration of this old one. Finding that we did not wish a new mirror, the gilder was still very dubious about gilding the old; it would cost, he declared, at least twenty-eight dollars, and might not be satisfactory even then.
So the mirror was sent home and set up in our own workroom, where we could at least experiment with it. Scraping easily took off two coats of paint, and underneath was a surface of real gold-leaf which would make an excellent base for the new gilding.
After a little smoothing and a coat of varnish, the mirror was given a coat of bronze powder, of a good gold color, moistened with banana oil and applied with a fine camel's-hair brush an inch wide. As gold powders are of varying tints, and a quiet hue was desired, a little red and black oil color was stirred in the banana oil until, by experiment, the desired tone was reached. Green would have given a green hue had that been wanted. A few days after, having some powder left, the mirror was given a second coat, and following that a light coat of varnish to protect the gilt from fingermarks when dusting.
The entire thing was done for an outlay of one dollar, and the result is admirable in appearance. Perhaps it may not last as long as a bronze-gilt applied by expert hands, but it can be easily renewed, and the work of another coat would be but half an hour's task.