Front parlor design over the fireplace mantel.
"The Grammar of Ornament”: what an intriguing title. The book by Owen Jones, a Welsh architect, was first published in 1856, and he really meant it: the book lists 37 “propositions” for ornamentation or decoration. Among these are:
1 The Decorative Arts arise from, and should properly be attendant upon, Architecture.
3 As Architecture, so all works of the Decorative Arts, should possess fitness, proportion, harmony, the result of all which is repose.
4 True beauty results from that repose which the mind feels when the eye, the intellect, and the affections are satisfied from the absence of any want.
5 Construction should be decorated. Decoration should never be purposely constructed. "That which is beautiful is true; that which is true must be beautiful."
8 All ornament should be based upon a geometrical construction
9 As in every perfect work of Architecture a true proportion will be found to reign between all the members which compose it, so throughout the Decorative Arts every assemblage of forms should be arranged on certain definite proportions; the whole and each particular member should be a multiple of some simple unit.
10 Harmony of form consists in the proper balancing, and contrast of, the straight, the inclined, and the curved.
13 Flowers or other natural objects should not be used as ornaments, but conventional representations founded upon them sufficiently suggestive to convey the intended image to the mind, without destroying the unity of the object they are employed to decorate. Universally obeyed in the best periods of art, equally violated when Art declines.
Many additional propositions concern the proper use of color, hue and tone.
Even more influential on then contemporary design were the many color plates provided as illustrations. These full color lithographs, each including many separate designs taken from classical origins (Egyptian, Greek, Moorish, Celtic among others), were also a great and wondrous innovation in book publishing.
Victorians were soon convinced that every surface was an opportunity to be decorated in fanciful though stylized ways and using a polychrome color pallet. Contrary to what some people now believe, undoubtedly based upon photography of the day, Victorians did not live in a black and white world.
One of my first attempts -- an example of a single use stencil. This one was rendered in house paint also used on the walls, but I soon learned that artist acrillics were a better choice.
When we bought our 1892 home, it had already been updated and modernized. We had a functional “open plan” interior complete with the usual boring white paint on nearly all walls and ceilings. The ceilings were still high, we still had classic fireplaces and a bit of oak and stained fir trim, but otherwise the interior was really quite plain, modern and minimalistic. It was livable of course, but hardly the sort of thing I imagined Denver’s premier Victorian architect, William Lang, had intended.
Given a tight budget and limited skills, I wanted to do what I could to turn back the clock and recover a bit of its former Victorian charm. I really wasn’t up to the tasks of moving walls or attempting to find and replace pocket doors and moldings, but painting is easy, and painting mistakes are easily corrected.
I have seen both expert and amateur stenciling in Victorian homes locally and elsewhere. One notable example is Mark Twain’s Hartford house: Louis Comfort Tiffany’s Associated Artists did the extensive and unique stenciling there. Many more examples can be found in books and magazines. Some are simple and minimalistic; others are very colorful and extremely elaborate.
My decorating plan had to be designed around and scaled for the existing house features. Many of the more elaborate ceiling decorations, for example, were not appropriate because the rooms as rebuilt never offer a rectangular working area. Odd details had to be worked around. While craft stores and web sites sell pre-made stencils, I soon realized that they would never fulfill my requirements.
The only rectangular room where a ceiling stencil might be used to advantage.
There are some fine pattern books available, usually reproductions of Victorian originals. I located one with the type of designs I liked and used it extensively but not exclusively: some minor designs I improvised and some were adapted from period photographs.
Patterns had to be scaled to fit my needs. I found this easy to do using a copier or printer with enlargement capability. It took a little experimentation to get the desired size. I used the largest paper available, and sometimes still had to tape multiple sheets together to complete the needed pattern at the desired size.
Stencil size had to fit the area allotted.
Lots of choices for stencil media are available at art supply stores. But, if the stencil will not be used many, many times, simple, lightweight cardstock works quite well. I used old file folders I already had around the house. Not only were they cheap, but the material is very easily cut with a sharp X- Acto knife. I simply taped the copier paper over the folder stock and cut out the pattern all the way through both layers. To keep the material from soaking up paint and getting wet, I over sprayed it with a coat of lacquer on both sides. An Olfa cutting mat, sold in sewing and quilting stores, makes the job easier. I tried making multiple stencils, one for each separate color, but I soon found that using one stencil, and painting the part desired for each color until complete was easier in the long run.
A dado was stenciled onto the entry hall wall using stencils of masking tape for the paneling.
First the white surface had to be repainted in the chosen background colors using ordinary interior house paints. Guide lines can be drawn with a pencil or snap lines of colored chalk applied. These will be painted over later often with striping. Plenty of painter’s masking tape will be useful.
A well planned stencil may be used more than once and rendered in different ways.
The stencil is simply taped to the wall or ceiling. For stencil paints, I use artist acrylics. The acrylics are water based which allows easy cleanup and they dry rapidly. The paints come in many colors, but I found that a selection of the basics, black, white, red, yellow and blue, allowed me to blend any color I desired. I added a bit of gold paint as well. Only the needed amount of water could be added to keep the paint thin enough to spread but thick enough to avoid running under the stencil. The paint is mixed and applied with an appropriately sized stencil or other stiff brush. Do not brush toward the stencil edge. Keep the paint fairly thick and do not reapply a recently used stencil without wiping it down first to avoid smearing. Keep a clean wet rag handy to quickly wipe away any mistake before the paint can dry.
The majority of the stencils were out of pattern books, but some had to be improvised.
Spray adhesive is available in craft stores. I did not find it necessary for walls, but it was essential for holding stencils up for ceiling work.
Stencils needent be complicated, of course. This is actually the last one I did -- one on each side of the kitchen bay window. The right one is flipped over for a mirror image. Actually two stencils were used: top and bottom. The stems can then be made any length using masking tape as stencils.
Compromises had to be made, but I thought it all worked out very well. Note that the wall is divided into frieze, fill and dado as was typical of Victorian decoration and said to derive from the "classic orders". I believe the gold, reflective in certain lighting, provided an especially nice touch.
I think the finished wall and ceiling decorations helped considerably in restoring a certain Victorian feel to the house without spending a great deal of money and without pain. In fact the work went swiftly and was quite satisfying once planning, the hard part, was complete.
Is there a grammar to ornament? Certainly there was to the Victorians. I find that grammar still compelling.
Epilog -- a bad ending
Hired vandals -- the enemy of any self acclaimed artist. I did say it was easy to paint out any "mistakes" whether they be perceived by yourself or by others. Perhaps it is too easy.