Saturday, March 9, 2013

From Lobby To Peak: Over The Mantel

***From Lobby to Peak - a series of illustrated articles in Our Continent - by Donald G. Mitchell - describing  the New York City  apartment of Louis Comfort Tiffany - progressing from room to room - Mitchell describes the essence of Tiffany's style - part seven of eleven - published April 5, 1882*** 

  Still in our little breakfast-room—round about whose walls we have been scanning these two weeks past this and that object to determine their fitness and relevancy—and now we are brought to confront that central and pivotal spot for decoration which ranges above the mantel.

  Whatever may be done with the table and its fixtures and whatever may be done with the buffet or sideboard (whose place in this apartment of limited range is supplied by hanging cabinets or cupboards flanking the chimney), the mantel side of the room is after all the important one, the one which gives tone to the whole, and the one upon which, by reason of its engaging qualities, the eye should most delightedly rest.

  Thus if you have given way to a whim of architectural homogeneity throughout the room, the region of the mantel should emphasize the scheme and show most pronounced types of the style or epoch chosen. If a Louis Quatorze spirit is showing its luxurious adornments around the fireplace, and Boule cabinets are flanking it, and chairs of the time of the great monarch are set for humble mortals, then it will be a wise thing to plant a gorgeous Louis Quatorze clock over the mantel and give glitter of mirrors and figurante that shall hint of the nymphs of Watteau.

  If it is the rococo ornament of a later time that crazes one with its gilty flamboyance, then the mantel side is the place of all others to set around with pasty extravagances of cherubs and medallions, and with gorgeous vases doubled in the mirrors, and with cumbrous whirls of unmeaning scroll-work.

  If again you affect—and it in a better affectation—the severities of stout early English, and if squareness and solidity run through all other equipments of  the room, then the coveted space above the mantel may carry its staunch, close-knit, firmly-wrought series of oaken panels bordering about the figure of some helmeted or sharp-bearded ancestor (if you have one), and you may flank the figure with little oaken shelflets to carry old tankards or an hour glass or an old English gauntlet of bronze giving grip to a flambeau.

  Thus much for what the purist in style may possibly do with the over-mantel space in the dining-room. (Of other over-mantel spaces we shall some day have much more to say.) And now let us recount one or two pleasant memories of what has actually been done by those who have blundered maybe into the equipment of this mantel region, guided only by an instinctive feeling I'm what might be fitting there, and cheery and home-like. And these memories of discursive ways of treatment will make good contrasting foreground to the discussion of the over-mantel decoration which is before us in this week's picture.

  And first, we have in mind a solid square mantel of oak, wrought over both athwart and down either side with some garlandry of carving, and above it by some clear space of fourteen inches—which makes background for flagons  bronzes and other such make-weights—a fairish color copy of some banquet painting of Venetian days (perhaps a Veronese), which however short of the old lines and tints upon the palace walls is yet somehow tilled with the light and the joy which Paul Veronese knew how to fling over such a scene of revel, and above it and down either side—to marry it with the mantel proper—other garlandry of carving, in which are festoons of flowers wrought in oak, and defendant therefrom feathered game and furred game. Such things, however appropriate and well done, make awful material for the dust brush of a quick-eyed housewife, and the more they approach in their delicacy to the wonderful work of Gibbons the more perishable and inapt they are, and it is worth considering incised work upon an oaken panel, carrying conventional hints only of the same story of feathers and bloom, were not every way better.

  Another mantel in another breakfast room which we recall agreeably, is in a modest country home ; an old fullength ancestral portrait of the days of Copley rises above it—rises so high that the country ceiling will not permit (if it were desired) a vertical position, and so the old gentleman leans forward a bit for better light and into easier companionship as it were with the grandchildren and great grandchildren who rally round the table. Then, to take off from the altitude of the canvas, a little group of half shelves run upon either side for a third of its height, with a top gear of finish that seems to whirl away from the frame as a buttressing support to it and these shelflets carry old cups and pitchers of even date with the painting, from some of which indeed the original of the portrait may have taken his snack in other days ; and so he stands here with his dog and gun, amidst the heir-looms of cups and glass and trinkets, these all saying as they huddle at the feet of the old gentleman. "We need place here for convenience sake." and the long picture of family inheritance and benignant look saying as plainly, "I too, for affection's sake."

  Another dining-room we seem to see where all is of the quietest, where ceremony rarely comes, but where the elderly ones of the household gather often, won by the coaxing sunlight; a few rare treasures of plaque or vase upon the mantel, amongst them two or three little porcelain figures that may have been a child's (the critic will reckon against them at sight), which were a child's. And for solitary adornment of the space above, between two sober sconces, is the portrait of a child in oval frame of brown and gold, rich as money and love can make it.

  And now, alter this foray among the possible things which are accessible to the home-lover, we come back to the picture which forms the chief decoration over the mantel in the dining-room of our quiet range of apartments.

  It is a painting, which stretches athwart the whole breadth of the chimney breast; there is no gorgeous setting to it, no finery of gold. A simple wooden moulding—so severe as to astonish an ambitious carpenter—of the same hue with the mantel and other woodwork in the room, holds it in place and separates it from the embossed bronzed leather below, which serves for backing to the rare Japanese disks and flagons and bronzes which have range upon the mantel.

  The spirit and truthfulness of the engraving will let one study these piece by piece, and will give better hint than has yet been offered of the simple yet effective workmanship of the mantel itself. It might have come out of an old Hancock house of New England; and the turkey and the corn and the pumpkins are as New England-y as the mantel. If Japan puts an exhibit of its treasures between 'tis only to show how the extreme East and the extreme West may be married together, and wisely, in offices of decorative art.

  For the rest, there is little that can be added to Mr. Jeungling's interpretation of the painting; the streaming light is hashed upon it; we seem to hear the rustle of the corn leaves and the gobble of  His Majesty of Thanksgiving days. In point of color indeed, which—in such a subject and in such position—counts for so very much, there must be added the flashing iridescence upon the breast of the bird, his scarlet wattles, and the brown gold of the corn and the red gold of the pumpkin, which, together with the sunlight in all and over it all, makes of this over-mantel space a pleasant everyday foretaste of the great feast of the year. It is a big Puritan reminder of the daily bread we reverently ask for. 

Donald G. Mitchell.

Donald G. Mitchell was a close friend of Tiffany's. Our Continent was a new magazine covering history, literature, science and art. Click HERE to view all earlier posts on Tiffany's Bella penthouse apartment.

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