Saturday, March 9, 2013

From Lobby To Peak: In the Library

***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 eight of eleven - published April 12, 1882*** 

 WE confront to-day the library fire, of which we had a glimpse through the half-open door from the hall some weeks since. The reader will see that it has its novelties of arrangement, and about the qualities and fitness of these we will now inquire step by step.

 Above all this mantel gear the reader will see the breadth and depth of the original chimney breast—by which it will appear that the whole paraphernalia of  fireplace and of flanking cupboards have made a bold step forward. Why is this? In a country house, where economy of heat might be a great consideration, there would be sound practical reason for bringing the fire well into the room, but it is not the reason which has governed the present disposition of material. In point of fact, this fireplace, with its addenda of shelves, etc., is a cover to the original arrangement of grate and mantel, which with their fine things of polish and Queen Anne-ism or marble cherubs are all behind and all intact. Naturally no one wishes such a duplicate of fixtures in his own house, but it is worth considering if something in this device—by which for special purposes a new fireplace supplants and conceals the old—may not have a value of its own and a large adaptability to other situations.

 Observe, first, that the central and focal portion of it is of boiler iron, bolted together, and thus as easily movable as the old Franklin stoves. Air space below and airchambers on either side make it possible to establish it with safety in connection with any flue. Its splayed jambs and top are admirably adapted for throwing heat into the room, and contribute also to the perfect draft which belongs to it.

 Again, the air-chambers at the side, if properly backed and connected with a conductor of cold air from without would supply a large volume of heated air for diffusion into the room from some register over the mantel, or, better still, and a scheme entirely feasible, for warming by means of a hot-air flue a room above.

 Consider again that there are no tiles to he broken here—no bricks to be battered, no marble to be stained—in every aspect it looks adapted to the roughest of country usage, and the generous cupboard to the left is capable of stowing a great many billets of wood. The books upon the opposite side do not get, as some might suppose, over-warm there ; in fact, they get less heat than in most over-mantel places, and the shelves above it tell their own story of uses.

 So much for the practical features of this library fire ; and what now shall be said of appearances?

 The iron surely has an honest, homely, staunch look. Its range of bosses seems to give it added massiveness, and a little pencil-work with some dark pigment that is not sensitive to heat has given some simple geometric tracery that takes away all look of baldness. Neither tint or line could be simpler, and yet if surrounding called for it no form could carry the burnish of brightest steel better, or better allow the bronzing and gilding and fine lines and embossments that would put upon this shield of the fire the blazonry of old in wrought armor.

 Immediately above the iron fire-frame some half dozen crystalline plates of metal, in wooden frames sliding side wise in their grooves, give access to as many of these little hiding nooks, which everyone is anxious to explore. Still above and in the centre of all is a glazed compartment to carry such rare bits of bric-a-brac as will not bear dust or handling, and which have that historic value which will give to them a proper focal interest in the midst of books.

 We call attention again to the cupboard immediately at the left of fire fireplace. The two panels of its door are of iron—what is ordinarily called sheet-iron—each carrying
a spray of flowers. On one panel the general surface or background is of iron rust, with the flower forms picked out with black lead and touches of silver and bronze ; upon the other the background has a coating of black lead, while the spray of bloom and leaves is of iron rust, touched here and there with silver and gold. No means of decoration could be simpler, nor could any, for the purpose in view, be mere effective. It gives a hint of what may be done with exposed iron surfaces in a hundred positions where they now show aimless blotches of rust or bald blackness.

 The disposition of the shelves shows somewhat of the favorite Japanese balance of irregularities, and at top of the narrower part is a little hanging or Japanese embroidery to protect some delicate objects, or, maybe, to cover some blank spaces which are yet to be tilled. The wood-work is not so rigorously plain as the engraving might lead one to suppose. There is a fret of incised work upon it, showing minute tracery of vines and broad splotches of leaf surface, and the whole tinted uniformly with dark Prussian blue, so dark that to some eyes it might pass for black. Add to this the flashing fire-blaze, the gleaming bolt-heads of the frame work, the sheen of the crystalline plates, the scarlet and purple and drabs and gold of the book-backs, the grays and reds and browns and whites and greens of the Japanese vases, and, last, the folded richness of the embroidery at the top, and you can form some notion of the scheme of color. And yet who shall talk of' any scheme of color in a library? That creamy vellum, that odorous maroon of "Russia," that crimson of a"Roger Paine," the spider lines of' gold, all these govern the coloring by a force majeure as truly as a bed of old English posies whose memories are laced to our heart-strings rule down all the finest laws or scaled ribbon-planting. Book-backs carry their own law of color as they go, and if so be they are backs of good books, and of books that we love and revere, no decorator in the world can over-match their winning and shifting combinations of hue. 

 And now a word of that second picture of the week, which gives us glimpse of a quiet comer in this same library, with a little fanfaron of feathery plumes there, as if to provoke our mention. These, however, we pass by. We note a rich hanging of Japanese silk, its ground of dull green and its figures embroidered in gold, covering some concealed doorway into regions unknown, possibly the adjoining apartment. We note further the somewhat singular material of which the wall-hanging is formed—-a Chinese matting, not greatly unlike, if it he not actually, the fabric which enwraps the tea-chests of Canton. Simple filets of wood hold it in place, and vary in tint as the decoration of this tan-colored matting varies. Here and there it would appear that a central panel carries a decoration of its own wrought upon other ground than the matting. It may be an oil sketch, a group of figures, a dash of spring flowers, a landscape ; but over the matting proper there seems to meander something like a sketchy story of plant growth (is it the Virginia creeper—is it the horse-chestnut?) painted in transparent tints—now upon the tan-colored background of the matting itself and again upon a golden ground under its closely-wrought, quaint basket-weaving. So we have upon the wall this warm dun color, as of grayish straw and then gold—by spaces—over-ruling it sumptuously, and on the gold rich greens and brow as of rampant and lush foliage. We shall have other glimpses of these walls, and shall have occasion to show how their decorative treatment lends itself to the wide opening (as if for folding doors) that looks toward the dining-room and hangs great leaflets—opaque and distinct—against the warm south light that streams through and makes of the archway a foliated arbor.

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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