Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Musings on EAP's The Philosophy of Furniture

In 1840, Edgar Alan Poe wrote his famous essay Philosophy of Furniture, first published in Burton's Gentleman's Magazine, for which he worked at that time.
In the internal decoration, if not in the external architecture of their residences, the English are supreme. The Italians have but little sentiment beyond marbles and colours. In France, meliora probant, deteriora sequuntur - the people are too much a race of gadabouts to maintain those household proprieties of which, indeed, they have a delicate appreciation, or at least the elements of a proper sense. The Chinese and most of the eastern races have a warm but inappropriate fancy. The Scotch are poor decorists. The Dutch have, perhaps, an indeterminate idea that a curtain is not a cabbage. In Spain they are all curtains - a nation of hangmen. The Russians do not furnish. The Hottentots and Kickapoos are very well in their way. The Yankees alone are preposterous.

How this happens, it is not difficult to see. We have no aristocracy of blood, and having therefore as a natural, and indeed as an inevitable thing, fashioned for ourselves an aristocracy of dollars, the display of wealth has here to take the place and perform the office of the heraldic display in monarchical countries. By a transition readily understood, and which might have been as readily foreseen, we have been brought to merge in simple show our notions of taste itself

To speak less abstractly. In England, for example, no mere parade of costly appurtenances would be so likely as with us, to create an impression of the beautiful in respect to the appurtenances themselves - or of taste as regards the proprietor: - this for the reason, first, that wealth is not, in England, the loftiest object of ambition as constituting a nobility; and secondly, that there, the true nobility of blood, confining itself within the strict limits of legitimate taste, rather avoids than affects that mere costliness in which a parvenu rivalry may at any time be successfully attempted.

The people will imitate the nobles, and the result is a thorough diffusion of the proper feeling. But in America, the coins current being the sole arms of the aristocracy, their display may be said, in general, to be the sole means of the aristocratic distinction; and the populace, looking always upward for models, are insensibly led to confound the two entirely separate ideas of magnificence and beauty. In short, the cost of an article of furniture has at length come to be, with us, nearly the sole test of its merit in a decorative point of view - and this test, once established, has led the way to many analogous errors, readily traceable to the one primitive folly.

There could be nothing more directly offensive to the eye of an artist than the interior of what is termed in the United States - that is to say, in Appallachia - a well-furnished apartment. Its most usual defect is a want of keeping...

[...]

Curtains are rarely well disposed, or well chosen in respect to other decorations. With formal furniture, curtains are out of place; and an extensive volume of drapery of any kind is, under any circumstance, irreconcilable with good taste - the proper quantum, as well as the proper adjustment, depending upon the character of the general effect.

Carpets are better understood of late than of ancient days, but we still very frequently err in their patterns and colours. The soul of the apartment is the carpet. From it are deduced not only the hues but the forms of all objects incumbent. .. In brief - distinct grounds, and vivid circular or cycloid figures, of no meaning, are here Median laws. The abomination of flowers, or representations of well-known objects of any kind, should not be endured within the limits of Christendom. Indeed, whether on carpets, or curtains, or tapestry, or ottoman coverings, all upholstery of this nature should be rigidly Arabesque...

[...]

The rage for glitter- because its idea has become as we before observed, confounded with that of magnificence in the abstract-has led us, also, to the exaggerated employment of mirrors. We line our dwellings with great British plates, and then imagine we have done a fine thing. Now the slightest thought will be sufficient to convince any one who has an eye at all, of the ill effect of numerous looking-glasses, and especially of large ones... Considered as a reflector, it is potent in producing a monstrous and odious uniformity: and the evil is here aggravated, not in merely direct proportion with the augmentation of its sources, but in a ratio constantly increasing. In fact, a room with four or five mirrors arranged at random, is, for all purposes of artistic show, a room of no shape at all...

It is an evil growing out of our republican institutions, that here a man of large purse has usually a very little soul which he keeps in it. The corruption of taste is a portion or a pendant of the dollar-manufacture. As we grow rich, our ideas grow rusty. It is, therefore, not among our aristocracy that we must look (if at all, in Appallachia), for the spirituality of a British boudoir. But we have seen apartments in the tenure of Americans of moderns [possibly "modest" or "moderate"] means, which, in negative merit at least, might vie with any of the or-molu'd cabinets of our friends across the water. Even now, there is present to our mind's eye a small and not ostentatious chamber with whose decorations no fault can be found. The proprietor lies asleep on a sofa - the weather is cool - the time is near midnight: arc will make a sketch of the room during his slumber.

[Here Poes's detailed advice for creating an ideal room follows.]
Although the essay is interesting, even fascinating, as a literary period piece, I can not agree with much Poe says, not even given the context of its time. Yes, America DID start as a jumped up, nouveau riche country, but that's exactly how today's and Poe's contemporary nobles started and sometimes not even all that long ago. Who knows? Some of the things we find terribly vulgar and nouveau riche now may be considered exquisite and classy in times to come and however justified or unjustified Poe's scathing judgement of his fellow Americans might have been, one and a half century later they have more than caught up with Old Europe, taken the best of everything and added their own inspiration, at least at the upmarket end of the scale. (I am not too keen on the Martha Stewart and somewhat hackneyed "shabby chic" sort of stuff, which may (or may not, this is pure speculation) be a mirror of Poe's "small and not ostentatious [American] chamber with whose decorations no fault can be found".) What would the writer say about the peerless "Sister" Parish, to mention just one of the many American all-time greats of interior decoration?

And if you'll forgive me, the "purse vs. soul" or "As we grow rich, our ideas grow rusty" bit is more than just a bit trite, as is the idea that the poor may have a natural sense for what is beautiful. Besides, it totally overlooks the fact that the coffers of the English nobles EAP so admired were not exactly empty either.

While Poe is certainly not wrong in many things he says, many of his propositions seem, to me, much too selfconsciously "tasteful". Don't we all know those irritating and boring people who are afraid to put a foot wrong and whose houses are, consequently, not ugly, but not beautiful either and certainly not inviting to live in? Specifically the thrown open pianoforte seems to me the hight of selfconsciousness, the more as the author seemed to regard is as a decorative, and not a musical, device.

Some things Poe says are plainly wrong, too. Excessive drapery, he says, is "irreconcilable with good taste" when exactly that is one of the hallmarks of English interior decoration he so admires and certainly was at EAP's time and when he recommended "two or three hundred magnificently bound books", he overlooked that books were hardly ever found in the classical English drawing room.

Anyway and to end this on a kind note, what I find truly inspired (and only too often overlooked) advice is that mirrors should be used sparsely and hung "so that a reflection of the person can be obtained from it in none of the ordinary sitting-places of the room."

Amen.



The Reading Room at the Edgar Allan Poe National Historic Site creates a room based on "The Philosophy of Furniture" (as reported by Wikipedia).

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