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Full Online Book HomeNonfictionsThe Poetry Of Architecture - Part 1. The Cottage - 1. The Lowland Cottage--England And France
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The Poetry Of Architecture - Part 1. The Cottage - 1. The Lowland Cottage--England And France Post by :Amaranta720 Category :Nonfictions Author :John Ruskin Date :May 2012 Read :1464

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The Poetry Of Architecture - Part 1. The Cottage - 1. The Lowland Cottage--England And France


10. Of all embellishments by which the efforts of man can enhance the beauty of natural scenery, those are the most effective which can give animation to the scene, while the spirit which they bestow is in unison with its general character. It is generally desirable to indicate the presence of animated existence in a scene of natural beauty; but only of such existence as shall be imbued with the spirit, and shall partake of the essence, of the beauty, which, without it, would be dead. If our object, therefore, is to embellish a scene the character of which is peaceful and unpretending, we must not erect a building fit for the abode of wealth or pride. However beautiful or imposing in itself, such an object immediately indicates the presence of a kind of existence unsuited to the scenery which it inhabits; and of a mind which, when it sought retirement, was unacquainted with its own ruling feelings, and which consequently excites no sympathy in ours: but, if we erect a dwelling which may appear adapted to the wants, and sufficient for the comfort, of a gentle heart and lowly mind, we have instantly attained our object: we have bestowed animation, but we have not disturbed repose.

11. It is for this reason that the cottage is one of the embellishments of natural scenery which deserve attentive consideration. It is beautiful always, and everywhere. Whether looking out of the woody dingle with its eye-like window, and sending up the motion of azure smoke between the silver trunks of aged trees; or grouped among the bright cornfields of the fruitful plain; or forming gray clusters along the slope of the mountain side, the cottage always gives the idea of a thing to be beloved: a quiet life-giving voice, that is as peaceful as silence itself.

12. With these feelings, we shall devote some time to the consideration of the prevailing character, and national peculiarities, of European cottages. The principal thing worthy of observation in the lowland cottage of England is its finished neatness. The thatch is firmly pegged down, and mathematically leveled at the edges; and, though the martin is permitted to attach his humble domicile, in undisturbed security, to the eaves, he may be considered as enhancing the effect of the cottage, by increasing its usefulness, and making it contribute to the comfort of more beings than one. The whitewash is stainless, and its rough surface catches a side light as brightly as a front one: the luxuriant rose is trained gracefully over the window; and the gleaming lattice, divided not into heavy squares, but into small pointed diamonds, is thrown half open, as is just discovered by its glance among the green leaves of the sweetbrier, to admit the breeze, that, as it passes over the flowers, becomes full of their fragrance. The light wooden porch breaks the flat of the cottage face by its projection; and a branch or two of wandering honeysuckle spread over the low hatch. A few square feet of garden and a latched wicket, persuading the weary and dusty pedestrian, with expressive eloquence, to lean upon it for an instant and request a drink of water or milk, complete a picture, which, if it be far enough from London to be unspoiled by town sophistications, is a very perfect thing in its way.(1) The ideas it awakens are agreeable, and the architecture is all that we want in such a situation. It is pretty and appropriate; and if it boasted of any other perfection, it would be at the expense of its propriety.

(Footnote 1: Compare _Lectures on Architecture and Painting_, I. Sec. 16.)

13. Let us now cross the Channel, and endeavor to find a country cottage on the other side, if we can; for it is a difficult matter. There are many villages; but such a thing as an isolated cottage is extremely rare. Let us try one or two of the green valleys among the chalk eminences which sweep from Abbeville to Rouen. Here is a cottage at last, and a picturesque one, which is more than we could say for the English domicile. What then is the difference? There is a general air of _nonchalance about the French peasant's habitation, which is aided by a perfect want of everything like neatness; and rendered more conspicuous by some points about the building which have a look of neglected beauty, and obliterated ornament. Half of the whitewash is worn off, and the other half colored by various mosses and wandering lichens, which have been permitted to vegetate upon it, and which, though beautiful, constitute a kind of beauty from which the ideas of age and decay are inseparable. The tall roof of the garret window stands fantastically out; and underneath it, where, in England, we had a plain double lattice, is a deep recess, flatly arched at the top, built of solid masses of gray stone, fluted on the edge; while the brightness of the glass within (if there be any) is lost in shade, causing the recess to appear to the observer like a dark eye. The door has the same character: it is also of stone, which is so much broken and disguised as to prevent it from giving any idea of strength or stability. The entrance is always open; no roses, or anything else, are wreathed about it; several outhouses, built in the same style, give the building extent; and the group (in all probability, the dependency of some large old chateau in the distance) does not peep out of copse, or thicket, or a group of tall and beautiful trees, but stands comfortlessly between two individuals of the columns of long-trunked facsimile elms, which keep guard along the length of the public road.

14. Now, let it be observed how perfectly, how singularly, the distinctive characters of these two cottages agree with those of the countries in which they are built; and of the people for whose use they are constructed. England is a country whose every scene is in miniature.(2) Its green valleys are not wide; its dewy hills are not high; its forests are of no extent, or, rather, it has nothing that can pretend to a more sounding title than that of "wood." Its champaigns are minutely checkered into fields; we can never see far at a time; and there is a sense of something inexpressible, except by the truly English word "snug," in every quiet nook and sheltered lane. The English cottage, therefore, is equally small, equally sheltered, equally invisible at a distance.

(Footnote 2: Compare with this chapter, _Modern Painters_, vol. iv. chap. 1.)

15. But France is a country on a large scale. Low, but long, hills sweep away for miles into vast uninterrupted champaigns; immense forests shadow the country for hundreds of square miles, without once letting through the light of day; its pastures and arable land are divided on the same scale; there are no fences; we can hardly place ourselves in any spot where we shall not see for leagues around; and there is a kind of comfortless sublimity in the size of every scene. The French cottage, therefore, is on the same scale, equally large and desolate looking; but we shall see, presently, that it can arouse feelings which, though they cannot be said to give it sublimity, yet are of a higher order than any which can be awakened at the sight of the English cottage.

16. Again, every bit of cultivated ground in England has a finished neatness; the fields are all divided by hedges or fences; the fruit trees are neatly pruned; the roads beautifully made, etc. Everything is the reverse in France: the fields are distinguished by the nature of the crops they bear; the fruit trees are overgrown with moss and mistletoe; and the roads immeasurably wide, and miserably made.

17. So much for the character of the two cottages, as they assimilate with the countries in which they are found. Let us now see how they assimilate with the character of the people by whom they are built. England is a country of perpetually increasing prosperity and active enterprise; but, for that very reason, nothing is allowed to remain till it gets old. Large old trees are cut down for timber; old houses are pulled down for the materials; and old furniture is laughed at and neglected. Everything is perpetually altered and renewed by the activity of invention and improvement. The cottage, consequently, has no dilapidated look about it; it is never suffered to get old; it is used as long as it is comfortable, and then taken down and rebuilt; for it was originally raised in a style incapable of resisting the ravages of time. But, in France, there prevail two opposite feelings, both in the extreme; that of the old pedigreed population, which preserves unlimitedly; and that of the modern revolutionists, which destroys unmercifully. Every object has partly the appearance of having been preserved with infinite care from an indefinite age, and partly exhibits the evidence of recent ill-treatment and disfiguration. Primeval forests rear their vast trunks over those of many younger generations growing up beside them; the chateau or the palace, showing, by its style of architecture, its venerable age, bears the marks of the cannon-ball, and, from neglect, is withering into desolation. Little is renewed: there is little spirit of improvement; and the customs which prevailed centuries ago are still taught by the patriarchs of the families to their grandchildren. The French cottage, therefore, is just such as we should have expected from the disposition of its inhabitants; its massive windows, its broken ornaments, its whole air and appearance, all tell the same tale of venerable age, respected and preserved, till at last its dilapidation wears an appearance of neglect.

18. Again, the Englishman will sacrifice everything to comfort, and will not only take great pains to secure it, but he has generally also the power of doing so: for the English peasant is, on the average, wealthier than the French. The French peasant has no idea of comfort, and therefore makes no effort to secure it. The difference in the character of their inhabitants is, as we have seen, written on the fronts of their respective cottages. The Englishman is, also, fond of display; but the ornaments, exterior and interior, with which he adorns his dwelling, however small it may be, are either to show the extent of his possessions, or to contribute to some personal profit or gratification: they never seem designed for the sake of ornament alone. Thus, his wife's love of display is shown by the rows of useless crockery in her cupboard; and his own by the rose tree at the front door, from which he may obtain an early bud to stick in the buttonhole of his best blue coat on Sundays: the honeysuckle is cultivated for its smell, the garden for its cabbages. Not so in France. There, the meanest peasant, with an equal or greater love of display, embellishes his dwelling as much as lies in his power, solely for the gratification of his feeling of what is agreeable to the eye. The gable of his roof is prettily shaped; the niche at its corner is richly carved; the wooden beams, if there be any, are fashioned into grotesque figures; and even the "air neglige" and general dilapidation of the building tell a thousand times more agreeably to an eye accustomed to the picturesque, than the spruce preservation of the English cottage.

19. No building which we feel to excite a sentiment of mere complacency can be said to be in good taste. On the contrary, when the building is of such a class, that it can neither astonish by its beauty, nor impress by its sublimity, and when it is likewise placed in a situation so uninteresting as to render something more than mere fitness or propriety necessary, and to compel the eye to expect something from the building itself, a gentle contrast of feeling in that building is exceedingly desirable; and if possible, a sense that something has passed away, the presence of which would have bestowed a deeper interest on the whole scene. The fancy will immediately try to recover this, and, in the endeavor, will obtain the desired effect from an indefinite cause.

(Illustration: FIG. 1. Old Windows: from an early sketch by the Author.)

20. Now, the French cottage cannot please by its propriety, for it can only be adapted to the ugliness around; and, as it ought to be, and cannot but be, adapted to this, it is still less able to please by its beauty. How, then, can it please? There is no pretense to gayety in its appearance, no green flower-pots in ornamental lattices; but the substantial style of any ornaments it may possess, the recessed windows, the stone carvings, and the general size of the whole, unite to produce an impression of the building having once been fit for the residence of prouder inhabitants; of its having once possessed strength, which is now withered, and beauty, which is now faded. This sense of something lost, something which has been, and is not, is precisely what is wanted. The imagination is set actively to work in an instant; and we are made aware of the presence of a beauty, the more pleasing because visionary; and, while the eye is pitying the actual humility of the present building, the mind is admiring the imagined pride of the past. Every mark of dilapidation increases this feeling; while these very marks (the fractures of the stone, the lichens of the moldering walls, and the graceful lines of the sinking roof) are all delightful in themselves.

21. Thus, we have shown that, while the English cottage is pretty from its propriety, the French cottage, having the same connection with its climate, country, and people, produces such a contrast of feeling as bestows on it a beauty addressing itself to the mind, and is therefore in perfectly good taste. If we are asked why, in this instance, good taste produces only what every traveler feels to be not in the least striking, we reply that, where the surrounding circumstances are unfavorable, the very adaptation to them which we have declared to be necessary renders the building uninteresting; and that, in the next paper, we shall see a very different result from the operations of equally good taste in adapting a cottage to its situation, in one of the noblest districts of Europe. Our subject will be, the Lowland Cottage of North Italy.

OXFORD, _Sept., 1837.

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