DURING the last twenty years many attempts have been made, upon a limited scale, to engraft Japanese ornament upon British construction, and the results have been almost invariably unsatisfactory. The want of success has arisen either from a lack of knowledge of the characteristics of Japanese decorative art, or from incongruity in its application, or incompetence in its execution. There are many people who imagine that the whole art of Japan is summed up in the decorations of a fan or an umbrella. Such fallacies have been promulgated again and again by would-be teachers of decorative art, who, while they have rightly inveighed against the of birds and flowers in falsely-called Japanese fashion upon mirrors, umbrella stands, and door panels, have omitted to add that such applications of ornament are as opposed to the canons of Japanese taste as they must be to those of any other thinking people. It has come to pass, therefore, from the ignorance of lecturers and writers, as well as from that of the general public, that a fallacious idea of Japanese decoration has become general, and that in almost every attempt to introduce it into Western buildings its principles have been absolutely ignored, and the greatest of aesthetic crimes committed in its name.
That Japan has an art in the decoration of its buildings — an art of rare perfection — is evident to all those who have studied it intelligently in situ. The simplest cottage, in which ornamentation is reduced to a minimum, can be made by a Japanese carpenter into a thing of beauty, dependent for its charm on frank simplicity, absence of pretence, beauty of proportion and perfection of workmanship. However much the houses of the wealthy may be enriched by the decorative artist, the work is done with a sense of fitness that gratifies the most fastidious. We find richness without obtrusiveness. Each thing is in its right place, and it is difficult to imagine any change even in the smallest detail but would detract from the perfection of the whole. But this great beauty, this marvellous perfection of craftsmanship, is due in a less degree to individual effort than to the experiences of generation after generation of cultivated men with whom aestheticism has been the very breath of life. The habits of thought of the Japanese, affected doubtless by the varied cults of Shintoism and Buddhism — opposed in many respects, but working together in strange harmony- — have resulted in the formation of a national style of decorative art in which simplicity and richness are combined in varying predominance and with just such elasticity as to be adapted to almost every idiosyncrasy of character. The recluse and the man of society may so order their houses as to render them entirely appropriate to their different ways of thought and of life, and yet the principles upon which their respective habitations have been built and decorated are in no sense at variance with each other. The cottage and the palace may exist side by side just as in Nature may the lowly daisy and the mighty oak, the one in no way detracting from the beauty of the other; each fitting and perfect in itself and fulfilling the conditions of its existence.
That a similar state of things should one day result in the West may be the dream of many an enthusiast; but the character of the Western people must be changed before such a Utopia can be fully realised.
In the meantime we may ask ourselves, Is it possible to borrow anything from this beautiful style of Japanese decoration that may be appropriate for the ornamentation of our own houses? To do so is more difficult than it may at first seem. We have primarily to face the fact that movable furniture in a Japanese house is reduced to a minimum of quantity and variety. Chairs, couches and bedsteads are non-existent. Cabinets and wardrobes are of small dimensions, or are replaced by drawers and cupboards built into the house itself. Tables are of the tiniest dimensions, to be removed as soon as done with. Of fireplaces, chimney-grates, and glass windows there are none. A condition of things so entirely differing from Western necessities is opposed, on the face of it, to transplantation; and the more it is considered the more evident it becomes that any strictly correct imitation of a Japanese house would be totally unsuited to Western life. It remains, then, only to consider what details of decoration can be borrowed and legitimately adapted to our own homes. Mr. Mortimer Menpes, the well-known Australian painter, during a recent visit to Japan made an especial study of Japanese house decoration and, armed with the plans of a house constructed for him in Cadogan Gardens, London, in which the fittings and decorations had not been completed, he set himself the task of superintending the construction of a complete range of fittings, each detail of which should not only be designed but actually made by a Japanese craftsman; the whole being so constructed as to be readily taken to pieces, packed, and put together again in London. Some idea of the results of his experiment may be formed from the photographs which accompany this article. Probably no more favourable example could be found than this remarkable house of the adaptation of Japanese ornament, although it must not be thought that the experiment exemplifies all that is to be said upon the subject. Mr. Menpes, by his free application of gold and colours and by his display in European fashion of numerous ornaments, has rather gone beyond Japanese custom in domestic interiors, but in doing so he has not acted unadvisedly, as he has wished to adapt from rather than slavishly imitate the prototype.
The decoration of the ceilings and wall-surfaces deserve first attention. Houses in Japan being usually entirely constructed of wood, the ceilings are nearly always panelled in that material. In small houses the panels are large and are cheaply and effectively made of plaited bamboo. In better class houses choice woods are employed—the wood being unpainted and unvarnished, preference being given to beautifully grained varieties. In other rooms—as in the guest rooms attached to important temples—the panels are painted in bright colours. Mr. Menpes has selected for his ceilings the perforated and carved wooden Osaka panels, which have been stained and relieved by a gold background. The beautiful coved lacquer cornice is a striking feature in some Japanese temples, and in adopting it Mr. Menpes has displayed excellent judgment. The frieze immediately below the cornice is filled by a series of panels known in Japan as ramma. These are nearly always of carved wood cut a wur for purposes of ventilation. Such a method of ventilation being unnecessary and impracticable in a house constructed upon European methods, the ramma have been backed in the same manner as the ceiling panels., Below these, carved wood ramma, in some of the rooms, is another series of panels filled in with Osaka lattice-work, by the aid of which a difficulty connected with the proportion of spaces has been happily overcome. Japanese rooms are much less lofty than those at Cadogan Gardens, and in order to keep the lower part of the room in correct proportions, this clever but otherwise indefensible subterfuge has been adopted.
The simple methods of panelling, the absence of mouldings, the entirely plain wall-surfaces, are in excellent taste and follow entirely Japanese precedents.
The doors and windows, no doubt, caused Mr. Menpes many hours of anxious thought. In Japan the interior doors and the windows are invariably substituted by sliding panels, the latter being covered with thin paper instead of being panelled with glass. Happily, however, exterior doors upon hinges are used for entrances to many important buildings, and it was only necessary to copy the lightest form of these with their lacquer panels and metal appliances in order to overcome what, otherwise, would have been a serious difficulty. The window difficulty was met in the only manner possible. Double windows were made — most admirable contrivances, in a London house — the outer one of which was in Western fashion, and the inner one of light lattice-work in Japanese form.
In the matter of floor covering, the verminous but otherwise specklessly clean tatami of Japan are impossible for a high — heel — wearing people. They were, therefore, wisely abandoned for a thick-pile, unpatterned carpet, equally delightful to tread upon as the tatami, with none of their drawbacks.
On the delicate subject of furniture Mr. Menpes has acted with much cumspection. We have only one serious objection to make, and that is to his chairs. We believe that such chairs are to be found in the lumber-rooms of certain temples in Japan, but it would be quite possible for an intelligent tourist to travel over the whole length and breadth of the land and never come across one. They have a certain quaintness of form and construction, and were they entirely relegated to the hall and the studio would pass without unfavourable comment. As a substitute, however, for the drawing-room lounge and for use in the dining room nothing could be more inappropriate, and it is satisfactory, therefore, to learn that they are to be replaced by others of more fitting design. The small square wooden tables in the drawing-room are of Chinese form and useful for the reception of ornamental objects. The settees are of European design, but are in happy harmony
with their Japanese surroundings. The overman^ in the dining-room, while of simple and inoffensive structure, is an example of unnecessary pandering to modern conventionalities. The cabinets of purely Japanese character in the dining-room, and especially the one with the numerous drawers in the studio, are charming in their frank simplicity, and greatly to be preferred to the over-elaborated and decorated cabinets with their carved ivory and pearl inlays which have been made in recent years by the Japanese for the European market, It is easy to imagine the highly sensitive Japanese connoisseur almost expiring from shame at the sight of these things, and Mr. Menpes has been well advised to give them a wide berth. The electric-light fittings are original in idea and most appropriate. The row of lanterns over the settee in the hall, and in the studio and drawing-room, each one of which contains an incandescent lamp, glow with an extremely soft and pleasant light. The little window-like lantern high up in the hall is effectively placed, while the bronze and paper constructions suspended from brackets affixed to the walls of all the rooms are of simple Japanese design and well adapted to their purpose. The finely carved ramma in the hall and the beautiful embroideries and tapestries framed or used as coverings to couches and tables take the place of pictures, and by the beauty of their colourings and work m,-m sb ip add greatly to the pictures; iiie character of the house. Nor must the examples of porcelain jars which ornament the rooms be overlooked. Many of these have been painted in a Japanese workshop by Mr. Menpes himself, and a group has been specially photographed in order to give the reader an idea of the nature of the details. The principal charm of the house lies in the fact that it depends for its attractions entirely upon its hand-made decorations — all machine-made ornaments being rigidly excluded. It is a common fallacy to suppose that no house can appear satisfactory without wall-papers, moulded cornices, fancy carpets and machine-made brocades, and, above all, plenty of framed pictures, prints, and photographs upon its walls. That pictures and prints and even photographs have a charm in themselves is, of course, readily to be granted. That wall-papers and machine-woven fabrics have a legitimate place in the economy of modern decoration is incontestable. But there is a growing feeling in the minds of many, and especially among those to whom the question of expense is not of paramount importance, that a house, to be in the highest sense an artistic house, should contain no decorations but those made by the hands of man, and especially adapted to their surroundings. Let ornament be used as sparingly as may be desired, but whatever there is of it, let it be of the best. Plain structural forms and plain surfaces add to rather than detract from the beauty of a house, provided their proportions are duly considered and that they are so placed that they relieve in effect some object of consummate decorative value. Most
"An Experiment in the Application of Japanese Ornament to the Decoration of a Japanese House." The Studio. 17 (1899): 170-78.
Last modified 21 April 2007