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TO ANY HOUSEHOLDER.

    Some general instinct has remained with men, so that the
consensus of nations has been in favour of light colours—light
tones, rather, of whatever colours—for the outward colouring
of towns; with some lamentable exceptions. As a rule it has
been accident, and not design, that has darkened the exterior
of modern houses; we have in London the darkest walls that
ever rebuffed the sun. It is the water-colour of the rain, with
soot in her colour-box, and no fresco of man’s preparation,
that has arrayed them so. The washing of the exterior of
St. Paul’s would have been a better enterprise than the applica-
tions we know of within. But, short of this supreme degree
of darkness, London had some time ago the unlucky inspiration
to paint its houses, all about the West, in oil-colour of dark
red. It was the complaint of the silk-stockinged century that
the pedestrian must needs fare ill in town, for the same mud
made black splashes on the white stockings, and white
splashes on the black. In like manner the London climate
that painted the light stone black, made the dark red (a most
intolerable colour) a shade or two lighter with dust in time;
after which some of the painted houses were reloaded with the
red, and the owners of others had misgivings, and went back
to the sticky white of custom.

    The sticky white is bad enough, but it is witness to the
general acknowledgment of the prohibition of dark colour,
whether on our luckless walls of paint, or on the flattered,
fortunate plaster of the south that softly lodges the warming
day, and has its colour broken by the weather as an artist
chooses to let a tint be effaced or an outline lapse. There is
no surer distinction between an old Italian coloured house and
a new than this: the new is dark and the old is pale. True,
the new is coloured ill as well as darkly, and the old coloured
finely (always warmly with variants of rose and yellow) as
well as lightly; but the deep tone and the high are difference
enough. The new man choses chocolate-colour and dark
blue; blue is his preference, and his blue jars with the sky.

    The ancient man so used his beautiful distemper that it
always looked not merely like a colour, but like a white
coloured. The old under-white enlivens the thin and careless
colour, somewhat like the soft flame of a lamp by day within
a coloured paper. Moreover, the painter did his large and
slight work on a simple wall, and not on the detail of cornice
or portal. His colour took no account of the architectural
forms; it was arbitrary, a decoration that neither followed nor
contradicted the builder’s design, but stood independent thereof,
merely taking the limit of the wall as the boundary of the paint-
ing. Here again all the right guidance has forsaken the man
of to-day, who takes the mouldings of his house one by one,
and gives them separate colours.

    Needless to say, the original colour of the stone is better
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even than this happy plaster, when there is real colour in
stone, greyish, greenish, yellowish, the natural metallic stain.
It is all light in tone; nothing darker, I suppose, than the
brown of the stone that built the Florentine palaces, and all
else lighter. The quarry yields light colours in all countries,
colours as pale as dust, but brighter in their paleness, with the
greater keenness and freshness of the rock. But the nobler
old stone has a kind of life in its colour, as though you could
see some little way into it, as into a fruit or a child’s flesh.
Such is the old marble, but not the new.

    We may suppose that it was because they had new marble
and not old, as we understand old age for marble, that the
Greeks were obliged to colour their temples. It is with some-
thing like dismay that we look where Ruskin points, at
“temples whose azure and purple once flamed above the
Grecian promontories.” Were they azure indeed? It seems
impossible to set any blue against a sky. Nay, the sky forbids
blue walls. Be they dark or light, they must either repeat the
celestial blue, or vary from it with an almost sickening effect.
Who has not seen a blue Italian sky, blue as it is at midsummer
right down to the horizon, at odds with a great blue house,
either a little greener or a little more violet than itself? Blue is a
colour that cannot bear such risks. And “purple” sounds dark,
as though Greece might have had to endure a distress of colour
such as that which comes of the thin dark slates of purple where-
with our suburbs are roofed. If one could be justified, by any
trace of colour in any chink, in believing that transparent
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yellow and red, lighted by the marble, glowed upon those
seaward heights and capes towards the sunrise, and that the
noble stone was not quenched by azure and purple paint! Why
then there would not be this discomfort in our thoughts of
Grecian colour. Of some among the boldly and delicately-
tinted old palaces of the Genoese coast you can hardly tell,
at the hour of sunset, whether their rose is their own or the light’s.

    To the Londoner eye of Charles Dickens there seems to
have been something gaily incongruous in a fortress house
with walls centuries old, and barred with ancient iron across
the lower windows, yet thus softly coloured; he expressed
the cheerful liberal ignorance in which he travelled by calling
one such palace a pink gaol; but this old faint scarlet is a
strong colour as well as a soft; and above all it is warm.
A cold colour, and no other, suggests meanness, insecurity,
and indignity. Colour the battering walls of Monte Cassino,
now warm with the hue of their stone, a harsh blue, and their
visible power is gone; whereas no daubing with orange or
rose, however it might disfigure them, would make them seem
to fail. But a dark colour of any kind, whether hot or cold,
would make them visibly lose their profound hold on their
rock, and their long, searching, and ancient union with their
mountain.

    This is what the householder should be persuaded to
consider—the harshness and weakness of the dark colour, the
harmony and strength of that which is rather a white warmly
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coloured. Any householder is master of a landscape, and the
view is at his mercy. Everything may be set out of order by
the hard colour and the paper thinness of his slate roof. See
the dull country that the Channel divides, half of it on the
Dover heights, and half on those of the Pas de Calais. It is
all one dull country. It has not the beauty of downs, nor of
pasture; it has neither trees nor a beautiful bareness; it has
no dignity in the outlines of the hills; but the French side has
the beauty of roofs, and the English side makes the very
sunshine unsightly with towns and villages covered with
slate. All the French roofs are light in their tone, silver greys,
greenish greys in the towns, a pure high scarlet in the solitary
farms. This kind of French tile retrieves all the poor land-
scape of patchwork fields, green and dull in their unshadowed
noons. The red is strong, simple, and abrupt, a vermilion
filled with yellow.

    It is true that old village tiles are fine, although they be
dark, but only on condition that the cottages they roof should
be whitewashed or of a cheerful brick. There is brick and
brick, and all the very light colours are good. Light rosy
bricks and very small, long in shape, seem the most charming,
and these are rare. Next come the coarse but admirable light
yellow-red. But any man who builds a house of dark bricks
inclining to purple and pointed with slate colonr, would have
done better to erect something in stucco with pillars and a
portico. All kinds of red villas continue to crowd upon our
sight, and it is to be feared that many a purchaser is afraid
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that he shall be reproached with the crudity or the brightness
of his house, and so makes the lamentable choice of dark
bricks. But there is nothing more unreasonable than this
perpetual complaint of the newness of new houses. Let the
owner of a new house have the courage of his date. Let him
be persuaded that a new house ought to look new, that the
Middle Ages in their day looked as new and tight as a box of
well-made toys, that he is bound to pay the debt of his own
time, and that the light of the sky asks for recognition, for
signals and conspicuous replies from the dwellings of men.

    Let the mere white-washer, too, whose work is generally
beneficent, and who has received undeserved reproaches for a
long time now, let him beware of chillling his pail with blue
tinges. The coastguard huts on the Cornish coast would be
the better if their common touch of blue were forbidden them.

    All this advice is, I know well, inexpert, and backed by no
learning. But it is urged with care and with comparison of
countries by one who, in search of roofs and intent upon
colours, has, in the remarkable words of Walt Whitman,
“journeyed considerable.”

                                                          ALICE MEYNELL.

MLA citation:

Meynell, Alice. “To Any Householder.” The Venture: an Annual of Art and Literature, vol. 1, 1903, pp. 31-36. Venture Digital Edition, edited by Lorraine Janzen Kooistra, 2018-2020. Yellow Nineties 2.0, Ryerson University Centre for Digital Humanities, 2019. https://beta.1890s.ca/venturev1-meynell-householder/.