Good taste branches out

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AN excerpt from the English magazine The Builder in 1877 reads: ``. . . indifference to the aesthetics of home furniture and decoration can hardly be openly professed by any who have the hope of social salvation.'' Perhaps there was a tongue-in-cheek element to the observation. But at this period there was indeed a growing appreciation, in British middle-class homes, of the niceties of interior design. It was largely a matter of opportunity.

Home decoration as a matter of personal choice had traditionally been the province of the rich. Now, increasingly, there were books and magazines advis-ing the newly well-off how to select from the ever-enlarging variety of designs for curtains and wallpapers, carpets and furnishings available to them in the department stores.

Mrs. Panton, one of the popular writers in this field (she was particularly fond of using the word ``artistic'' to qualify the standards of her taste) offered very detailed and specific instructions to her readers. These readers were presumably only too eager for her advice: As Lesley Hoskins has described them, they were ``the new prosperous middle classes with an income of about 500 to 1,000 per annum, who, while they might have money, were seen as lacking the inherited `good taste' of the upper classes.''

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The designer Arthur Silver set up his studio in London in 1880 and found an expanding market ready for his work. He appears to have aimed at pleasing the widest possible clientele and, as his studio grew, he (and his sons Rex and Harry, who succeeded their father), sold their designs not only in Britain, but also in Europe and America. Patterns for wallpapers and textiles, carpets, linoleum, and metalwork were their stock in trade. A practice seems to have quickly developed of catching the spirit of whatever design trend was particularly popular, and from the early '90s literally thousands of designs in the style we now know as Art Nouveau were produced and sold by the Silver Studio.

But, probably because the phrase then carried certain connotations of ``decadence,'' the studio used instead such terms as ``quaint,'' ``modern,'' or ``flat.'' The flatness of its patterns (which often twisted and intertwined with the graceful sinuosity of plant life) was important to this ``new art.'' You only have to compare a Silver Studio wallpaper or carpet design with the almost impenetrably deep and dense undergrowth that had characterized High Victorian patternmaking to realize how comparatively light and delicate Art Nouveau was.

One of Arthur Silver's most original young designers was Harry Napper. The design for a printed textile shown here was his work. A good dark blue acts as background to a swirl of stylized, silvery green acanthus leaves; then filling (but not cramming) the spaces between, the slender stems and finely divided leaves of softly pink-and-yellow-flowered California poppies (Eschscholzia californica) interweave with a delicate boldness.

The ``aestheticism'' out of which Art Nouveau developed came in for a certain amount of contemporary mockery. One phrase for its color preferences was ``greenery-yallery.'' Sage green and terra cotta were favorites. But, Mark Turner writes, ``It is obvious that Harry Napper's own preference was for much stronger, clearer colours, and so designs began to be done in rich reds, greens and blues.''

Most of the work preserved from the Silver Studio is preparatory in kind. The finished designs would have gone to the manufacturers who bought them. This particular Napper design is in gouache on cartridge paper and is in excellent condition.

Arthur Silver's studio made available to more people than ever before designs of high quality. The version of Art Nouveau propagated there made more than a bow in the direction of William Morris's designs, which were beyond the pocket of most people. Like Morris, Silver used that national resource of design, the South Kensington Museum (now the Victoria and Albert Museum) as an inspiration. He and his designers combined historical textile designs with elements from Japanese art.

They were aware of the extraordinary imagination and draftsmanship of Aubrey Beardsley. The ``art nouveau'' practiced on the Continent, however, seemed to them un-English and perhaps not entirely moral. They even tended to include in this vaguely felt distaste the work of an artist such as Glasgow's Charles Rennie Mackintosh. Their connections with Glasgow were as a major supplier to the city's industrial manufacturers, such as Templeton's carpets or Wylie & Lochead's wallpapers.

The entire contents of the Silver Studio were given in 1967 to London's Hornsey College of Art, now part of Middlesex Polytechnic.

A selection from this collection has been formed into an exhibition, shown first at the Hunterian Art Gallery, University of Glasgow, and later to be seen in London and to tour in the United States.

Christopher Andreae

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