Rural Architecture

ESSAYS on art, it is generally supposed, ought to be written by artists, because they are more familiar with both its theory and its practice, and possess more general information concerning it than others. But a technical knowledge of art is not necessary for understanding its relations to the wants of men, any more than a practical knowledge of agriculture for estimating the commercial value of its products. Architecture, the most important branch of art, may be considered with reference not alone to the material wants of man but also to the different effects in landscape scenery of the various styles of buildings. An artist is not in a position to understand these effects any better than outside observers of equal intelligence who have made them a special study. I take this opportunity to present a few ideas on rural architecture, that the readers of The Atlantic may see how this subject is viewed by one who is only a spectator of these things, who is not an artist, nor in a technical sense even a connoisseur. It may be somewhat instructive even to artists to obtain the views of one who is in a situation that would cause him to think and feel more like the great mass of the people than any one who is either an amateur or a professor. I do not propose, however, to treat of art in any other way than as a painter who is not a botanist might discourse of trees and flowers.

Many essays have been written upon “ truth to human nature ” as one of the general principles of art in its application to the wants of man. But the authors have treated the subject so metaphorically that the reader would obtain from their remarks only certain pleasant gleams of thought, affecting him more like poetry than like a luminous and practical lesson of wisdom. This truth to human nature in architecture is but little more than a synonym for fitness and propriety. If a house be adapted to the wants of the family that occupies it, and significant in its exterior of the general condition and pursuits of the family, so far it is true to human nature. But it has been generally observed that all “ improved ” landscape scenery is tame and insipid compared with hundreds of village scenes in the country, which have never been embellished by art, and where the houses have been built without reference to any principle except that of utility. As soon as an artist enters the town and studies the effects of the buildings which he designs as parts of a composition in landscape, he thinks more of what would please artists and critics, than of what is suitable to the character of those who are to be the occupants of the buildings. Each community contains but few artists. We must consider the influence of certain styles of building and landscape upon the moral sentiments, passions, and sympathies of men of all classes; how they will affect the rich and the cultivated, the amiable and conformable part of the community, and no less how they will affect the poor and the ignorant, or the jealous, the envious, and even the malignant, whose criticisms often contain truths which are never spoken by other people.

It is the most sympathetic and intelligent minds which are the most delighted with simple scenes. They like to see the face of the landscape indicative to a certain extent of the occupations of the inhabitants. Though it would be absurd to expect or desire a strict uniformity in these matters, such an approximation to it as we observe in many of our old country villages, which are distant from railroads and other commercial thoroughfares, will generally be acknowledged as charming. It is pleasant to see the evidence of all that is comfortable and happy in the condition of a community displayed in its scenery, and to learn by the style of the houses, shops, and other structures how far the village is occupied by farmers, and how far by mechanics and men of other employments. Even if scenery of this character be consequently homely, and present but few attractions to one who views it only with an artistic eye, it is sympathetic; it commends itself to our love of our fellowmen, and amuses our minds by presenting many scenes and incidents to the imagination in the drama of village life. Many plain houses, when considered in relation to their rustic surroundings and the simple manners and character of their occupants, are far more beautiful in the eyes of a person of sensibility than any amount of decorative ornament could make them.

We will take for an example one of those houses which are among the few remaining specimens of the general style of farmers’ homesteads during the last century in New England. I will quote my own description of one from Studies in the Field and Forest : “ The old house, containing two stories in front, with the roof extending down to one story in the rear, is seen half-protected by the drooping branches of a venerable elm. A woodbine hangs in careless festoons around the low windows, and a briar-rose bush grows luxuriantly over the plain board fence that incloses the garden. The house stands some distance from the road, and is surrounded in front and on one side by a spacious grass-plot, neatly shorn by the grazing animals while sauntering on their return from pasture. An old barn is near; and the flocks and the poultry seem to enjoy an amount of comfort which we might look for in vain in the inclosures of an ornate dwelling-house. The exterior is associated with its interior arrangements no less than with the scenes around it. We see, in fancy, the wide entry into which the front door opens; the broad and angular staircase; the window in the upper entry, that looks out upon a rustic landscape dotted with fruit-trees, and patches of plowed land alternating with green meadow. By the side of the staircase on the lower floor stands an ancient clock, whose loud striking and slow stroke of the pendulum are associated with the old style of lowstudded rooms.”

The good man and woman who occupy this house are honest and industrious people, and are interesting and agreeable in their humble situation. Their manners and character adorn the house, which in its turn reflects a pleasant lustre of fitness and propriety upon this worthy pair. The rough but serene and intelligent countenance of the man, and the womanly dignity and simplicity of his consort, render them a hero and heroine in this their proper sphere. But they are neither elegant nor cultivated. They are sensible, frugal, industrious, and good; and the house they occupy is adapted to their wants, their character, and their habits, and the evidence of this fitness is plain to all observers.

Their house is picturesque though not ornate. It has something about it that is superior to architectural beauty; and while this honest couple are its occupants, their place of residence harmonizes with their life.

Suppose this plain farmer, in compliance with the demands of “ taste,” should build in the place of his homely cottage an ornate residence in villa style, He immediately finds it necessary to dispense with his plain furniture, and to supply the house with such as will befit his new and elegant apartments. The “ genteel ” furnishing of their best rooms puts this rude couple to the necessity of living afterwards in their kitchen. Not being ornate in their persons and manners, they feel discomposed when surrounded by the finery of their other apartments, and they long for the freedom and comfort of their old home. We must also bear in mind that this worthy couple, who were so interesting and poetic in their former home, have now lost character. They have placed themselves unwittingly in a position which they cannot maintain, and they feel like an actor of servile parts on the stage, who should suddenly be called to personate a gentleman or a prince. Their elegant house and furniture render their presence a solecism; and their rude dialect and untutored manners, that did not abate our regard for them in their old house, now make them ridiculous. And inasmuch as the new house does not befit the character and habits of its inmates, it is a false object in the landscape.

It may be objected, however, that by adding elegance to the style of living of the humble classes, you elevate them in the scale of refinement and taste. But can it be said with as much truth that the same improvements elevate them as moral and intelligent beings? The teachers of this sort of æsthetic morality are misled by a fallacy which consists in mistaking etiquette for refinement, and fashion for taste, as faith in the religious code and in its religious sense is mistaken for goodness. So far is an elegant style of living from elevating men and women in their moral feelings, that the surest way of corrupting the honesty of young men and the virtue of young women is to inspire them with an ambition for such a style of living. They cease thereafter to think of simple and homely happiness, and will cheerfully sacrifice comfort and independence that they may possess a showy house and costly furniture. The reader must bear in mind that neatness, which is a virtue, must not be mistaken for elegance, which is only an artistic quality. Just in the same degree as you instill into young people of either sex a desire for that sort of distinction which wealth alone can confer, you supply them with a motive to indulge in a certain kind of elegant profusion which only the wealthy can display without the sacrifice of honesty and virtue.

The moral expression of village scenery is overlooked by our teachers of the “beautiful.” But those who have reflected upon it are aware that if a country scene contain only ornate houses and grounds, the landscape cannot be suggestive of that simplicity of habits, nor of those sensible and frugal traits of character, which we admire in a rustic population; nor would it remind us of the various occupations of the villagers. The absence of plain houses and their significant outbuildings, and the appearance in their place of counterfeit villas, having their workshops and other structures for rural and mechanical operations fashioned in such a way as to conceal their purpose from the spectator, would despoil the scene of all its romantic charms. If we believe the place to be inhabited by workingmen, we are disagreeably affected by the indications of a vicious love of fashion and display. On the other hand, if we know nothing of the population, we imagine the village to be only a place of residence for merchants and merchants’ clerks. These men are a very useful class; but it is not agreeable to think that the community is wholly made up of them. A style of building and of landscape that suggests these reflections wants that poetical character which always attaches to a genuine rural scene.

A blacksmith’s shop is a favorite subject for painters and poets, and is in a remarkable degree one of the significant buildings in a village landscape. The independent occupation of the blacksmith renders him a striking character in any poetic description of a village, and his shop an important and interesting object among its scenes. The offices required of him also command our attention, and we are interested by the animals led thither to be prepared for their burdens. Many authors have written with delight of the old smithy in their native village, and have always gained the sympathy of their readers. Now as an object in a village scene, the smithy must be a simple structure without any ornaments, and it is usually of such a form as to distinguish it from other workshops. But if some lover of decorative art were to persuade the village blacksmith to put up in the place of his homely and significant workshop an ornamental building, that its artistic decorations might beautify the prospect, no sooner is this done than the spell of enchantment that made the old smithy both interesting and impressive is broken. The plain and appropriate workshop is transformed into a gazabo; and the artistic structure has no attractions at all, except as a study for some pedantic connoisseurs. Its ornaments are as absurd and ridiculous as kid gloves upon the hands of the stalwart mechanic who swings the hammer under its roof.

When we are journeying in the country we are pleased with the visible proof on the face of the landscape that the workers are plain and hardy yeomen, and that the tillers of the soil are veritable “ rural swains,” contented with their lot, and happy because they are humble in their ambition. Some might object that ignorance is the necessary accompaniment of this simplicity. But the ignorance of the rural classes is one of the attractions of rustic society. It is not a disagreeable quality when joined with native good sense. The ignorant are the poetic and picturesque classes of the village; not that they are either poets or sentimentalists; but they have a certain naïveté about them which in cultivated people is displaced by the imitation of models. Ignorant men are not disagreeable, save when wealth or some political accident has elevated them into positions that show them in a ridiculous light. Men who live by their wits and pursue elegant occupations may be more intelligent companions, and are preferred as members of our social circles. But we see the most natural expression of character among the uneducated classes, if they have not lived in cities. They act with less reference to conventionalities, and display their native humor, while the refined classes act a part which has been assigned them by their system of education. There is more individuality among the ignorant, more that affects us with that sort of interest which attends a well-drawn character in romance. Now if we make the dwellings of the rural classes ornate, the landscape containing them becomes as tame and insipid as the conversation of that kind of elite society in which no person expresses an opinion. But our “improved ” system of rural architecture is based upon perverted ideas of what is good and interesting in human character. Writers of romance are superior in this respect to artists, because the latter are supported chiefly by the rich, and strive to flatter their ambition.

Landscape gardening is based on the same fallacies. The idea of personal grandeur is tlie leading thought that governs the artist. This is all he strives to develop, and all that is demanded by the proprietor for whom he plans his work. The villa must express magnificence and cost; and the “ lodge ” must be built in the same style, that it may be recognized by the spectator as a part of the lordly estate, and that the occupant of it may not be taken for any one but a servant. It would be more agreeable to a spectator of sensibility to see evidence that the superintendent is an independent laborer, as he undoubtedly is. But this would not be in harmony with the principles of landscape gardening, which is a direct importation of the sentiments of the aristocratic classes of Great Britain in their most offensive shape, and is the most egregious folly that was ever dignified with the name of science.

The various works which have been published in this country on landscape gardening differ from the English works on the same subject only in pointing out methods by which, with less wealth, our people may make as great a display as the English lords. Hence they have done more to destroy those features in village scenery which are needful to all good and truthful expression, than the spontaneous vanity of the people would have done in a century. Men who would have been very well pleased with that modest style of building which is expressive of all that is most admirable in a country landscape have been converted to the notion that it is their moral duty to build ornate residences. The whole community has been seized by a sort of æsthetic monomania, and the possession of a fine house has grown to be one of the surest passports to public consideration.

I do not deny the right of a poor man to live in a fine house; but he cannot be so happy, or so thrifty, or so respectable, as in a plain house adapted to his moderate wants and his limited means. An educated poor man in such a house might not seem out of place to one who is not aware of his poverty. But an ignorant man with clownish manners cannot live in a palace without making his personal defects both conspicuous and ludicrous. Yet how often do we observe that the most ostentatious house in a village belongs to some unlettered clown who has by a blind turn of Fortune’s wheel become rich. Conscious that wealth alone can distinguish him above his equals, he seizes the first opportunity to gain distinction by building a costly house. But its splendor does not blind him to his own personal defects, and when he approaches his mansion with a stranger, he shrinks from acknowledging it as his own property, because he is sensible of a practical absurdity when the splendor of his house is contrasted with his awkward manners, his ungrammatical speech, his hard hands, and his rustic visage.

It may be said, in defense of all this show, that it is a faithful index of the character of the people; that it is true to the weak side of human nature. But it is not the follies or the vices of men which we would see faithfully indexed on the face of the country. We want that kind of scenery which is true to their material occupations, and to those customs and habits which are interesting as well as characteristic. We do not like to see any man’s estate covered with the idols of his ambition, if that is either foolish or vain. Neither, on the other hand, if the inhabitants are filthy, is it agreeable to see this principle of truth to human nature literally carried into operation. The advocates of the ornate fully understand this principle; but they err in overestimating the effect of displaying the proprietor’s ambition. They think chiefly of setting forth in the landscape what pleases the wealthy and fashionable part of society, and work as if they thought the way to improve the aspect of the country was to conceal the evidence that any other classes exist.

But it would be difficult to imagine anything more uninteresting than society in the actual absence of those classes whose presence those artists would conceal in the style of their architecture. Let us suppose that by some impossible invention all labor should be performed by self-acting and self-adjusting machinery; and that those useful and happy citizens who now live by the labor of their hands and by the exercise of some manual art were entirely exempted from toil, and metamorphosed into æsthetic gentlemen of leisure. We should then behold a community having little to do beside eating and drinking, except to discover every possible method of assuaging the tedium of life. The idea of such a state of society, in spite of the leisure of its members to cultivate “ aspirations,” is a painful one, because we know that its members would be both miserable and vicious. Health, virtue, and contentment come from the necessity of moderate labor and its wholesome restraints; and our most poetic images of human happiness are associated with a people consisting in great part of workingmen, enjoying political freedom and a comfortable store of the good things of life. It may be truly said that any signs in the landscape of the numerical predominance of the cultivated classes would spoil our interest in it. It is with the humble classes that we feel the most sympathy, on account of the benevolence of our nature, which pride alone is able to destroy. To this sympathy the novelist makes his most successful appeals; and the charm of rude and pastoral scenery comes from the same sentiment.

Our ideas of beauty are greatly modified by our moral sentiments; and he who has studied art without reference to anything save the ambition of his fellow - citizens will be prone to think more of the display of art than of its poetic expressions or moral significations, not understanding by these the symbolic or historic meaning of certain architectural ornaments. Painters are much more true to these homely qualities of art than architects; for the reason, perhaps, that the architect works by formulas and by mathematical rules, and by habit loses his appreciation of the picturesque. It may be added that the mathematical character of architecture would naturally draw into its ranks those who are fond of precision and method, while the art of painting would attract those whose proclivities are more like those of a poet or writer of romance. Above all, the architect, being chiefly employed by wealthy men, soon learns that it will be better for his material interest and credit to flatter their ambition than to be governed by his own taste and sentiments. It is impossible to determine how much of our ostentatious architecture is attributable to a want of true genius on the part of the artist; but I think if he had the power to divest himself of all considerations except his own ideas of beauty and of fitness and propriety, our rural architecture would be vastly more plain, modest, and picturesque than any which is now in existence. It is difficult, also, for an artist to escape being enamored of the pedantry of his art. There is so much that is fascinating to a warm imagination in the historical meanings of the different forms in architecture, and in what has been called the language of decoration, that but few artists can avoid the temptation of using them too profusely.

In the town of Andover, in the early part of this century, there lived an old negro named Pomp, with Dinah his wife, in a little plain cottage near the pond that still bears his name. Pomp and his wife were unlettered and poor, but they lived by honest labor and industry; they were not beggars. He owned a few acres of land, and on this little farm he raised fruits and vegetables, and sold the milk of one cow that was often seen feeding by the green roadside. Pomp was a skillful gardener, and earned many an honest day’s wages by working for the people of the village. Dinah raised herbs and flowers in her garden, and was a kind of simpler for her neighborhood; she was also hired for various humble services. And when there was a call for charitable labor, gratuitous nursing for the sick, or any other simple offices of kindness, this worthy pair were always ready with their offers and their services, which were useful, sincere, and without affectation. There was not a couple in the whole town who enjoyed more of the esteem and affection of the inhabitants than this old negro and his wife.

Pomp’s house was a cottage of very neat and simple construction, of one story, having a small close porch, with a gable, for the front entrance, and a small wing opposite in the rear for a kitchen. The roof had two gable ends, and two dormer windows in front. These simple appendages made the house a very pretty and suggestive building, beside its beauty of proportion. The house was unpainted, except its facings, which were yellow, and its want of color caused it to harmonize well with the homely landscape about it. But there was so much neatness in the grounds that surrounded it, so many marks of care and industry in the well-constructed wood-piles and the clean footpaths that led through the greensward to the doors of the house, and such a charming though simple variety of flowers in the garden, that the place became one of the sights which people visiting the town were always invited to see, among the interesting objects of classic Andover. Another of its attractions was the amiable and original character and habits of its occupants. Their neat little cottage was the picturesque representation of their humble life, the scene of the charming romance of their simple biography.

It may be objected that the house would have no charms for a spectator who knew nothing of its occupants. I reply that they would only be weakened, as the pleasure with which we contemplate a ruin is weakened by our ignorance of its history and purpose. But neither the cottage nor the ruin is entirely dependent on this knowledge for its attractions. The ruin, though its history were unknown, would still affect us with an agreeable sensation of grandeur and mystery; and in viewing the cottage, its appendages, and its grounds, we should immediately picture to our minds some worthy and humble family as having dwelt there, and the neatness and simplicity of its whole appearance would awaken our sympathies and cause it to be admired as the scene of some pleasing domestic romance. We are affected by all these things when we examine pictures. There is hardly a person of moderate culture who would not admire a well-executed painting of Pomp’s cottage and grounds; and if any person would not admire the same object in real landscape, it is because he needs the genius of the painter to fix his attention upon it and assist his imagination. Our mistake when we view such pictures is to suppose that it is the painting we admire, and not the scene it represents. But if the spectator has no sympathy with the humble classes, the picture of the cottage would be nothing to him except as a work of art, and the real cottage would only disfigure the prospect. In like manner would the ruin appear, to one who is both ignorant and stolid, as a mere ugly heap of earth and stones.

Some of the picturesque objects that have affected me with the most pleasure, when passing over the old roads that lead from one village to another in the rural districts of New England, are certain neat farm cottages near the roadside, which we meet at frequent and irregular intervals. They generally stand upon an inclosure of a few acres of land, with a barn and barn-yard near, indicating that the owner is a tiller of the ground, while a small building not far from the house, but seldom adjoining it, reveals that the farmer is also a shoemaker, and that when he lays aside the spade and the reaping-hook, he takes up the lapstone for his winter occupation. These buildings, which resemble each other in their general form and appearance, seldom contain more than two or three windows, affording room for as many workmen, and are usually placed a little nearer the road than the dwellinghouse. But the beauty of these workshops, which are in the plainest style, consists in the expression of the industrious habits of the people who occupy them. There are no artificial objects in a village landscape that so beautifully harmonize with the pleasant scenes of nature as these little homely buildings. The simple and economical system of agriculture that still prevails in many parts of the country has left the face of nature undespoiled of that spontaneous embroidery which constitutes the most interesting landscape. We may walk in some counties over a distance of many miles of such scenery, interspersed with hundreds of plain farm-houses, as beautiful as they are plain and simple, and as lovely as the wild vines that clamber over their fences. But these cheerful objects are rapidly disappearing, and in the same ratio is village scenery growing vapid and ostentatious, showing forth the vanity of the people and the pedantry of artists, and concealing the interesting habits of the population.

There are many who admire these objects and look upon them with affection, but will not admit that they deserve to be called beautiful or ornamental to the landscape. They acknowledge that their presence awakens agreeable sensations, but will not consent to name the cause of these sensations beauty; beauty is for them some mystical æsthetic quality which is too vague to be defined. These simple and homely objects excite in our minds the most agreeable sensations, often surpassing the effects of the most beautiful scene in nature; still they are not beautiful, and they deface and deform the landscape!

Wilson Flagg.