Some kitchens are orderly: some are shambles. The same contrasts exist, of course, in sitting-rooms, living-rooms, dining-rooms, drawing-rooms and so on, upwards and onwards to palaces.
A sense of order seems, alas, to be a characteristic more often born in people than one easily acquired. Some fortunate creatures seem able, with no effort at all, to transform even the impedimenta of a kitchen table into an exhibition display. Others never get near the beginnings of providing such visual pleasure for themselves or others.
The classicist contends, of course, that the basis of any satisfying arrangement is symmetry, orderliness, balance, proportion and all the rest of the verities of design. But the lie is given to that by others, who make a mockery of symmetry and go their triumphant, decorative, asymmetrical ways.
The beginner in the gentle art, the tyro-arranger, having absorbed all due instruction in fundamental classical notions, usually sets out with a clear-cut idea of the effect he or she so desperately wishes to achieve. The clock is set firmly in the middle of the mantelpiece, or atop the chest-of-drawers. On either side of the clock is the pair of urns, vases, jugs or other containers for the bright flowers of spring and summer. At the far end of the shelf are the cornucopias. Above them, on either side of the clock, is hung the pair of pictures or looking-glasses (or mirrors, of course).
And it is all very charming, satisfactory and soothing to the ego when visitors arrive and say how charming. Second thoughts may arise after a visit to the studio of an artist friend of a friend. First elements of doubt are excited by the sight of a plank of wood above a red-hot stove on which is set an agglomeration of sea-shells, toys, lay figures, a broken piece of a terracotta oddment from Calabria, invitations, sketches. And the whole lot has a feel which that rather complacent, symmetrical arrangement lacks.
Where does he get these ideas of asymmetrical display ?’ Asks the tyro sadly. ‘Must I also study the works of Leger, Miro, Picasso, Nicolson and the rest?’ They might help, of course, for all are masters of the art of spatial dissonance. But asymmetry isn’t the answer to everything. There are plenty of ideas about the best way to arrange our well-loved decorative impedimenta about the house.
The truth is, of course, that either symmetry or asymmetry can triumph. The main thing is to defy the foul fiend of imitation and to make your arrangement essentially your arrangement. Put what you like on your shelf, your wall, your tabletop, your sideboard, but make certain that it is there because it pleases you and not because somebody else told you it ought to.
Of course, you make your arrangements for impact and effect. Of course you have in mind other people’s reactions. You wouldn’t be human if you didn’t set out with ideas of impressing others with your originality, flair, taste and the rest.
Such foibles have given us most of the visual pleasures of lives, from Holkman and Kedleston to the false bridge at Kenwood and the gardens of Sheffield Park. All these spledidn effects were done for subjective pleasure but with more than half-an-eye on their objective effect.
The gentle art of arrangement, then, carries no rules apart, I think, from one basic tenet, which is less a rule than a point to remember. Symmetry is apt to demand pairs of objects, but the snag is that pairs of almost anything worth owning and showing are increasingly expensive and should be the best of their kind that you can afford, for they will receive closer critical examination than any miscellany or medley. When the pairs of decorative objects are of the highest quality then symmetry can be visually exciting and perhaps the most continuously pleasing of arrangements. Lady Juliet Duff, who died last year, had a most tremendous flair for such symmetrical arrangements. She also had some the most covetable of all objets d’art in her house and would ring the most beguiling changes of arrangement.
The English tend to have a predilection for symmetrical chimneypiece arrangements. I think that this search for orderliness probably stems from the fact that our rooms are apt to be less formally arranged than those of other countries-comfort being our first priority-and a sense of order-by-proxy, so to speak, can be maintained on a chest or mantelpiece or sideboard. The French, on the other hand, have a penchant for displaying their or arrangements on table-tops and incline towards tabletops which are covered with velvet. Dark green or wine-coloured fabrics are a perfect background for gilt, brass, ormolu, marble and enamel objects, yet, curiously enough, I would not include china or porcelain in this category (mainly, I suspect because the latter invariably offer overmuch white in their charms). This is a personal reaction and could well be revised by a skilful idiosyncratic tour de force by one of nature’s decorators.
Arrangements on walls, of course, are even more a personal exercise. One can crowd them to the limit as the Victorians once did (frequently very decoratively) and as Professor Mario Praz does so successfully in his Roman apartment. The modern mood and method seems undoubtedly to incline towards a more austere (not necessarily more selective) approach. One picture of compelling impact seems more likely to appeal to most of my contemporaries than a host of pictures. And so with sculpture in the home. No longer is the collector called upon to show his whole collection. Even if he’s a modern Croesus he need not build a special gallery.
Millionaires veer towards the Japanese idea of concealing their collections, displaying only one object or, at the most, a few at a time. When was the last private sculpture gallery built in this country?, might be a punitive question for one of those undergraduate cultural quiz panels I occasionally see on television.
Yet, as all decorative styles are apt to go in cycles, I am amused to see that increasingly my more avant-garde and acquaintances are beginning to see virtue in the once-despised Victorian vice of what they so recently and scathingly termed ‘over’ decoration. In our currently mass-produced world, unique objects, whether priceless or just penny-plain-fun, seem to be worth showing for what they are: objects of defiance of a conveyor-belt philosophy. And once the desire to show those objects begins to take a grip on the proud possessor, he (or she) very soon delights in just displaying. And that sense of delight is at the heart, I think, of any so-called art of arranging. Few pleasures in this world are quite so harmless, pacific or self-pleasing as this. And few, I must add, are quite so time-consuming, but even that has its therapeutic side in a frenetic world.