On arriving by the Jena bridge, under the magnificent green drapery velum, one encounters, opposite the elegant imperial pavilion, a model of an English cottage which, in our opinion, deserves to be designated under this title: Museum of sample cottages.
It is not, in fact, like the Russian Izba, a complete dwelling of an original and entirely local character, responding to the particular requirements of the climate of a region; it is the more or less bizarre combination of various types of construction and ornamentation in a single house.
Why be surprised? Wouldn't the model of a French country house be difficult enough to offer, since we have neither a particular type for its form, nor rules for its size? But the cottage is the country house of our neighbours; the nest in which every citizen whose business keeps him in town during the day comes to meet his family each evening. Each one chooses this nest according to the requirements of his position, or builds it according to the whims of his fancy.
The English, the hardened and positive traders, - are, however, very much in love with the beauties of nature; they have invented the poetry of lakes and keepseake vignettes; as soon as they have acquired sufficient fortune to live as very embarrassed people in London, they proclaim themselves tourists and go to the ends of the earth to seek subjects for vignettes; they especially seek out picturesque countries, that is to say, those which most resemble English parks and gardens. If Albion's sun is as pale as the moon, the parks of its great lords are the most magnificent in the world: nothing equals the spirit and brilliance of their fox hunts, the richness of their greenhouses, the sumptuous comfort of their castle life. So all Englishmen aspire to this privileged existence; so they all dream of the luxurious countryside with its vast lawns and dense shades.
Only those workers who want to realise this dream in their lifetime replace it with the acquisition of a modest cottage.
It is especially in the vicinity of London that these cheerful cottages abound, scattered in the greenery, like the daisy in our meadows when May comes to powder them with its charming snow. What could be more natural! It is sweet to run away from these long streets, at the same time animated like beehives and silent like tombs, where the busy, indifferent crowd rushes between two rows of sad black houses constantly misted with the dark vapour of coal. What a joy it is then to rest, during the hours of leisure, under a roof which the sun has the right to visit at dawn, to see at dawn the green carpet which surrounds the dwelling, and to breathe in the perfumes of its elegant flowerbed!
Every merchant in the city has his cottage as every peer in England has his castle. From the moral point of view, the English, as our friend Francis Wey so aptly puts it, divide London into two parts: the West End and the City.
The West-End, literally the western end, embraces the whole of the decently habitable districts exclusively inhabited by the aristocratic, intelligent, artistic and financial world. Any man living on his income or exercising a liberal career, resides in the West End, at the risk of a kind of moral decay. No one would dare admit to living anywhere else, and above all no one would be able to accommodate the well-born anywhere else.
The heart of the City is called The Borough, beginning at London Bridge, extending to the Tower of London, and containing a separate population: - The mercantile bohemia and the kingdom of Drugs. From St. Paul's there is a labyrinth of narrow, clean streets, paved like churches and lined with narrow, tightly closed brick houses. This is where the counters, the business agencies, the warehouses, the trade offices, the private banks, in a word, all the offices are located. The monastic-looking district, devoted to the canons of the Stock Exchange and the Bank, adds the author of the English at home, ferments and works like the interior of an anthill. Each door, painted in island wood, is decorated with a gleaming copper hammer, a peephole and a metal plate bearing the name of the head of the house. There is nothing external here; no eye-catching. The little counters of the City, where millions are discounted, have had their clientele assured for centuries; millionaire sons succeed fathers richer than nabobs, and the heirs of these dynasties no more give up their trade than the eldest sons of lords give up the peerage. This district is busy until five o'clock in the evening, after which it remains deserted, for no one makes his home there.
When the day is over, the bourgeois Crèsus return with a modest and paternal air to their splendid hotels in Portland Square, Regent Street, or Grosvenor Square; there are others who go to the outskirts of London to rest in villas or cottages, only to reappear the next day with the humble exterior of a small merchant in the City. As much as people here indulge in the affectation of appearances, so much over there they try to disappear into the common mediocrity. This kind of hypocrisy has its maniacs. Big bankers are quoted as going in person to the butcher's shop every morning to bargain for chops, which they ostentatiously carry to some tavern in Cheapside or Fleet-street, where they insist on grilling them themselves. Then they buy three pence's worth of rye bread and nibble a Spartan lunch in public, while giving their first audiences there. And the good shopkeepers admire in them the simplicity of ancient manners!
On the frieze of a bank house, Mr. Wey read an inscription which summarizes the religious doctrine of the country. Here is the translation: "Lord, direct our operations. Fortune to me, honour to God. ".
After the hard work of the day, therefore, the cottage is an absolute necessity for the English trader; if the one at the Exhibition is not surrounded by the de rigueur garden, it is at least placed in an admirable situation and allows the visitor to embrace the whole park at a glance. The view stretches out into the distance on the right bank of the Seine, whose capricious meanders you follow. Opposite, the heights of the Trocadero are flattened by the explosions of the mine; to the right, in the distance, the houses of the quays, the bridges, the trees of the Champs-Elysées and the Tuileries flee.
The cottage is square in shape; its square windows are simply surrounded by wooden frames; two elegant doors open onto the façade which looks out onto the imperial pavilion and whose wall is formed of mosaics framed in large black wooden lozenges. Each side wall is pierced by a door surmounted by a canopy, and built in greyish rockwork. On this dull background stand out admirably the white statues placed below the windows, where one notices, with the name of the exhibitor, the initials Y. R., which are repeated several times.
As for the roof, it offers all the variety of a real sample card; its slates and bricks of all shapes and colours are arranged in arabesques and whimsical designs, an iron lace surmounts it and surrounds it with its garland, and triple brick chimneys rise like elephant trunks at the end and on the two side façades.
We were very surprised to see that the cottage consisted of only one floor and two rooms. No basement, therefore no kitchen; no nursery, no master and servant's rooms, no toilets! There is nothing to give the visitor the slightest idea of this famous English mfort.
On the other hand, we were able to admire in the interior decoration of these two rooms all the imaginable specimens of the beautiful English faience, forming capricious mosaics enclosed in fake marble frames. And they are so beautiful, so polished, so brilliant, these marbles, that they cannot be considered as simple compositions of English cement. You would certainly believe them to be cut from the richest quarries in Italy or Greece.
At the present time the workmen are still engaged in decorating the walls of the cottage, so that we have not been able to describe it in any definite way; but, we repeat, it looks less like a specimen of a British holiday than the advertisement office of a marble and porcelain manufacturer. Such misdirections are quite common among the English. In London, the famous tunnel is much less a passage than a subterranean and icy bazaar; it does not give access to cars, and it remains consequently useless, this hypogeum which distils drop by drop a water which piles up in black and viscous faques: but between each pillar it spreads out shops, guarded by very young girls buried alive; smiling and pale! They offer glassware, enchanted spectacles, panoramas of London, a quantity of small haberdashery and fairground trinkets. They show puppets, play the accordion and the serinette in this subterranean passage, they live and shiver in this home of rheumatism, but they do not pass through it.
Well, we shall make the same reproach of the cottage of the Exhibition; it does not represent the sweet leisure, the idleness of spring, the unchanging cup of tea and the reading of the Bible, but it hides under its charming exterior the bitter Genius of commerce and gain which is the true God of England.
©L'Exposition Universelle de 1867 Illustrée