Sunday 19 October 2014

World of Interiors 4

Why is it the super rich never seem to have any taste in curtains? (Feargus O'Sullivan)

Syrie Maugham started the trend of stripping and repainting French provincial antiques. (Wikipedia)

Poverty has its whims and shows of taste, as wealth has. Some of these cabins were turreted, some had false windows painted on their rotten walls; one had a mimic clock, upon a crazy tower of four feet high, which screened the chimney; each in its little patch of ground had a rude seat or arbour. (Barnaby Rudge, Charles Dickens)

Today your bedroom is the backstage area where you prepare for your performance in the theatre of the world... The living room... a sort of stage-set where homeowners acted out an idealised version of their lives for the benefit of guests... The inexpensive and slightly lowbrow connotations of gas meant that it was still shunned by the upper classes: they stayed loyal to candles. Lucy Orrinsmith, author of The Drawing Room, Its Decoration and Furniture (1878), suggested that one’s ambition ought to extend beyond a coal scuttle decorated with a picture of Warwick Castle and a screen showing ‘Melrose Abbey by Moonlight’. Instead, homeowners should look out for quirky, exotic flourishes for their best room: ‘a Persian tile, an Algerian flower-pot, an old Flemish cup, a piece of Nankin blue, an Icelandic spoon, a Japanese cabinet, a Chinese fan … each in its own way beautiful and interesting’. (If Walls Could Talk: An Intimate History of the Home, Lucy Worsley)

Middle-class Upwards are still following Orrinsmith's instructions almost to the letter. But Rowena Upward, the ultra-Bohemian, is collecting Jacobethan furniture, little brass animals – and anything decorated with Warwick Castle or Melrose Abbey. She has an eye on a bamboo Edwardian overmantel which she plans to fill with knicknacks. She even intends to crochet frills for all its brackets. It won’t quite go with the Jacobethan – but perhaps she’ll go all-out for 1880, with potted palms on stands and round tables with velvet covers to the ground.


Sofas from the 1950s often had plastic trays clipped onto their arms to hold food or drinks. (If Walls Could Talk: An Intimate History of the Home, Lucy Worsley)

The “random cladding” movement in architecture. (Adam Furman)

In a poncey club sitting on a sofa made from a slab of pumice with no back to it. They know how to make you feel welcome. (Mark Gatiss)

Bow windows with bottle-bottom glass, plus Georgian fanlights, on a 60s council house.

Hotel room en suite bathrooms with glass walls so you can watch TV in the bath. (What if you’re sharing the room???) And many hotel rooms have TVs in the bathroom, some disguised as mirrors or pictures.

“Classic” French provincial bathroom cabinets (including a basin on cabriole legs with faux drawers).

Buying a Georgian house and removing all the fireplaces so that there’s no obvious place to put the furniture and it stands around looking awkward.

Dummy chimneys on new houses.

Bars in Dalston with the “poverty look” - distressed wood and reused school chairs - which are too expensive for local people.

Crazy paving – on the wall.


The Pig Hotel “all shabby-chic Georgian splendour, roll-top baths with views over parkland...” (Times magazine 2014-08-16) Nothing can be both shabby AND splendid. Unless you specifically mean “shabby splendour”. And if the Georgians had had roll-top baths they would not have sat in one looking out over parkland. Oscar Wilde used to say that a gentleman never stood at a window – or was it Lord Chesterfield?

Using a rumpled but neat look. (

“Shaker style” now just means “wooden kitchen units”.

Rustic” is now a catch-all term that has drifted a long way from its roots in clothes and furniture actually made by genuine rustics (You can have a rustic or “woodsy” wedding, according to Etsy.)

The Museum Selection catalogue name-drops frantically in an attempt to convince us that its style-free products are sprinkled with the fairy dust of famous writers and artists.

“Rackham Plaque, redolent of the dream-like paintings by Arthur Rackham” – but not based on any particular work.

“Petal Fairy Statue, recalling those depicted in tales by Andrew Lang...” It looks like a rip-off of the Flower Fairies series by Cicely Mary Barker, and looks utterly UN-like the illustrations to Lang by HJ Ford.

“English Tweed jacket, Beautiful wool tweed jacket evoking the silhouettes of 1940s originals” – but not modelled on them.

“Art Deco Mugs, inspired by the vibrant Art Deco ceramic designs of Clarice Cliff...” They’re a poor imitation. None of the “Art Deco” products look remotely Art Deco.

It continues through the ages, “echoing”, “capturing”, “evoking” – but never reproducing.

Housing crisis.

More here, and links to the rest.

Monday 13 October 2014

Classy Careers (and Money)

The wicker workshop was a great success
“I’ve made an almost vulgar amount of money.” James Braxton, Antiques Road Trip

The Antiques Roadshow “clumsily punctuates [the personal and historical] narrative with a judgment of exchange value”. ( archaeology blog)

Hire-purchase rules were relaxed after the war – middle-class Upwards were furious. Here were common people getting what they wanted now (probably over-shiny furniture), instead of employing “deferred gratification” – something they are still very fond of. Access ("Takes the waiting out of wanting!") was one of the first widely available credit cards in the early 70s. The middle classes had another hissy fit. American Express, Diners Club and Barclaycard were different because they were exclusive.

Upwards and Weybridges used to be very shocked if you bought anything in a corner shop: “It’s so much more expensive than the supermarket!” And of course you can only buy chav food like Heinz salad cream and tinned steamed pudding. But it’s in walking distance, and I haven’t got a car, in fact I can’t drive, and I don’t need to do a huge weekly shop because I don’t have a husband and family... (“You haven’t got a car!!!” I think they stop talking to me at this point. Happy thought: filch a lot of Waitrose bags to carry the corner shop food. Or invite them to dinner and serve up spam fritters and spaghetti hoops.)

Is “artisanal” the new exclusive?

Latest middle-class careers: hand-make bespoke ordinary things like leather satchels, bicycles or fountain pens. I’m not sure how you’ll get organic materials into a bicycle – wooden pedals? Wicker basket? Hessian panniers? Is there a basket shop in East London called “The Wicker Man” yet?

Why don’t middle-class people open internet cafes? For the same reason that they can’t learn to tap dance, act in musicals, or become estate agents.

Is the educational end-game that all children should aspire to pass exams, go to uni and get a white-collar job? Who’s going to do the blue-collar jobs? We need bus drivers, firemen, shop staff...

An Upward wrote in to the Guardian complaining that if schoolkids don’t learn French they’ll “have no knowledge of other cultures”. Reminds me of getting an Arts Council grant: with breathtaking culturecentrism, the form required us to promise we would “contact other cultures”. But Upwards can always send their children to an inner-city primary school - they'll contact many other cultures. Some of the pupils may even be French.

More careers here.
More money here.

Wednesday 8 October 2014

Class and Barbara Pym III

Look out for the peonies on the altar...

Class, Religion and Decor in Barbara Pym's Jane and Prudence

Jane is a fortyish vicar’s wife who has just moved to a country parish. Her friend Prudence is 29, and works in some unspecified publishing job. She shares an office with two female colleagues who are always discussing when the typists are going to bring their tea. (Because they couldn’t possibly make it themselves.) The hours of work were officially ten till six, but Prudence considered herself too highly educated to be bound by them.

Jane, the central character, treats her husband’s parish like a big joke, and tries to find suitable men for Prudence to marry. Prudence is an attractive girl who has had strings of admirers since Oxford – but shouldn’t she have chosen one of them by now?

As the story progresses, Jane becomes more and more irritating. She loved Oxford (where she taught Prudence), but she has never quite got over it. Her memories of “riotous fun” involve gathering autumn leaves and going to evensong. Her “bright” conversation annoys people. Her subject was obscure 17th century poets, and she once wrote a book of essays. But since she got married, she hasn’t cared enough to become good at anything. And: There came a day when one didn’t quote poetry to one’s husband any more.

When she sees someone she knows: She wanted to rush in to him, to greet him with some exaggerated mocking gesture, ‘Buon giorno, Rigoletto,’ posturing and bowing low. Did people ever behave like this? Thank goodness she resists the impulse.

Soon after the move, Prudence asks her: ‘Have you met any interesting people – people of one’s own type, I mean?’

Jane has met Fabian Driver, a local widower, and she tries, rather inefficiently, to bring the two of them together. Prudence could give cultured little dinner parties with candles on the table and the right wines and food... Prue could have this kind of life if she wanted it; one couldn’t go on having romantic love affairs indefinitely.

As usual, Pym’s characters discuss class through other subjects, such as soft furnishings:

‘Oh, but it looks “lived in”,’ said Jane [of her vicarage living-room], ‘which is supposed to be a good thing. I thought Mrs Pritchard’s a little too well-furnished – those excessively rich velvet curtains and all that Crown Derby [china] in the corner cupboard, it was a little overwhelming.’

Jane’s curtains, brought from a previous house, are too short and narrow to keep out the draughts that pervade Victorian vicarages, and she can’t be bothered to replace them, so her predecessor’s were “excessively rich”.

A visitor notices: ...the fireplace, whose emptiness was not even decently filled in with a screen or vase of leaves or dried grasses.

When Jane meets the Pritchards, she is amazed to find that they travel in a “motor” and have “luncheon” with the Bishop. But well-bred people talked like this even today, Jane believed.

Jane muses on living arrangements for the young: ‘I always feel so sorry for young men living in lodgings, especially on a Sunday afternoon. I wonder if he has a sitting-room with an aspidistra on a bamboo table in the window and a plush table-cloth with bobbles on it, and some rather dreadful pictures, perhaps, even photographs of deceased relatives on the wall.’

Prudence’s smart flat has a “general effect of Regency”, and pale green bed linen. Prudence drinks expensive Lapsang Souchong tea “out of a fragile white-and-gold cup”. But Jane ponders: Those light striped satin covers would ‘show the dirt’ – the pretty Regency couch was really rather uncomfortable and the whole place was so tidy...

Miss Doggett snoops around her companion’s bedroom: One would have imagined that a gentlewoman would have her ‘things’, those objects – photographs, books, souvenirs collected on holiday – which can make a room furnished with other people’s furniture into a kind of home.

Jane’s husband, Nicholas, is glad to be working in a genuinely old church: He would no longer have to say to visitors in his gentle, apologetic tones, almost as if it were his own fault, ‘I’m afraid our church was built in 1883,’ as in the suburban parish they had just left.

As usual in Pym novels, there is much discussion of shades of meaning in the Church of England – is the local church “high” or “low” enough? And where you worship depends on your social class: Here Fabian came to the large Methodist Chapel, but of course one couldn’t go there; none of the people one knew went to chapel, unless out of a kind of amused curiosity.

Prue ponders going over to Rome, but can’t face: ... listening to a lecture by a raw Irish peasant that was phrased for people less intelligent than herself... Of course... one just couldn’t go to Chapel; one just didn’t. Nor even to those exotic religious meetings advertised on the back of the New Statesman, which always seemed to take place in Bayswater.

Jane explains the difference between low and high: Evensong in a damp country church with pews, and dusty red hassocks. No light oak chairs, incense or neat leather kneelers.

The ladies of the parish decorate the church every week. One of them describes a wonderful arrangement she’s seen: She’d put red and pink flowers on the pulpit, rhododendrons and peonies with some syringa and greenery. Red and pink together is a middle-class taboo, and rhododendrons and peonies are far too colourful and showy.

Prudence enjoys novels that are: ...well written and tortuous, with a good dash of culture and the inevitable unhappy or indefinite ending, which was so like life.

The end of the novel is indefinite rather than unhappy. The story contains many tips on how to land a husband, but marriage may involve "struggling with the washing up for six", curbing your husband's penchant for little sentimental affairs, or not realising that his affectionate tolerance for you may be wearing thin. (We also discover that two characters from a previous novel, who had crushes on the two halves of a married couple, have married each other.)

More Pym here.