Book of the Week

Nov 1 2006
Time Out
John O’Connell

“Cohen writes with great wit and clarity.  She’s as perceptive on contemporary property programmes (covered in an epilogue) as she is on Henry Cole and fin de siècle orientalism.”

 

In the Age of Beeny, when the IKEA catalogue supposedly has more readers than the Bible, it’s comforting to know that the British have always been obsessed with domestic paraphernalia.  ‘Household Gods’ tracks the obsession from the mid-nineteenth century through to 1945, mainly focusing on the conflict between the austere religiosity of the Victorian middle classes and their tendency to, as Cohen puts it, ‘stuff their houses full of objects’.  Avarice was a deadly sin.  At the same time, beauty was spiritually ennobling – hence upright Methodists could enjoy untroubled possession of a plaque of Sunderland lusterware, especially if it bore the legend ‘Prepare to meet thy God’.

There were political imperatives to consider as well.  Socialist pioneer William Morris thought it vital that ‘artists of reputation’ be set to work on interior design for the masses.  The result was the arts-and-crafts simplicity of Bournville Village, though whether its inhabitants obeyed Morris’s strictures, or took to heart John Ruskin’s opinion that good taste was ‘essentially a moral quality’, is doubtful.  As Cohen points out:  ‘A bamboo plant stand, dripping with fern pots, is more redolent of the late Victorian period than an elegantly streamlined tea service by Christopher Dresser, though it is the latter that is invariably displayed.’  

‘Household Gods’ has a fascinating story to tell about suburbia and middle-class self-fashioning.  It’s strong too, though, on the rise of the great furniture emporia which, by 1900, occupied almost the entirety of Tottenham Court Road – Maple’s alone was five floors high and 25 houses long.  But while its rival Heal’s was broadly happy to embrace modernism when it came knocking, the British public resisted blonde wood and tubular steel until well into the 1960s.

Associate professor of history at Brown University, Cohen writes with great wit and clarity.  She’s as perceptive on contemporary property programmes (covered in an epilogue) as she is on Henry Cole and fin de siècle orientalism.