“[Cohen’s] is a genuinely fresh approach, diverging from the mainstream furrow ploughed by most historians to concentrate in the main on real lives and real choices - of ‘life lived outside the tyranny of grand design’ - and she does it subtly, confidently and with real pace.”
As home decoration becomes increasingly associated with personality, identity and self-value, we all, it seems, cannot wait to judge our fellow man and woman by the pleat of their curtain, the colour and texture of their sofa and the attraction, or not, of their chosen wallpaper. MDF does battle with Farrow & Ball, coir with Philippe Stark. Our interiors tell us who we are, even who we want to be, and that anxious gap between aspiration and realisation provides us with our particular fix of prurient curiosity and Schadenfreude. Witness the mind-numbing gamut of home-improvement television series served up over the past decade.
In Household Gods, Deborah Cohen, associate professor of history at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, investigates a century of British domestic interiors from 1830, lifting the fringed corners of Turkish rugs, sweeping her eye over collections of walking sticks, fern stands, bibelots, furbelows, antimacassars and vast furnishing stores to unpick the motivations of successive ages in the way they chose to dress their homes.
For those who followed the early 19th-century evangelical revival with its unrelentingly severe concept of sinfulness, the competing claims of God and Mammon were resolved by imbuing things with moral qualities. These Victorians both reacted against evangelical harshness and modified its tenets, sloughing off their guilt by quixotically attesting that possessions could be part of the spiritual quest, providing an improving moral tone. Later, they came to believe in the idea that possessions were a means to self-expression. The ultimate demise of Sunday service in favour of the car-boot sale had begun.
And so passionate consumption came to be justified. One problem, unsurprisingly, lay in the definition of beauty. While design radicals such as Henry Cole tried to re-educate a public lapping up the mass-produced, the machine-made, the over-elaborate and the tasteless by exhibiting a collection of "Horrors", his words hardly penetrated the consciousness of the majority.
Possessions were flexible indications of your place in the world, changeable as you crept up the greasy pole, and, as the Great Exhibition proved, from pincushions to elephant-foot umbrella stands, there had never been so much choice. Visitors were overwhelmed by Britain's particular brand of house-pride.
Charles Dickens gloried in the fittings of his new dining room and Sam Beeton picked out all the furniture for the Pinner villa to which he would transport his bride Isabella. Jane Carlisle's opinions were famously considered equal to his own by her husband Thomas but, in general, during the first two thirds of Victoria's reign, it was not the financial burden alone that fell to the men: they were also broadly responsible for the majority of domestic decision-making, down to the gas light-fittings and the papier-mâché marital bedstead.
In the closing decades of the century, the earliest suffragists fought out the battle for female emancipation on the front line of the hallway, setting out to wrest control of the domestic interior into the female sphere just as they campaigned for reform of the marriage law. Odd though it appears, the first professional women decorators were pioneers of emancipation.
Cohen's book takes in the retail revolution of the 1860s, and the flourishing department stores and emporia of Tottenham Court Road where "cozy corners" were displayed alongside coffins and where, by 1874, Maples occupied five floors and stretched the width of 25 houses. She considers the "lady art advisors" of the 1870s and 1880s with their new delight in irregularity, and their striving for distinctive, painterly effect, and takes us into the realm of gutta-percha latex and antique collecting.
By the late 19th century, furnishing showrooms vied with museums in popularity, while even Whistler and William Morris turned their attention to the craze for home decoration. Interior design soon became as much about social emulation as a struggle to express individuality, to be noticed in the masses of the middle class; a desire, as we still find to our dismay, "more easily preached than practised".
Cohen's book leaves no stone unturned – producing a work so painstakingly researched that she threatens to overwhelm her readers with the kind of bewilderingly bulging detail so beloved of our maligned Victorian ancestors.
Some over-repetition suggests that she suspects her readers might not quite be up to speed and yet hers is a genuinely fresh approach, diverging from the mainstream furrow ploughed by most historians to concentrate in the main on real lives and real choices – of "life lived outside the tyranny of grand design" – and she does it subtly, confidently and with real pace.
Profuse, glossy illustrations leaven an impressively argued text that navigates the British love affair with domestic decoration through swirling political, religious, economical and gender influences and that proves once and for all that other nations might have their houses, but Britons have their homes, each and every one of which is a castle.