How the British Discovered their House Style

Sep 16 2006
The Times [London]
Ben Macintyre

“[An] excellent new history of the British and their possessions... So much of what Cohen identifies in her insightful survey of Victorian and Edwardian consumerism seems to reflect upon our own age...”


At around midnight on a cold February evening last  year, 6,000 people converged on Edmonton, North London, for the opening of a new IKEA shop.  They jostled over the self-assembly bunk beds; they competed vigorously for the sofas; they snatched at the Mäkta global decorations and the Kvartil candle lanterns and the Brunkrissla pillowcases.  Then they stampeded.  Fights broke out.  Six people were injured and taken to hospital.  

The Ikea riot was the first serious outbreak of civil unrest over home furnishings this country has seen, but it may not be the last.

This is the Second Golden Age of Stuff.  Last year, Britons spent a quarter of their household income on home improvements.  We are infatuated by our homes, gorging on credit to fill them to the rafters with an endless array of changing stuff, constantly decorating and redecorating, furnishing and refurnishing. 

Home improvement has attained cult status:  its bibles are the catalogues of Habitat and Argos, its temples the DIY shop and the car boot sale, its high priests the mavens of style, taste and paint tincture.  The news stands groan under the weight of exhortatory magazines with titles such as House Beautiful, Ideal Home and Country Living.  

Television programmes instruct us not only on what house to buy (Location, Location) but how to decorate it (Other People’s Houses), and how other people would decorate other people’s houses (Changing Rooms).  Some 12 million people tuned in to Changing Rooms on Christmas Day 1998.  

This fascination with household stuff is partly the function of cheap credit, rising home ownership, and the consumer boom.  But it also reflects our national identity.  The German middle class does not endlessly repaint its lounge (sorry, sitting room) with ever more subtle gradations of Farrow & Ball paint.  The French would never dream of queuing in the middle of the night to buy the latest flat-pack furniture, let alone fighting over it.  

As Deborah Cohen reveals in her excellent new history of the British and their possessions, Household Gods, interior décor is a peculiarly British obsession, a combination of aspiration and insecurity buried deep in the national psyche.  “From the early 19th century, house pride came to define what it meant to be British,” Cohen writes.  “In many ways we have inherited the materialistic world the Victorians made.”

The Englishman’s home is not merely his castle, but his museum, his exhibition space, the canvas on which he depicts himself and judges others.

The way Victorians stuffed their homes was impressively eclectic and to visitors from abroad, slightly mad.  A typical photograph of a bourgeois English home reveals a profusion of stuff that seems excessive even by contemporary standards.  The elephant –foot umbrella stand, the tasseled antimacassars, the fire irons, rugs, statuary, candlesnuffers and china.  The vocabulary we have to describe such things is in itself a measure of their hold on our imagination:  bibelots and tchotchkes, knick-knacks, trinkets, bric-a-brac and geegaws.

The Victorian passion for household stuff reflected a society with new wealth, broader artistic aspirations and an expanding middle class, buying up items by the cartload to reflect and define who they were, or wanted to be.  Keeping up with and, if possible, ahead of the Joneses required lateral thinking and some punishing legwork.  The Victorians did not invent window shopping, but they perfected it.

As Lawrence James writes in The Middle Class:  A History:  “The 18th and early 19th-century middle class expended as much time, energy and ingenuity on spending money as they did earning it.” 

The Victorians imbued their possessions with moral and artistic meaning.  “The correct purchase could elevate a household’s moral tone; the wrong choice could exert a malevolent influence,” Cohen writes.  The tastemakers weighed in, as they do today, arguing that consumers were filling their houses with ugly things that were, by extension, blunting moral and artistic sensibility.

The notion that “better rooms made better people” slowly gave way to the more comfortable idea that things reflected personality, but not before Oscar Wilde wickedly satirized those who claimed moral superiority through their acquisitions:  “I find it harder and harder every day to live up to my blue china,” he observed, crushingly.

Attempts to regulate taste largely failed, and the Victorians went on collecting goat’s head doorknockers, hideously coloured rugs, and things with dogs painted on them.  They joyously celebrated the divorce between form and function.  If a thing looked as different as possible from what it was supposed to do, that was art, or at least wit:  a pencil case shaped like a pig, cow creamers, scissors with blades shaped into birds’ beaks.  

Victorian parlours became veritable assault courses, each item chosen to reflect the morality, artistic sensitivity, wealth and education of its owner.

“To furnish in the modern way,

This recipe remember pray!

You fill up each corner with something odd

A Japanese monkey or a Hindoo god.”

Frequently, they went over the top.  The novelist E.F. Benson thought the symbol that most accurately reflected the Victorian period would be a “red velvet, opalescent beaded, tasseled pincushion in the shape of a blancmange, topped with a royal crown”.

We imagine that we face a plethora of products for the home today.  Indeed, in his recent book The Paradox of Choice, Barry Schwartz argued that the superabundance of choice has become a crushing modern burden.  But the Victorian range of choice was far wider.  In the mid-19th century the furniture makers Hoskins and Sewell offered no fewer than 7,000 different types of bedstead.  

Culture, economics and technology conspired to drive the Victorian and Edwardian orgy of shopping.  Average income per head doubled between 1851 and 1901 while the middle class tripled in size, leaving the Victorians with more disposable income as the cost of essentials dropped.  As the evangelical insistence on austerity waned, mechanization ensured that items once considered luxuries could be mass-produced, thereby becoming necessities.  

At the start of the Victorian period, a couple tended to decorate their house once, after marriage, and then live with it.  Within a generation, that same couple might redecorate on average once every seven years.  In 1834, British manufacturers produced 1.2 million pieces of wallpaper; by 1874, they were churning out 32 million pieces.

The American writer Vincent Sheean, writing in the 1930s, identified “interiority” as a peculiarly British phenomenon.  Think of Paris, and you imagine a street café; but imagine London and you are at once indoors, among the chintz, and wallpaper and home furnishings; only in his over-furnished parlour, thought Sheean, is the Englishman truly at ease.

But interiority brings with it what might be termed an interiority complex:  the very British fear that your doilies are soiled, that the neighbours are laughing at your china, that tupe is quite, quite wrong in the toilet, sorry lavatory, sorry, loo.  As much as the Victorian passion for things was about imagination, self-expression and humour, it was also about snobbery and insecurity.  

The great possessions boom did not survive the First World War.  After the slaughter, lavish display seemed otiose, and British interiors reflected a “new simplicity”.  Middle-class suburban living in the 1930s militated against exhibitionism.  “Caution was the watchword and caution bred uniformity,” Cohen writes.  “The vast array of furnishing choices once available to the Victorians slowly disappeared.”

While America enjoyed a consumer boom after the Second World War, in Britain, the interest in furnishing and interiors remain muted and restrained.  Only in the past ten years has Britain seen a resurgence of the national passion for home (and self) improvement on the Victorian scale, with the boom in consumer spending, rising home ownership, and a middle class that now embraces 60 per cent of Britons.

So much of what Cohen identifies in her insightful survey of Victorian and Edwardian consumerism seems to reflect upon our own age:  the urge to individuality vying with the desire for conformity, the energy and snobbery, the confusion of art and mere display.

Just as our ancestors did, we delight in our own interiors, and derive malicious pleasure from the taste-crimes of others.  The Victorian lady in search of personality with her doggy-pattern wallpaper has a direct counterpart in the modern householder who tickles the Schadenfreude of the modern television audience by sticking doilies around her modern light switches, in search of that “cottagey stately home kind of feel”.

We have rediscovered the sanctity of our household gods, and the sense of moral wellbeing that they impart.  

Then again, I find it harder and harder every day to live up to my Philippe Starck lemon squeezer.