Lares et Penates

Oct 1 2006
Literary Review
Miranda Seymour

“[An] excellent book….what we’ve lost is the sense of fun that Deborah Cohen glowingly conveys.”  

‘No nation has identified itself more with the house,’ a German visitor remarked of earlier twentieth-century Britain.  Looking from the outside, this comment would seem only to apply to the lucky handful of people who have the money, and the requisite number of acres, to indulge their taste for idiosyncratic magnificence.  Deborah Cohen’s book looks in another, and more rewarding, direction.  It isn’t the splendours of aristocratic collections that interest her, but the rise of the middle class and, much slower, that of home-ownership.

House pride, as a national obsession, is only a hundred and fifty years old.  Britain, in the mid nineteenth century, discovered that spiritual sustenance is less immediately gratifying than asking the neighbours round to admire your newly decorated, and joyously original, home.  Dickens’s mild clerk, Mr Wemmick, saw nothing intrinsically comic in taking the idea that the Englishman’s home is his castle literally, creating a little London fortress of his own, complete with turrets and drawbridge; I hadn’t, until now, ever supposed that Dickens could easily have been describing an authentic home.  Cohen’s accounts of the unfettered creativity of the Victorian mind make that notion entirely plausible.

We don’t tend to think of house decoration, in its early history, as a male preserve; one of the surprises of Cohen’s excellent book is the revelation that women, until the 1880s, had little or no say in how their homes were furnished, painted, and laid out.  Coventry Patmore’s sentimental novel, The Angel in the House, might suggest that Mr Patmore himself was a rare exception.  Not a bit of it.  His second wife’s fortune paid the bills; Mr Patmore supervised, managed, arranged and kept charge of their home.  

Men created the vast emporiums in which Victorian shoppers could pick out one of seven thousand types of wrought-iron bedstead, admire the latest lines in cookers, and purchase anything from a parrot cage to a made-to-measure funeral casket.  It was a man, the furiously energetic polymath Henry Cole, who created the first version of peepshow television when he installed a ‘Chamber of Horrors’ in his Temple of Taste at Marlborough House.  Anyone who remembers Changing Rooms, the television show on which two families were offered the chance to do u each other’s rooms before viewers savoured the distress that this reliably incurred, will identify Cole as a pioneer in the school of social humiliation.  The Chamber exhibited a variety of mass-produced objects that Cole regarded as ugly; pity the unfortunate visitor who arrived to find his own treasured Minton jug, enrobed by dancing satyrs, presented as one of the principal horrors.  

Cohen herself does not make judgements; it’s clear, however, that what she seeks out and admires is individuality and an independent spirit.  This, she argues, is what the social historians of the past had overlooked; decorating magazines of the 1880s consistently urged their readers to seek out whatever they could to make their home special and different, and they preached to the converted.  One lady plastered her bedroom with black-bordered funeral cards; another placed her guests in seasonal bedrooms appropriate to their age:  Spring for youngsters, Winter for grandparents.  A bold young bride painted her balcony railings bright scarlet; a proud Kilburn house-owner kitted out his drawing room as an Oriental palace.

Field Marshal Kitchener may win the award for the most unexpected presence in Cohen’s gallery of eccentric personalities.  Antique collecting, shunned with horrow by the Victorians as a form of thrift-shop economy, came back into fashion with the Edwardians as a reaction against the shoddiness of mass-produced furniture, churned out by immigrant labour in the East End throughout the last part of the nineteenth century.  By Kitchener’s day, buying old furniture had become a cult; the Field Marshal, whose favourite pastime was flower-arranging, laid plans while he was still in India for a placid future, back home, dealing in furniture and advising friends on how to decorate their houses.  Fate had other plans.

Instructive though it is to read of Britain’s slow retreat into conformity, a world in which only the well-informed can tell at a glance whether a room has been kitted out by IKEA or by Conran, the life of Cohen’s study is in the early chapters.  Here, as she describes the wonders of the Great Exhibition, when everything went on show from potted-palm holders to a carefully modeled silver nose, and of those extraordinary warehouses of goods designed to ensure that buyers had the maximum choice, it’s clear how tightly our range of choice is now controlled.  It’s pleasant to know that we can all acquire a teak garden table, complete with six chairs and parasol, for a surprisingly modest sum; perhaps it doesn’t matter that we’re constricted to three styles.  Perhaps it doesn’t matter – now that property has become our most precious investment, and that property programmes dominate television, and that property magazines outflank the competition on the newsstands – that we’re too cautious to treat our homes as extensions of ourselves, to take risks by stepping outside the norm.  Would you paint your outside balcony scarlet?  Of course not:  the council would object, the neighbours would hate you, and you’d risk devaluing your property.  We stand to make more money by our restraint; what we’ve lost is the sense of fun that Deborah Cohen glowingly conveys. 

This is a good book, and a salutary one; it would have been better still if Cohen had found room to expand on some of the personalities whose stories she includes, and if she had clarified the reasons for some of the taste-shifts she describes.  A marvelous description of Queen Mary’s Doll’s House doesn’t readily connect to the economic pressures in Britain after the First World War, or to the shift towards more conventional taste; it isn’t easy to grasp the distinction between Victorian individualism and the cult of personality she dates to the rise of aestheticism.  Usually, I find myself wishing the books I review were a bit less long-winded; on this occasion, Cohen’s brisk concision breeds occasional confusion.