Reviewed by Damian Thompson in The World of Interiors

Mar 1 2007
Damian Thompson

A “brilliant social history”
How did the Victorians square material wealth with their starchy religious convictions?  And why did they clutter their houses with so much stuff?  These two questions form the spine of this brilliant social history, one that begins with the dour religiosity of the 1830s and closes with the curtain-twitching conformity of 1930s suburbia.  In between, the home became a stage on which the unique ‘personality’ of the owner, employing a limitless range of furnishing caprices, could strut.  In these pages you will find a Jacobean-style hallway bristling with African weapons; a bedroom papered entirely with black-edged In Memoriam cards; an elephant’s-foot wastepaper basket; and a stuffed heron fanned out to form a firescreen.  Even the cultivated John Payne, translator of the Arabian Nights, thought it appropriate to decorate his Kilburn living room as a sultan’s lair.  

Such ostentation would have been unthinkable in the 1830s; in the ‘age of atonement’, evangelicals imposed harsh Old Testament doctrines.  Any sign of avarice in the home pointed to weakness of flesh.  But during the second half of the 19th century, average income per head doubled, and with that prosperity came a softer creed that preached the virtues of self-cultivation.  As rigid class distinctions blurred, it was not simply who you were but what you had that began to matter.  And by the 1860s, there was plenty to be had.  The sheer opulence of the emporia and the variety of produce on offer dwarfs today’s retail sector.  Waring & Gillows, on Oxford Street, had a rotunda half the size of St Paul’s, planted with palms and exotic flowers, off which 30-odd specimen rooms, from a French Regency salon to a Dutch ‘Golden Age’ parlour, were showcased.  This was an era when, as one critic wrote, designers were ‘worked like mill horses’; one leading bedstead-maker had 7,000 different styles for sale.

In her research, academic Deborah Cohen has gone far beyond the cosy confines of the V&A, mining unpublished diaries, trade paper and the stockbooks of provincial retailers.  This is entirely apt, as the design reformers whom we regard as important now – John Ruskin, William Morris and Henry Cole – had minimal impact on the tide of gutta-percha mouldings, faux inlay and pine grained to look like mahogany.  Instead, it was a new breed of amateur ‘lady art advisors’, linked to new interiors magazines, that were the Delias of their day.

Today, the epilogue tells us, as property shows hog the schedules, sales of magnolia paint boom.  Once houses are seen primarily as investments, people play safe.  One wonders when next the British will unfurl their inner peacock.