By the Yard

Feb 9 2007
The Times Literary Supplement
Paul Barker

“Deborah Cohen’s entertaining and scholarly thesis, in Household Gods, is that life is seldom how designers or architects plan it to be.”  
Deborah Cohen’s entertaining and scholarly thesis, in Household Gods, is that life is seldom how designers or architects plan it to be.  This, as she shows, is especially true of British suburbanites, who have an ineradicable tendency to prefer maximalism to minimalism.  Aided and abetted by the furnishing trade (Maple’s and Waring & Gillow once, IKEA and MFI now), many counter Mies van der Rohe’s old Modernist slogan, “Less is more”, with one of their own:  “More is better”.  From her devoted trawl through retail and manufacturing records, Cohen reports that one 1930s toymaker put a stripped-down doll’s house on the market:  flat roof, plate glass, right angles.  It never sold.  They withdrew it in favour of the usual gabling, pitched roof and pebble-dash.  This was how things were, and are, in the suburbs, where – to the despair of smart designers and doctrinaire planners – the vast majority of the British live.  

Two photographs of front rooms in the Cadburys’ model village of Bournville drive home her thesis.  Both of the pictures date from the early twentieth century, not long after the earliest model houses went up in that Birmingham suburb near the family chocolate works.  The first photograph shows how the Quaker philanthropists who ran the Bournville Trust, hoped such households would be.  Everything emphasizes plain living and high thinking:  a brick fireplace, with a few carefully chosen ornaments above it; a spindle-backed chair; a rag rug; a single tasteful aspidistra.  But the second photograph shows how suburban taste really was.  In this front, the brick fireplace has acquired a semi-classical marble front and a huge velvet-draped mirror; the chairs are soft and cosy; the figured carpet is overlaid by rugs; flowers abound, both dried and live.  In the inglenook stands a bright white reproduction of the Venus de Milo, which looks about three feet high.

In David Watkin’s famous polemic, Morality and Architecture (1977), the historian attacked the line of descent from Pugin through Ruskin to the Modern Movement, who all thought that certain styles of architecture had special ethical, not just aesthetic, merit.  But Cohen shows that architecture wasn’t the half of it; there was (and is) also a morality of objects.  She teaches history at Brown University on Rhode Island; but her invigorating study of “the British and their possessions” (from 1830 to 1930, with some commentary on what’s happened since) pays homage, she says, to her long fascination with flea markets and car-boot sales.  These put on public show the things that people have actually surrounded themselves with.  

In the eighteenth century, taste was seen as innate, but to the Victorians, it became something you could buy at a shop.  And as religious evangelism faded, Mammon became a kind of substitute god.  Thereafter, “Things had moral qualities”, Cohen observes; possessions made the man”.  The Victorians, she argues, “were the first people to be so closely identified with their belongings”.  And, of all countries, this was most true of Britain.  From the early nineteenth century, such foreign visitors as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Hermann Muthesius, author of Das englische Haus, noted that “house-pride came to define what it meant to be British”.  An American war correspondent wrote that, unlike the French, the Englishman didn’t go to a café or restaurant to relax.  It was only in his home that he “liked to take his psychological shoes off”.  Today’s plethora of glossy magazines and television programmes – on houses, on DIY and even on the supposed antiques in your attic – prove that the obsession with home remains.

As the nineteenth century unfurled, house interiors became a kind of domestic funfair or circus.  They were also a battleground, between men and women, fought most ferociously in the suburbs.  Women won.  It helped that the man now took an early train to work and didn’t get back until late, when he couldn’t interfere.  Some enterprising women invented a new job for themselves:  first, as so-called “lady advisers”, writing in the newly founded women’s magazines; later, as full-fledged interior decorators.  Between the wars, Syrie Maugham, the third daughter of the strictly Evangelical Thomas Barnardo, specialized in Hollywood-style white-on-white.  Her rival, Sybil Colefax, a friend of Virginia Woolf’s, propagandized the country-house idiom.  Those interior decorators who weren’t female were often gay men.  The high-camp Ronald Fleming survived the Battle of the Somme, and believed in personalized décor from cradle to grave.  Dismayed by the prospect of a varnished oak coffin, he ordered his own to be covered in orange-red velvet with rows of small gilt nails.

The biggest battlegrounds were the shops.  Here you could buy taste by the yard or the hundredweight.  Average incomes in Britain doubled in the last fifty years of Queen Victoria’s reign, and shops arose to help people spend it.  The definition of middle class was widening all the time (as it has continued to); all sections joined the quest for taste.  On marrying into Britain’s rather bourgeois royal family, the German-born Princess Mary of Teck, was dismayed to find that her husband, the future King George V, had bought everything from Maple’s department store.  John Maple opened a draper’s shop on Tottenham Court Road in 1841.  By the 1870s it was a monster emporium, which became one of the sights of London.  Homes were mocked up in every detail, long before design museums followed suit.  There is nothing left of Maple’s now, except a street name.  But on Oxford Street you can still see, slightly to the east of Oxford Circus, the extraordinary Edwardian red-and-white baroque of Waring & Gillow’s headquarters store, opened in 1906, and bigger even than Maple’s.  Now converted to shops and offices, its forty departments covered 40,000 square feet.  An average IKEA in Britain now runs to 70,000 square feet; but IKEA and the like are assembly lines by comparison.  Waring’s had a rotunda half the size of St Paul’s Cathedral dome, adorned with palm trees and Persian rugs. 

An Evangelical moral passion drove the retailing of taste.  “We are all chameleons; and we take the colour of the objects among which we are placed”, a Scottish parson wrote in 1861.  In Middlemarch, Mrs Bulstrode strove to combine “piety and worldliness, the nothingness of this life with the desirability of cut glass”.  Objects were credited with characters, even souls, of their own.  In The Spoils of Poynton, Henry James has an antiques collection precipitating family tragedy.  In The Lion, the White and the Wardrobe, the wardrobe is as important a player as the lion and the witch.  In the 1930s, a novel was published which told its story from the perspective of a Chippendale chair.

Deborah Cohen’s vivid illustrations reveal how shops and their customers brushed aside the sparseness, and truth to materials, that men like William Morris advocated.  Gutta-percha, a resin made from latex, was the wonder material – the polypropylene – of its day.  The veneering trade flourished.  Paradoxically, the plain Arts & Crafts styles proved the easiest to mass-manufacture.  Art Nouveau, of course, took its name from a Paris shop.  Even the pioneer of female suffrage, Mrs Emmeline Pankhurst, made various failed attempts to make a go of it as a furniture-shop owner.  At the height of the hunger-strike militancy, in 1911, her journal, Votes for Women, stated that “No one is more keen about the house than a Suffragette”.  The demise of great department stores like Maple’s and Waring & Gillow began just as they seemed most dominant.  On high streets, chain stores opened, selling factory-made furniture from shops much nearer to suburban homes.  Now almost everyone has a vast mall somewhere within easy driving distance.  The British home is still, Cohen concludes, a display case for moral and aesthetic values – as demonstrated by what you’ve bought.  Suburbia won the battle of taste.