Sunday, 7 February 2010

A rose by any other name

Yesterday I planned to get up at 7.30 am and go to the gym before making way to the Geffrye museum of the home.  Instead, I found myself being awoken at 10 am by the postman. My new winter hat had arrived. So instead of dashing off to the gym, I made an apricot cheesecake, which I left to cool in the oven after baking and then set out for Shoreditch and the Geffrye Museum, which I had last visited with Mandip. I took a swimming costume with me, just in case I had time for a session at my health club’s pool on my return home.

The Geffrye Museum was first built in 1714 as part of the bequest of Sir Robert Geffrye, a former Lord Mayor of London and Master of the Ironmongers Company. (The difference between Lord Mayor of London and Mayor of London is explained in “Of devils, saints and martyrs). The Iron Mongers’ Company, in its role of executor of Sir Robert’s will, was charged with erecting the almshouses. The three sides of the almshouses were built around a large garden. Originally consisting of fourteen houses, each containing 4 rooms for 4 separate pensioners or couples, it also contained a “great” room in the centre, which was converted into a chapel, and a clock tower, with a statue of the founder, Sir Robert, in a niche below.Geffrye Museum

In 1714 the almshouses were located in an almost rural setting just outside of London. Over time, London expanded and the almshouses were located within an area that was both densely populated and extremely poor. As a result, in 1911 the Ironmongers Company moved the pensioners to the countryside and sold off the almshouses and land. Although there were those who wanted to tear down the almshouses and redevelop the site, others successfully campaigned for the gardens to be opened up to the public and the almshouses themselves to be turned into a museum, demonstrating the skill and craft of furniture-makers, who had once flourished in the area.

I first went to the Geffrye Museum as a child. I used to pass it on the bus journey to and from Liverpool Street station, whenever I went to visit my other, earlier, childhood home in the country. I was instinctively drawn by the splendour of its late Queen Anne architecture and its huge plane trees which, uniquely for the London cityscape, had been allowed to flourish unscathed from pollarding. The verdant green lawns in front of the buildings also proved a welcome oasis in an otherwise bleak urban locality. This was long before parts of the district became “trendy” for certain bohemian artists in the closing decades of the 20th century.

For myself, the museum allowed me to indulge my fantasies and enter a time machine. The museum’s ground floor was set out as a sequence of period rooms, depicting the main domestic living area for a middle class family at various points in English history. In 1989 a modern extension was built, affording more exhibition space, a café and a bookshop.

The first room on display is a replica of a hall from the 1630s and is based on a London townhouse that had survived the Great Fire of 1666  and was documented in a 19th century drawing. Indeed, all the period rooms or the decorative schemes are based on specific rooms that once existed in the London area. Two things struck me about the 1630 room: first, we often forget how light oak panelling would have looked when originally installed, before it had had a chance to darken with age; second, it is no wonder that the people of the time favoured padded clothes. Not only did they provide protection against the elements, they also provided comfort to the nether regions when spending prolonged time seated on hard wooden chairs, benches and stools, none of which were routinely upholstered or provided with cushions. The flooring was made of reed matting. I remember the fashion for sea-grass flooring a few decades back. I always felt it could never be quite as comfortable as wool carpets.

By 1695 chairs in the homes of the middle classes were beginning to be upholstered. The reed matting had gone and the floorboards were left bare. The curtains were still green though as they had been in the 1630s.In the 1745 room the floorboards were still bare but now the upholstery and the curtains were of a vivid scarlet. I used to think I preferred the Regency period but now my tastes have settled on the early Georgian period for its muted colour palette and elegant simplicity of furniture.

By 1790 the parlour is carpeted, wallpaper has replaced the painted panelling and there are festooned curtains at the window. The scheme is still restrained enough for my tastes but by 1830, the pattern of the blue wallpaper and the carpet in the drawing-room is far too busy to hold any appeal for me, that of the 1870s drawing room even less so. I can still recall visiting the homes of the elderly in my childhood, where the occupants had rooms filled to the brim with the heavy cumbersome furniture of the Victorian era. As single pieces they can be attractive enough in their own right. I own a Victorian Pembroke table and a small occasional side-table. Today, brown furniture as it is called, especially Victorian, is relatively inexpensive yet sturdily built and embraces the concept of recycling. I don’t know if either of my pieces of furniture was made by one of the furniture makers residing in Shoreditch, but they have both stood the test of time. A Chinese friend told me recently that he didn’t like to own second-hand or antique items, lest they be imbued with the spirit of former owners. I said that such owners should be jolly glad that someone else was still taking care of their earthly belongings and perhaps they should direct their ire against relatives who had failed to keep them in the family. In the diaries of the late Tory MP Alan Clarke, the latter recalls one Conservative party member snootily putting down another by declaring: "The trouble with Michael (Hesteline a contender for the then Tory party leadership) is that he had to buy his own furniture". The shame!

In the 1890s the Aesthetic Movement made it fashionable to employ Japanese, Moorish and Islamic influences when decorating domestic interiors. With regards to shrines to opulent Arab classical design, the exotic home of the Victorian artist Frederick, Lord Leighton in Holland Park, is to re-open to the public again on 3rd April 2010, having been closed for an extensive programme of renovation.Leighton House Museum

The original sequence of period rooms ended with the 1890s. The modern extension allowed new period rooms to be set up for 1910 1935, 1965 and finally a loft apartment of the late 1990s. Put in some modern heating, electrical points and piped water and drainage for sewerage and I would happily take up residence in one of the 18th century rooms. I was also impressed by the rooms in another wing set up to show how they might have looked like when occupied by pensioners in the 18th and 19th centuries, a subject I shall return to anon. The restored almshouse rooms are only opened for timed tours at limited times during the month, including the first Saturday.

The bell in the clock tower signalling the closure of the museum at 5 pm, I went off in search of Dirty Dicks, another familiar landmark of my childhood, being across the road from Liverpool Street station.
In the 18th century Nathaniel Bentley was something of a dandy and known for his stylish mode of dress. When his father died in 1761, Nathaniel came into a sizeable inheritance. Being single and possessing a fortune, as Jane Austen would have opined, Nathaniel was in need of a wife. He found the woman he intended to marry and issued invitations for an extravagant party he planned to throw in her honour. Unhappily on the day of the party, news reached Nathaniel that his bride-to-be had suddenly died, whereupon Nathaniel closed up the room containing the celebratory banquet and allowed his house and premises to sink into a decline. Henceforth, he cared neither how he looked nor the state of the vaults below, from where he traded his goods. In time, the eccentric Nathaniel became notorious for his lack of cleanliness. He is also thought to be the inspiration for Miss Havisham in Charles Dickens’s “Great Expectations.Dirty Dicks pub