Monthly Archives: March 2013

David Gaimster discusses his plenary lecture for the Materialities of Urban Life conference…

Jan Steen the prayer before the mealThe lecture will review a key dynamic in European historical archaeology, that is the relationship between artefacts and images, and in particular the questions raised in the study of historic domestic material culture depicted in the contemporaneous painting and prints. Both media underwent a major transformation from c. 1400. The introduction of oil on wood or canvas, which led to an industry in transportable art for the home, revolutionized the domestic interior for the economically privileged in North West Europe, while printmaking created a revolution in the communication of ideas and ideology. Oil painting of the Dutch Golden Age, particularly works depicting the domestic interior and still life compositions, appears at first glance a compelling source of social and cultural information for those studying the materiality and mentalities of European modernity. I will try to address the methodological and hermeneutic issues involved and some directions for cross-examining synchronous archaeological and pictorial sources.

The archaeological deposit, whether a rubbish pit or latrine shaft, post-hole or a midden, normally reflects the final point of discard or loss of a possession or utensil. The image, particularly those depicting the domestic interior, offer a glimpse of the ‘active lives’ of objects, in the moment before discard and crucially in their relationship to the building, its interior design and spatial configuration, and to other objects, which may or may not be functionally related. In addition, these sources also connect objects to people and place the artefact in a contemporaneous social and cultural matrix, which on discard is frequently ruptured.

We are only still on the brink of exploiting the rich iconographic resource for better understanding the utility and symbolic role of objects and their interrelationships in early modern European society. As the paintings and prints show us, objects were of critical importance to delivering a social, religious or moral message. Even the most utilitarian of objects held symbolic power in the visual documentary world. The prospect of structured comparative research offers new opportunities for exploring the material ‘Lebenswelt’ of the epoch. This short survey can only signal some of the thematic narratives offered by such a study. The need to develop pilot surveys of particular genres, subject areas or the works of individual artists, and to test some of our historical and archaeological data and assumptions, is as urgent now as it was ten or twenty years ago.

The lecture will take place on Wednesday 17th April at 4:30, and is followed by a wine reception.

To book for the conference click here.

Borch, young woman with a glass of wine, holding a letter - sinebrychoff


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The House in Context – a European perspective


Recently back from a conference on ‘Das Haus im Kontext – in europaischer Perspektive’ at the Schloss Beuggen in Rheinfelden, organised by Joachim Eibach and Inken Schmidt-Voges on the very edge of the Rhine just outside Basel – a still point between an elbow bend in the river and a hydro-electric plant, largely inhabited by kingfishers and beavers. Within the thirteenth-century Schloss, representatives of several different European countries discussed their respective traditions of analysing and writing about the early modern house. We set out to answer the broad question ‘what is the household’, in our respective scholarly traditions, and how might we study it?

Philip Hahn from Tubingen opened the discussion up by suggesting we test the idea of the ‘open house’ across languages and cultures, and offered three types of ‘house’ prominent in German scholarship: the house as concept of order, as building and site of material culture, and as social space. Dionigi Albera from Aix-en-Provence identified three influential strands of research on Italy: household economies, ‘home’ as the study of such issues as intimacy and gender, and the kinship approach. I was arguing that research on the English house has not had much to say about the connections between its ‘material’ and ‘human’ aspects – that we have a very broad humanities-wide interest in domestic issues: in economic, social and demographic history, literature, art history, archaeology and architectural history, but that their findings are rarely brought together. Several approaches came up time and again, with some countries erring more on the side of demography, lifecycle study and property transfer and others concentrating on the extent to which the household organised life, work and transgression. Almost every paper mentioned the work of the Cambridge Group as being more or less helpful to their national traditions, and there were common experiences about the significance and the incompatibility of domestic theories and practices.

Other interesting issues which surfaced several times in later sessions were how historiographies deal with permanence and impermanence –the double meaning of ‘house’ for the elite and their relation to property, as opposed to the fraught nature of these questions for European Jews, for instance – and the possibility of tracing a history of neighbours and neighbourhood, and how that might be shaped by a sensory understanding – how did smell, or warmth, influence perception of the house from the inside and outside? In Hamburg, neighbourhood relations were important because of mutual visibility and audibility, but only children’s birthdays were celebrated with neighbours, not their parents’. In Sweden, they were looking at the work that women did between households and how it was organised, and in Switzerland at the way women’s professional activities grew out from but remained tied to the house. In Swedish Pomerania, inner city mobility was so high that 40% inhabitants moved at least once in 4 years:  living in one house from birth to death was not a common way of life. Those were some of the highlights for me.

It was a really focussed conference, and exciting to translate our shared convictions about how central domestic life is for understanding this period. And what a great setting – a conference on Das Haus watched over by a pair of storks perched on a high nest on top of the tower, planning their own spring household…

small storks

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Decorating the Godly Household: Postscript (1)

I never intended my book Decorating the Godly Household (2010) to serve as a comprehensive account of every single example of biblical imagery in post-Reformation domestic decoration. I embraced the fact that many more examples would inevitably come to light after the book was published – indeed, I hoped my study might raise awareness of the significance of these previously overlooked and under-appreciated fixtures in historic properties and encourage further ‘finds’. But still, the nature and timing of a couple of my subsequent discoveries has been just a little galling. So, this is the first of a couple of posts(cripts) to share these discoveries and my initial thoughts about them, to prolong the life of that previous book project even as I become immersed in the next one…

A forgotten ‘Shakespeare Relic’

As Decorating was in production and just a couple of months before it was published, I happened upon yet another example of what I had identified as a widespread fashion for biblical scenes in fixed surface decoration during the approximate period 1560-1660. The discovery was frustratingly ill-timed; it was only after I had finally stopped looking for further examples that this one –with possibly the most impressive provenance of all– came to light. What I had found was a description of a plasterwork panel dated 1606 in the house in Stratford-upon-Avon known as the Birthplace of William Shakespeare; a property he owned until his death in 1616.

My source was a description in The Illustrated London News of 1847 of the buildings with Shakespeare associations in Stratford. The author described Shakespeare’s Birthplace in Henley Street as a dilapidated shell, with “naked walls” to “strike an irrepressible chill upon the imagination”. The kitchen in the rear had “nothing noticeable but the ample chimney nooks of the olden time” yet there is also a tantalising reference to a lost feature:

“A few years since, too, there existed in the northern wall of this room, a mutilated plaister representation, in relievo, of the battle between David and Goliah, originally surrounded by an inscription—

Goliah comes with sword and speare,
And David with a sling:
Although Goliah rage and sweare,
Down David doth him bring.

SAMUEL, XVII. A.D.,1606.”

This description relied on earlier accounts going back to 1795 when Samuel Ireland recorded the panel in his Picturesque views on the upper, or Warwickshire Avon. Ireland describes seeing it in situ: “in a lower room of the public house [the Maidenhead], which is part of the premises wherein Shakespeare was born” and, more specifically, that it was an “ornament over the chimney”. In 1759 it was, he records, “repaired and painted in a variety of colours by the old Mr. Thomas Harte…who assured me the motto then round it had been in the old black letter, and dated 1606”. Ireland was more impressed by the possibility that it was put up “by the Poet himself” than by its artistic quality; he explains:

“although a rude attempt at historic representation, I have yet thought it worth copying, as it has, I believe, passed unnoticed by the multitude of visitors that have been on this spot, or at least has never been made public: and to me it was enough that it held a conspicuous place in the dwelling house of one who is himself the ornament and pride of the island he inhabited.”

Ireland provided an illustration of this plaster panel:

Relic post 1

The panel was subsequently described and illustrated again by Robert Bell Wheler in his Historical and descriptive account of the birthplace of Shakespeare of 1824. The engraving by C.F. Green employs some artistic license in reinstating the motto in black letter in a surround, as described by Ireland:

Relic post 2

By this time the panel had been removed from its original position which Wheler described as “fixed over the fireplace in the south east angle of the front parlour of the Maidenhead” and adds “the chimney of which obtruded into the street, previous to its removal to the eastern side of the room when Mr. Court new fronted that house with brick”. An illustration of the south front of the building published in The Gentleman’s Magazine of 1769 shows this protruding chimneystack still in place at the east end of the building, so the panel must have decorated the room now presented as John Shakespeare’s glove-making workshop:

Relic post 3

The panel was almost certainly removed from the Birthplace by the widow Mary Hornby, tenant and ‘custodian’ of the Birthplace until 1820 when, after a dispute over the rent, she quit the property. Before she left she stripped the building of all original features and put them on display as the ‘Shakespeare Relics’ in another house opposite the Birthplace. This collection of fixtures and furniture served as a tourist attraction in various locations in Stratford for over 70 years until it passed to her nephew, Thomas Hornby, who moved the objects to his house at Kingsthorpe. At this time the ‘Relics’ featured in a couple of newspaper articles and one of these, The Graphic dated 1 April 1893, includes a photograph of the plaster panel:

Relic post 4

Though poor quality, the photograph nevertheless provides a more accurate record of its appearance. The various inscriptions scratched into the surface of the panel are obviously later additions, probably from the time of its first exhibition as a Relic. The detail of the imagery is consistent with the earlier illustrations but one curiosity is the shape of the panel. Ireland and Wheler’s illustrations depict the scene as an oval, while the photograph shows that it was in fact rectangular and cut across at the top left hand corner; this less picturesque form lends support to its authenticity because it suggests how the panel (and the chimneybreast it adorned) abutted the wall and slope of the ceiling on its left side:

Relic post 5

If the date 1606 is to be trusted then the panel was created at a time when the property was owned by William Shakespeare—but was probably installed by his tenant, one Lewis Hiccox, a farmer and inn keeper. Hiccox appears to have extended and remodelled the building to an extent that would be unthinkable under modern tenancy agreements but this sort of structural work was quite usual in early modern England. It was certainly not uncommon for tenants with long leases to embellish their homes with this sort of fixed surface decoration. Biblical texts or imagery in wall painting came into vogue in the later Elizabethan period—an example can still be seen in the White Swan Hotel, just around the corner from Henley Street—but in the first two decades of the seventeenth century there was a new fashion for sculpted imagery in carved wood or plasterwork as a single scene at the centre of a chimneybreast. The most popular subjects were taken from the Old Testament and the story of David and Goliath was depicted in work at several other properties, including in the tympanum of the stunning plasterwork ceiling of the long gallery at Lanhydrock House in Cornwall. Hiccox’s panel is far more modest in scale but it represents the sort of imagery that would have been found in the houses of the ‘middling sort’ in towns like Stratford-upon-Avon.

Shortly after being photographed, in 1896, the collection of Shakespeare Relics went to auction and was dispersed. Interestingly, the plaster panel attracted the highest price of all the items sold at this auction with a recorded price of £26, although frustratingly the identity of the purchaser is not recorded. This high value suggests that the panel would have been cared for, raising the hope that it might still exist in a collection somewhere. Do you know where? Please comment if you have seen anything similar…


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Living it up in Early Modern London

A 17th century carved oak court cupboard in Mr Whitgreave's Room at Moseley Old Hall, Staffordshire

©National Trust Images/Andreas von Einsiedel

One of sessions in the upcoming conference ‘Materialities of Urban Life in Early Modern Europe’ at the Institute of Historical Research ( groups together three  papers about the material aspects of living in London in the period. Running through the papers is the theme of taste, or perhaps choice, in the outfitting of a London house. Underpinning the session is an awareness of the role played by the capital in driving production and consumption of the material, at the purely economic end of the equation, along with the part it played in disseminating new tastes and new fashions amongst a socially and culturally diverse metropolitan
population. Things could be made, bought and sold in London that were not available elsewhere in the country, and whilst in the City one could improve one’s skill with the material, just as one could improve political connections or business contacts.

The session (perhaps inevitably) focuses on the more refined patrons of the City’s population – richly detailed evidence abounds in this period for how such people availed themselves of what London’s craftsmen and merchants had to offer. One paper considers a minor visiting provincial aristocrat, whilst another examines the choices made by diners and their hosts as they go about their serious social business. The common element to all three papers is what we can say about the fact that these indiviudals in large part commissioned (and often even designed) the material objects they placed in their houses: what this tells us about, for instance, the scale and scope of provision available in London, or the depth of knowledge that was required on the part of the consumer.

The three papers also, however, look at very different aspects of this relationship between ‘provider’ and ‘user’. The first paper looks at how continental fashions and overseas skills affected the material aspects of social behaviour – including the changing of mealtimes and the ‘technical development’ of tableware and lighting. The second paper continues the technical theme as it deals with the process of commissioning specific pieces of furniture destined for specific roles within the house – the skills of the Joiners’ trade plus the extent of knowledge required by the customer. Finally the third paper takes a slightly different view on the material landscape of London by considering the tastes of a visiting lodger – a man who brings much of his household stuff with him to the City, but who also takes the opportunity to provision his temporary accommodations with the riches of London. How does he use agents and factors? How much decision-making freedom did the craftsmen and merchants enjoy when fulfilling orders?

All in all the session is likely to be high on detail, and we hope to see you there!

Mark Merry, Centre for Metropolitan History

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by | March 1, 2013 · 4:20 pm