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 (www.history.ac.uk/materialities) 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

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