Tag Archives: domestic

Domestic Sphere at the top of the lake

IMG_5244Earlier this month I gave a paper at the ‘Domestic Sphere in Europe, 16th to 19th Century’ conference at the Schloss Schadau in Thun, Switzerland. The conference was run by Joachim Eibach, as part of his NSF-Sinergia-project Doing House and Family, based at the Universities of Bern, Basel, Lausanne and Lucerne.

In addition to offering a trip into the mountains alongside fondue-eating locals, accompanied by the sound of cow bells, it brought together the largest group of people I’ve ever been in a room with (and a very grand room at that) who are actively engaged in thinking about the pre-modern house. Three days saw a thought-provokingly vast scale of papers, focused across Europe and from the early sixteenth to the nineteenth century. I wanted to draw together a few of the preoccupations that connected them here, to try to lay out the bones of shared concerns in a way that might suggest a way forward for studies of domestic life.

Joachim’s opening thoughts were very useful in establishing a framework for the ensuing discussion. He considered the ‘domestic sphere’ as a focus in relation to more established terms such as ‘family’, ‘household’ and ‘kinship’, and he pointed to the practical focus of the event, on doing, discussing the challenge faced by cultural historians in analysing the self-evident elements of the everyday. The notion of ‘co-presence’, of face-to-face interaction, with its concerns about shared space and communication, became an important strand in the papers. For instance Claudia Opitz-Belakhal spoke about the ‘emotionalised language’ of time spent together, and Julie Hardwick about the ways in which young couples in early modern France calibrated their intimacy in relation to their location – how they tied the registers of inside and outside space to the progress of their relationship.

Another important theme was closure, one of the key elements of the Doing House and Family project. ‘The changing degrees and different ways of ‘doing’ closure and openness of domestic spheres may serve well as a paradigm in family history’, Joachim suggested at the start, and Maria Agren’s summary comments identified a thread of argument through the papers that increased enclosure over time was a significant but complex narrative, with some elements always kept secret and the outside always present through light and glances in both directions through windows. We saw these connections in the papers on religion within the home – in Tine Van Osselaer’s identification of priests and ceremonies brought into the domestic environment, and in Irene Galandra Cooper’s arguments about the relationship between devotional forms used in both the churches and the lower status houses of Naples. The connections were also made evident in Frank Hatje’s argument that we should see bourgeois groups’ need for privacy to read as connected to their investment in patterns of sociability through which they might display that reading. Interesting points were made about openness as involving both inviting people in and talking about the household outside; about the description of relationships as part of their performance (Sandro Guzzi-Heeb) – for me, a larger question emerged – how are physical and narrative experiences of space and co-presence linked to one another at different times and in different places?

But, as was frequently pointed out, levels of closure are not just about modes of accessibility – they provide a key way for historians to understand social control. Focusing on what’s seen and unseen, known and unknown across the threshold is a way of exploring the relationship between the state and the house; the Political and the political; public and private spheres. The opening remarks asked how we might articulate what is apparently a broad shift from the relative heterogeneity of the ‘household family’ to something more nuclear and ‘privatized’; ‘From relatively open ‘mixed zones’ to a retreat into privacy behind walls and curtains (‘Rückzugswohnen’)’? Thinking through that broad chronology as a series of points in time demands a combination of micro-histories of the house with macro-historical questions. This is a crucial task, it seems to me, for the study of early modern domestic process – partly because by undertaking it we get at the heart of early modern identity, and partly because we rescue the study of everyday life from perceptions of triviality and inconsequence.


So what kind of insights were gained in Thun from the micro-macro connection? Inken Schmidt-Voges’ quiet revelation of a ‘conflict biography’ of court case in which upholding the peace was seen to be more important than upholding patriarchal rule demonstrated with great power what is at stake in a fuller understanding of these relationships. Sandra Cavallo’s careful work on annotations on printed medical texts showed that textual knowledge was not passively received, and in doing so undermined apparently clear distinctions between professional and domestic cultures. The work on emotion was also interesting here: Claudia Opitz-Belakhal considered how social relations might be structured by ‘public’ rules and discourses as well as ‘subjective practices of emotions and emotionality’, and Julie Hardwick considered what she called ‘sexual scripts’ – the generally understood phases through which individual relationships moved. These were very thought-provoking examples, but we still need more methodological work that explicitly examines ways of connecting up these levels of discourse, and the role of material, oral and literate cultures in those connections.

Of the four ‘guiding aspects’ of the conference, then, 1) material culture, 2) social space and habitat, 3) gender and 4) transformations, the least was said about the former. Joachim asked us to consider whether we would act, communicate and feel differently if we met in an ordinary seminar room at the University of Bern – undeniably true! I spoke about it in relation the decorated interiors of early modern English middling houses (of course), advocating the key relationship between space, objects and actions with which Tara and I are so concerned, but the majority of the evidence was undeniably documentary.

Finally, we were asked ‘Is there any such thing as ‘the European domestic sphere’’? It remains an important question, linked to a growing sense across the period of the differences between European and Eastern domesticities – curtains, doors and locks were mentioned, but we might also want to think about actions of sitting and modes of sociability in this light. Philip Hahn’s paper on the spread of ‘how to do household’ books across early modern Europe gave a solidly-grounded textual answer, as he asked what was found useful/acceptable across national boundaries and considered the rewriting of husbandry advice to take account of different climates and soils. Can we do the same for the material cultures of intimacy and display we heard about in Thun, and can we then connect it to those macro-questions on a European level? The Doing House and Family project will undoubtedly provide many useful answers, but I suspect there will still be more work to be done…



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Decorating the Godly Household: Postscript (2)

Another David and Goliath

This is the second update in this series describing further examples of early modern domestic decoration to build on the material and arguments presented in my monograph, Decorating the Godly Household: Religious Art in Post-Reformation Britain (2010). This post concerns another lost depiction of David and Goliath, which once formed part of a painted scheme in a house on the High Street of Chalfont St Peter in Buckinghamshire. The building was demolished in 1938 and it appears that no official attempt was made to record or salvage its remarkable scheme of early seventeenth-century domestic decoration. It is fortunate that E. Clive Rouse, archaeologist and scholar of medieval wall paintings, together with fellow wall painting enthusiast F. W. Reader, was prepared to risk the considerable dangers of working in a derelict building in the process of demolition to record those features and fragments that were still visible. Rouse’s account, published in the Buckinghamshire Archaeological Society Journal in 1948, vividly captures the terrible condition of the building along with a palpable sense of frustration at the wanton destruction of the painted imagery, which he clearly felt merited preservation as part of the nation’s heritage. It is beyond belief that following his painstaking efforts in perilous conditions to salvage at least a fraction of the painting, the sections he managed to safeguard were subsequently treated with equal disregard – one panel with an image of the Royal Unicorn on one side was badly broken in the course of its removal and transport by the staff of the Victoria & Albert Museum. According to Rouse, no attempt was made by the V&A to consolidate the scene of Judith and Holofernes on the reverse of this same panel. Two other sections were salvaged; one was still being “stored in a shed somewhere” in 1948, another had been re-installed in a conference centre but was overpainted during the war.

As Brodie Waddel commented in response to my first post in this series, it is frustrating that very little ‘middling’ or ‘popular’ culture from this period has survived and with the few examples that we know about there is often some tangential connection to Shakespeare to ‘justify’ their scholarly and cultural significance. During the housing renovations of the Victorian period and throughout the first half of the twentieth century a vast quantity of domestic fixtures and fittings was destroyed without any notice. Only a few dedicated individuals recognised the intrinsic historical value of Elizabethan and Jacobean decorative art that was widely regarded as crude, awkward and naive in style and execution. This perception conformed to a model of art appreciation that was formalised in the eighteenth century, which praised the ‘great’ achievements of the continental Renaissance and cast the native tradition of English craft as a rather embarrassing poor relation unworthy of the attention or protection of the establishment. There was nothing to stop so much of our artistic heritage ending up in the building skip or – if lucky – museum basements. We therefore owe a great deal to those forward-looking souls who in the early years of the twentieth century risked their reputations and, in this particular case at least, personal safety to record, preserve and promote material that was regarded with such disdain at the time, even by our national art and design museum.

Here is a brief summary of what Rouse was able to record:

The house containing the painted scheme was on the east side of the high street in Chalfont St Peter, forming the street frontage of the quadrangle known as the Barrack Yard, into which a high, covered, timbered gateway led. The two main rooms on the first floor had evidence of a complete scheme of painting, while remains of paintings with different designs suggests there was originally painting in other rooms as well. In the room facing the street and on the street gable, above two late sixteenth or early seventeenth-century four-light windows with moulded wood mullions, was the fragmentary text in blackletter: “When anything thou takest in hand to do / or enterprise first marke well the fynall end/ where of that waye aryse. Feare God.” This appears to be a version of Ecclesiasticus 7. 36. This text was painted upon the centre panel, which was 6 feet by 3 feet. In the triangular spaces of the gable end was a Tudor rose with foliage on the left of the centre panel and on the right a crowned thistle and the initials JR flanking the crown. This whole gable section was purchased by a private individual and Rouse superintended the installation of the paintings at Whan Cross, Chalfont St Giles, then a conference centre and retreat. (I would be glad to know if this painting is still extant at this location).

On the inner gable at the opposite end of the room was “a fine and spirited painting of a unicorn” – its collar and chain identified it as the Royal Unicorn of James I. This panel was bought but subsequently damaged and then over-restored by the V&A.

It was clear to Rouse that not only the gable ends but the whole room on the street front had been decorated – in one panel beside the fireplace there was another painted text in a frame, very fragmentary but apparently from Matthew 37: “But let your communication be Yes, Yea; Nay, Nay: for whatsoever is more than these cometh of evil”. The entire ceiling of this room was also painted; on the sloping portions were remains of the most elaborate frames containing texts in blackletter, but very fragmentary so that only one could be identified as Ephesians 1: “Be ye therefore followers of God as dear children’.

The room immediately behind this, identified by Rouse as the best bedroom or guest chamber, also had a complete scheme of mural decoration, but it was less well preserved. The walls had a painted representation of strapwork panelling in a great variety of colours. The party wall backing on to the unicorn in the next room was painted with a scene of Judith and Holofernes, which filled the whole space between the panelling and border. This scene was lost when the V&A acquired this section of wall but neglected to preserve the painting on both sides, but Rouse recalled the imagery as “a headless figure, with blood dripping from the neck, the arms sprawled limply out, was lying across a bed with elaborate canopy or draperies, with one figure, and perhaps a second in female attire who seemed to be walking away. The disposition of the figures, and the drapery, with Judith’s maid and the bag ready to receive Holofernes severed head accord well with the description of the scene in Judith xiii.1-10.”

It was on the opposite gable above the window that the scene of David and Goliath was painted. The scene showed David as a small figure brandishing Goliath’s immense sword as he stands over the prostrate giant, about to cut off his head. At the top a piece of the blackletter inscription put the identification beyond doubt: “Goliath the Philistine”. The pairing of these two scenes is conventional and represents the victory of virtue over vice, or the righteous over an oppressor.

david and goliath

As Rouse concludes, “This is a remarkably elaborate scheme of decoration for a comparatively modest house; and its destruction or dispersal is the more to be regretted”. I echo these sentiments and applaud Rouse’s heroic efforts to save what he could. Though ultimately unsuccessful in rescuing the paintings Rouse’s care and professionalism in recording the building – even as it fell in on him – has provided a comprehensive written description to inform a new wave of scholarship which will, I hope, finally give this sort of middling-status visual and material culture the recognition and attention it deserves.

His full account can be accessed here.

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Covering the ground in early modern London: object biographies at LAARC

P1000475This late sixteenth-/ early seventeenth-century floor tile with a picture of a grasshopper on it was found on the site of Baynard’s Castle, Upper Thames Street. It is London-made tin-glazed earthenware, intricately painted in green, yellow, two shades of blue and mauve. It is one of the objects that a group of postgraduate students and early career researchers spent the day learning to look at in detail at LAARC – the London Archaeological Archive and Research Centre – at the first of a series (watch this space) of AHRC-funded Skills Development workshops on the theme of ‘Methodologies for material culture’.

With the expert help of Alex Werner, Head of History Collections at the Museum of London, and Roy Stephenson, Head of the Museum’s Archaeological Collections and Archives, we tried our hands at constructing biographies of early modern urban things. P1000470This tile was made in Southwark and found at the site of the Royal Exchange when it was rebuilt in the nineteenth century – it has a quarter of a Tudor rose in the top left hand corner, completed as the pattern was repeated. Seeing the two tiles together, you begin to get a sense of London floors – of the complex, self-consciously showy and fashionable Renaissance patterns on which the city’s elite might have been walking around the turn of the century. There are tempting connections between the site of this tile and the image on the previous one too – can we read Thomas Gresham’s emblem in the half a grasshopper and put that together with the floor of the Exchange which he had built? What kind of a map of London pavements would that give us? The answer has to be ‘probably not’! But the kind of biographies these objects invite was the question the day set us: our instinct as historians seemed to be to try to use them as a series of stepping stones that, placed sequentially, generated a particular kind of narrative that was very focused on specific people and important actions.

P1000579In the final session of the day we were given groups of objects to talk about: part of the Museum of London’s signature shoe collection, a group of pewter from Nonsuch with crossbow bolt-holes in it, and these several brown boxes of pottery. They were found in Southwark, around the time of the great fire of London – at least a whole household’s worth of ceramics, if not more. Our conversations around them moved backwards and forwards from the form, style and function that we had been told to focus on to the reasons for their deposit. Had their owners beat a hasty path over the bridge, fleeing the City in the fire with their prized possessions, only to realise they would not be able to return quickly and therefore dumping these heavy objects with comparatively small intrinsic worth? Had a minor earthquake shattered all the pottery in the house, leaving only pewter, wood and silverware items intact? That desire to create a biography from external events that is not in dialogue with the material quality of the objects seemed almost irresistible. But given time and the experts’ eye we came back to ‘active looking’, to focusing on how these objects worked, both individually and as groups – how wide the charger actually was, why it had holes in the rim for hanging, what the effect of its lavish pattern was in relation to the Bellarmine jugs, for instance. These less pushy, less sensationalist narratives of things were unlikely to relate directly to London’s famous inhabitants or events; more likely to concentrate on the experience of walking through the decorated spaces of the early modern City.


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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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