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The Early Modern Sleepover: A day (and night) at home in the Weald and Downland Museum

On a relatively warm summer’s evening a few weeks ago, as the visitors gradually disappeared from the Weald and Downland Museum, we watched the light fading through the massive windows in the hall of Bayleaf Farmhouse over a period of several hours – the best evening of the year. How lighting conditions influence the way we perceive and experience decorated domestic interiors was a key question for our Ways of Seeing the English Domestic Interior Network, 1500-1700. The museum gave us the opportunity to explore this further and directly thanks to a timely representation project. As Catherine has discussed in a previous post, the museum recently commissioned a new painted cloth from Melissa White, based on a mid 16th century wall painting, for installation in Bayleaf’s hall, which is presented as it might have been around 1540. A grant from the University of Kent’s Institute for Advanced Study in the Humanities (KIASH) provided support to create a film about the making and viewing of this cloth, including time-lapse photography to capture its changing appearance over the course of a day and night.

bayleafimg_0906     Bayleaf filming

We were able to stay at Bayleaf overnight while the time-lapse filming took place and this provided an extraordinary opportunity to witness the cloth in natural and dimming light as well as by candlelight. This also meant treating the building as a place of accommodation rather than as a museum exhibit. We lit a fire in the hearth in the centre of the hall, read prayers to accompany the lighting of candles from Richard Day’s Booke of Christian Prayers (1578) ‘Great and thick darkness overwhelmeth our harts (O Lord,) until thy light do chase it away…’ and slept in the tester and truckle beds in the solar upstairs, with its unglazed, shuttered windows.

So, did time of day and lighting conditions change the way the new cloth looked? And what did our sleepover experience in a timber-framed hall house ‘in the raw’ (that is, without the accretions of subsequent ‘improvements’ and modern day comforts), contribute to our sense of how these buildings facilitated, accommodated, framed and structured early modern patterns of life?

Here are 8 things we found out that we didn’t know before:

1. The cloth appeared to glow by candlelight. No, really! What had seemed strong, vibrant colours in Melissa’s studio appeared more muted in situ, toning with the natural colours of the plaster and timber environment, with its soot-blackened quality. But in candlelight the colours appeared much richer and bolder with an almost fluorescent quality. This makes us wonder – was this sort of decoration meant to make its greatest impact in the evening? What does this indicate about the relationship between decoration and social practices in a domestic context?

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2. The glowing appearance of the cloth was particularly striking from outside. It is possible to see therefore how this sort of cloth might have particular impact in an urban setting by night – advertising the quality of the interior to people outside with all this implies about the status and wealth of the owner.

bayleaft glowing

3. The main problem with the open hearth is not smoke, as you might expect, but ash.  The open roof was surprisingly efficient in drawing smoke upwards and away from standing and sitting level but a large quantity of ash rained down onto the high table, still laid with its replica tableware. Good job we didn’t have any Tudor recipes to serve. Ash garnish, anyone?

bayleaf fire

bayleaf chink 2

4. Chinks and knots in the floor are particularly noticeable, indeed strikingly obvious, in the evening. A knot in the wooden floorboard of the first-floor chamber of the 17th century  Pendean Farmhouse, where we tried out some prayers, was hardly noticeable by day (as pictured above) but appeared to glow when the shutters were closed and the room below had the shutters open, drawing attention to the hole. This made it difficult to resist the urge to peek! No wonder court depositions feature so many accounts of peeping through holes to spy on neighbours, but  now we’re aware this may be contingent on lighting conditions too.

5. Sound travels in early modern buildings. We knew this, of course, but there is a real sense of connectedness with people’s movements in other rooms  (Darren’s movements filming down in the hall) as well as with outside (the honking of geese). We tried out reading aloud from prayer books and  devotional manuals. Voices, even when spoken softly, carry readily and clearly from room to room, upwards and downwards. Eavesdropping must  have been quite hard to avoid, especially between upper rooms and the lower ones directly beneath them.

‘ I wil fall on sleep, and take my rest…’

6. The bed furniture was surprisingly comfortable (if too short as we didn’t follow the practice of sleeping propped up). With Catherine in the tester and Tara in the truckle (hmm, seniority evidently came into play with the sleeping arrangements) there was little sense that we were ‘co-sleeping’ – more like sharing a room with twin beds. With such acute awareness of other people elsewhere in the house as well as the sense of connection with outside (see observation 5 above) awareness of another person in the same room seemed less significant, somehow.

Bayleaf beds

7. Shutters to unglazed windows are surprisingly effective at blocking out light (if not sound). The increasing use of glazing and window curtains in the later 16th and 17th centuries must have had a tremendous impact in changing the quality of light at different times of the day.

‘So soone as ye see the day breake, and light appeare in the skie, praie…I wished for daie, and lo, the starres of the twy-light doo appeare; and I see (I thanke thee) the dawning of the daie’ .¹

8. Because the shutters worked so well there was little cognisance of dawn and, after a night of honking geese, we both overslept! This raises the question – how did people wake themselves up in early modern England?

‘Let not my sleepe be unnmeasurable to please excessively the ease of my flesh: but only to suffice the necessity of my nature…’

There is no question that the lived experience of staying overnight at Bayleaf – the sounds, smells, quality of light, the movement of air, the feel of the furniture – has given us a unique and enhanced perspective on how this kind of building behaves under specific conditions. But what added value does this experience offer to inform our research on domestic life in the early modern period? There is a huge methodological challenge here in subjecting this kind of empirical evidence in the present day to critical analysis that could be incorporated within written historical narratives. My colleague, Jonathan Willis, blogger over at the many-headed monster, tells me that he struggles with similar issues in studying early modern music. So, where do we go from here? Back to Bayleaf, perhaps, while also thinking forward to the potential for a study day dedicated to theoretical and practical approaches to experiential and site-specific research in humanities disciplines…

¹ From ‘Christian prayers and meditations’ in Thomas Bentley, Monument of Matrones, 1582, p.367. Other extracts from prayers are from Richard Day, A Booke of Christian Prayers (1578).

 

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Early modern design in the age of mechanical reproduction?

Hastings studioA few days ago I drove across the Romney Marsh to Hastings, to Melissa White’s textile workshop to meet her for the first time, with Danae Tankard from the Weald and Downland Museum. Melissa is creating a new painted cloth for the hall of the Museum’s most loved property, Bayleaf. We are making a film about the whole project, produced by Darren Mapletoft, as one of the outcomes the AHRC Domestic Interiors network – in the course of it we’ve been discussing the impact of decorative textiles and different ways of presenting them in heritage settings.

Part of Melissa’s work involves making bespoke hand painted replica Elizabethan domestic interiors, for private clients and museums (including at the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust), and part is more mainstream – she has worked with big furnishings firms such as Zoffany to create modern textile and paper designs inspired by historic interiors.

zoffany verdure

So one of the things I wanted to ask Melissa about was what the difference is between these two processes – where does reproducing an historic interior stop, and designing something modern based around an early modern aesthetic start? Her Zoffany design ‘Verdure’ is based on the painted cloths at Owlpen (and other related ones), but for the commercial pattern she took out the figures, turning it from a narrative sequence about Joseph to a verdant scene of characteristically early modern trees, waterfalls and buildings. The painted cloth that Melissa is producing for the Weald and Downland is based on a wall painting from Althrey Hall in Wrexham that Kathryn Davies discussed at the Network final conference (see more about the conference here). So was she copying this, or designing something based around it?

Melissa talked about the processes she went through. First, she used authentic fabrics and pigments as much as possible. The canvas is sized with rabbit skin glue, the background stripes are of yellow ochre and lamp black and whiting (to make grey), and the rest of the design also includes red ochre, raw umber, and a vermillion substitute for the pomegranate seeds and some of the flowers – the small jewel-like dots of colour which shine out of the canvas and would have been the most expensive paint and therefore a signal of the owner’s wealth.

She began by copying the work of the Elizabethan painters, by imitating the nature of the brushstrokes,  their direction and the way of applying the paint – using every possible piece of evidence that could be gleaned from the original – and replicating slight alterations in the design exactly. This kind of learning by doing meant that Melissa was sensitive to the small changes that the original painters had made as they went along, and the variations that came about in creating a repeating pattern by hand. In other words, she was seeing how the pattern took shape by imitating the practice, rather than the design itself, and after an initial period of replication she could continue in that spirit and make her own changes.

Althrey Hall wallpainting

That led us on to discussing the nature of repetition. She talked about the fact that so many early modern decorative  textiles replicate the nature of woven cloth, in which repeats can be produced mechanically. She sees them as aiming to imitate elite fabrics, particularly in this design the swags and the pomegranates that very expensive imported silks often contain, and we discussed where rural families might have come across such fabrics – perhaps in the vestments and altar cloths of the pre-Reformation parish church might be one place? The close relationship between different decorative works – painted cloths and wall paintings for instance, meant that key deign elements from fabrics could determine the appearance of domestic interiors.

It was fascinating finding out about the practicalities of making, and the insights this gives into the models and processes of sixteenth-century painters working across a range of different media. The workshop was a really inspirational place. The next part of the process will be to see what visual impact the new cloth will have behind the table in Bayleaf, and how it will alter the space. We’ll be filming the installation and the responses of some of the staff and visitors, and trying to analyse the way it works visually in the different lights at different times of day. Knowing how the aesthetic qualities of these cloths worked within the house as a backdrop for particular kinds of activities will help us to understand why people invested in them, and  the role they played in shaping the status of their owner. More soon on the installation, and then a link to the video…

Althrey design reference

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Writing the past with the Treaty Canoe: public engagement as material process

treaty-3Here are some further thoughts on different ways of bringing the early modern past and the present into conjunction with one another, prompted by an unexpected encounter with a canoe! As the darkness fell last week in the cool and expansive space of the double-height foyer of one of the colleges at Kent, a 12ft papier mâché and birchwood canoe swayed gently on a long steel line. It was being rocked between members of the audience at the event to mark its launch, as they absent-mindedly tried to centre it. Alex McKay, the artist who had spent several weeks making it in situ, talked about the significance of his work, called Treaty Canoe. The texts with which it is covered are transcriptions of treaties made between the British colonial territories and their indigenous people, texts which date back to the early seventeenth century and have a continuously troubled history into the present day. One of the main aims of the project is to explore the history of the relationship between indigenous peoples – such as Native Americans and First Nations Canadians – and the Crown, and its ongoing significance to indigenous rights, as part of the Idle No More movement.

This has been a ‘public engagement event’ with a difference. For a start, Alex, David Stirrup and their team have been camped out in the foyer for a couple of weeks, and they’re excellent at engaging people of all ages and backgrounds in conversation – I’ve seen them in equally effective action with students, heads of department and small children. Intrigued, they’ve come and discussed the gradually-emerging form of the piece, and in doing so been drawn into dialogue about its meanings. Then they’ve written out those documents again themselves, encouraged as they did so to think through the process of writing and rewriting, codifying and replicating promissory notes about land. It’s those pieces of writing which have formed the outer skin of the canoe.

And then there’s something about the object itself which is immediately, disarmingly appealing. It’s instantly recognisable and simply beautiful. The methods by which it is made are traditional ones, so one element of its appeal is a kind of practice as research – seeing something take shape in the way it has always taken shape, and viewing it as a tangible connection of process to early modern makers of such objects.

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After the speeches, the canoe was raised up way above our heads by two enormous men from the Estates department, and I asked Alex whether he was pleased with the way it had turned out – it’s the second one he’s made. That turned out to be terribly hard to answer – was I asking him about the physical form it had taken (more regular than the last one), or about the effect its making had had upon those people who had been involved in the process (very satisfying)? Was I asking an aesthetic or a political question? That tension’s at the heart of what I’ve found so fascinating about this project – the simultaneous allure of the object and repulse of the message it conveys; its physical beauty and the deeply complicated ideological issues that beauty gestures towards. Listening to the formal speeches, and then standing up above later on in the silence of the mezzanine taking this photo, I was struck by the barely-contained emotions circulating around the treaty canoe, by how rare it is that early modern history has such a direct connection to live and heartfelt political activism, and by how central a material object has been to bringing those things into the same space. Someone apparently came up to the team and suggested they were wasting their time: ‘you’d be much better off trying to get people to sign a petition’ she said, demonstrating a remarkable lack of perception in every sense of the word!

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Comfort Zones

unity2Two things have happened recently which set me thinking about comfort zones, now and in the past. First, I gave a talk for Unity Arts as part of their HLF-funded project ‘A Restoration Wyfe – A Saucy London Life’. The talk was called ‘The interior life of the Restoration wife’, and it was about the changing relationship between interiors and women’s lives between the 16th and the 18th Centuries. I started off with the china scene from William Wycherley’s 1675 play The Country Wife, with its blistering run of double entendres:

Mrs Squeamish: Oh Lord I’ll have some china too, good Mr. Horner, don’t think to give other people china, and me none, come in with me too.

Horner: Upon my honour I have none left now.

Mrs Squeamish: Nay, nay I have known you deny your china before now, but you shan’t put me off so, come —

Horner: This Lady had the last there.

Lady Fidget: Yes indeed Madam, to my certain knowledge he has no more left.

(you can watch it here, about half way through the clip: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ROI9FhR6URI)

Then we cut back to Thomas Bentley’s 1582 The Monument of Matrons, in which he outlines a routine of early morning prayer in the chamber: ‘Putting on your neerest garment [your clean smock], praie thus:…O cover thou my nakednesse and shame with the fine linnen robe of his righteousnesse and vertue…Yea, make thou my linnen cloaths as white as snowe, and shining like the light’ (pp. 369-71). The point of the talk was to explore how we might get from one chamber to another: how representations of the room changed from a space of pious meditation to one that could be represented as a scene for debauchery, even if it was happening just off stage.

So the barest bones of the talk were the way sixteenth-century halls were ceiled over to provide chambers up above, and the effects this had on the specificity of space – the division of activities between rooms, the creation of rooms that were intended for sleeping and not much else, and the significance of ‘going upstairs’ at night time. And we looked at the development of closets and dressing rooms in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries – the movement to entertaining in small spaces for more intimate sociabilities – comfortable and comforting rooms filled with women’s personally significant objects. The changing way women decorated chambers revealed a great deal about their ‘interior lives’. We also discussed who was allowed in; the permeability of rooms and houses. Watching early modern comfort zones shift in location and boundaries gave me back something of that shock of the new that you lose when you forget what happens before and after the period you work on.

unity5And the other thing that’s happened is that I’m now the DoRPE in the School of English at Kent or, marginally more attractively, the Director of Research and Public Engagement, which has led me to thinking about how we start conversations about the past with people outside our departments. The way Unity Arts ran this event was fascinating. The talk came after a series of songs from the period sung by costumed singers and a reading from Pepys’ Diary, all at the Geffrye Museum of the Home, where the audience could wander around period rooms before and afterwards. And the whole event was set against the full-sized recreation of a Restoration bed they’d produced, and in the context of the research they’d done on portraits and Restoration wedding documents in the local archive. This was an event with previous form – a culmination of other kinds of exploration – and that really came across. It gave them a range of different ways of getting at a central problem – what was the life of a Restoration wife like? – and what it offered its audience wasn’t a holistic package (a kind of living history where you are supposed to forget you’re in Hoxton in 2013) so much as a variety that kept changing your point of view. Have a look at this video of a previous piece of work, shown again at the Geffrye, for instance – it’s all about view point: http://youtu.be/O0fFJXl1gH8

And speaking in this setting was naturally engaging, both for me and, I hope, for the audience. It couldn’t possibly be a passive event. Talking about place as part of an experience, rather than doing it cold in a lecture theatre, and seeing research as animated – as a performance of words – made a space for understanding domestic experience that was very different to what I’m used to. It made a lecture into a moment at which things might be coaxed into coming together. And it made demands on us all to imagine, and to think of the constraints on imagining too. That’s when things start to happen – when, in talking it through in an inspiring space with an audience who keep asking interesting questions, you start to see the evidence you work with differently. Way outside my academic comfort zone it felt to me as though this was a different kind of ‘located’ engagement. It would be interesting to know what others think…

unity8

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