Past imperfect

The Hall at Hanbury Hall before 1900. ©National Trust

The agronomist Louise Fresco recently posted  about the implications of adding traditional cuisine to UNESCO’s world heritage listings (she writes in Dutch, so apologies to English-only readers). She rightly warns against the assumption that traditional recipes are fixed, and that there is one particular dish that can be designated as the ‘official’ one. Cuisine, like any other form of heritage, is always subject to change, and that change doesn’t necessarily make it less authentic.

The Hall more recently. ©NTPL/Dennis Gilbert

That post reminds me of historic interiors, which are also often read as definitive and fixed. Of course this impression is partly caused by the sincere efforts of the owners or curators, who have done their best to make all the elements fit together into a convincing whole, just as a chef tries to harmonise all the flavours on the plate.

The Hall at Hanbury Hall is a salutary example of how radically the look of an interior can change over a hundred year period. The top image shows the fabric of the Hall unchanged since the house was rebuilt in 1701, but resplendent with Victorian clutter. The bottom image shows an attempt to recreate an eighteenth-century look by the National Trust. Both images can justifiably be called either ‘true’ or ‘untrue’. Taken together they also tell us something about our constantly changing perception of the past.

7 Responses to “Past imperfect”

  1. CherryPie Says:

    It is lovely to see the two views side by side. A fascinating transformation.

  2. columnist Says:

    It’s almost like a “lived-in” and “photo-shoot” prepared version, (albeit from different periods). As with many things of things nature, (IMO), it needs to look tidy and less cluttered. I’m sure some would disagree violently, but I think the curators have done an excellent job.

  3. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    And of course we now seem to be coming full-circle, in that curators are sometimes reintroducing ‘clutter’ in order to make the interiors feel more lived-in and less like a photoshoot :)

  4. Toby Worthington Says:

    It’s a perennially fascinating topic that could easily fill several volumes~and at
    the end of the day, there would be not a single conclusion drawn. I’ve always
    admired restorations where evidence from the past was combined with intelligent
    interpretation, as it were. This is essential when dealing with houses no longer
    lived in~to make it a satisfying experience for tourists. I am old fashioned enough to admire the way John Fowler approached Fenton House in Hampstead,
    which by today’s academic standards would be considered downright quirky.

  5. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Yes, you put your finger on one of the biggest differences between the two images: the top one is a private home, the bottom one is a historic house that is open to the public.

  6. downeastdilettante Says:

    Toby Worthington beat me to ‘perennially fascinating’—in fact to most of what I intended to say. I am personally fondest of the houses that are frozen in a real moment in time—-usually the end of family occupancy. Though they may not tell the story of the house in say, the 18th century, they at least tell the truth about a moment in the house’s history. In America, the land of fads and trends, curatorial approaches change like the yearly fashions, and we are frequently treated to odd interpretations of the original house’s life. There has been much current trending, based on research fad, toward an unrealistically spare and bare version, sometimes utterly contradictory to surviving primary evidence.

    Years ago, here in Maine, an 18th century house that had been restored to a romanticized version of the past as a summer home for two wealthy women, was left to an organization, that not realizing what a fascinating document they had in itself, ‘restored’ it to what was then thought the more accurate version, yet leaving some of the later accretions. Then, yet later, the organization in question realized that they actually should have left well enough alone, and expensively restored it back to the state that they had received it in, realizing that it was just as interesting a story. The pendulum swings….

    For that house: http://thedowneastdilettante.blogspot.com/2010/12/new-england-loveliness-hamilton-house.html

  7. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    I am fascinated by the daringly ‘low’ use of painted chairs and a grindstone for use as a flagstone in front of the door at Hamilton House – the latter an almost Japanese, wabi-like touch.

    Speaking of Japanse, Hamilton House reminds me of my own recent post about cultural ‘appropriation': there I was talking about the adoption of Japanese objects and gardens, but the same mechanism is at work at Hamilton House, I think: the adoption and integration of elements from different contexts.

    And is it a coincidence that when Americans and Europeans were adopting Japanese antiques and gardens, in the late nineteenth century, they were also reviving their own past styles with increasing enthusiasm? A correlation between geographical and temporal appropriation?

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