God is in the details

Detail of the hangings on the mid-19th-century bed in the Red Bedroom at Felbrigg Hall. ©National Trust Images/David Kirkham

Modernist guru Mies van der Rohe is supposed to have said that ‘God is in the details.’ But that dictum doesn’t only apply to modernist design, of course.

Items on the writing table in the Red Bedroom. ©National Trust Images/David Kirkham

When looking at images of Felbrigg Hall recently I found these amazing shots by David Kirkham, which zoom in on details of objects and surfaces in the house.

A corner of the Regency sofa in the Drawing Room. ©National Trust Images/David Kirkham

From an objective, rational viewpoint, these ‘things’ – and the collective thing that is Felbrigg – are the direct and indirect evidence of history, of the coming and going of different  generations who left successive layers of objects and decorations.

Rosewood teapoy, c.1820, in the Drawing Room. ©National Trust Images/David Kirkham

But quite apart from the causal relationships between objects and events, the different textures, shapes and colours in the house also seem to communicate with us on a more subliminal level.

Detail of Rococo giltwood pier table, c. 1752, in the Cabinet at Felbrigg. ©National Trust Images/David Kirkham

The myriad material factors in a house like Felbrigg, and the juxtapositions between those factors, are simultaneously deliberate – in reflecting the choices of specific people at specific points in time – and random – in that they represent not one moment of taste but many, and that some evidence has inevitably been lost or erased over time.

Gilded overmantel mirror and French ormolu and marble clock in the Cabinet. ©National Trust Images/David Kirkham

The result is perhaps similar to what Marcel Duchamp called the ‘art coefficient’, the effect that art has on the viewer: an arithmetical relation between the unexpressed but intended and the unintentionally expressed.

View of part of the Dining Room. ©National Trust Images/David Kirkham

In the context of a historic house we would probably call that ineffable coefficient the ‘spirit of place’.

Celestial and terrestrial globes in the Library. ©National Trust Images/David Kirkham

And to that immensely complex body of material evidence we then need to add the subjectivity of the visitors, each of whom is unique and brings yet another set of factors into the equation.

A corner of the Library, with its 18th-century Gothick style bookcases. ©National Trust Images/David Kirkham

So, paraphrasing Mies, we might say that the spirit of place is in the details: in our unique, subjective reactions to the innumerable sensory impressions as we move around a historic house.

13 Responses to “God is in the details”

  1. Hels Says:

    I think the teapoy, globes and bookcases are fantastic. The timbers are elaborate and beautifully crafted.

    But the carpets, pier tables, mirrors and bed hangings look over the top. Even had Mies van der Rohe lived in the 19th century, he would have not enjoyed decorative detail for its own sake.

  2. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Indeed, poor old Mies would have had a fit if surrounded by so much DECORATION :)

    But in this case I was thinking of ‘detail’ not so much as in decorative motif, but as the smallest unit of perception: a sheen, a colour, a texture, a smell, and the interactions between those units. A bit abstruse, I admit, but I am trying to tease out my own reaction to places like Felbrigg.

    And I was delighted to read how you reacted to these images, introducing your personal likes and dislikes into the mix :)

    And isn’t it fascinating how you then get this juxtaposition of subjectivity (‘fantastic’ or ‘over the top’) and objectivity (‘oak Gothick-style bookcases, designed by James Paine and made by George Church for William Windham II, being finished in 1755′): two different but coexisting value systems?

  3. deana Says:

    I think about the details a lot. It is one of my pet-peeves that I can’t shoot those details in many Trust houses that don’t allow photography… some of them are so magnificent and they don’t show up in the large, whole room format. It would be great if details of the house were also provided if photography is not allowed… nudge nudge!!

    Beautiful shots, by the way!

  4. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    I agree that I think we need to do more to make the National Trust’s collections more visually accessible. One small way I am contributing to that is by trying to get more images added to our collections database (http://www.nationaltrustcollections.org.uk/) – lots of work to be done!

  5. Parnassus Says:

    An intriguing concept. Perhaps we can evaluate some of our own possessions in another light by taking close-up photos, and seeing how the quality is revealed in details, partial surfaces, etc. Perhaps poor quality will be revealed in weak details, or design brilliance in the appeal of minute components.

    By the way, the passementerie in the first photo I found somewhat disturbing–it looks like insect eggs or something of the kind.

    –Road to Parnassus

  6. The Devoted Classicist Says:

    All the architectural details – such as the mirror inset in the Dining Room plaster – are really noteworthy. But the concealed-door bookcase is exemplary!

  7. mary Says:

    Thank you. Past and the present meld with the participator. Great concept. Mary

  8. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Parnassus, indeed, and I find that examination of details also tends to create a sense of connection with the original designers and makers, an awareness that ‘someone thought this through, someone created this’.

    And yes that is a bit of full-blown high-Victorian passementerie, with large hangers suspended from the gimp. I rather like the colour and texture contrasts there.

    Classicist, glad you like them.

    Mary, yes we can all be time travellers :)

  9. marialucyland Says:

    Oldies but goldies designs…Thank you.

  10. Susan Barsy Says:

    Thank you for this beautiful post–the photographs, lovely in themselves, support your meditations quite powerfully.

    The ineffable coefficient you write of is what’s missing in so many modernist and contemporary interiors–the devil is in the details, one might say, when their referents are empty.

    Thanks again.
    SB

  11. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Thank you very much Susan. I agree with you, but I also think that, under the right circumstances, a ‘missing referent’ (in the sense of something lost or obscure or incomplete) can be quite fascinating too, in a mysterious sort of way.

  12. KDM Says:

    Great house, gorgeous images, and thoughtful text – KDM

  13. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Thank you Keith. You know all about this sort of thing, being one of the guardians of the ‘spirit of place’ at Ten Chimneys!

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