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.