Archive for the ‘History of Ideas’ Category

Questions of value

July 10, 2014
Leather fire bucket at Florence Court, Co Fermanagh, inv. no. 630933. The painted tendrils shaped into an 'E' stand for 'Enniskillen', the earldom of the Cole family which owned Florence Court. ©National Trust

Leather fire bucket, at Florence Court, Co. Fermanagh, inv. no. 630933. The painted tendrils shaped into an ‘E’ stand for ‘Enniskillen’, the earldom of the Cole family which owned Florence Court. ©National Trust

Yesterday I attended a conference organised by the Art Fund about the value of museums. There were a number of stimulating discussions about what kind of value museums have and how that value operates.

There seemed to be a consensus that museums should focus on what they are really good at: collecting, looking after, researching and making accessible interesting and beautiful things. It was commented that museums can have social and economic benefits too, but that those are best delivered through that core purpose.

Painted 'grotesque' decoration with tendrils, leaves and ribbons in the boudoir at Attingham Park, 1780s, possibly by Louis-André Delabrière. ©National Trust Images/James Mortimer

Painted ‘grotesque’ decoration with tendrils, leaves and ribbons in the boudoir at Attingham Park, 1780s, possibly by Louis-André Delabrière. ©National Trust Images/James Mortimer

There were some fascinating and contrasting examples of ‘value’. At one end of the spectrum, Graham W.J. Beal, director of the Detroit Institute of Arts, described the struggle to preserve a collection which is threatened with sale in order to plug the pensions deficit of the city. At the other end, Jack Persekian, director of the Palestinian Museum – as yet without a building and without a collection – showed examples of the objects cherished by individual Palestinians, objectively modest things which nevertheless have enormous subjective power.

This investigation of ‘value’ reminded me of the collections of the National Trust, where the modest can sometimes be just as significant as the fine. The leather bucket shown above was once simply an item of fire prevention at Florence Court. But the way it was made, its aged appearance and its connection to a particular place now give it an distinct aura, speaking to us on a number of different levels.

The charming conceit of painting the house owner’s initial on the bucket in vaguely classical tendrils links it to a long tradition of classicised floral decoration. The boudoir at Attingham, in the second image above, is another, particularly fine example of that tradition. And that boudoir, in turn, demonstrates how objects never exist in a vacuum, but always ‘speak’ to other objects within certain spaces and relationships.

So that leads me to propose that the value of museums, and of heritage more widely, resides in relationships: between objects, between objects and places and between objects and people.

A Taste for China

May 29, 2014

9780199950980

There has recently been a spate of books examining the west’s historical fascination with east Asia through the lens of literature and the history of ideas. I have previously featured Chi-Ming Yang’s Performing China and Yu Liu’s Seeds of a Different Eden.

Pieter van Roestraten (1629–1700), Teapot, Ginger Jar and Slave Candlestick, c. 1695. ©Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Pieter van Roestraten (1629–1700), Teapot, Ginger Jar and Slave Candlestick, c. 1695. ©Victoria and Albert Museum, London

A new book by Eugenia Zuroski Jenkins, entitled A Taste for China: English Subjectivity and the Prehistory of Orientalism, once again approaches the subject by way of literary history. But at the same time it also sheds new light on a question that has long puzzled me: why were China and Chinese things so highly regarded in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Europe?

Chinese porcelain teapot, Zhangzhou ware, c. 1650-1670 with European silver-gilt mounts, c. 1660-1680, at Ham House (inv. no. 1139006). ©NTPL/Bill Batten

Chinese porcelain teapot, Zhangzhou ware, c. 1650-1670 with European silver-gilt mounts, c. 1660-1680, at Ham House (inv. no. 1139006). ©NTPL/Bill Batten

One of Zuroski Jenkins’s answers revolves around the theory of perception formulated by John Locke (1632-1704). According to Locke the mind is an empty receptacle which is gradually filled by external impressions and perceptions. In this view sophistication equals importation: the mind of a person of taste is like a collector’s cabinet, filled with wondrous things from across the globe.

This seems to explain why seventeenth- and early eighteenth-century Europeans seemed to be so keen on collecting objects from cultures they barely understood, and to create decorative schemes that combined eastern and western styles without any sense of incongruity.

Pieter van Roestraten (1629–1700), Still Life with Silver Wine Decanter, Tulip, Yixing Teapot and Globe, c. 1690. ©Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Pieter van Roestraten (1629–1700), Still Life with Silver Wine Decanter, Tulip, Yixing Teapot and Globe, c. 1690. ©Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Zuroski Jenkins also argues that in the course of the eighteenth century there occurred a shift from this cosmopolitan idea of taste to a more polarised opposition between the self and the other, which increasingly defined China as something that stood in contrast to the British sense of identity.

These are just a few snippets from Zuroski Jenkins’s complex book, which I now want to reread to savour her analysis more fully. But it confirms my hunch that ‘China’ in 1700 and ‘China’ in 1800 were two radically different things.

Between history and fiction

February 11, 2014

Part of the Drawing Room at Hatchlands. ©National Trust Images/James Dobson

Part of the Drawing Room at Hatchlands. ©National Trust Images/James Dobson

I have just been reading the fascinating catalogue marking the donation of Alec Cobbe’s career archive to the Victoria and Albert Museum. There is also an accompanying display currently on view at the V&A.

The Drawing Room at Hatchlands. ©National Trust Images/James Dobson

The Drawing Room at Hatchlands. ©National Trust Images/James Dobson

Alec Cobbe is a polymath who initially worked as a paintings conservator (although he prefers the older description ‘picture restorer’), but later became known for his sensitive rehangings of historic picture collections. He is also an artist, designer, musician and collector.

Part of the Library at Hatchlands. ©National Trust Images/Chris Lacey

Part of the Library at Hatchlands. ©National Trust Images/Chris Lacey

Alec Cobbe grew up in Newbridge House, County Dublin, which had been rebuilt in the 1740s by his ancestor Charles Cobbe, Archbishop of Dublin. In the 1750s and 1760s the house was filled with pictures by Archbishop Cobbe’s son Robert and his wife Elizabeth.

The Library at Hatchlands. ©National Trust Images/Chris Lacey

The Library at Hatchlands. ©National Trust Images/Chris Lacey

Alec Cobbe’s early experience of Newbridge, as well as his training as a conservator, informed his sensitivity to the historic settings of works of art. In the catalogue Julius Bryant puts Cobbe’s career in the context of the re-evaluation of picture hangs in museums and historic houses over the last forty years or so.

Broadwood grand piano, 1847, in the Staircase Hall at Hatchlands Park. ©National Trust Images/James Dobson

Broadwood grand piano, 1847, in the Staircase Hall at Hatchlands Park. ©National Trust Images/James Dobson

Apart from advising the National Trust, and becoming a Trust tenant at Hatchlands Park, Alec Cobbe has also been involved with picture rehangs in the private apartments at Petworth and at Harewood House, Kenwood and Hatfield House. He has also designed some striking historicist showcases, for instance for Powis Castle, Windsor Castle and the Palace of Holyroodhouse.

The Dining Room at Hatchlands. ©National Trust Images/Chris Lacey

The Dining Room at Hatchlands. ©National Trust Images/Chris Lacey

In 1984 Hatchlands was in need of a new purpose, having recently been a school and with little in the way of original contents.  Alec Cobbe was invited by the National Trust to display his collections of painting and historic keyboard instruments there and to make it once more into a living family home.

The Saloon at Hatchlands. ©National Trust Images/James Dobson

The Saloon at Hatchlands. ©National Trust Images/James Dobson

The catalogue not only provides an overview of Cobbe’s career and of the changing attitudes to historic houses, but it also touches on some fundamental questions about what it is that we value about the past.

As Julius Bryant puts it: ‘Once one accepts that all historic interiors have gone for good (for not only their historic contents, but also our way of perceiving them, have changed) then the latest ‘restoration’ project can be judged against values other than ‘accuracy’. In admiring a restored room as a work of art and design we can also ask how well it shows the collections, what it tells us about the use and display of the space over the centuries, and how well it conveys what Alexander Pope called ‘the genius of the place’.

Design thinking

January 10, 2014

The ultimate union of function and beauty: lyre-back armchair by Thomas Chippendale in the Library at Nostell Priory. ©National Trust Images/John Gibbons

The ultimate union of function and beauty: lyre-back armchair by Thomas Chippendale in the Library at Nostell Priory. ©National Trust Images/John Gibbons

I have been reading a thought-provoking book by Alice Rawsthorn entitled Hello World: Where Design Meets Life, analysing the pervasive presence and multi-facted role of design.

Fit for purpose, 1950s-style: melamine picnic set in the Butlers Passage at Tyntesfield. ©National Trust Images/Nadia Mackenzie

Fit for purpose, 1950s-style: melamine picnic set in the Butlers Passage at Tyntesfield. ©National Trust Images/Nadia Mackenzie

Rawsthorn shows how ‘design thinking’ (in David Kelly’s phrase) can help us to analyse problems, find solutions and persuade others to adopt them. She persuasively argues that design is not just high-end styling, but also includes aspects of psychology, sociology, communication and politics.

Shaping and shaped by the means of production: two engine-turned creamware vases produced by Josiah Wedgewood, in the Library at Saltram. ©National Trust Images/Andreas von Einsiedel

Shaping and shaped by the means of production: two engine-turned creamware vases produced by Josiah Wedgewood, in the Library at Saltram. ©National Trust Images/Andreas von Einsiedel

Josiah Wedgwood was engaging in design thinking when he brought together kiln technology, aesthetics, logistics and marketing to create and sell his eponymous ceramics. But so are the street traders and itinerant technicians of present-day Beijing when they customise their battered tricycles to suit their individual needs.

Functional, beautiful, but potentially deadly: mid eighteenth century pistol at Ham House. ©National Trust Images/John Hammond

Functional, beautiful, but potentially deadly: mid eighteenth century pistol at Ham House. ©National Trust Images/John Hammond

I don’t agree with everything Rawsthorn posits in this book, but that is partly what makes it an engaging read. She equates good design with moral integrity, which I find slightly problematic. Weapons, for instance, though intended to wound or kill, can be both aesthetically beautiful and technically efficient. I think they can be called ‘good’ from the point of view of design even if one might call them ‘bad’ from an ethical perspective. It seems to me we need to treat moral virtue and design quality as two separate issues – without denying the importance of either.

Is it design or is it art: carved wooden finial in the shape of a sea monster, on the Oak Staircase at Clandon Park. ©National Trust Images/Chris Lacey

Is it design or is it art: carved wooden finial in the shape of a sea monster, on the Oak Staircase at Clandon Park. ©National Trust Images/Chris Lacey

One the other hand, when Rawsthorn states that design and art can never be the same thing – because the former always has a function whereas the latter doesn’t necessarily have one – I don’t agree with her either. I tend to think that even ‘fine’ art fulfills all sorts of functions, it is just that they are slightly more abstract or intangible than those of design. Moreover, we live in an age when art and design seem to be increasingly resembling each other, and to her credit Rawsthorn describes some fascinating examples of that tendency.

Humble functionality, timeless beauty: mahogany 'Windsor' armchair, c.1760, in the Hall Gallery at Ham House. ©National Trust Images/John Hammond

Humble functionality, timeless beauty: mahogany ‘Windsor’ armchair, c.1760, in the Hall Gallery at Ham House. ©National Trust Images/John Hammond

But I am fully in agreement with the author about the list of qualities she thinks design and designers need in order to break free from the limitations of elitism and preciousness that have become associated with this profession. Rawsthorn argues that design needs more openness and empathy and that it needs to combine boldness with humility. It strikes me that those virtues are equally relevant to the museums and heritage sector.

In praise of copying

September 19, 2013
Detail of a Roman copy of a fifth century BC bronze figure of an Amazon, in the North Gallery at Petworth. ©National Trust Images/Stuart Cox

Detail of a Roman copy of a fifth century BC bronze figure of an Amazon, in the North Gallery at Petworth. ©National Trust Images/Stuart Cox

The other day I was having a discussion with a colleague about the relative merits of original works and copies. Although I am as keenly interested in original works of art as the next heritage-minded person, I found myself defending of the value of copies – in particular the copies of antique sculpture.

The North Gallery at Petworth. ©National Trust Images/Arnhel de Serra

The North Gallery at Petworth. ©National Trust Images/Arnhel de Serra

The Romans copied famous Greek sculptures, and following the Renaissance the Italians copied Greek and Roman works as well as combining disparate ancient fragments. These copies and hybrids tend to be beautifully made objects in themselves, but apart from their purely visual appeal I also find them fascinating because of what they tell us about our how our culture interacts with its past.

Roman figure of Agrippina as Ceres, Roman adaptation of a Greek original, restored in the eighteenth century, with two busts, in the North Gallery at Petworth. ©National Trust Images/Andreas von Einsiedel

Roman figure of Agrippina as Ceres, Roman adaptation of a Greek original, restored in the eighteenth century, with two busts, in the North Gallery at Petworth. ©National Trust Images/Andreas von Einsiedel

The past was being rediscovered, and the products of that past were so desirable that a reproduction market arose to satisfy the demand. Regardless of whether these objects are ‘originals’, ‘copies’, ‘bodges’ or ‘fakes’, they embody an ideal that was so powerful that people felt compelled to fill their houses with them, and indeed to rebuild their houses to realise that vision even more fully.

Volunteer Room Steward in the North Gallery at Petworth, next to a Greek seated figure of a philosopher, with a Roman head added in the eighteenth century. ©National Trust Images/Arnhel de Serra

Volunteer Room Steward in the North Gallery at Petworth, next to a Greek seated figure of a philosopher, with a Roman head added in the eighteenth century. ©National Trust Images/Arnhel de Serra

And of course we are doing more or less the same thing when we visit a historic place today, and buy the guidebook, and add images to our Pinterest boards, and change something in our own home inspired by what we have seen. When we look at our ancestors looking at their past, we are also looking at ourselves.

Conversing with aliens

June 18, 2013
Portrait of Elizabeth Murray by Sir Peter Lely, c. 1645. ©National Trust Images/John Hammond

Portrait of Elizabeth Murray by Sir Peter Lely, c. 1645. ©National Trust Images/John Hammond

Columnist Howard Jacobson recently made an interesting point about the relevance of history. He turned the argument upside down by stating (in a paraphrase of John F. Kennedy): ‘It’s not history’s job to be relevant to us; it’s our job to be relevant to history.’

I think there is much to be said for both sides in the relevance debate: we don’t want history to be so remote that we feel alienated from it, but equally we cannot automatically project the issues and preconceptions of the present day onto people and situations in the past.

Portrait of Elizabeth, Lady Tollemache, by Sir Peter Lely, c. 1650. ©National Trust Images/John Hammond

Portrait of Elizabeth, Lady Tollemache, by Sir Peter Lely, c. 1650. ©National Trust Images/John Hammond

But I am inspired by the reasons Jacobson gives for being attracted when he was young to what he could easily have regarded as irrelevant to him in history and literature : ‘… we read … in order imaginatively to enjoy the company of others, in order to understand what those who were not ourselves were like, in order to feel the world expand around us, in order to go places we didn’t routinely go to in our neighbourhoods or in our heads, in order to meet the challenge of difference … Reading felt like a journey out of self, not into it.’

Portrait of the Duke and Duchess oif Lauderdale by Sir Peter Lely, c. 1672. ©National Trust Images/John Bethell

Portrait of the Duke and Duchess oif Lauderdale by Sir Peter Lely, c. 1672. ©National Trust Images/John Bethell

I think the figure of Elizabeth Murray (1626-98), chatelaine of Ham House, is a good illustration of the complexities of relevance. She was clever, cultured, beautiful and feisty. She had 11 children by her first husband and married the second following a scandalous extramarital affair. She lived through the roller-coaster of the Civil War, the Commonwealth and the Restoration (her father had been a courtier of Charles I).

After marrying her second husband she enjoyed great wealth and prestige, expanding and redecorating Ham House on a princely scale (including the astounding purchase of 152 gold and silver thread tassels in October 1573). At the end of her life she was reduced to near penury, but her need to pawn jewels, silver and paintings has provided us with a poignant and wonderfully detailed record of her taste.

Some of these aspects of Elizabeth Murray’s life we can undoubtedly relate to, while others are as alien as life on Mars. But it is one of the benefits of history that it occasionally allows us  to converse with aliens.

The significance of things

June 6, 2013
Silver and coral baby's rattle, at Snowshill Manor (NT1340278). ©National Trust Collections

Silver and coral baby’s rattle, at Snowshill Manor (NT1340278). ©National Trust Collections

Professor Margot Finn, who is leading the East India Company at Home project, recently gave a talk posing the question ‘How can things make historians think differently?’

Edith Agnes Eleanor Bliss, aged 7 months, April 1864, by Davy, at the Fox Talbot Museum, Lacock Abbey (NT97792). ©National Trust Collections

Edith Agnes Eleanor Bliss, aged 7 months, April 1864, by Davy, at the Fox Talbot Museum, Lacock Abbey (NT97792). ©National Trust Collections

Margot began by reminding the audience how our understanding of history has been shaped by ‘the overweening tyranny of the written text’. Objects, being mostly non-textual, have been ignored by historians or at most tolerated as illustrations for their own texts.

The Flute Player, Meissen porcelain group, c. 1900, at Nunnington Hall (NT979528). ©National Trust Collections

The Flute Player, Meissen porcelain group, c. 1900, at Nunnington Hall (NT979528). ©National Trust Collections

She handed a group of objects to the members of the audience with the request to pass them round and to note down any associations they might evoke.

Baby carriage, 1762, at Kedleston Hall (NT108650). ©National Trust Collections

Baby carriage, 1762, at Kedleston Hall (NT108650). ©National Trust Collections

This was also to emphasise her point about the limits of exhibitions and museum displays, which admittedly place the objects centre-stage, but at the same time move them out of reach and divorce them from their original contexts.

Mary Myddelton (1688-1747) and Sir William Myddelton, 4th Bt (1694-1718), as children, English School, at Chirk Castle (NT1171140). ©National Trust Collections

Mary Myddelton (1688-1747) and Sir William Myddelton, 4th Bt (1694-1718), as children, English School, at Chirk Castle (NT1171140). ©National Trust Collections

Margot welcomed the online proliferation of images of objects in museum collections, but she also cautioned that this in some ways reduces objects to flat, full-frontal images (something I also touched on in my previous posts on the Pinterest phenomenon).

White cotton baby's cap, at Overbeck's House (NT1413897). ©National Trust Collections

White cotton baby’s cap, at Overbeck’s House (NT1413897). ©National Trust Collections

She posed a kind of ‘baby test': how can we historians and curators convey historical reality with as much immediacy as if we were in the presence of an adorably cute and simultaneously pungently messy baby? Now there’s a challenge.

Double-take

February 14, 2013
The Peacock Room wityh blue and white Chinese Ceramics of the Kangxi period. © 2010 - 2013 Smithsonian Institution and Wayne State University Libraries

The Peacock Room with blue and white Chinese porcelain of the Kangxi period. © 2010 – 2013 Smithsonian Institution and Wayne State University Libraries

Fellow blogger Courtney Barnes recently mentioned a website called The Story of the Beautiful, which chronicles the remarkable and revealing history of the Peacock Room in the Freer Gallery of Art in Washington, part of the Smithsonian Institution.

As The Story of the Beautiful describes, the Peacock Room was originally constructed by architect Thomas Jeckyll for the London house of shipowner Charles Leyland in the mid 1870s, as a cabinet to display blue and white Chinese porcelain. Then the artist James McNeill Whistler spectacularly redecorated the room, transforming it into a three-dimensional work of art.

The Peacock Room with various Asian ceramics. © 2010 - 2013 Smithsonian Institution and Wayne State University Libraries

The Peacock Room with various Asian ceramics. © 2010 – 2013 Smithsonian Institution and Wayne State University Libraries

After Leyland’s death the room was purchased by American industrialist and collector Charles Lang Freer in 1904 and shipped to his house in Detroit. Freer had a different taste in ceramics, preferring subtle glaze effects and collecting wares from across the whole of Asia.

After being moved from Detroit to the public art gallery Freer had initiated and funded in Washington, the Peacock Room was initially displayed with blue and white porcelain, as it had been in London. Now, following the cleaning and conservation of the painted decoration, Freer’s choice of ceramics has been reinstated.

Apart from having a model website, this project also demonstrates brilliantly how objects are changed by their physical context. It simultaneously proves how the context is changed when the objects within it are changed. And on top of that it illustrates how a historic interior can have more than one valid appearance – quite an achievement for a single room, but then this is not just any old room.

Living history

January 31, 2013
HM Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands, Palace of Huis ten Bosch, 2010. © RVD, foto: Vincent Mentzel © RVD, photo: Vincent Mentzel

HM Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands, Palace of Huis ten Bosch, 2010. © RVD, photo: Vincent Mentzel

Earlier this week HM Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands made the announcement that on 30 April 2013 she will abdicate in favour of her son, the Prince of Orange. By then she will have been on the throne for 33 years, and at 75 she will have been the oldest reigning Dutch monarch.

As constitutional monarch Queen Beatrix represents an element of continuity, an embodiment of ‘living history’. Various members of the House of Orange have had a connection with the Dutch nation from its foundation in the 1570s and 1580s, first as stadtholders and later as monarchs. Now Queen Beatrix’s reign, too, will become ‘history’.

HM Queen Beatrix signing legislation at her desk at the Palace of Huis ten Bosch, 2011. © Rijksoverheid

HM Queen Beatrix signing legislation at her desk at the Palace of Huis ten Bosch, 2011. © Rijksoverheid

The recent portraits shown here hint at that continuity in various, almost old-masterly ways. The photograph at the top was taken in the Witte Eetzaal (White Dining Room) of the Palace of Huis ten Bosch in The Hague. This room is in one of the wings added to the building by Daniel Marot for Prince William IV of Orange between 1734 and 1737. The image of the Queen at her desk shows her under a portrait of the Dutch pater patriae, Prince William I of Orange.

God is in the details

October 11, 2012

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.


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