Archive for the ‘Beauty’ Category

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.

We are all found objects now

June 7, 2012

Collection of geological specimens and other objects at Calke Abbey, Derbyshire. ©National Trust Images/John Hammond

The debate about the significance of Pinterest (initiated in a post by Enfilade which I responded to in this post) has been continuing with a post on the blog Unmaking Things, run by students on the Royal College of Art/Victoria and Albert Museum History of Design MA course.

Two pairs of shoes at Mr Straw’s House, Worksop, Nottinghamshire. ©National Trust Images/Geoffrey Frosh

In this new post entitled ‘Digital Adornment’ Marilyn Zapf notes that Pinterest seems to echo the research of French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu in mapping taste and class in 1960s France. But rather than asking people to complete questionnaires about their preferences, as Bourdieu did, the present-day researcher can find in Pinterest a huge ready-made data set relating to taste (or ‘taste’).

Textile scraps probably used to plug draught gaps in the late eighteenth century, found at a farm on the Kingston Lacy estate, Dorset. ©National Trust Images/Cristian Barnett

Marilyn’s post has made me reflect on how Pinterest paradoxically increases the distance between an individual and an object, while appearing to bring them closer.

On the one hand, the choice of images available through the internet is huge and is exponentially increasing. The choice for the individual to excercise his or her taste, with the help of Pinterest’s user-friendly software, apears to be almost limitless. Objects zoom in on us from all angles.

Victorian scrap screen at Arlington Court, Devon. ©National Trust Images/John Hammond

On the other hand, Marilyn notes that “Pinterest provides a way to consume without purchasing, to collect without owning.” As access increases, ownership – both physically and in the sense of commitment or knowledge –  appears to diminish, and our grasp of the object appears to be more elusive than ever.

1950s bra packaging discovered at Corfe Castle, Kingston Lacy estate, Dorset. ©National Trust Images/Cristian Barnett

Also, the very power of the Pinterest concept, in allowing everyone to create their own ‘art’ gallery (simultaneously private, in that it reflects the individual’s personal taste, and public, in that everyone can see it) has the effect of radically, even brutally democratising the value of images. Great works of art and everyday objects, the beautiful and the tasteless are all reduced or elevated to the level of ‘found objects’.

Military dress uniform found in the private apartments at Knole, Kent. ©National Trust Images/Myles New

This, in turn, reminds me of how Marcel Duchamp transformed mundane objects into art purely through his choice of them, most famously through the urinal that he displayed as a sculpture entitled ‘Fountain’.

Duchamp also explored the opposite strategy, by for instance transforming the Mona Lisa into something akin to a joke cartoon character. Now, in Pinterest’s democratic visual playground, life appears to be mimicking art.

Objects found under the floorboards at Nunnington Hall, North Yorkshire. ©National Trust Images/John Hammond

Marilyn also perceptively writes that by using Pinterest “the consumer (in the guise of a collector) is made visible. […] The networking site puts the consumer on display alongside consumption itself.”

For better or for worse, Pinterest objectifies our choices, and, through them, objectifies us. As we all become producer-consumers (or prosumers), we all turn into someone else’s found objects.

Place and non-place

April 20, 2012

Dovecote at Chastleton House, Oxfordshire. ©Emile de Bruijn

I have just returned from a fascinating conference at the University of Northampton about ‘consuming the country house’, which I mentioned earlier. ‘Consumption’ turned out to be a really useful theme to frame discussions about the social, economic, political and artistic aspects of country houses.

Detail in the garden at Great Chalfield Manor, Wiltshire. ©Emile de Bruijn

One of the speakers, Ruth Gill, who works for Historic Royal Palaces, mentioned a book by anthropologist Marc Augé entitled Non-Places: Introduction to an Anthropology of Supermodernity (1995). Augé analyses transient places like airports, stations and supermarkets in which myriad human transactions are processed but which do not encourage feelings of connection or belonging.

Door of the gazebo at Great Chalfield. ©Emile de Bruijn

Ruth warned against the dangers of historic houses becoming too much like non-places. Sometimes the measures taken to preserve the historic fabric of a place can have the unintended consequence of making the visitor feel that he or she does not belong there.

Vista at Hidcote Manor, Gloucestershire. ©Emile de Bruijn

We probably all know the feeling of being in a place that is objectively beautiful but feels somehow alien. Equally we can all remember those moments when a small detail in a painting, the smell of a tapestry or of polished wood, the proportion of a piece of furniture or a doorframe, an intellectual insight or a surprise vista in a landscape suddenly connected us to a place.

Detail in the garden at Hidcote. ©Emile de Bruijn

I agree with Ruth that enabling those moments of connection – between ourselves and the world, between the past and the present – is essentially what heritage is all about.

The emblematic beauty of birds and fruit

October 20, 2011

Plate from an Italian manuscipt, c. 1600, at Ickworth. ©National Trust/Mark Purcell

Stuart Currie just left a perceptive comment on the National Trust Libraries Facebook page about the visual echoes between an illustration of birds and fruit in an Italian manuscript at Ickworth and William Morris’s ‘Strawberry Thief’ textile design.

'Strawberry Thief' upholstery on an amrchair in the Great Parlour at Wightwick Manor, Wolverhampton. ©NTPL/Paul Raeside

Although I am not aware of any evidence that Morris ever saw this particular manuscript, it may be indicative of a tradition of depicting birds in their natural habitat, and with their favourite foods.

Painting of a blackbird with cherries, by either Ambrosius II Bosschaert or Abraham Bosschaert, c. 1600, at Ham House. Surrey. ©NTPL/John Hammond

There are probably voluminous studies about this subject out there – do please leave a comment if you are aware of any.

A West Indian monkey with birds, fruit, flowers and butterflies, by Sarah, Lady Fetherstonhaugh, 1757, at Uppark, West Sussex. ©NTPL/John Hammond

Being new to the subject, I found it interesting to discover a number of images of birds and fruit, in different styles and media, among the National Trust’s collections.

Bird with fruit in pietra dura, in the Florentine cabinet (once owned by William Beckford) in the Drawing Room at Charlecote Park, Warwickshire. ©NTPL/Derrick E. Witty

There is obviously an ornithological and a botanical aspect to these depictions, but they may also contain symbolic, emblematic meanings.

Printed textile wall hanging with bird among foliage and fruit, at Belton House, Lincolnshire. ©NTPL/Rob Matheson

In the setting of a domestic interior, these images may of course also have the effect of bringing the natural world inside, of evoking the twitter and chirp of birds, their lithe hoppings and flutterings, the rustle of leaves and the smell of ripe fruit.

The secret life of objects

March 28, 2011

I have been awared the Stylish Blogger Award by Colette of NH Design Blog. Isn’t that a pip?!

Set of samurai armour, at Snowshill Manor, Gloucestershire. ©NTPL/Andreas von Einsiedel

I would like to hand the award on to Barbara Sarudy of It’s About Time and Janet Blyberg of ~ JCB ~, two of my blog gurus, leading by example.

Figure of Japanese wind god, at Snowshill Manor. ©NTPL/Stuart Cox

As part of this award one is supposed to share some stylish things. I would like to use this opportunity to show a few more images (which I hope are reasonably stylish) relating to ‘Japaneseness’ and ‘Britishness’, in response to the throughtful comments on a recent post on the subject of preconceptions.

The Japanese Garden, Kingston Lacy, Dorset. ©NTPL/Mark Bolton

The images in this and the earlier post are all of artefacts that have been taken out of their original context and appropriated by someone for whom they were not originally intended. In all these cases this was done lovingly and with admiration, but inevitably the meaning of the objects changed along the way, although that might not be obvious at first glance. One might call this elusive pattern of change the secret life of objects.

Granite temple lantern in the Japanese Garden at Kingston Lacy. ©NTPL/Mark Bolton

The Japanese artefacts at Snowshill were originally made either for the Japanese market or for the export trade. They must have been bought by a British visitor or entrepreneur, probably sold again in Britain at some point and then picked up by Charles Wade, who was continuously adding to his Aladdin’s cave at Snowshill in the 1920s and 1930s.

Wade admired Japanese objects as examples of fine craftsmanship, which he saw as being in decline in Britain. That response drove his collecting mania, which has made Snowshill what it is today. But the previous lives of these objects are interesting as well. Was the suit of armour sold by an impoverished samurai family after the abolition of the military class in 1871? Was the wind god part of the decoration of a temple, and if so why was it disposed of?

Corner cuboard at Hill Top with ceramics including an Edward VII coronation teapot which found its way into one of Beatrix Potter's illustrations for 'The Pie and the Patty Pan.' ©NTPL/Geoffrey Frosh

The Japanese garden at Kingston Lacy was created for Henrietta Bankes around 1910. Even though she clearly wanted a ‘genuine’ Japanese garden it was inevitably influenced by its time and place.

Furthermore, its current appearance is a recent restoration, after it had become overgrown and almost lost. It was recreated as faithfully as possibly, but inevitably the result is slightly different from the ‘original’ – which itself was a recreation on foreign soil of a Japanese original. Nevertheless these echoes, and echoes of echoes, are now part of the genius loci, the spirit of place, of Kingston Lacy.

Vignette in the Hill Top garden reminiscent of Mr McGregor's garden implements in Beatrix Potter's 'Peter Rabbit'. ©NTPL/Stephen Robson

At Hill Top Beatrix Potter preserved the old Lake District farmhouse and collected local furniture and furnishings. She played an important role in preserving parts of the Lake District, but at the same time her view was inevitably that of a well-off, philanthropically-minded outsider. Originally cottage gardens and interiors like this would not have been quite as pretty as she made them, with her artist’s eye.

We owe Beatrix Potter a great debt of gratitude, but at the same time we should not forget that her vision of the place is a particular one, coloured by her Edwardian aestheticism. Today, of course, Hill Top receives many visitors from far and wide (including from places like Japan), who know it through the illustrations in Potter’s famous children’s books, and of course they see it through a slightly different lens again. And so the secret life of objects continues.


March 23, 2011

A typical Japanese garden depicted on a typical Japanese lunchbox? Lacquer bento box at Snowshill Manor, Gloucestershire. ©NTPL/Stuart Cox

The recent disastrous events in Japan have exposed some lingering preconceptions in the West. In covering the earthquake and its aftermath, western media have often reverted to stereotypes of the Japanese as being impassive, unfailingly courteous and always prioritizing the group over the individual.

An English conception of a Japanese garden? The Japanese Garden at Kingston Lacy, Dorset. ©NTPL/Mark Bolton

As Professors Ivo Smits and Kasia Cwiertka of Leiden University point out, these preconceptions go back to anthropological studies from the 1940s, when it was common to emphasize the ‘otherness’ of the Japanese. For those who read Dutch their comments can be found here.

A Japanese conception of an English garden? Hill Top, Cumbria. ©NTPL/Stephen Robson

Smits and Cwiertka remind us that Japan is one of the most modern societies on the planet and that the lifestyle of its inhabitants is very similar to our own. Furthermore, Japan is continuously changing, just like any other society, and we should take care not to judge it with outdated models.

A typical English interior? The Entrance Hall at Hill Top, Cumbria. ©NTPL/Geoffrey Frosh

The images of the British drinking tea out of bone china teacups, wearing bowler hats and carrying tightly furled umbellas similarly date from the first half of the twentieth century. To preserve and study the past is vitally important, of course, but at the same time we should not forget that we live in an ever-changing present.

Beauty in times of tragedy

March 16, 2011

Janet Blyberg has just published a post showing a few images of quiet Japanese back streets and temple precincts, which through their very beauty commemorate the devastation recently wrought in Japan.

Janet’s images also brought to my mind the emphatic cawing of the large Japanese crows which you can often find congregating in such places. Yesterday I heard them again in some of the footage of the destroyed towns of Miyagi prefecture – formerly bustling ports, now as quiet as a temple compound.

Is the sound of the crows beautiful, or is it awful? Perhaps all I can say is that it moves me.

That is probably why, in a country that has been subject to the whims of nature for milennia, people are moved by falling cherry blossoms: not so much because they are pretty, but because they are falling.

Ming-Qing taste

January 3, 2011

Detail of a Coromandel lacquer screen at Basildon Park, Berkshire. ©NTPL/Dennis Gilbert

I am reading a fascinating book by Jonathan Hay called Sensuous Surfaces, about the role of the decorative objects in early modern China. Hay describes how the growth of the population and of the economy in China towards the end of the sixteenth century caused a surge in conspicuous consumption.

Detail of embroidered Chinese silk hangings, early eighteenth century, on the State Bed at Calke Abbey, Derbyshire. Hay notes how the symbol of the phoenix, once reserved for the Empress, had been appropriated by upper middle class women by the seventeenth century. ©NTPL/Mark Fiennes

The burgeoning middle classes expressed their new identity by creating richly patterned interiors using intricately crafted luxury objects. They favoured bright colours, contrasting materials and surface texture.

Vase with robin's egg blue glaze, Yongzheng period (1722-1736), at Wightwick Manor, Warwickshire. ©NTPL/John Hammond

This middle class taste that developed from the late Ming to the middle of the Qing period (i.e. from about 1570 to about 1840) was a conscious departure from the very lavish but stylistically more restrained court style.

Chinese carved jades and other hardstones, at Anglesey Abbey, Cambridgeshire. ©NTPL/Dennis Gilbert

Here I have tried to bring together a few objects from National Trust collections that seem to exemplify this wonderfully ‘bling’ taste, to cheer us all up a bit in this sober post-holiday period.

Gross National Happiness

December 31, 2010

Winkworth Arboretum, Surrey. ©NTPL/John Miller

Prime Minister David Cameron recently announced plans for a wellbeing index, to measure not just our material standard of living, but also our quality of life.

Horner Wood, Holnicote Estate, West Somerset. ©NTPL/Paul Wakefield

There is increasing interest in this subject, shown for instance by the initiatives flowing from the 2007 Beyond GDP conference. As early as 1972 the King of Bhutan announced that his government would promote Gross National Happiness as well as Gross National Product.

The Temple of Apollo at Stourhead, Wiltshire. ©NTPL/Nick Meers

The National Trust has been in the ‘happiness business’ from its inception in 1895. The founders of the Trust wanted to protect places of natural beauty and historic interest not just for their intrinsic value, but also for their capacity to provide solace and joy.

View of Dordrecht by Aelbert Cuyp (1620-1691), at Ascott, Buckinghamshire. ©NTPL/John Hammond

The universality of these aims has ensured that they are still relevant today. And it is beauty that unites the appeal of the otherwise very diverse National Trust properties, which include nature reserves, areas of farmed countryside, stretches of coastline, historic houses, gardens and collections.

Stocktons Wood at Speke Hall, Merseyside. ©NTPL/Andrew Butler

People will always argue about what constitutes beauty, but the capacity to derive enjoyment and sustenance from it, whatever its form, seems to be common to all mankind.

Bodnant Garden, Conwy. ©NTPL/Arnhel de Serra

May I wish you a happy new year,  indexed or otherwise.

Mysterious beauty

November 24, 2010

View towards Crichton Tower on Gad Island in Lough Erne, on the Crom estate. ©NTPL/John Millar

The National Trust has long published a technical bulletin called Views, which contains all sorts of research ranging from car park design to Repton red books. Now the most recent issues of Views have been made publicly accessible for the first time.

View of Crom Castle, built 1832-8. ©NTPL/John Millar

One of the articles in issue 47, by National Trust gardens curator Chris Gallagher, is about the rediscovery of the vistas in the Crom demesne in Co. Fermanagh.

The ruins of the old tower-house. ©NTPL/John Millar

As Chris explains, the park at Crom was designed by William Sawrey Gilpin (1761/2-1843) from the mid-1830s onwards. Gilpin was working in the Picturesque tradition and was adept at sensitively combining the man-made and natural elements of a landscape.

©NTPL/John Millar

The trees planted and arranged by Gilpin have obviously matured since then, and some of the Picturesque vistas he contrived have become overgrown. Chris’s research has identified many of these half-lost views.

View of Holy Trinity church on the Derryvore peninsula across Lough Erne. ©NTPL/John Millar

One of the purposes of vistas was to create a greater sense of connectedness between the different parts of a landscape.

View near Lough Erne. ©NTPL/John Millar

It is hoped that Chris Gallagher’s findings will lead to more of these crucial vistas being opened up again, while obviously also preserving Crom’s character as a place of great and mysterious natural beauty.

By the way, William Sawrey Gilpin was also responsible for the garden at Scotney Castle, which I have featured earlier. And these photographs of Crom remind me of a previous discussion about different types of beauty.