At Home With Miss Austen

17th January 2014

The current Jane Austen bi-centenary bonanza (Pride and Prejudice was published in 1813, Mansfield Park in 1814, Emma in 1815…) is naturally setting the literary world alive – but that’s not all. It has also inspired the Decorative Antiques & Textiles Fair, whose winter event starts next week, to put together a display presenting two Regency (1811-1820) interior styles with which the author would have been familiar.

Two hundred years on, Regency influences are still seen in contemporary furnishings; flock wallpaper patterns were first fashionable in the period, for example, and the ‘gothick’ style inspired by Walpole’s Strawberry Hill is currently found in Nicky Haslam’s furniture range for OKA – so far from being old-fashioned, it’s actually very now.

Miss Austen At Home will be curated by Helen Linfield of Wakelin & Linfield, one of the UK’s leading experts on 18th and 19th century furniture, who says “Interior design’s current renewed interest in colour, form and texture can be inspired by Regency style; its exuberant colours look fresh in a modern setting, and the graceful furniture shapes bring a timeless elegance to contemporary and traditional rooms.”

The display will recreate two rooms typical of different social spheres, as they might have looked at the time when Jane Austen was writing: ‘the Drawing Room at Mansfield Park’, and ‘the Parlour at Chawton’. Although the property of Mansfield Park is, of course, fictional, Jane certainly spent time in similar houses: one of her older brothers, Edward, inherited two quite grand properties where she was a regular guest. Her own home, a cottage in the village of Chawton, Hampshire, would have been furnished simply, though, in an English country style.

While some items in the Decorative Antiques & Textiles Fair roomsets will showcase fashionable up-to-the-minute Regency design, in the main the collection will demonstrate the layering of history typical to most homes of the time. The display will therefore include pieces from the late Stuart period through to 1817 the year of Jane’s death. All items, most of which are for sale, will be drawn from exhibitors at the Fair, so that you can recreate any – or all – of the concept at home.

The ‘Mansfield Park’ element of the display will be a formal drawing room of circa 1800-1815, with a mix of periods as you might expect in a wealthy country home: a fine Georgian bookcase, writing desk, comfortable upholstered late-Georgian wing-back or Gainsborough-style chairs, a sofa and a few earlier pieces such as a pair of William & Mary carved-back elbow chairs and a large Aubusson rug.

The specialist historical wallpaper makers Hamilton Weston are also involved, and have provided a screen-printed wallpaper called Royal Crescent (opposite) for the ‘Mansfield Park’ drawing room. The pattern of large, but delicate swags with its floral motifs was discovered in an 18th century parlour of a property in the Royal Crescent, Bath. It is a direct imitation of a Robert Adam design of the period, dating from around 1775, and it will be available to order.

Hamilton Weston are also providing the wallpaper for ‘Chawton Cottage’ – producing for the first time a pattern dating to around 1780, based on a discovery made in the housekeeper’s room of a property in central London. Oddly, it had been hung face down, apparently for use as lining paper beneath later wallpaper layers. The pretty design (see overleaf) was pieced together from a collection of tiny and incredibly fragile salvaged fragments and was then redrawn by the architectural historian Robert Weston. Now named ‘Dashwood’, after the sisters in Sense and Sensibility, the design will be block-printed for the Decorative Fair foyer with emerald green as the flower’s ‘eye’ set against a grey background, with white and black pattern details. Wallpaper was expensive in Jane’s day, and grey was a popular colour as it disguised discoloration from both candle and wood smoke.

The parlour that represents the village home where Jane spent the last eight years of her life will be simple, countrified and more sparsely furnished; an oak gate-leg table will serve for a dining area, for example, with ladder-back and Windsor chairs. Jane wrote at a small pedestal occasional table, producing Mansfield Park, Emma and Persuasion in an environment just like this. The walls will feature a selection of samplers, silhouettes and etchings of the late Georgian period and watercolours that may have been executed by the ladies of the house, and nautical sketches as a nod to the fact that two of Jane’s brothers were in the Navy. English ceramics, such as creamware and traditional metalware will finish the scene.

Taken together, these two roomsets promise to be a window into both past and present, an engaging demonstration of the wealth of fine Georgian design available – fascinating in their own right and a fresh inspiration for a contemporary interior.

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