The World On Our Doorstep

30th March 2012

Doughty upholders of the old refrain ‘British is best’ are in for a shock at the Geffrye Museum’s new exhibition, At Home With The World, says Jack Watkins

Complaints that this country ‘doesn’t make anything any more’, have become a cliché but when it comes to design, fashion and manners, we have always been something of a magpie culture, sucking in influences from everywhere, adapting them to suit our own tastes. Britain has always been a remarkably un-insular and globally connected island, whatever the xenophobes like to think. If you doubt this to be so, then take a trip to East London to see the attractively-presented At Home With The World exhibition at the Geffrye: the Museum of the Home.

‘If we consult history, we shall find that in most nations foreign trade has preceded any refinement in home manufacture and given birth to domestic luxury,’ wrote David Hume in Of Commerce in 1752. That is certainly the case when it comes to etiquette at the table. One of the most memorable scenes in British film history is Charles Laughton in the title role of The Private Life of Henry VIII stuffing his face at a banquet dinner using his bare fingers and, in between burping and chucking chicken legs over his shoulder, bawling that: “Refinement’s a thing of the past – manners are dead!” The corpulent actor had clearly done a bit of research and twisted it for dramatic effect. The custom for eating with a fork only arrived in England from Italy in the early 17th century and was initially scorned as a foreign, effeminate habit. Properly shaped knives also arrived from that country to replace the clumsy English equivalents, which were more rounded, with scoop-like tips.

Then there was tea, the most proudly English of drinking luxuries. How graceful a family in an 18th century portrait look, seated round the table: husband, wife, two children – and not forgetting the dog – demurely sipping away with their silver and porcelain tea set. But tea had come from China, its popularity given added impetus by the advocacy of medics who said it was good for the palate. It remained expensive, though, so that for some considerable time seemingly respectable middle class households connived in the illicit trade of smuggling tea. Coffee came from Yemen; chocolate from South America – but nothing has ever yet threatened to loosen the grip of the English from their precious cuppa.

As a Brussels Sprout-eating limey, whose idea of High Street heaven is finding a good chippie, I had to give a long hard stare at the cabinet dedicated to the relationship of the English with foreign recipes and ingredients. It was reassuring, however, to find that there were wise souls raising concerns about the ill effects of foreign food and cooking methods –particularly French – as far back as the eighteenth century. You were safer (as you still are) if you stuck to the fresh stuff, as Norfolk clergyman James Woodeforde, who apparently made a note of everything he ate, clearly understood. “We had a Pine Apple after dinner,” he carefully recorded in 1766, “the first I ever saw or tasted.”

The influence of the East on domestic furnishing is a story which is, perhaps a little less familiar. From the 1640s, Japan, tired of western interference, had sealed off its borders to the outside world and remaining off limits until the middle of the 19th century. Exports back home by the East India Company had, however, created a taste among the wealthy for lacquered furniture. This varnish-like substance is derived from the sap of the East Asian lac tree which, when applied to wood, creates a glossy, hard surface. Demand could not be met by imports, so home-based furniture manufacturers responded with ‘japanning’, a process that gave a similarly shiny finish, and was often decorated with eastern figures or beasts.

No-one minded that it wasn’t the real thing; the East India Company products were eye-wateringly expensive. ‘For my part I think a counterfeit one looks as well,’ sniffed the Duke of Hamilton in a letter to his wife about a lacquer cabinet in the 1600s, and it’s hard to disagree with the good duke. At the risk of offending Antiques Roadshow aficionados and experts, a japanned pedestal table of 1845, adorned with an Italianate backdrop of temples and water and a foreground of elegant, long-feathered birds and lush foliage, is ravishing.

By the middle of the 19th century, Japan Mania was in full swing. Eight million visitors to the London International Exhibition in 1862 at last got to see products from a country which, because of its secrecy, held a deeply romantic appeal for Europeans. William Burges, the great Victorian art-architect, was just one of the visitors driven to a state of ecstasy on first seeing the works of ‘these hitherto unknown barbarians’.

It was around this time that London’s Liberty department store built its name on selling products for those with a taste for eastern-styled goods. Its catalogue for 1880 carefully laid out ‘Eastern Art Manufacture and Decorative Objects from India, China, Japan and Persia’. Bamboo tables, peacock feather fans and parasols of silk and cane were regular decorative features in the homes of the cosmopolitan and artistically attuned young couple of the day.

The fact is that – as the Victorian age reached its height, and the might and influence of imperial Britain stretched around the world – it was still blindingly inescapable that, when it came to artistic design and flair, these islands still couldn’t match Far Eastern, Indian or Islamic creators for imagination. Newspaper columnists and the authors of advice manuals encouraged the purchase of Moorish and Arab furnishings and ornaments, and British manufacturers were encouraged to study and imitate the flat, stylised patterns of Islamic design. One of the most popular items was the folding screen, made of wood, with its lattice-like frames – just the thing to add a touch of faintly upmarket exoticism to middle-class domestic spaces.

By the beginning of the 20th century, national boundaries of communication had broken down to the extent that Art Nouveau owed nothing to any one place in particular. What it did retain was an interest in the flowing lines, curves and asymmetric patterning of the East. Art Nouveau was a decorative movement rather than a structural one, too; again it chimed with Moorish art, which had tended to be about adorning surfaces rather than architectural underpinning.
Following hard upon that came Art Deco, which was scarcely less easy on the eye, but which was adapted to absorb the onset of the technological age. This was still a time when items were dressed up with an arty finish: hence the popularity of the Egyptian sunburst motif so often found on the wooden casings of plug-in radios of the 1920s and 1930s.

Art Deco was the last major design movement affecting our home interiors which, as well as looking backwards for visual inspiration, still concerned itself with dressing up function. Modernism then deemed such things as surplus to requirements. Barefaced functionality was all that mattered and it’s ruled the roost ever since. Still, it is quaint to see a Bakelite TV dating from 1950, and even the first, distinctly bulky, Apple Mac computer of 1990.

Design never stops changing. This is an extremely enjoyable exhibition, and its concluding message might be that the world is a lot smaller than you think.

At Home With The World continues to 9 September • see

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