Ingesting the collection

A quick post today to direct you over to a collaborative blog I am part of, related to the conference I'll be putting on in the spring, Devouring: Food, Drink and the Written Word, 1800-1945 . I've written a post over there about food and collecting - what could be more superb?

Here's the link. If you're interested in the conference, do follow the blog, as we are posting regularly.

Anti-scrape and The Red House


In the past six weeks or so I've had my mother, my sister and two friends down to visit me in London, on separate occasions, and as a result I've been out and about a lot at various exhibitions, museums, and parks, and pottering the streets of London, which has given me a lot to think and blog about, so I've a mental backlog of posts waiting to be put up here. The first is about the Red House, in Bexleyheath, which my mum and I visited over one of the bank holiday weekends (I forget which one).



The house was commissioned by William Morris, designed in collaboration with the architect Philip Webb, and finished in 1860. Morris and his family lived in it only until 1865 when the pressures of trying to run Morris & Co., based in London, from this remote base, became too great. They moved to Queen's Square in Bloomsbury, into the same premises as the Morris workshop. Nevertheless, the five years spent at the Red House seem to have been an idyllic time, with friends visiting from London and the children growing up - Burne-Jones described it as 'the beautifullest place on earth'.

In the 1950s the house came into the ownership of the Hollamby family, who lived there with friends for many years, and in 2003 it came into the possession of the National Trust, who have been uncovering its secrets ever since.

The house and gardens are stunningly beautiful - we visited on a sunny day and despite the fact that the area is now far more built up than it was when Morris bought the land, the house still feels quite secluded and I could have spent many happy hours lolling about on the grass under the fruit trees. The house, with its higgledy piggledy shape and arched porches, looks inviting, and the red brick is warm to the touch.


Inside, it's rather…odd. It's empty, and unfinished, but with very tangible reminders of all of its previous inhabitants, both in the furnishing and decoration, but also in more incidental details like the array of mid 20th century books on the shelving upstairs, and the glass panels of an interior door, etched with the names of 19th century visitors. The layout of the house is lovely, and the rooms are beautiful and well proportioned with lots of light flowing in. The central staircase is impressive without dominating the interior. The house is mostly unfurnished, apart from a few enormous pieces like the settle, below.

Settle in the hallway at Red House, with painting by William Morris partially completed.  Image source.
Much of what was in the house during the time that Morris and his family lived there was dispersed later to either Kelmscott Manor (Morris' later home) or the V&A, and the interior feels somewhat fragmented because of this - although some bits have started to trickle back, like this wool and silk embroidered panel, only one of a set which was designed to hang around the dining room.

Wool and silk embroidered panel. Image source.
Both the panel and the settle above are unfinished, and that's what characterises the interior of the Red House, for me - it feels very much like a work in progress. This is due in part to the Morris clan's short lived residence here - the decor, which was carried out in an organic, collaborative fashion, was never finished, and Morris' dream to see the house become the centre of a community of life and art, with the Burne-Jones' moving in nearby, was never fully realised.

It's also partly because the National Trust are still uncovering murals and paintings by the Morris set which were, until remarkably recently, hidden behind white emulsion and wooden panels - in only January of this year a wall painting, possibly by Lizzie Siddal, was discovered when a wardrobe was removed (conservation work is going on as I write, and the Red House keep everyone updated on progress via their Facebook page, so if you're interested, 'like' their page for near-daily updates). In the upstairs drawing room, removal of wooden batons installed in the 1890s suggests that the walls and ceiling may be covered in extensive paintings, complementing the Burne-Jones murals already visible. As yet, conservation in this room hasn't begun, and the walls are covered in small squares which indicate where the Trust has tried to scrape away the existing paint and peek at what lurks behind.

Part way through conservation of the Lizzie Siddal wall painting, with some wallpaper still to be scraped away.  Image taken from Red House Facebook page.
There's also plenty of evidence of the house's more recent owners in the form of 1950s bookcases and a lovely Ercol style workspace. The laminated room guides we looked at were rather gracious towards the Red House's twentieth century inhabitants, praising their efforts to preserve the house, although I wasn't quite sure if it was also the Hollambys and their friends who had been responsible for covering the walls in white emulsion, or the previous owners. Some Morris & Co. wallpapers had been installed around the house, one of the guides informed us, by the Hollambys - they couldn't have been there while Morris inhabited the house, since production on the first Morris & Co. wallpaper (which wasn't of the design currently at the Red House) only began in 1864, a year before the house was abandoned. Recently, some glassware had been donated to the Trust, designed by Philip Webb specifically for the Red House, and that was on display with the house's architectural plans in one of the rooms.

On the train home, reflecting on both the impressively painstaking work of the conservators and the strange, 'in flux' feel of the house, I couldn't help but wonder what Morris might have thought of the renovations and restorations. In 1877 he helped found the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings, whose aim was to encourage those who dealt with old buildings 'to put Protection in the place of Restoration', and his views on the subject, which later came to be known as principles of 'anti-scrape', were developed out of John Ruskin's writings in The Seven Lamps of Architecture (1849) and Stones of Venice (1851). In the former, Ruskin writes that restoration is 'the most total destruction which a building can suffer: a destruction out of which no remnants can be gathered: a destruction accompanied with false description of the thing destroyed'. For Ruskin, there's a spirit in the architectural work, imbued by the hand of the craftsman, which 'can never be recalled', and this renders even mere copying pointless, and nigh on impossible;

'If you copy what is left, granting fidelity to be possible (and what care, or watchfulness, or cost can secure it,) how is the new work better than the old? There was yet in the old some life, some mysterious suggestion of what it had been, and of what it had lost.'

This passage indicates that there is some glory in the age of the building, even if that age has not treated the work kindly. Harking back, to some false sense of the 'original', is to erase that glory. Similary, Morris wrote in the manifesto for the SPAB that
'the civilised world of the nineteenth century has no style of its own amidst its wide knowledge of the styles of other centuries. From this lack and this gain arose in men’s minds the strange idea of the Restoration of ancient buildings; and a strange and most fatal idea, which by its very name implies that it is possible to strip from a building this, that, and the other part of its history - of its life that is - and then to stay the hand at some arbitrary point, and leave it still historical, living, and even as it once was.'

For Morris, as for Ruskin, restoration is akin to forgery, a 'false description,' for it pretends to authenticity where none is possible. At least in previous times, Morris suggested,
'If repairs were needed, if ambition or piety pricked on to change, that change was of necessity wrought in the unmistakable fashion of the time... but every change, whatever history it destroyed, left history in the gap, and was alive with the spirit of the deeds done midst its fashioning. The result of all this was often a building in which the many changes, though harsh and visible enough, were, by their very contrast, interesting and instructive and could by no possibility mislead'
It's the pretence of restoration which Ruskin and Morris object to, its implicit lie. The Red House is a curious mixture of both 'visible and contrasting' changes to its original state (50s furnishings, the conversion of the kitchen into the gift shop), and what Morris might call 'a feeble and lifeless forgery' (the addition of the Morris wallpapers). Would removing the wood panelling which covers some original Pre-Raphaelite murals be a lie as well? A denial of the life of the building between 1865 and the present day, the removal of what Ruskin calls 'the golden stain of time', which hallows the exterior of old buildings? Are attempts to restore the original spirit of the house and its makers - misguided (as Morris would have it) or noble?

The conservators at Red House, of course, are highly trained professionals, not the blundering builders whom Morris imagined, with
'no guide but each his own individual whim to point out to them what is admirable and what contemptible; while the very nature of their task compels them to destroy something and to supply the gap by imagining what the earlier builders should or might have done.'
Any changes the Trust makes at Red House will be, certainly, thoroughly researched and as historically accurate as possible, like the proposed changes to restore the gardens to the original plan. But whatever reconstruction takes place, it first requires the 'scrape', the obliteration of the interim, which Morris and Ruskin so deplored, as the restoration of the mural behind the wardrobe demonstrates. One can't help but wonder if Morris would have remained true to his principles faced with the recovery and restoration of the works of himself and his contemporaries.

I don't know what the National Trust's ultimate aims for Red House are - whether they want to be faithful to the house's narrative, right from its construction to present day, and keep all the signs of life that remain, from etchings to ercol; or whether they hope, in time, to reconstruct the interior as it would have existed in the 1860s, gathering the scattered Red House pieces from other museums and galleries, and getting rid of the white emulsion. And I'm not sure which is right, either. The Hollamby family lived, and dwelt, and had their being here, too, and their habitation of the house is as much a part of its history as the brief spell which Morris and his extended family spent here. But if it were up to me, to scrape away at the wall coverings, and uncover, perhaps, some hidden Pre-Raphaelite gem, is a temptation I don't think I could resist.

The General, The Scientist & The Banker

On Sunday I decided to take advantage of the rare combination of a free weekend and a sunny day and set off into central London to go and see a couple of things that had been on my to-do list for a while. One of these was to attend an exhibition at the Wellington Arch, a structure originally designed as an entrance to Green Park, but now standing oddly isolated on a roundabout between Hyde Park and Green Park, and run by English Heritage. The arch itself had an interesting and controversial history throughout the nineteenth century, which you can read about here, but it was the temporary exhibition in the arch that I had gone to see.

Entitled 'The General, The Scientist & The Banker: The Birth of Archaeology and the Battle for the Past', it's the first in a series of five exhibitions English Heritage are holding this year to mark the centenary of the Ancient Monuments Act. Taking as its starting point the year 1859, the exhibition follows growing interest in, and the campaign to protect, Britain's prehistoric sites, up to the Ancient Monuments Protection Act 1882 and its implementation.


The exhibition treats 1859 as a significant year for two reasons - the publication of Charles Darwin's On the Origin of Species, and the discovery by an amateur antiquarian of a flint hand axe in Abbeville, France. Darwin's work helped inculcate belief in the great age of the earth, by showing that the mechanism by which species change, natural selection, operated over vast periods of time. At the same time, the archaeological find precipitated an accelerated interest in the lives of early European people as its discovery, buried in the same gravel which was home to the fossilised remains of long extinct animals, revealed the vastness of human history.


The hand axe is on display at the exhibition, and looking at this rather unassuming lump of rock in a glass cabinet it's hard to imagine the flurry of excitement that it caused. A procession of geologists, anthropologists and archaeologists all traipsed off to Abbeville to see it for themselves, and it was photographed in situ, which was the first time that photography had been used to precisely document the location of an archaeological find.



The hand axe found in Abbeville, France.
 Image source: Natural History Museum

This set the scene for imaginative engagements with the life of early Britons, and one response to this challenge is a series of paintings by Ernest Griset, commissioned by the anthropologist Sir John Lubbock. There are 20 paintings in the set, 14 of which are on display at the exhibition, and they depict various aspects of prehistoric life; hunting, childcare, even a tomb. Mike Pitts, who was involved in curating the exhibition, has written a fascinating post about the paintings here


Ernest Griset, 'Mammoth Hunters', c. 1870. Image source.

The exhibition guide describes how the paintings were based not only on archaeological finds and fossils, but also the accounts of men who had met contemporary 'savages' on voyages of exploration to Africa and the Americas. Such groups were frequently described in the nineteenth century as 'primitive', and thought to inhabit a stage of development of the human race through which Europeans had already passed. These 'savages' were, to some, a kind of living history, removed both spatially and temporally from the world of the European explorers. This understanding formed the foundation of Lubbock's collecting practises, too - he sought both prehistoric artefacts and items in daily use by people from other cultures around the world, believing them both to shed light on early European life in a similar way. 

At the moment I'm researching the cultural conditions which paved the way for the founding of the anthropological discipline in Britain, and so this part of the exhibition was of particular interest to me. The works of Lyell and Darwin had attempted to divorce time from morality; both men envisaged a world with no guiding principles, a world where events cause events which cause events, but without aim or purpose. In such a world, time's marching on is accompanied by no inevitable or inherent development. Yet Victorian anthropology, which grew out of the culture created by and distilled in these writings, employs an idea of 'progress' which is deeply embedded in its practices and rhetoric - the advanced European studying other cultures as historical relics. How did the idea of 'naturalised' time become distorted in this way? What were the implications for collecting practices? These are some of the difficult questions I've been dealing with in my thesis and this exhibition has helped me regain a bit of clarity in this area, at a time when I was getting waylaid by descriptions of sedimentary formations and igneous activity.


Next, the exhibition follows growing concern with Britain's prehistoric heritage as Lubbock lobbied parliament to pass a bill to help protect 'ancient monuments'. Lubbock and his supporters believed that careful preservation, study and excavation of these sites of archaeological significance would help to improve our understanding of human history. After failing nine times to get the bill passed, Lubbock retired from his seat in 1880 and a somewhat watered down version was passed on 18 August 1882. It listed 68 monuments, and the final part of the exhibition shows both contemporary and modern sketches and photographs of some of the 26 English sites which were proposed for protection. Many of them are very visually arresting, particularly in aerial photographs which illustrate the scale of some of the barrows. 


West Kennet Long Barrow, Avebury, which was one of the sites on the 1882 list. Image source.

The sites were surveyed by General Augustus Pitt Rivers, who was appointed 'Inspector of Ancient Monuments' and tasked with persuading landowners to give the monuments over into the government's guardianship. I've only visited one, the Nine Ladies stone circle in Derbyshire, but doesn't a recreation of Pitt-Rivers' tour sound like an excellent premise for a holiday masquerading as a research trip?

'The General, The Scientist & The Banker' is a great exhibition, with a lot to see packed into a small space. I enjoyed following the narrative from the discovery in France right through to Pitt Rivers' tour, and I look forward to continuing it in the next in the series, 'A Monumental Act: How Britain Saved its Heritage', which begins on 1st May. The current exhibition only runs until this Sunday, the 21st April, so you'd better be quick if you want to see it. 

Devouring: Food, Drink and the Written Word, 1800-1945

A few weeks back I was delighted to find out that my colleagues Laura Wood, Christopher Yiannitsaros and I have been successful in our entry to Warwick's HRC Doctoral Competition. This means that we have been awarded a budget and the help of the HRC to stage a conference, as well as being able to call ourselves HRC Doctoral Fellows! Our conference, 'Devouring: Food, Drink and the Written Word, 1800-1945', will be held in Spring 2014. We have a webpage, here, which will be updated with more information and a call for papers over the coming months.

We are all really excited at the prospect of holding this conference and providing a space for discussion of food and narrative. Food isn't central to any of our projects, but it was something that was beginning to crop up repeatedly on the fringes of our research. One of the things we bonded over when we met back in October 2011 was a shared love of food writing, each of us confessing that we read cookery books in bed like novels, and soon we were noticing the importance of cakes, pies and bakes in all of our reading. For a long time I have been mulling over some ideas about collecting and eating, which I hope to post more about over the next year or so as planning for 'Devouring' gathers momentum.

For the moment, though, I'll leave you with a link to the wonderful blog, Paper and Salt, which combines food and literature to wonderful effect, as its author Nicole recreates dishes from mouthwatering descriptions in the letters, diaries and fiction of some iconic and much-loved authors. Peruse and be hungry!

A quick note about a bed

Earlier on this month I took a trip to the Tate Britain to see the exhibition Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Avant-Garde before it closed on 14th January. I am loving living in London and being able to take a little afternoon jolly and call it a research trip!

Obviously as a Victorianist I know a bit about the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, but probably not as much as I should, and I really enjoyed the way the exhibition was set out to introduce the aims and manifestoes of the gang before going on to look thematically at their paintings. 

I was totally enchanted by so many of the pictures, especially those that I have seen in reproduction hundreds of times, on the web, on cards, prints, in books - paintings such as Hunt's The Awakening Conscience and Millais' Mariana in the Moated Grange. There's something really special about experiencing these works 'in the flesh'...but those musings are for another post.

Something I wasn't expecting to see at the exhibition was William Morris' bed. 


The bed in its usual home, Kelmscott Manor. Source: Tate

After the initial surprise (it's so short! how tall was he??) I was really rather drawn to it. The decorative arts were of course central to Morris' philosophy, and the hand wrought embroidery on the hangings is completely gorgeous. It was completed by Morris' daughter May and wife Jane, along with other Morris & Co. embroiderers. You can watch a short film the Tate have put together about the Morris family's relationship to the embroidery here

My Mum best of all will know that I am a woman eternally devoted to my bed - eager to get in it and hard to prise out of it - so I was delighted to read Morris' poem 'For the bed at Kelmscott' embroidered on the top panels. I can entirely relate to the utter devotion to an object which apparently inspired this love poem. Is there anything better than slipping into cool sheets, suitably wearied by the day, with the windows flung open to a summer's evening, a breeze, and the prospect of a long, deep sleep....absolute bliss. And I think this poem shows that Morris agreed. The entire poem is below; the second half only is embroidered on the bed.


'For the bed at Kelmscott' by William Morris.

The wind's on the wold 
And the night is a-cold,
And Thames runs chill
'Twixt mead and hill.
But kind and dear
Is the old house here
And my heart is warm
'Midst winter's harm.
Rest then and rest,
And think of the best
'Twixt summer and spring,
When all birds sing
In the town of the tree,
And ye in me
And scarce dare move,
Lest earth and its love
Should fade away
Ere the full of the day. 

I am old and have seen
Many things that have been;
Both grief and peace
And wane and increase
No tale I tell
Of ill or well,
But this I say:
Night treadeth on day,
And for worst or best
Right good is rest. 

On human remains

On Sunday I spent a wonderful afternoon visiting the exhibition Doctors, Dissection and Resurrection Men at the Museum of London.

The exhibition stems from the discoveries made during an archaeological dig at the old burial ground of the Royal London Hospital (find out more here). Over 250 bodies were found, showing various signs of having been subject to dissection and autopsy. These bodies would have been used for teaching and practice for trainee surgeons and anatomists. With these excavated remains as a starting point, the exhibition explores how the early nineteenth century trade in dead bodies could be a lucrative career for 'resurrection men' who worked in groups to dig up the freshly buried and sell their corpses on to medical professionals in private anatomy schools.

It was a gripping, if somewhat gruesome, afternoon. Alongside the human remains are exhibited wax models, anatomical drawings, pickled specimens and press clippings, as well as contraptions that could be bought by those wanting to ensure that their dear departed remained firmly in the ground, and sets of surgeon's tools, which, despite their gleamingly clean presentation, still managed to provoke a shiver down my spine and a silent thanks to the wonders of modern day anaesthetics.

The exhibition was fascinating and really well presented, and contributed to a swirling mass of incomplete ideas I have recently been exploring about the role of death and possessions in Our Mutual Friend. In my reading of the novel, themes of death, inheritance, and appropriate possession are completely central, and the Resurrection Men exhibition made me think of several ways in which Dickens explores these themes through the characters and occupations of Gaffer Hexam and Mr. Venus in particular, both of whom are involved in the salvage of human remains and the effects which might accompany them (Mr. Venus, of course, directly supplies 'a perfect Beauty', an articulated skeleton, to an art school).

The event in the novel for which the exhibition really provided new meaning, however, was the death of Betty Higden, an episode tenderly described by Dickens in a chapter entitled 'The end of a long journey'. Betty, poor and homeless, feels the end of her life approach and is determined to die independent, not in the workhouse. She keeps the money for her burial safely sewn into the breast of her gown, desperate not to let herself, or her small estate, fall 'into the hands of those that she held in horror', and she flees society to die.

'The Flight', engraving by Marcus Stone. Image source: The Victorian Web.

The 1832 Anatomy Act is an important marker in the resurrection men's tale; its main provision was to decree that those who handed themselves into the care of the state, in the form of workhouses, asylums, or prisons, by default also offered up their bodies, once dead, to the hands of the medical profession for anatomical study. Previously, only the bodies of executed criminals could be lawfully used for dissection. But after 1832, providing no relatives came to claim the bodies, the workhouses and prisons were going some way to supplying the huge demand for the freshly deceased that advances in medicine demanded. There was no major revision to this law until well into the 20th century.

In light of this, Betty's death takes on a new significance in Dickens' tale of use and re-use. Her determination to provide for herself even after death suggests that she's aware of the alternative fate which might await her; in death, Betty stands to lose control of the final possession - her body. By keeping out of the workhouse, and hence out of the hands of the anatomists, Betty might quite literally be able to retain her integrity in death. Her tragic end, which had before sometimes seemed to me a rather overly sentimentalised episode, and somewhat superfluous to the plot, seems much more fitting if viewed in these terms. It becomes, rather, another episode in which Dickens reflects on what can and should be salvaged and to what extent death is an end, taking its place in a novel which, at its core, is concerned with inheritance in all its many forms.

This is one of the things I love about research - those little 'click' moments where connections are made, or something falls into place. Even when you've not quite made full sense of it yet, the feeling that there's something there, something to be teased out, is really exciting. 

I urge all (except the queasy) to head to the Museum of London to see the exhibition Doctors, Dissection and Resurrection Men, which runs until 14th April this year.