Interior monologues

by Isabelle Anscombe

Last year, the first half of this remarkable two-part exhibition showed the growth not only of the urban middle-class, but of their self-awareness. Now the curators have tracked down a second telling juxtaposition of portraits, genre paintings, and pictures in which the subject matter is a room or garden. Further comparative works are included in the catalogue, together with revelatory short essays on each painting.

For most of the Victorian period, the way in which the middle classes furnished their homes was the focus of social, political and even spiritual debate. Owen Jones and the critics of the Great Exhibition notably Henry Cole, included here in a family portrait in which he modestly ducks down behind a sofa, but allows a painting of the 1851 Crystal Palace on the wall behind to tell its own story--began a change in taste completed by Ruskin and Morris, who, by championing the ideal of the craft guild, made a moral connection between the consumer and the means of production.

The role of genre painting is to have 'hidden' meanings that are intended to be deciphered, but the curators have also decoded more subtle elements, uncovering value laden choices of wallpaper, furniture or garden flowers.

George Townsend Cole's Portrait of Henry Thomas Lambert (1858), a master sail maker and ship chandler in Wapping, shows a man proud of all he has achieved (and purchased). Bur the excessive ornamentation of his furnishings is precisely the kind of taste condemned by the design reformers. The poor man has unwittingly betrayed himself: the clashing naturalistic patterns of his carpets, his ornate gilt overmantel mirror and imitation wax fruit are-could he but know it!--incoherent, 'showy' and less than honest.

'The same year, Robert Scott Tait painted a portrait of Thomas Carlyle and his wife, A Chelsea Interior. Carlyle wrote that Tait 'took the bright idea that a picture of our sittingroom would be amazingly interesting to posterity a hundred years hence'. Jane Carlyle, realising that even so great a than as her husband might be judged by his taste in interior decoration, quickly admitted how "frightful' her table cover was.

Women were particularly vulnerable to such critical scrutiny of interiors, and several of the genre paintings explicitly explore the precariousness of women's social roles. The pet (1853) by Walter Howell Deverell, and To let (1856) by James Collinson both ask ambiguous questions: is the 'pet' the caged bird, the tame bird perched beside the young woman, the dog at her feet, or the woman herself? Must the young widow with the provocative red bow be prepared to rent out rooms, or also her body?

However, the scholarship of the exhibition's curators goes beyond such narrative devices and decodes a language of design as it would have been understood by a Victorian audience.

Past and present, No. 1 (1858) by Augustus Leopold Egg is the first of three paintings depicting the dire consequences of a wife's adultery. It shows husband distraught and wife prostrated, and contains obvious symbols such as a collapsing house of cards and an apple rotten at the core. But a hidden threat of duplicity and vanity lurks in the gleaming papier- mache chair, beside which play the couple's innocent children (both girls). Surely one is invited to believe that this chair--made from a material which is not what it purports to be (even reflective surfaces could be viewed with disapproval) could only have been the choice of a wanton wife?

Yet the wallpaper tells another story. A flat, conventionalised pattern, similar to designs by Owen Jones, signifies progressive taste, and would have immediately conveyed a sense of social realism. The message is clear--tragedy can occur even in a progressive home.

Fascinatingly, the same wallpaper also appears in Military aspirations (c. 1861) by William Maw Egley, and (in green) The appointment (dated 1861) by Rebecca Solomon. In Military aspirations, the furnishings are carefully chosen to contrast modern and traditional values, and, while the Solomon painting is altogether more ambiguous, the choice of wallpaper must have carried meaning for its audience.

By the 1870s, women appear to have found a role--bringing beatify to the tasteful home. Nevertheless, the inhabitants of the 'Art' homes depicted in Gustavus Arthur Bouvier's In the morning (1877) and Nancy A. Sabine Pasley's A game of cards (1887-91) do not seem particularly cheerful

Nowhere was women's self-image as modern chatelaine more celebrated than in the garden, which had by now become a vital part of the urban home. A London garden in August (c. 1908) by Beatrice Parsons is a portrait of the painter Minnie Spooner Her simply dressed figure is all but hidden by the 'old-fashioned' flowers she tends--an image of abundant creativity and artistic sensibility in which her garden says more about her (and her values) than any conventional portrait could The Victorian design reformers have triumphed over the consumption of luxury displayed by Henry Thomas Lambert, the unfortunate Wapping ship chandler.

The exhibition 'Home and garden: Paintings and drawings of urban domestic spaces. Part two: 1830-1914' is at the Geffrye Museum, London, until 18 July. The catalogue, 'Home and Garden: Paintings and Drawings of English, middle-class, urban domestic spaces 1675 to 1914' by David Dewing (ed.), is published by the museum, ISBN 1 872828 08 6, 35 [pounds sterling] (cloth)

Isabelle Anscombe is the author of Arts and Crafts Style (Phaidon Press).