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Towards a Neo-Victorian Interior

Gallery

How are artists and designers claiming and manipulating Victoriana? Visual culture produced in nineteenth-century Britain has been a fertile inspiration for numerous artists and firms including Polly Morgan, House of Hackney and Yinka Shonibare. ‘Towards a Neo-Victorian Interior’ showcases a vivid collection of images and its accompanying text argues that Neo-Victorianism is a polymorphous and diverse cluster of interactions with collective memory. Opaque and versatile, the Neo-Victorian interior is a meaningful, resonant concept that is renegotiating territories of contemporary identity by reaching through modernity into imagined Victorian histories.

Essay

Fig. 1. House of Hackney, Hackney Empire Conversation Chair, 2011, beech frame with velvet upholstery, Image courtesy of House of Hackney. Fig. 2. Timorous Beasties, Devil Damask Flock Wallpaper, launched 2007, Image courtesy of Timorous Beasties. Fig. 3. Piers Jamson, The Drawing Room, 2009, photograph, Edition of 5. Image courtesy of Piers Jamson. Fig. 4. Jake and Dinos Chapman, One day you will no longer be loved (that it should come to this) III, 2010, oil on canvas. Image courtesy of Cheltenham Art Gallery and Museum. Fig. 5. Kitty Valentine, Bat Girl, 2012, watercolour on lithograph. Image courtesy of Kitty Valentine. Fig. 6 Polly Morgan, To Every Seed His Own Body, 2006, mixed media and taxidermy. Courtesy the artist. Fig. 7. Rob Ryan, Staffordshire Dogs, 2010, earthenware with hand-painted and printed decoration. Fig. 8. Carole Windham, In the Sight of God, 2001, earthstone with enamel decoration. Image courtesy of Carole Windham. Fig. 9. Yinka Shonibare, MBE, Victorian Philanthropist's Parlour, 1996–97. Reproduction furniture, fire screen, carpet, props, Dutch wax printed cotton textile Copyright of the artist. Courtesy of the artist, Stephen Friedman Gallery (London) and James Cohan Gallery (New York). Fig.10. Still from official video, Losers, 'Flush' feat Riz MC & Envy, directed by Tom Werber, artwork by Dan Hillier, 2010. Image courtesy of Dan Hillier.

‘We wanted well crafted products that are traditionally made and could be lived, loved and passed down […] we wanted our collections to speak to our generation and so we have taken traditional home wares […] and reworked them with playful and irreverent prints.’[1]

These comments by design company House of Hackney suggest key motivations for the recent fascination with the cluttered, over-stuffed homes of the past and a move towards a conceptual neo-Victorian interior, through embrace of print and pattern. As they go on to explain:

‘After a decade of minimalism, disposable throw-away homeware and everyone’s homes looking the same we craved wallpaper, texture and colour and a return to maximalism.’[2]

Certainly, many of House of Hackney’s designs look back to those historical moments when greater opportunity for interior adornment encouraged ornate expression – dado rails anyone? Whether such a will to decorate can be sheltered under the umbrella of neo-Victorianism (a term most coherently coined in the study of contemporary fiction), opens up a debate about revivalism which is as frustrating as it is fruitful. From style and taste to political statement and psychological unease – what is real and what is imagined in our (re)negotiation of the past?[3]

House of Hackney’s Conversation Chair is a good place to start, suggesting, as it does, the facilitation of discussion by design (Fig. 1). It takes a quintessentially Victorian furniture shape and covers it in a rich velvet fabric of swirling, comedic, quasi-historical pattern. This is upholstery with a wink, and it at once proposes and disposes precedent. The aesthetic playfulness demonstrates the inevitability with which fashion and taste recycles and reworks the visual (Victorian designers were themselves not averse to witty revivalist design). It also suggests the loss of a sense of history which frees the artist to experiment with metonymic fragments or snapshots of the past. As Cora Kaplan summarises of retro style theory: ‘what was once a depth model of historical time has been compressed into a single surface, so that the past has become a one-dimensional figure in the carpet, a thematic element in the syncretic pattern of a perceptual present.’[4]

Neo-Victorianism is an attempt to embrace this truncated collective memory rather than to recreate or own an historical style. It is more opaque and versatile than other related yet distinct Victorian revivals, such as Steampunk, with its strong sense of community and various attempts at a manifesto. The neo-Victorian interior can be an actual or an implied site for the negotiation of contemporary identity, blurring the distinctions between the fine and decorative arts, as objects and possessions serve to either create or evoke a decorated backdrop to our lives.

The enduring relevance of the interior setting arguably serves as a platform for a negotiation of ‘personality’ that is itself Victorian in sentiment and filtered through the aesthetic legacy of that period. As Deborah Cohen argues: ‘Possessions […] offered a lifeline for coming to terms with one’s own identity in a society so much in flux. From its origins in the 1890s, the idea of ‘personality’ was fundamentally intertwined with the domestic interior [and] was about earned distinctiveness, performance and display […] even if no-one else was watching.’[5]

Many of us still live in the carcasses of these domestic theatres – private places that housed the hopes and fears of a now ‘lost’, unknowable, civilisation that has left its spectral trace. The return of a Victorian aesthetic is therefore more than a cyclical aesthetic rebellion against streamlined design, minimalist interiors and modern understandings of good taste. It marks a craving for historic referentialism as an expression of consumer personality, design that alludes to a more dramatic but ultimately impenetrable time.

Like House of Hackney, Scottish design firm Timorous Beasties have invented an enchanted world of surreal animals. They use traditional production techniques to re-work historic designs in ways that are witty and playful but also dark and challenging. Their Devil Damask Flock for instance (used for the bedroom of femme fatale Irene Adler in the neo-Victorian television drama Sherlock) creates ghostly impressions of shapes and faces that is as unnerving as it is historically comforting (Fig. 2).[6] Taking inspiration from the aesthetic maximalism of the Victorian interior but designed for a contemporary setting, Devil Damask is as much about evasion as location – suggesting both a past and a present that is not as it seems.

This sense of the real and the imagined in our relationship to the past is further explored in the work of Piers Jamson whose photographs ‘show interior spaces […] full of tension and redolent of some special but unknowable purpose’ (Fig. 3). Jamson, who describes his work as ‘anti-installation installation’ meticulously constructs small scale interior sets which are then photographed before being destroyed.[7] The resulting images, are both evocative and evasive – a quasi-revivalism that suggests the fallacy of historic sources. The process of destruction central to Jamson’s work raises questions about the preservation of the past and the creation of the future. These tensions also form the inspiration for Jake and Dinos Chapman’s Family Portrait series, an ongoing project for which the artists source unwanted nineteenth-century portraits which they then alter to create macabre images of forgotten ancestors (Fig. 4). Their work destabilises the notion of ‘passing down’. Certainly, the way that we acquire, reuse and re-situate objects lies at the heart of neo-Victorian anxiety and the simultaneous fascination and discomfort with the aesthetic of revivalism itself.

The photo-melanges of artists such as Kitty Valentine and Charlotte Cory also tap into these fears of obscurity after death and the meaning of portraiture when divorced from its personal or domestic setting. Cory’s cartes-de-visite incorporate taxidermy heads, combining two elements of the once living now forgotten. As she suggests ‘can there be anything more touching than a person got up in their best bib and tucker, preserved for a posterity that is no longer interested?’.[8] Valentine’s work in turn challenges the idea of the Victorian Keepsake Beauties – generic prints of women published in show-piece books – by creating unnerving hybrid beasts presented in cabinet-sized frames that at once reference and undermine the respectable Victorian parlour wall display (Fig. 5). The macabre sentiment of scattered possessions amounts to a near fetishisation of unknown and unknowable historical identity as a threat or challenge to our own. It is as if we are willing ourselves to take better care of our personal possessions lest they be defiled in the name of art in years to come.

The resurgence of taxidermy marks a similar engagement with survival and preservation but also presents a perceived rectification of a social over-sensitivity to death and dignity. As ‘fine-art taxidermist’ Polly Morgan suggests, ‘people are coming to their senses, post-political correctness, and rediscovering the beauty of what the world is all about’.[9] Morgan’s work, which uses animals that have died ‘natural and unpreventable’ deaths, is both quietly poetic and unavoidably challenging – reviving, as it does, one of the more extreme aesthetics of the nineteenth century (Fig. 6). It also reconciles the simultaneous cruelty and sentiment of the Victorians with our own ethical questions around the passing of life and times.

In terms of a discernible neo-Victorian aesthetic, Morgan’s work has also led the way in the return of the now ubiquitous glass dome as a means of showcasing a work of art. Much has been written about the original Victorian fascination with the ‘artificial kingdom’ and the use of glass to create a staged hyper-reality.[10] Certainly vitrines as proto-postmodernist signifiers already credit the Victorians with a kitsch significance that revivalism would find hard to reclaim. The current vogue for such an effective means of object veneration merely marks a more self conscious positioning of the consumer as artist/curator. When employed in the domestic interior, real or simulated (the shop display) such exhibits become neo-Victorian super-tools enabling the individual to bell-jar their personality – combining wit with a mastery of historic display. It is perhaps under the glass dome that neo-Victorianism will eventually eat itself.

Works such as Morgan’s carry with them the ‘memory’ of display. Whether or not they are now situated against the sparse backdrops of the modern interior, they ‘remember’ the Victorian parlour resplendent with ornaments.[11] It is this impression that we carry into our present homes. The contemporary reclaiming of the Victorian Staffordshire ceramic figure suggests a similar importation of the past into the present through a strong aesthetic signifier. Donna Wilson’s pullover-clad ceramic dogs for Heal’s in 2011 were part of a continuing pared-down style. However, with the invitation to ‘rest these two friendly characters on your fireplace or window sill for a trendy, chic look’, they marked the return of the ornament to the home and the return of the hearth as a focus of domestic decoration.[12] As artist-designed pieces these reinterpretations also place a layer of individuality onto an historically industrial aesthetic furthering the new preoccupation with the hand-made in the face of mass-production.

Rob Ryan is another artist for whom the mass-produced nature of Victorian Staffordshire figures is an aspect of their appeal. Your Job Is To Take This World Apart And Put It Back Together – But Even Better!!! is a series of ceramic dogs and cats, based on original moulds but decorated with upbeat slogans and paper-cut designs (Fig. 7). Despite their nostalgic appearance, Ryan’s ceramics explore an industrial past that is aesthetically unloved and, like portraits found by the Chapman brothers, free for the taking. Similarly, ceramicist Carole Windham uses the established aesthetic framework of the Staffordshire figure to explore contemporary thought and political commentary. In the Sight of God stages the artists Gilbert and George as Albert and Victoria, exploring the idea of gay marriage against the instantly recognisable positioning of Queen and Consort (Fig. 8). Windham further challenges our comfort with the aesthetic by playing with the notion of scale. In the Sight of God is 74 cm high, questioning both our familiarity with recognisable objects and the very idea of the mantelpiece on which they were designed to sit.

This confrontation of Victorian decorative domesticity for politicised message plays out in Yinka Shonibare’s The Victorian Philanthropist’s Parlour, on the face of it a maximalist interior in the neo-Victorian style (Fig. 9). However, the citing of the interior as a gallery construct or theatrical stage setting implies our fictionalisation of the past and its contemporary packaging. Shonibare decorates the parlour with a batik fabric that suggests African pattern and creates a Victorian setting that is at once familiar and different. Such fabrics were invented in Indonesia, industrialised by Dutch colonisers in the mid-nineteenth century and then produced in Britain for the West African markets. This complex production of ‘African’ style comes to symbolise, in Shonibare’s work, the history of Western colonialism. It also reclaims the parlour, a site of Victorian gentility, as a space of interrogation and debate – both revealing and concealing uncomfortable truths. The title of the piece further exposes the myth of philanthropism that papered over the exploited labour behind the creation of the idealised Victorian home.

Shonibare’s work at once celebrates and blows apart the Victorian interior aesthetic exposing our simultaneous discomfort and fascination with historic legacy. The need to both venerate and destroy the past is given a more surreal creative vent in Tom Werber’s video animation for Losers’ Flush – a song about the purging of a failed relationship.[13] Using Dan Hillier’s altered engravings, via Max Ernst’s fantasy collages of the 1920s and 30s, the animation begins in a Victorian home (Fig. 10). The interior, against which the story of a failing relationship plays out, is sparsely furnished and the eye is drawn to the paintings which adorn the wall. In the spirit of Augustus Egg’s Victorian narrative triptych of domestic breakdown Past and Present, 1858, the artistic subjects reflect the drama of the scene. Eventually, the dysfunctional couple literally tear through the wall in their struggle to free themselves from domestic tension, before embarking on a destructive stomp through a re-imagined Victorian London. The juxtaposition of contemporary music with Victorian-inspired animation immediately locates and exploits the post-punk potential of the nineteenth century aesthetic – a buttoned-up Britishness ripe for reclamation and defamation but with an undercurrent of aggressive affection. The frenetic imagination of Werber’s work also suggests the creativity which stems from our inability to really understand and capture the Victorian past ­–­ an embrace of unsettled historical identity.

The neo-Victorian interior, real and imagined, created and curated, is our attempt to find a home for our uncomfortable relationship to the past – an unfurnished room waiting to be decorated with the hopes and fears which surround our negotiation of contemporary identity through aesthetic legacy.

Notes

1. Interview with House of Hackney, March 2011, online: www.dazeddigital.com/artsandculture/article/10047/1/house-of-hackney. Accessed 1 June 2012.

2. Ibid.

3. As Heilmann and Llewellyn suggest in their oft-quoted definition: ‘To be part of the neo-Victorianism we discuss […], texts (literary, filmic, audio/visual) must in some respect be self-consciously engaged with the act of (re)interpretation, (re)discovery and (re)vision concerning the Victorians’. Ann Heilmann and Mark Llewellyn, Neo-Victorianism: The Victorians in the Twenty-First Century, 1999–2009 (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010), 4.

4. Cora Kaplan, Victoriana: Histories, Fictions, Criticism (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2007), 3.

5. Deborah Cohen, Household Gods: The British and Their Possessions (London: Yale University Press, 2006), xii.

6. Sherlock, Series 2, Episode 1, ‘A Scandal In Belgravia’, Dir. Paul McGuigan, BBC 1. First aired 1 January 2012.

7. David Lillington, Press Release for Piers Jamson: Empire View, Elevator Gallery, 11 May–3 June 2012, online: www.elevatorgallery.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2012/02/ELEVATOR-PRESS-RELEASE.pdf. Accessed 1 June 2012.

8. Charlotte Cory, Artist’s Statement for Art Below, online: www.artbelow.org.uk/artists/charlottecory. Accessed 1 June 2012.

9. Polly Morgan in Joanna Bale, ‘Back from the dead to liven up your sitting room’, The Times (11 November 2006), online: www.thetimes.co.uk/tto/news/uk/article1942768.ece. Accessed 1 June 2012.

10. See Celeste Olalquiaga, The Artificial Kingdom: A Treasury of the Kitsch Experience (London: Bloomsbury, 1998).

11. Polly Morgan has recently expressed exasperation with the ‘associations between taxidermy and Gothic and Victorian styles’ and the ‘grubby old nostalgic lens’ through which taxidermy is usually seen. Polly Morgan, ‘Diary’, in ES Magazine (8 June 2012), p.3.

12. See www.heals.co.uk. Accessed 28 July 2011.

13. For full video see http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dsaLyUTDGTo. Accessed 28 July 2011.

Curator Bio

Sonia Solicari is Principal Curator of Guildhall Art Gallery, having previously held the posts of Curator, Ceramics, and Assistant Curator, Paintings at the Victoria and Albert Museum. Sonia studied English Literature at Royal Holloway, London, Victorian Studies at King’s College, London and Museum Studies at University College London. Sonia is currently curating the exhibition Victoriana: The Art of Revival, which will explore the work of contemporary artists who have been inspired by the Nineteenth Century. This multi-media show is due to open at Guildhall Art Gallery in Spring 2013.

Acknowledgements

I would like to thank Ayla Lepine and the Courtauld Institute Research Forum for providing a dynamic space in which to explore ideas.

I am also grateful to Carole Windham and Rob Ryan for their continuing support of my exploration of revivalist styles, which began when I was a Curator of Ceramics at the V&A, inspired by their work.

Finally I would like to thank all the artists and designers mentioned in my essay, for their advice and generosity and for creating such wonderful things!