Julius Bryant’s closing case study of the Victoria and Albert Museum, British Galleries shows how the interpretation of eighteenth-century interiors has been influenced by the academic categories of the twentieth-century and also by the more recent revisionist approaches and changing the cultural context of the twenty-first century. Julius Bryant notes that although the historic interior (whether classed as Georgian, eighteenth-century or something else) might be conceptualised in particular ways by social historians and historians of art or of the decorative arts and design, it is, in fact, the general public that is the final judge. By discussing changes in the British Galleries’ displays, from their creation in 1951 to their redesign for the 2001 reopening, Julius Bryant charts the influence of recent scholarship on the role of interiors within the museum setting. Whilst the present galleries progress through a sequence of themes, problems and types of objects (presented largely through the use of display cases), half a century ago the British Galleries were constructed as a series of “perfect interiors” each of which captured “British life” at a specific point in time. Julius Bryant reflects on the role of a museum in reshaping the concept of the Georgian according to new curatorial practices and innovative historical scholarship.
Elizabeth McKellar’s research has unpacked the early twentieth-century architectural traditions that generated a particular preoccupation with the Georgian. Her contribution to this issue looks in detail at the Georgian Revival. Focusing on the design, architecture and decorative arts publishing industry in the hitherto under-researched period 1890–1930, Elizabeth McKellar provides a new context for understanding how the formula of the Georgian interior became so entrenched in the twentieth-century — when the interior was often considered in isolation from its “architectural” shell. By considering not so much the creators or users of Georgian interiors, but the methods of analysing and illustrating Georgian houses in publishing, Elizabeth McKellar maps the fracturing of the interior into detached parts (determined by types of materials and ornament or elements such as doorways, chimney pieces and ceilings) which were separated both from the built exterior and from a unified whole. Elizabeth McKellar demonstrates how architecture became divorced from “design” and exteriors became conceptually separated from interiors.
Whilst Julius Bryant and Elizabeth McKellar investigate the manifestations of the Georgian in the twentieth-century, other contributors to this special issue return to the eighteenth-century to consider how the interior was constructed, represented and experienced in its own time. Malcolm Baker focuses on the complexities of one rarely examined element of eighteenth-century interiors: sculpture. Whether as chimney pieces or as portrait busts in libraries, sculpture figured prominently in many Georgian elite interiors. Reproduced as multiples on a smaller scale in relatively inexpensive materials, such objects were newly available to a wider market for personal consumption and display in the home. Yet sculpture has more often been approached in art history as a public mode of representation and a form of ornamentation usually associated with the exterior. Malcolm Baker’s study demonstrates how what might be cast as straightforward divisions between exterior and interior and civic and domestic (and the favoured distinction between “public” and “private”) were, in fact, far more blurred and indivisible. His study of sculpture reveals the eighteenth-century domestic interior to have been significantly informed and infiltrated by concerns that historians have more usually categorised as characteristic of a non-domestic setting.
Kate Retford’s article examines the rise in the function of the conversation piece as a domestic genre of painting. Conversation pieces have been deployed as evidence of the appearance of an eighteenth-century interior, used to trace the incidence of certain forms of furnishings, their position in the home and the precise decorative details of a domestic property. As Kate Retford suggests, however, such portraits were not necessarily commissioned or completed to record the specifics of a “real” interior. Instead, such domestic scenes are better regarded as idealisations of how an eighteenth-century concern with politeness, taste and gentility was best expressed within the interior — not within the sitters’ own interior per se, but within an idealised framework realised in a painted form. In this context, conversation pieces appear more as a register of ideals rather than a stable template for the recreation and preservation of the eighteenth-century home.
Studies of the eighteenth-century interior have proliferated in recent years. Given the diversity of current research, the remainder of this introduction will briefly survey the literatures which address the eighteenth-century interior, to contextualise the more specialist contributions that follow. Echoing present debates, many of the themes raised here will prove familiar to those currently working in the field. Whilst in no way comprehensive, this article is primarily intended as a reflection on the development of different methodological traditions, relating developments in design history and the decorative arts to the social and cultural histories relevant to the interior and vice versa. Our aim is to find a way through the dense definitional thickets that surround the literature in order to examine the development, restrictions and possibilities of the current historiographical framework.
Whilst opinion differs as to whether an overarching emphasis on change masks significant continuities, there is a consensus that eighteenth-century United Kingdom witnessed new political, economic and social institutions that had profound implications for everyday life at all social levels. It is argued that such changes affected the United Kingdom more than any other part of Europe. The country was transformed from a rather undeveloped nation to the heart of a new late-eighteenth-century European industrial world with material conditions and cultural vitality unimaginable just a century earlier. The historical analysis of these developments has focused on concepts such as sociability, politeness, civic culture and broader models of eighteenth-century cultural and economic change. Nonetheless, these methodological approaches have little in common with those deployed in the analysis of interiors and, least of all, in studies of the decorative arts. Whereas social history was principally concerned with an emergent eighteenth-century notion of a vibrant public culture, and middling urban life and their “modern” implications, the decorative arts remained preoccupied with the realm of the isolated, elite country seat.
One of the most pronounced narratives in eighteenth-century studies is that which identifies the century as witnessing the birth of the modern British “consumer society.” The multiplication of new products and new markets has been well documented, and the intersections between the things that people owned and the new social and cultural ideals of the period have become mainstream in historical literature. This historiographical interest in manufacturing and personal possessions would seem fertile ground for exchanges between socio-historical, art historical and decorative arts methods and concerns, and particularly for work on the interior. Yet, despite the increase of research into the range of consumer practices in this period, the focus of social history has tended towards the individual consumers and their personalised purchases, either at the point of sale or at the point of dispersal at the end of their owners’ lives.
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