THE PRIVATE LIVES OF PICTURES : ART AT HOME IN BRITAIN 1800-1940
By Nicholas Tromans
Reaktion Books. 294 pages. £25. ISBN 978-1-78914-623-3
Reviewed by Jim Burns
I grew up in a house without pictures. I’m not sure why there were no paintings or other illustrations on the walls or even on the sideboard or mantelpiece in the form of photographs. Nicholas Tromans tells the story of Jeanette Winterson’s “severely fundamentalist mother” who wouldn’t display some paintings she had inherited. My own mother came from quite a strict Baptist background in the Cumberland coalfields, but I doubt that she had a particular aversion to pictures. It was more likely that a lack of money meant that pictures were not seen as essential. And she certainly would never have considered clipping something out of a magazine and tacking that on the wall. Advertising your poverty, no matter how real it was, was not something you did.
I did see pictures as I got older. The local combined library and art gallery was always open and wandering around the different rooms opened my eyes to what paintings could do. I can still see one or two of the canvases from seventy and more years ago in my mind’s eye. In a way I’m glad that there weren’t pictures at home. They no doubt would have been fairly innocuous, had they existed, and I’d have been so used to them that they would have lacked any kind of meaning beyond the merely decorative, and perhaps not even that. Even a home well-stocked with paintings might not have appealed. A profusion of pictures in a small room can often confuse me and I prefer a single painting in a domestic setting. On the whole, however, I choose to view paintings in galleries and even there like to see them well spaced out.
Tromans’ engaging book by its very nature looks closely at what the more-affluent classes chose to hang on their walls. There is little consideration of what was on display further down the social scale. He’s not to be condemned because of this. It’s doubtful if much documentation exists of what, if anything, working-class people owned in the form of paintings. Lower middle-class families wanting to show how respectable they were might well have had a painting on display in their living-room. And the more-ambitious, moving into the managerial range of employment, might well have gone even further and had more than one painting prominent. I’m generalising, and exceptions must always have existed, especially if the definition of a “picture” is extended to include prints and illustrations of one sort or another taken from magazines and newspapers. And why not photographs? They were easier to obtain as commercial photography developed. When I was small in the early-1940s I was often looked after by an old lady. I don’t remember any paintings in her house but there were photographs of her sons who had been killed in the First World War,
I think it’s of interest to note, in the context of what the less-affluent might have experienced in connection with paintings, a few lines from O. Henry’s supernatural story, “The Furnished Room” : “Upon the gay-papered wall were those pictures that pursue the homeless from house to house – ‘The Huguenot Lovers’, ‘The First Quarrel’, ‘The Wedding Breakfast’, ‘Psyche at the Fountain’ “. I think I may have seen at least a couple of these, or something similar to them, over the years.
So, with Tromans, we are taken through an imaginary house and told what was seen as suitable for hanging on the walls. He illustrates his tour with references to real rooms in the homes of the well—to-do and intellectually active. The aristocracy could afford to purchase pictures and sometimes commission them, and the poets and writers would have had friends and acquaintances who were artists and so be in a position to obtain paintings at reasonable prices and sometimes as gifts. But inevitably it’s mostly the upper-classes whose houses were filled with paintings. How often they were looked at might be another matter. The rooms in some of the photos in the book seem cluttered to me and not just with paintings. The furniture and ornaments take up a lot of space and surely would have distracted from any consideration of the art other than at a superficial level. The writer George Moore perhaps got it right when he suggested that “all important old paintings” ought to be in galleries and not in domestic settings.
It’s interesting to follow Tromans as he categorises the kinds of paintings in the various rooms. The hallway was not seen as somewhere to hang anything significant. Few people linger there, so what’s the point in displaying anything worth more than a cursory glance? I’m not just referring to Tromans’ views and he cites critics and commentators who claimed to provide expert advice on how to get the best from pictures in terms of deriving pleasure from them or presumably just impressing visitors. There were publications designed to guide people into the world of “good taste” by indicating which wallpaper was best suited to certain pictures. It wasn’t a case of simply finding a convenient spot to hang a picture. Its colours had to combine and not clash with those of the space surrounding it.
There were discussions about which pictures might be hung in the dining-room. Nothing too striking in case they diverted attention away from the talk around the table. Bland family portraits, perhaps, though those could also be used on a staircase. Very few people, ascending or descending, would bother to pause and look closely at a picture of some old man or woman. So, the better pictures, those with impressive painterly qualities, or at least some notable financial value, might be allocated places in the library or living-room. And the bedroom? Ah, the adventurous might have a slightly provocative painting there, but nothing likely to shock the female members of the family or the servants.
Generally, it would seem that the bedroom was not considered a suitable place to hang paintings of any kind. And throughout the house the controversial was avoided. PaIntings created their own world of serenity and calm and the world outside of mills and mines, and the people who worked in them, wasn’t allowed to intrude into middle and upper-class domesticity. To be fair, it’s not likely that working-class families would want to be reminded of where they had to go during the day. If they had anything on the walls it could be of flowers and fields, or somewhere exotic. Tromans points to D.H. Lawrence’s play, A Collier’s Friday Night, where a picture of Venice hangs over the mantelpiece.
“By the last years of the nineteenth century”, says Tromans, “the sense of the picture being an ‘alien’ in the home promoted a late flowering of the gothic picture tale”. Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray is one of the best-known in the genre, though it had a predecessor in Charles Maturin’s 1820 novel, Melmoth the Wanderer. There can be something unnerving about a portrait of someone staring out at the viewer and even giving the impression of the eyes following one’s movements. This could have been another reason for hanging portraits where few people would bother to look at them. An obscure 1890s ghost story, Ralph Adam Cram’s “In Kropfsberg Keep”, says that “the stiff old portraits changed countenance constantly under the flickering firelight”.
But I like the Thomas Hardy story, “The Enemy’s Portrait”, where, Tromans tells us, “the narrator finds at an auction the portrait of one who had done him a terrible wrong. After he had bought it with the intention of burning the canvas and reusing the frame, the picture is laid against a wall pending its destruction, but, being a trip hazard, it is hung by a servant on the wall, where it is forgotten, eventually outliving the embittered owner”. Moving away from portraits, M.R. James’s “The Mezzotint” shows what can happen when a landscape which includes figures takes on a life of its own.
The reference to the frame in the Hardy story takes me to a section of Tromans’ book where he discusses frames and their uses. I tend to like frames which are plain and functional and don’t overwhelm the canvas. Looking at old paintings in charity shops and second-hand dealers, where I suspect they come from house clearances, I’m inclined to the view that the frame was, for some householders, often more important than the picture. And lent itself to the interpretation that it was simply an extension of the general decorative scheme. Rather in the way that much abstract art, especially of the colour field variety, has become in large offices and the like. Little to do with art and more to do with creating a soporific effect guaranteed not to disturb anyone.
If frames were, or should have been important then the way a picture was hung should have been equally so. Flat against the wall or slightly tilted forward? Tromans examines the procedures open to the home-owner anxious to establish the right effect. And the types of hooks and other devices used. It wasn’t just a matter of knocking a nail in a wall, at least not in homes where appearances counted.
As new techniques relating to prints began to appear the possibility of having something on the wall became open to a wider public. Not everyone was in favour of this, feeling that the mass reproduction of well-known works of art lowered their value, not only in monetary but artistic terms. But something like the Autotype (“a photomechanical printmaking process using light-sensitive gelatine to reproduce the intermediary tones of a transparency of an initial photograph”.) helped popularise art, again not something that purists and highbrow critics necessarily liked. In a way it was taking art out of their control and they were in danger of no longer being needed for consultation about what was recommended for the home. People just exercised their own judgement and bought what they enjoyed in cheap versions : “For those with taste but limited funds, the autotype was the passport to authentic art in the house”.
Tromans refers to the department store, Whiteleys, which issued in instalments “domesticated versions of the famous masterpieces of the great galleries of the world.......For at least one Edwardian working-class memoirist, tacking up a selection of these in his new lodgings was a symbol of having escaped the slums”. He also brings in another aspect of the working-class use of pictures: “Dan Cullen, a London docker thrown out of work for his union activism, was found dying in his filthy Whitechapel room around 1900, looking up at his collection of cheap portraits of Engels, John Burns and other heroes of labour”.
The front cover of The Private Lives of Pictures reproduces a Harold Gilman painting, “Edwardian Interior” which shows a young woman seated at a table and studying the items on it. Tromans wonders how many people “truthfully, really looked at the pictures in their home on a regular basis?” and then suggests that Gilman’s painting “was surely more common – the pictures reassuringly present but the occupants’ attention fixed on the tangible, operable objects of the home”. Well, perhaps, though the lady may have looked at the pictures before she sat down, or will look at them when she gets up. And, in any case, why should she be expected to look at pictures all the time? Looking at a picture ought to be a pleasurable experience and not just a duty. I’m having a little fun here, but making what I think is a serious point about how and why people appreciate art. Not everyone wants to be a specialist.
Nicholas Troman’s has written a thoroughly interesting and at times provocative book which moves away from the standard texts of art history and analysis. HIs account of the roles that art fulfilled in private homes is immensely readable and offers a great deal of food for thought. There are ample notes and some useful illustrations.