The secret life of furniture (from yesterday’s Times)

Furniture 1I recently had the pleasure and privilege of going round the V&A’s new furniture gallery, which opens this week, and writing about it for yesterday’s Times. Here’s my piece:

‘I’ve a great respect for things!’ says Madame Merle, in Henry James’s 1881 novel A Portrait of a Lady. ‘We’re each of us made up of some cluster of appurtenances … one’s house, one’s furniture, one’s garments, the books one reads … all these things are expressive’.  She knew instinctively what every art historian is taught at college: that your furniture speaks volumes about who you really are.

It was with this thought in mind that I went to visit the new Dr Susan Weber Furniture Gallery at the Victoria & Albert Museum, in the company of its curator Nick Humphrey.  He and his colleagues have spent years raking through the museum’s collection of 14,000 pieces of furniture to choose the items for the new display.  Much of the collection is stored in a huge building in Olympia, which you may have seen at the cinema last year.  It was used as the secret concrete HQ of M16 in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.

There’s no doubt that Humphrey agrees with Madame Merle.  ‘People are very thoughtful and careful about the furniture they want in their own room’, he says, pointing out the close connection we develop with favourite items, and how we anthropomorphise the things with which our bodies become intimate: furniture has legs, knees and arms.

Take one superlatively fabulous carved casket from the 1370s, painted red and gold, and decorated with a scene from the medieval tale of Tristan and Iseult.  Nick thinks it may have been a gift given at the moment of a betrothal.  Perhaps it was intended to contain other intimate presents, items that would have touched a lady’s body such as garters, jewels and combs.

The scene at first seems an unlikely choice, as Tristan and Iseult, adulterous lovers, meet each other beneath a tree in which Iseult’s husband hides.  But the reflective surface of a pool in the orchard reveals his presence, so, forewarned, the couple behave with rectitude.  Nick thinks the cabinet may have contained a hidden message from a man to his beloved: ‘I must behave with decorum when we’re in public, as Tristan and Iseult did.  But passion lies hidden within me’.

Secret compartments which form almost a standard feature of such early caskets and cabinets.  Not so secret, then?  Possibly not, Humphrey explains, among the aristocratic caste who would have owned such items.  But it was a different matter for their servants.  Perhaps the existence of the compartment was a secret kept by the freemasonry of the rich.

Pieces like this would be carted along by medieval magnates as they moved from house to house.  The portable nature of the casket reminded me of the recent reconstruction of Edward I’s bed we recreated for display at the Tower of London.  The royal accounts recorded payment for its green posts painted with stars, but also for chains for attaching the canopy to the wooden base.  It was demountable, so it could travel in the king’s packhorse train as he travelled from castle to castle, physically keeping peace throughout his realm.  This idea that furniture was originally mobile survives in the French language, where it’s still called ‘mobiliers’.

The history of furniture also still lives on in the English language.  In a medieval household, one’s cup would have been placed upon a ‘board’ (or table).  (Only later did the ‘cupboard’ get its sides, top and door.)  When a family were at table, only the master of the house would have had an expensive chair with arms.  The rest, his subordinates, sat on backless stools, or even stood, respectfully watching him eat and drink.  The medieval idea that those in charge have the best seats is brought back to life every time we talk about ‘the chairman of the board’.  For me, the ultimate goal of studying furniture is to conjure up such a very different mental world.

But furniture historians like to look and touch as much as talk.  ‘We are always the ones lying on the floor underneath the table’, Humphrey tells me.  He isn’t implying insobriety: they’re usually hunting for a hidden date stamp or label.  Historians now embrace the changes and adaptations which 30 years ago would have devalued a piece in the eyes of a connoisseur.  Alterations give an item a back story.  In the new gallery, the ‘Croome Court Cupboard’, originally a massive linen press from the 1760s, was sent back to Robert Adam’s workshop by Lord Coventry to be broken down into smaller units.  Even so, a ladder would be required for the Earl’s housekeeper to reach the internal drawers in a piece which even in its final, reduced, form would have been almost unusable – except as a magnificent way of showing off carving of the highest order.

Humphrey can reel off all the major milestones that allow curators to date unmarked pieces, such as dovetail joints and tubular steel, but he’s interested in continuity as much as change.  ‘Any chair has to function by having bottoms plonked on it twenty times a day’, he says.  Nearly every piece in the gallery – down to the absolute latest injection-moulded plastic chairs – would be recognisable to those living in other centuries.  And likewise, each requires an element of hand-finishing.  Even items coming fully-formed out of the new 3D printers need a tiny bit of polishing and rubbing down by the human hand.

The section on lacquer, as well as containing pieces from the Far East and the eighteenth century, contains a remarkable screen both designed and made in Paris in 1928 by the Art Deco polymath, Eileen Gray.  She noticed how the brightness, hardness and brilliance of lacquer, a material not previously worked outside Japan, chimed in with the Deco aesthetic.  Her screen uses ancient eastern techniques to creating a startling modern object: a bold, folding screen used to divide her open-plan Paris apartment.

By contrast, nearby stands a rugged chair dating from within ten years of Gray’s screen. Made by Thomas Kirkness, a craftsman working in the Orkneys, it was once owned by the painter Augustus John.  Kirkness used driftwood for his chairs, and wove their hooded backs from the straw of black oats.  They appeared in the homes of lovers of the Arts and Crafts Movement and its folksy style.  They were, in their own way, just as modern as the screen.  For centuries confined to the Orkneys, they reached people’s homes all over the world after being spotted at a trade fair and stocked by Liberty.

Humphrey self-deprecatingly calls his findings ‘pathetically modest’. He is currently attempting to prove that an Elizabethan chair is part of a particular workshop group: by painstakingly comparing surviving examples, he and his colleagues can find common details and techniques which allow them to trace pieces to particular years, towns, workshops and even craftsmen.  ‘In 20 years time someone else will join up a few more dots and we’ll take things a bit further’, he adds, hopefully.

For all his modesty, to me reconstructing and celebrating the output of a nameless Elizabethan master craftsman isn’t humble or trivial; it’s a noble ambition to bring the dead back to life, and to try to understand their world.

Furniture is often overlooked and taken for granted.  To talk about something’s being ‘part of the furniture’ is to suggest that it’s hidden in plain sight.  And yet every single piece is a microcosm of the world in which it was made, and represents the aspirations of its owner.

Are you thinking it might be time to replace your saggy old sofa?

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