“Now this is how you engage with a piece of furniture!”
exclaimed Ian Dungavell, course leader for the Victorian Society in America’s London Midlands tour. Only amongst a group of decorative art and architecture enthusiasts would an intense discussion on furniture not only happen, but also be so stimulating.
We were clustered before a display of William Burges furniture in the Cecil Higgins Art Gallery in Bedford, among the first stops on our trip north. Our class had a strong camaraderie from the beginning, but it was this particular moment when our collective penchant for the Victorian world felt the most palpable.
As a group of graduate students, academics, and museum/art professionals, we each had a different interest within the Victorian studies umbrella. But whether enraptured by the bones of a building or its furnishings, we were united by a love of all things Victorian. Through a combination of historic houses, walking tours, lectures, and museums, the Summer School catered to all of these interests. With my background in material culture, I was mostly interested in museum collections and the furnishings of historic houses. More specifically, I’m interested in the stories these objects tell. Some objects speak more loudly than others, like the painted furniture of William Burges.
The wardrobe, bookcase, wash stand, and bed on display in the Cecil Higgins Art Gallery were all whimsically adorned with medieval style illustrations. The bed headboard featured an illustration of sleeping beauty. Panels referencing the myth of Narcissus ornamented the wash stand. The wardrobe, which I found the most fascinating, showed Adam, expelled from Paradise, being offered different garments, along with illustrations of anthropomorphized shaving and grooming implements. Divided into small groups, we first spent a few minutes decoding these captivating hieroglyphics amongst ourselves before reconvening as a group.
Furniture as narrative? Yes, please! This was right up my alley and I was fascinated by Burges’s motive in using furniture to tell a story, noting the following quote on the museum label:
“The great feature of our medieval chamber is the furniture: this, in a rich apartment would be covered with paintings, both ornaments and subjects; it not only did its duty as furniture, but spoke and told a story.”
Indeed, it was as though the pages of a fairytale had been adhered to the furniture. As we “read” these stories together, we discussed the relationship between the illustrations and the type of furniture. Through these illustrations, the furniture not only told a story, but initiated a dialogue between itself and the person using it.
My little group was assigned the wardrobe. Because of my research and publications concerning Victorian facial hair, the wardrobe’s bottom drawer with anthropomorphized shaving and grooming articles captured my attention immediately. Unlike the figures on the wardrobe’s upper drawers that were depicted holding objects, the figures painted on the bottom drawer assumed the identity of objects. They read like a line missing from the nursery rhyme “Hey Diddle Diddle,” but there is no dish running off with a spoon to be found. Instead, there is a hairbrush, napkin, shaving brush, razor, shaving cream, and hair comb. Some of these figures are hunched slightly forward, as though in a servile pose, or perhaps overwhelmed by the weight of their oversized heads. Is this a commentary on the burden of maintaining appearances? That these objects have been relegated to the bottom of the wardrobe, along with a tiny mirror in the middle, seems to underscore my hunch.
Burges was better known for the beauty of his designs than that of his own person. Known as “Ugly Burges” among his friends, the wife of one of his clients echoed this sentiment with the remark, “Ugly Burges who designs lovely things, isn’t he a duck?”
Burges may have been “ugly,” but he left a beautiful mark on the world and a lasting impression in my mind. I attended the Victorian Society in America’s London Summer School on a quest for stories, and returned home with enough material to fill an entire storybook. This is but one chapter.