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Essay: A Little Glass Vase of Violets in the Home-Place

Timothy Brittain-Catlin on Edwardian style

by Timothy Brittain-Catlin .

Everywhere, the sweet homes of the families back in England suddenly reeked of the filth of the trenches, almost as if all that sentimentality and the easy comfort of home life had somehow to be paid for in blood. And we know that many of those pretty details – the Victorian wallpaper, for example – were soon to vanish, as modernism kicked over the traces of what had come before it.

Somewhere between the death of Queen Victoria and the outbreak of the First World War, the design of the small private house was perfected to the extent that everything that has happened since can be considered an experiment rather than an improvement. These things come in bursts: domestic architecture had rolled forward into a new blaze of perfection during the reigns of Queen Elizabeth and Queen Anne, and in the first decade under Queen Victoria. But the Edwardian era is different because we know that everything from that period ends in tragedy, in mass slaughter. Its teleology has been its curse.

I have an illustrated book of 1906 called Country Cottages & Week-End Homes, compiled by a writer called J. H. Elder- Duncan and published in London, Paris, New York and Melbourne by Cassell and Company. It was so successful that it was reprinted a single month after publication, and a new edition appeared the year before the War. It begins with a short introduction to the design of the small house, referring to the current craze for country cottages and making salient points about the healthy and practical siting of furniture. It discusses the planning of bedrooms and whether an inglenook fireplace is desirable in a small home. Most readers, however, will have skipped that to gaze longingly at the glossy photographs, plans and drawings of the cottages, at a range of prices, which follow.
The following year they would have ordered themselves a copy of W. Shaw Sparrow’s Flats, Urban Houses and Cottage Homes, a volume from Hodder & Stoughton in a similar format, which amongst much else records vanished ways of living: blocks of West End flats designed especially for single professional men, for example. The impression one gets is that the pre-war period is one of those golden ages when an astonishing number of individually designed homes were built.

Katerina Athanasopoulou’s film The Violet Hour takes you straight into one of these comfortable, tailor-made houses; to use the homely phrase of one of the architects in Elder-Duncan’s book, it takes you into the ‘home-place’, rooted in England by that view of London and St Paul’s reflected in the mirror. As it happens, he recommended similar panelling for a room such as this – the more artistic or better-off would have chosen oak, but those with less cash or fewer pretensions would have used stained deal. The reproduction eighteenth-century furniture we see in Katerina’s film would have been at home in all of them; in fact
it was a well-rehearsed Edwardian joke to place items from the grandest homes – some Chippendale chairs, some Queen Anne plasterwork – into a modest modern cottage. The floral wallpaper, Pugin- or Morris-derived, completes the scene, and the book of fashion plates that falls open on the table is just what one would expect to find here, the slim lines of the tea gown recalling the fashions of the Regency, alongside vases of flowers.

The Regency motif can be seen all over the place in my Edwardian books; it is suggested in the few costumes that are visible in them, but mostly in the elements of the architecture: everywhere there are bow windows, verandahs, French windows and white rendered walls. Some architects used these features to develop a style sometimes called ‘Quality Street’, after the 1901 play by J. M. Barrie about genteel young ladies and dashing subalterns.
This was a solecistic hybrid of Regency and Queen Anne, as popular then for high-street banks and tea rooms as it was for cottages. It was a popular style because it was sentimental. And the Edwardian architect was – so unlike his Neo-Gothic or Modern equivalents – quite unafraid of being either sentimental or popular. In fact, what comes across most strongly from these Edwardian house books is that some homes are essentially presented as a series of romantic vignettes. There are views of sitting-halls, stair landings and gardens. They are comfortably and somewhat sentimentally furnished. The tables might be set for tea, and the pretty girls and handsome officers are easily imagined. It is clear that these images are aimed to appeal just as the popular novel appeals to the mass of readers. There is no curious battle going on between the ideas of the architect and the aspirations of the great majority of people who want a comfortable place to sit, in a comfortable way of dressing, in surroundings that somehow remind them of their favourite places, full of vases of flowers. And it was achievable.

All of which makes the Armageddon that followed that much more awful. The dashing subalterns had gone out fighting. Margot Asquith, the prime minister’s wife, was wearing her ‘little grey & silver Ospovat Russian tea-gown’ that her young son loved when she heard the news that Raymond, her husband’s eldest child, had been killed at the Front (1).

She was in her new, pretty weekend cottage at the time. Everywhere, the sweet homes of the families back in England suddenly reeked of the filth of the trenches, almost as if all that  sentimentality and the easy comfort of home life had somehow to be paid for in blood. And we know that many of those pretty details – the Victorian wallpaper, for example – were soon to vanish, as modernism kicked over the traces of what had come before it.

I am thinking too of those innocent little vases of flowers. In April 1915, after a month at war, Roland Leighton, the fiancé of my grandmother Vera Brittain, sent her not, of course, flowers from the Front, but a poem about them: Violets from Plug Street Wood. The middle verse runs like this:

Violets from Plug Street Wood –
Think what they have meant to me –
Life and Hope and Love and You
(And you did not see them grow
Where his mangled body lay,
Hiding Horror from the day;
Sweetest it was better so.)

It was indeed better so. When we can detach Edwardian architecture, like Edwardian fashion and Edwardian art, from the smash and the catastrophe that followed them, we can start to appreciate the beauty of them as they really are.

(1) Brock, Michael and Eleanor, Margot Asquith’s Great War Diary 1914–1916. OUP: 2014, p. 287.