Monday, October 27, 2008

Another View of Historic Houses

On this cold gray afternoon, I thought I'd share a fiction writer's view of historic houses. In The Careful Use of Compliments by Alexander McCall Smith (best known for his #1 Ladies Detective Agency series), his heroine, Isabel Dalhousie visits Barnhill, where George Orwell wrote 1984. They tour the house,

"They peered into the small room above the kitchen, with its typewriter set neatly on the table and beyond the clear glass of the window, the day, now sparkling under a sky that had miraculously cleared."

Isabel mused, as others moved on,

"She thought about the seeing of what others had seen; this was the view that Orwell had while he wrote that dark novel, with its all seeing eye, Big Brother... She remembered being in Freud's house in Vienna and looking out of the window in his consulting room, seeing the small mirror hanging on the shutter the only item remaining in the stripped bare room, and thinking he had looked at that, the great doctor himself; he had looked out onto that particular stretch of sky, that courtyard. And then she remembered seeing James VI's cradle in the bedroom at Traquair and the thoughts that it triggered; and the bed at Falkland Palace in which James V had died, turning his face to the wall, bemoaning what he saw as the imminent end of a Scottish dynasty... And finally, as she tore herself away from the view, and the room, the thought crossed her mind that a bed was really a very strange thing--a human nest really, where our human fragility made its nightly demands for comfort and cosseting."

For some reason, reading this passage made me think of paintings of interiors--and sure enough, the Victoria and Albert Museum had several in their collections database online. There was a bit of a discussion early today on a list serve about whether people would come to a museum if their collections were shown on their website. On this topic, I'm a firm believer in sharing everything. I've been to the V & A Museum, and I wouldn't hesitate to go again. If I went again and saw these three images, I'd be thrilled, and think of them as old friends; if they weren't on exhibit, I'd still be pleased that I found a representation of them to quench my idle interest today.

And as for the fictional Isabel's visit? Just a reminder that we can hardly imagine what our visitors might be imagining.

Top to bottom:
The Kitchen at Elmswell Hall, York, Watercolor by Mary Ellen Best, 1834
The Stray Shuttlecock, Oil on canvas by Frank Dillon, 1878
Interior of the Parsonage, Horningsham, Wiltshire, Oil on millboard by John Sergeant, 1840

All from the collection of the Victoria and Albert Museum, London

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