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18 Jan 2022

Reading the room

Written by Antonia Laurence Allen, Regional Curator, Edinburgh and East
An oil painting of Robert Burns standing in a 'traditional' Georgian drawing room, surrounded by a small audience of well-dressed men and women. In the foreground a young woman sits on a sofa, looking rather bored.
A common question when looking at paintings and prints is to ask: who are these people and what are they doing? Another (more useful!) query for a curator of interiors is to ask: what are the patterns, colours and layouts of these rooms? In this way, paintings and prints become a type of visual encyclopaedia for us.

The floor coverings, wallpaper and furniture seen in these historical works of art help us explore changing fashions, observe shifts in power and identity, and identify local and global influences. They become a practical guide on how to display our rooms today, so visitors can get a true sense of both the differences and similarities between the way we live now and how former residents lived.

We start in Georgian Edinburgh – a place of wealth and prestige, built from profits gleaned in industry and the transatlantic trade of goods and enslaved people. The entire New Town was a construction site in 1767, and building continued into the mid-19th century. The painting above by an unknown artist shows Robert Burns in a drawing room, chatting to a crowd of extremely well-dressed guests. He stands resting one arm on a gilt, marble-topped pier table, designed to sit under a pier glass (a large mirror). He extends his other arm to greet a man who has stepped forward to ask a question.

The room is divided by an arch, which opened up the public drawing room and the private parlour during soirées like this. The Georgian House at No. 7 Charlotte Square in Edinburgh has a similar layout, as it’s currently set up to reflect the first decade of the 1800s when it was occupied by the Lamont family. It’s not hard to imagine the teenage girls similarly slumped on the sofa, looking bored, while men wittered above their heads.

So what can this painting tell us about the Georgian aesthetic? The patterned carpet is, for a start, perhaps a surprise for visitors today. The carpet manufacturing industry was just beginning in Edinburgh in the 1750s, fuelled by the desire to produce in Scotland the luxuries that were being imported. This led to a great demand for Scotch and ‘Turkey’ or ‘Persia’ carpets (terms used at the time for both imported and British-made carpets), with the highest price tags being placed on carpets with rich layers of pattern and colour.

This painting also illustrates the use of textiles to divide the two rooms: a swag of curtain has been tied back for the party. This flexible use of space allowed for various different ‘zones’ for people to gossip, play cards or simply reflect – all created by the clever arrangement of tables and chairs.

Compare this to the Victorian print of a library below, which was released to promote Prime Minister William Gladstone’s new cabinet in 1870.

A black and white line drawing of William Gladstone's cabinet, all in a row, in a Victorian library. Most are sitting by a long table, but a few stand behind. Gladstone himself stands in the middle of the picture.
The New Gladstone Ministry, 1870, print | Haddo House collection

Although not the main intention of the drawing, this image reveals a wealth of period-typical decorative details, such as paintings hung very high up on the walls, above the bookcases and fireplaces. On the mantel is a piece of china and a frame leaning against the wall. The curtain rods above the windows are not dressed; the wall-to-wall carpet is highly patterned; and the table is draped in a white linen cloth. This is clearly a symbolic setting, designed to complement the group of powerful men who stand in a solid line facing the viewer, but the details of the room also help us understand how we might re-create a Victorian library.

A black and white print of an oil painting, which features a woman with her two children visiting the home of their more wealthy relatives. The home owners lounge in chairs at the dining table, where tea is being poured by a young man. The visitors stand rather awkwardly at the door.
The Visit from Poor Relations, P Stephanoff (engraving after S W Reynolds), published by R Bower, Pall Mall, March 1825 | Leith Hall collection

If we can set aside our thoughts about the snobbery and class divide illustrated in the next print (above), this image tells us a great deal about the interior of a nouveau-riche home in the late Georgian period. The wealthy householders seem keen on displaying their social status to their poorer visitors – the room is filled with signifiers of success. A large painting in an elaborate gilded frame dominates the space; the subject matter being the spoils of the hunt, symbolising landownership and the aristocratic pursuits of hunting, shooting and fishing. Best carpets were often used as table coverings – their expense was so great that people did not want to damage them on the floor. In this image, the carpet’s quality is suggested by both the soft fold that falls over the table edge and the white linen cloth laid over it while tea is served. A large ‘oriental’ screen signifies a household with enough wealth to buy foreign goods and is used to harness the warmth of the fire. The tea set is being brought to the table on a tray, with the tea caddy opened to reveal the expensive leaves on offer. An ornate wall-mounted candle holder, bookcase and carriage clock are neatly placed in the corner, along with a coat of arms to confirm the lineage of this ‘wealthy’ family.

However, there is some evidence to suggest that this family may not be as well-off as they’d like to portray. If you look at the rug by the hearth and the dozing dog, you can see a wide border that is not evident at the other side of the room by the door. This suggests the rug has been cut to size rather than made bespoke.

To make a room looked lived in, it’s vital to include ephemera, the bits and bobs of daily life we often leave around – keys, pens, empty plates and reading glasses. On the right-hand side of this print the mantel is cluttered with notes and invitation cards, a small dish and candlestick, a vase and an ebony-framed miniature. By the hearth, a small handbag has been slung on the fire screen; a plate rests on a metal warming stand; and sandals are perched on a small, upholstered footstool that peeks out from under the table.

An oil painting of a young Georgian family standing in a fairly sparse kitchen, lit by a large window to the left. A young woman shows a young man how to play the chanter in front of the window. Further back in the room, by the fireplace, another young woman holds a small child in her arms. She is standing by a woman holding a plate with bread on it.
A Seated Man Holding a Chanter and Family in an Interior by Alexander Carse, c. 1820, oil on panel | Georgian House collection

Paintings also provide vital clues for dressing those rooms that have undergone multiple home renovations. Many kitchens and bathrooms have been replaced over the centuries, as technology has advanced. In addition, servant’s quarters, working-class homes and shops have rarely been preserved with their original furniture and furnishings. The painting above, of a family in their rural home, offers evidence of what was displayed on the mantlepiece, as well as what sort of wooden chairs, tables and stools they might have used.

We can see a space-saving cupboard in the corner of the room and small pictures hanging on the wall, suggesting a little bit of luxury in a rather meagre setting. The family is not a wealthy one, but they have a fine pewter plate, a large tankard and a copper kettle over the hearth. They also have large ceramic plates on the table and a chest for storing clothing (at the bottom left of the picture).

An oil painting of a family group going about their day-to-day activities in a fairly humble Georgian kitchen with a flagstone floor.  The mother sits at the table sewing, watched by her daughter. The father sits at the table, looking out the window, as does a young child. In the foreground, an older woman points her cane at a young girl sitting on the floor, cuddling a collie dog.
Waiting for the Coach, Julius Ibbotson, 1806, oil on canvas | Hill of Tarvit collection

Another interior scene, set in a later Georgian period, depicts a family at home and reminds us how more humble rooms tended to be used by people of all ages for a wide range of activity. Parents sit at the table by the window; a man and younger child look out, waiting for the coach to come rumbling into town; the mother and older daughter sew.

On the left of the picture an elderly woman brandishes her cane at the dog, who is being held by a young girl kneeling on the flagstone floor. A pan and some plates lie beside a round, rough-hewn table with slanted legs (a very different style from the trestle table near the window). An array of pots, jugs and bowls can be seen on table tops, in wall niches and hanging above the window. Dried herbs in bags and joints of meat hang from ceiling joists, and a string of onions hang by the door. All of this reminds us to always remember the function of a room when dressing it, from the food to the freshly sewn curtains.

A group of people sit at or gather round a table laid for dinner in front of a fireplace in a cottage. Robert Burns sits at the head. A large plate of haggis dominates the table. Several small children sit on low stools or the floor around the edges of the painting.
Robert Burns and his family celebrating with friends, Alexander George Fraser (the elder), The Haggis Feast, c.1840–50, oil on canvas | RBBM collection

Moving into the Victorian period, a painting of Robert Burns and his family (above) depicts a kitchen occupied by a family with more means. Burns had been a farm labourer for most of his life and was born in a three-roomed cottage in Alloway. But, in 1787 he sold the copyright on a set of his poems to the Edinburgh publisher William Creech for 100 guineas –more than double the annual wage of a skilled labourer during these years. He would go on to live in a stone house in the town of Dumfries, where he died when he was only 37.

This scene is supposed to be set in that Dumfries home, replete with rich details that can help us make informed decisions on how to dress a Victorian kitchen owned by a family with moderate earnings. A small, painted chest of drawers is kept in this room. Milk is poured from a wooden jug into a large matching mug. On the table are horn spoons and pewter plates, including a large pewter ‘charger’ (serving plate) that contains the haggis. A man with a red waistcoat holds a small stem glass and a wine bottle with a tapering neck and bulbous body. A woman brings the neeps and tatties to the table in a ridged wooden bowl. Behind her, above the mantlepiece made of a simple plank of wood, is a toasting rack and fork, a small picture, an empty glass jar, a copper jug and a large metal dish, so polished it acts as a mirror. Some of the objects here are hard to identify: what is the object second in from the left or that on the far right, for example?

Meat is strung from the ceiling; horns and keys hang from large nails; while small fish dry on a thin stick balanced on hooks by the fire. A lantern is hooked to a ceiling joist, and an animal yoke, saddle and stirrups are stored in the corner next to a small oval portrait on the wall. The dresser is a place to hang spare rope, store plates vertically to dry, and rest platters of food waiting to be served. The wooden butter churn is slim and strapped like a barrel. The large cauldron has pointed feet and comes up to the shins of a 10-year-old boy. The youngest child eats from a large mug while the older children are given pewter plates.

All this detail becomes a list of collection items for us today, many of which can be found in antique shops and markets, or can be made by skilled crafters and artisans. The room becomes even more atmospheric if the clock (seen on the left-hand side of the picture) is ticking and the flowers (pinned above the table on a ceiling joist) emit a fresh scent.

Three men sit round the table in Burns Cottage, served upon by an older man and woman. A box bed is in the far right of the image. The painting shows the low ceiling and the flagstone floor, making the painting feel quite compressed. A small dog lies by the fireplace on the left.
The Kitchen of Burns Cottage, unknown artist, c.1830–69, oil on board | RBBM collection

In contrast, this painting of the simpler interior of the cottage where Burns was born in Alloway provides key insights on how to dress a compact space like this. This room was used for eating, entertaining and sleeping. There is evidence of some comforts: the dresser has ceramic plates; the tankards are hanging on hooks along the wall; and a cupboard is squeezed into a space next to a box bed. There is a longcase clock and a coal-fed fire. However, the simple chairs and stool, broomstick, stone floor and the absence of a rug or soft furnishings (except bedding) all indicate a family of modest means. This was the kitchen, dining room, living space and bedroom of Burns’s parents, a typical home of a working family. When we took on the custodianship of Burns Cottage, paintings like this were particularly helpful.

Also in the Trust’s collection is a pastel drawing of the interior of the Great Hall at Craigievar Castle, made in 1906. The drawing depicts the barrel-vaulted ceiling, a sash window and a lantern, all still to be found in the Hall at the castle. The large refectory table sits on a rich red Turkish rug, which has since been replaced with a blue and grey tartan carpet. The shields and antlers on the walls are still hanging in the room. The sweet peas on the centre table and the green foliage in the garden are good inspiration for re-creating that sense of home.

An oil painting of a very grand drawing room, suffused with a golden light. Two young women sit in different areas: one reading, the other sewing. A door to the garden is open.
The Interior of the Drawing Room at Haddo, James Giles, 1836, oil on panel | Haddo House collection

At Haddo House, there are a number of oil paintings of the interiors during the Victorian era, because the 4th Earl of Aberdeen commissioned James Giles to paint pictures of Aberdeenshire castles. This commission captured the attention of Queen Victoria, who asked Giles to also paint the interiors of Balmoral Castle, before it was demolished and rebuilt.

This Giles painting (above) shows the drawing room at Haddo in the 1830s, a north-easterly view towards the central table and open door to the garden, with two female figures seated by the fire in the middle ground. As well as offering insight into the aesthetics of the room – with its wall-to-wall patterned carpet, colourful striped blanket covering the centre table, and red curtains and fire screens – this painting helps identify the original furnishings that remain in the house today. For example, the portrait of Charles I now hangs on the main staircase and the pink striped upholstered chairs are now in the entrance hall.

Other details provide more general ideas for set dressing for this period – letters on the polished table in the foreground are folded and sealed with wax; books are scattered on table tops; and balls of thread pool on the table where one of the ladies is embroidering. The room is large and so the furniture helps to create areas of activity – the piano sits to one side, the writing desk beside it, the reading table in the middle, the sewing table to the left and the relaxing couch to the right. This gives us a really useful guide as to how much furniture to place in a room, justifying this placement with a purpose.

An oil painting of a young woman shown immersed in a book. She is sitting by a fireplace, and is viewed through an open doorway from across a hall.
An Interior with a Woman Reading, Anthony Abraham van Anrooy, c.1930, oil on canvas | Pitmedden collection

20th-century interiors are just as important to salvage. A Dutch painting of a woman reading in an interior from the 1930s has rich detail about the colour of interior woodwork, tiled fireplaces, patterned rugs and wall surfaces. The floor is polished to a high sheen, and the mantle is high and shallow with a few choice pieces on show. The brass and copper coal scuttle has a conical shape and stands on small button feet. A bunch of flowers are held in a wide concave vase on a small hallway cabinet; the wallpaper under the dado rail here has a textured chequered pattern.

The hallway mirror is not by the door but instead captures people walking down the stairs. The carpets are laid edge to edge here in the corridor –one with a geometric design, the other plain. Details like these are really helpful. It is easy to assume that 1930s interiors were dominated by art deco fashion whereas, in reality, people inherited and bought a range of furniture and furnishings to suit their habits and their style, which may not have reflected the avant-garde at all.

Paintings are a great resource for researching interiors and help us curate the rooms in our care to best reflect a particular period and family.

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