Saturday, December 13, 2008

Christmas Past and Present at the Geffrye Museum

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Even at the end of a dreadful day--weather-wise--I am still asking myself this question: How come I had never heard of the Geffrye Museum until a month ago?" For someone who has always loved English Country Style and has decorated her home in that aesthetic, I cannot believe that I had never been to this amazing place before. It was only quite by chance, while surfing the web to find Christmas-related London activities, that I discovered the existence of a place called the Geffrye Museum that is devoted to English Interiors Through the Ages. At Christmas, they decorate each of their rooms in a manner that is historically appropriate. I have been telling myself for days that I must not miss this--I simply cannot return home to the States next week without seeing this once-in-a-year exhibit.

So, despite the fact that the weather made me want to curl up and stay in bed (it poured ALL day), I decided to set out. I went first to the Holborn Library to return my books on Ireland, then on to 48 Doughty Street to the home of Charles Dickens as I wanted to pick up a Christmas present for a Victorianist friend of mine from the gift shop there. In and out, it took me less than five minutes in each place to run these errands

Then, I hopped on the bus to go outdoors to stay indoors--because, once you enter the Museum, you are taken right into the intimate space of people's homes and the lives they lived in those spaces. It was a great way to escape the rain and still do something worthwhile as well as seasonal. Bus 242 from right outside my building took me straight to Shoreditch in East London where the museum is located and in less than 20 minutes, I was there.

First of all, a word about the building itself which is a quite magnificent 18th century structure, now Grade I listed (i.e. protected as a historical site). It is a long brown brick building, three sided (built like the letter E without the middle prong) enclosing expansive grounds with lovely trees (which, undoubtedly, would give the place a completely different ambiance in the summer). Right in the center of the building is a sculpture of Robert Geffrye after whom the museum is named. He was elected Lord Mayor of London in 1685 where he became an eminent East India merchant. As Master of the Worshipful Company of Ironmongers, he constructed this building to house the widows of the ironmongers among whom he worked. Hence, these came to be known as the Ironmongers Almshouses. Though each widow was initially meant to have a single unit (or house) in the building, demand grew so quickly that several shared spaces and at the height of its popularity about 150 people (men were included later) lived in 14 houses. There is a tiny chapel in the center of the building and the attendance at services was mandatory. Behind the building is more land, today used for the design and creation of period gardens, each one reflecting the style of the room that precedes it. For someone like me, who loves interior decor and gardening, this place was Paradise and I spent far more time in the museum than I had intended.

I was also surprised to see how many people had braved the pouring rain to visit the museum, many with kids and some with babies in strollers. As you proceed through the building, you come upon vignettes--each reflecting a middle class living room--through the ages. The English middle class (or middling class, as it was first known, when the word came into use) were neither the aristocracy (the landed gentry) nor the working class (what, in America, we would call blue collar workers). They were the professionals (what, in America, we would call white collar workers) who practiced professions such as law and medicine, banking and religion (as clergymen or ministers). They did not live merely in imitation of the more privileged aristocracy but developed their own values, customs and traditions and contributed hugely to the economic success of England through the ages. The Geffrye provides a peep into the way they lived through what we would call living rooms, but they called Great Rooms, Halls and Parlors through the years. As I walked through the museum, I learned about the earliest timber frame houses (that stood in London before the Great Fire of 1666) to the creation of the terraced houses (that we now call "Georgian'), to the arrival of the loft-style home so favored by contemporary Londoners. It was simply fascinating and I enjoyed every second there.

The exhibit began with the year 1630, the Great Hall in a Tudor home. The Christmas decoration here was subdued--just a few bay leaves strung together to form a vine that was thrown over the inglenook fireplace and a kissing ball that hung from the center of the room--(a very early cousin of today's mistletoe). Then, on to the Parlor of the 17th century where the interiors became more elaborate--more furniture, more accessories, curtains, carpets. Christmas decoration too became more pronounced as time passed by.

They exhibit presented extracts from the diairies of people who lived in those epochs detailing the manner in which they would spend the days before and after Christmas as well as the day itself. There was card playing and visits to the theater, the cooking of all manner of things, the entertainment of guests who were served "two jellies and a glass of wine", for instance, a goose to be stuffed and cooked, cards to be written and sent early (early for the Victorians meant December 24!) and all sorts of interesting and humorous facts that kept me spellbound.

When we came to the high Victorian Age, we could see the excess in interior decoration, the fussiness of grand curtains and lush carpets and the loads of dark furniture. Then, of course, came the Arts and Crafts Movement, the reaction against Victorian excess, that promulgated clean crisp straight lines that ended with Art Nouveau and Art Decor Movements of the late 19th and early 20th century. It was also a wonderful refresher crash course in English history as seen through furniture and domestic accoutrements from rush matting to shield-back chairs, from the arrival of tea and the customs that evolved around tea-taking to the arrival of the Christmas tree, a tradition that came to England through Queen Charlotte (wife of George III) from her native Germany though it was popularized by Albert in the Victorian era when every home followed suit and brought a fresh-cut tree indoors and decorated it.

The cafe divides the space rather effectively and takes the viewer into the 20th century where more vignettes captured homes from the Edwardian Age to the present. This was a fun portion of the museum as I began to recognize Christmas decorations and baubles that I still see in my parents' home in Bombay! Chinese lanterns and buntings that were so popular in the 50s gave way to the minimalist design of the current loft apartment with its open floor plan s and its high tech stainless steel appliances featuring spaces for DINKYs (Double Income No Kids Yet)--couples who set up home and postpone kids!

It was all so beautifully integrated--the spaces, the Christmas decor, the interior design, the history and the lifestyle that for anyone interested even remotely in Design and Decor, Sociology, History or even Urban Planning, this is truly the place to go! Needless to say, I intend to visit again in the summer when the gardens will be lush and compelling and when I will learn about the history of landscape design and gardening in this country. The shop in which I browsed briefly also contained items I have never seen anywhere else--lovely old-fashioned wooden toys and building blocks, antique cards, gift wrapping paper in incredibly rare patterns, reprints of old books (100 Things that Every Boy Should Know) and all manner of charming things that take one back in time to an era when life was simpler and far less frantic. And the icing on the cake is that, like most of the best museums in London, this one too is entirely free!

I took the bus back home and had myself some lunch with a few bits and bobs that I could find in my fridge (I am trying to finish things in my fridge before I leave next week), then rested briefly before I got ready for my ride to St. Paul's Cathedral. Michael and Cynthia had invited me to A Celebration of Carols by Benjamin Britten. I arrived at their place at Amen Court only to find it filled with folks comprising three generations--there were grandparents and their grandkids and parents in-between! There were kids who spoke English with a French accent and South Asian kids who spoke with an English accent! It was amazing! It turned out to be one large family, the family of the current Bishop of Kensington who was simply introduced to me as George. He turned out to be a delightfully friendly man who was born and raised in Belfast, Northern Ireland, and graduated from Queens University. He lived right across the street in the very place that is today occupied by the University's bookstore. When I told him that I visited the book store and browsed through its collection, he was thrilled! Then, the boyfriend Paul Lisboa, of his daughter Gael, turned out to know some friends of mine in Bombay--the family of Winnin Pereira who lives in Bandra and whose daughters Aruna and Vinita are friends of mine!!! It was all rather odd indeed but very merry and we had a good time over lovely mint tea and cake before we all trooped off to the Cathedral to hear the Choristers and Vicars of St. Paul's treat us to a magnificent display of their musical talents. A harpist named Sioned Williams playing plaintively while the boys enchanted us by their voices. Conducted by Andrew Carwood, the program was built around 12 medieval carols (now long forgotten) that Britten set to his wonderful music and, in a sense, revived for our generation. It was wonderfully arranged and superbly performed and I enjoyed every bit of it.

Then, since it was still only 6 pm when we emerged from the cathedral, I decided to take a bus down to Trafalgar Street to see the Christmas Tree there and listen to the carollers because the web had also informed me that there are carollers each evening on the Square. How delighted I was when I actually was able to enter one of those old historic Routemaster buses--Number 15. These are the buses that have been preserved by public demand and are still plying on the streets after they debuted in 1954! They are older than me, I thought, as I scrambled up the stairs at the back to the approving nod of the conductor (yes, each bus still has an accompanying conductor just like the red double deckers in South Bombay) and found a seat at the very front. I took many pictures of the bus and the conductor (much to his delight), then got off at Trafalgar Square.

I was very disappointed indeed by what I saw there. I had imagined a tree on the lines of New York's Rockefeller Center Christmas tree, all emblazoned with thousands of twinkling lights. Though the tree is towering (an annual gift from the people of Norway to the UK in recognition of help granted them during the war), there were a few paltry strings of lights on it that looked as if they had just been thrown on sloppily. A few carollers stood in the rain, their umbrellas held up high, singing carols as if they had never sung a note in their lives. They were members of the Epilepsy Foundation and their members walked around with boxes collecting money for their cause. The singing was just pathetic. The guy who was conducting the singing did not even stand at the mike when singing. We could barely hear them. Though the onlookers were also invited to join in, their voices were even sadder than those on the stage. The whole thing was just such a let down after the splendour of the performance I had just heard at St. Paul's that I left as quickly as I could and decided to get home and get some work done.

I was caught in the worst traffic jam you can ever imagine as one of those abominable Bendy buses seemed to have broken down in the middle of Charing Cross Road just as it was making a turn from one street into the main road. This blocked up the entire road. All traffic came to a grinding standstill and a cacophony of impatient horns started as motorists blew off steam in protest! It was madness! After I sat there in the bus talking on my cell phone to Chrissie, for about 20 minutes, the driver opened the doors to let people out and I jumped off and started to walk to New Oxford Street from where I hopped into another bus and got home. What an evening!

I stayed up until after midnight transcribing two interviews I had done several weeks ago as I am determined to finish all pending work assignments before I leave for my month of family fun and revelry in the States and India. I had a very late dinner (more bits and bobs from the fridge), hit my bed and was asleep in less than five minutes!

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