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Lockdown has prevented us from many of our usual pursuits, such as visiting Museums - although you can still digitally experience the Soane through the links on our Explore page. One thing we’re still able to enjoy, however, is books. In fact, for many, this is the perfect time to get through that reading backlog (which we’re sure Soane would have appreciated, with his library of 7,000 books), or to discover something new. In this series of blog articles (catch part 1 by our Director Bruce Boucher here), we ask members of Soane staff to share their all-time favourite art-historical books. Louise Stewart, Curator of Exhibitions at the Soane Museum, gives five of her favourites.
“I am an art-historian by training and my research interests are broad, encompassing everything from the design and decoration of domestic spaces, to the social significance of dining practices and the ways in which the design of our urban spaces affects daily life. My pick of books to read in lockdown touches on some of these themes, and hopefully offers a welcome dose of escapism for when life in 2020 is just too much!”
Edited by C. Anne Wilson
I came across this slim, fairly unassuming volume during a rummage on the shelves of Oxford’s History Faculty Library. I found myself captivated by its descriptions of a little-known Tudor dining practice, the ‘sweet banquet’, an elaborate meal consisting of sweets and sculptural sugarwork. Ultimately, this book inspired me to write my PhD on the sweet banquet in Tudor and Stuart Britain. Included are chapters on the origins and social significance of the banquet, the elaborate ‘banquetting houses’ which provided settings for banquets and recipes for the sweet foods served. There is even a section with updated recipes should you decide to recreate a sweet banquet as a lockdown pastime. Published in 1991, Banquetting Stuffe reflected an emerging interest in food and dining practices as a valid area of historical enquiry, which can be highly revealing about societies and their values.
In what has become a classic of architectural history, Girouard argues that political and social structures are expressed in country house architecture. He backs up his thesis with an incredibly rich array of examples from the sixteenth to the twentieth centuries, considering not just the surviving architecture, but also evidence from family archives, literature and artistic depictions. The result is a multi-dimensional view of these houses. It reveals the ways in which their architecture, the arrangement of rooms and the relationship between public and private reflect changes in, for example, the role of the aristocracy, relationships with servants and the ways in which status can be expressed. Originally published in 1978, shortly after the post-war period had seen the loss of many English country houses, it provided a timely re-evaluation of their significance whilst simultaneously managing to be erudite, fascinating and witty. At a time when the visits to historic houses, now such a popular pastime, are off the menu, Girouard’s book provides a different way to access them.
In 1990, John Urry’s Tourist Gaze proposed when we ‘go away’ we look at things differently. This experience of seeing isn’t universal, but is constructed through fantasy and daydreaming. The ways in which we look at a place we visit are affected by images we have seen before we leave home, from postcards to film, TV, literature and social media. This tourist gaze is endlessly reproduced through these media and can also affect reality. An attraction, city or even a country might consciously adapt itself to appeal to the tourist by, say, appearing more ‘historic’ or ‘exotic’. Urry’s work (last updated with Jonas Larsen in 2011) feels particularly relevant in a time when most international travel is out of the question. We are experiencing a new appreciation of the places and spaces on our doorsteps and daydreaming about those we will visit when ‘normality’ returns is a popular lockdown occupation. Urry would surely argue that all this will have a profound effect on tourism and the way we look at places when we can travel for pleasure once more.
edited by John Styles, Amanda Vickery
Many of us are spending more time at home at the moment, and are looking to ‘improve’ our homes as a result. Sales of luxury bedding have reportedly more than doubled and media images show long queues outside DIY retailer B&Q. Styles’ and Vickery’s book provides insights into the ways the things our eighteenth-century counterparts owned, displayed in their homes and coveted could express their identities, social standing and taste. In doing so, it highlights the significance of everyday objects to the people who use them. There are essays on the practical aspects of shopping and spaces in the home and their contents, from novels to wallpaper, ribbons, portraits and clothing. Particularly appealing is the argument that we can ‘read’ these domestic spaces as reflecting not only their owners’ decisions, but a global economy at a time in which the possibilities for acquiring goods had expanded enormously. I’ll be thinking about this when I’m back on site at the Sir John Soane’s Museum, which provides unparalleled opportunities to actually inhabit the interiors of this period.
I had only just taken up my post at the Museum when lockdown was announced and we all started working from home. One of my ambitions during this period has been to really get to know John Soane and several colleagues recommended Gillian Darley’s book. Incredibly well researched, it fleshes out the aspects of Soane’s life that he was secretive about, including his background as the son of a bricklayer, and provides rich detail about everything from family holidays to Soane’s projects and his family troubles. It also paints a vivid picture of the London Soane inhabited and the context he worked in as a professional architect. If, like me, you want to use lockdown to get to know this brilliant, complex and irascible architect, Darley’s book is an excellent place to start.
While the Soane Museum is temporarily closed, we are ever more reliant on your support to protect and maintain Sir John Soane’s house and collection. Please consider making a donation towards the Museum's work, or contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org if you would like to speak with us about how your support will help.