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Aestheticism and Decoration: At Home with Michael Field

Ana Parejo Vadillo
p. 17-36

Résumé

Talia Schaffer’s work on the poet Rosamund Marriott Watson and her theories of home decoration has been key to understand how female aesthetes reconfigured and re-appropriated this aspect of aestheticism. Looking at the aesthetic writings of Marriott Watson’s The Art of the House, Schaffer has shown how she forged a new, complex version of aestheticism by both aligning herself with male aesthetes in their critique of women’s arts and crafts tradition and distancing herself from male aestheticism by re-articulating an aesthetic of the home embedded in feminine décor.
But how did female aesthetes inhabit and live that aestheticism We know nothing of how Watson’s theories informed her own life as an aesthete. For this reason the case of Michael Field is particularly important. Michael Field never wrote on home decoration, but an examination of Bradley and Cooper’s diaries, letters and photographs reveal their unique approach to the house beautiful movement. As they put it in their diary, Works and Days: “To-day’s dreams & desires—the tongs with wh. the angel makes living coals of our lips to-day—these are the things to be expressed in our walls, in our furniture, in our dress.” This expressive, living aestheticism is at the core of this essay.

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Texte intégral

  • 1 Quoted in Richard Ellman, Oscar Wilde, New York: Knopf, 1988, p. 581.

“My wallpaper and I are fighting a duel to the death. One or other of us has to go.”1
Oscar Wilde on his deathbed, 1900.

  • 2 Walter Pater, The Renaissance. Studies in Art and Poetry. The 1893 Text. Ed. Donald L. Hill (Berkel (...)
  • 3 T. & D.C. Sturge Moore, ed., Michael Field, Works and Days. From the Journal of Michael Field. (Lon (...)
  • 4 Ibid., x.
  • 5 Charles Ricketts, Michael Field. Ed. Paul Delaney (Edinburgh: The Tragara Press, 1976) 2.
  • 6 Marion Thain and Ana Parejo Vadillo, Michael Field, The Poet. Published and Manuscript Materials (P (...)

1“Ugly” is not a word easily found in connection with the poet “Michael Field”, the joint pen name of Katharine Bradley and her niece Edith Cooper. The women meant everything to each other. They were aunt and niece, married in art, lovers living and writing in fellowship. As aesthetes they consciously dedicated their life to “Art” and insisted on living surrounded by beautiful things. Pater’s description of the archetypical aesthetic critic as someone possessing “a certain kind of temperament, the power of being deeply moved by the presence of beautiful objects” aptly defines Bradley’s and Cooper’s aesthetic sensibilities.2 In a loving account of the poets, the painter William Rothenstein tells us that the women were “endowed with an ecstatic sense of beauty.”3 “With so much beauty to occupy them”, he notes, “they had not time for, and no patience with, the meaner objects which too many men and women pursue.”4 But “ugly”, their friend Charles Ricketts also tells us, was the house where Bradley and Cooper became “Michael Field”: “Their first book Callirrhoë was written in an ugly modern villa in a provincial town.”5 Callirrhoë, published in 1884 by George Bell and Sons, made the name of Michael Field famous. The verse drama was declared to be the work of “poetic genius” by Robert Browning.6 But the women would have agreed with Ricketts. Bourgeois and middle-class, not bohemian or High Art, was their home in Stoke Bishop, Bristol, where the women lived between 1879 and 1888, and where they wrote in secret Callirrhoë. Bradley chose this home for the family (which included Cooper’s parents, James and Edith Emma Cooper, as well as Cooper’s sister, Amy) for two reasons: one to be close to University College, Bristol where the women enrolled as students in 1879 and two, it was a house that could accommodate well and comfortably Edith’s mother (Bradley’s sister), an invalid.

  • 7 William Morris, “The Lesser Arts of Life” in The Collective Works of William Morris, ed. May Morris (...)
  • 8 John Ruskin, “Modern Manufacture and Design” in The Two Paths: Being Lectures on Art and its Applic (...)
  • 9 British Library. MS. Add. 46781 f. 47.

2In fact, Bradley and Cooper keenly embraced the House Beautiful movement and were passionately interested in the decorative arts. The word “ugly” resonates so strongly in Ricketts’ sentence precisely because Michael Field, like Ricketts, believed in the transformative effect of home décor in everyday life. William Morris’s 1882 pivotal discussion of art in the home outlines quite precisely Bradley and Cooper’s vision of decorative arts: “Not only is it possible to make the matters needful to our daily life works of art, but there is something wrong in the civilization that does not do this: if our houses, our clothes, our household furniture and utensils are not works of art”, he writes, “they are either wretched makeshifts or, what is worse, degrading shams of better things.”7 Bradley and Cooper never published on home decoration, but an examination of their diaries, letters and photographs reveals their complete identification with the House Beautiful movement. They agreed with Ruskin, “beautiful art can only be produced by people who have beautiful things about them,” and they set about to create a home that could house their own artistry and creativity.8 As Bradley put it in their diary, Works and Days: “To-day’s dreams & desires—the tongs with wh. the angel makes living coals of our lips to-day—these are the things to be expressed in our walls, in our furniture, in our dress.”9 This expressive, living, aestheticism where the self is located in and expressed through the aesthetic interior is at the core of this essay.

  • 10 British Library. MS. Add. 46779 f. 23v.
  • 11 Cooper died in Dec. 1913; Bradley stayed in the house until August 1914.

3In what follows I focus on how Katharine Bradley and Edith Cooper inhabited aestheticism in their life as Michael Field. I suggest that Michael Field’s theory and practice of the aesthetic interior was deeply indebted to male aesthetes. John Ruskin, William Morris, Walter Pater, Bernard Berenson and Charles Ricketts all were, at different stages, key influences in Michael Field’s styling of their homes. But I will also argue here that Michael Field’s use of decorative arts created homes embedded in history: the history of art, aesthetics, but most crucially their own. I argue that their homes were not aesthetic just for art’s sake but truly expressive of their identity as aesthetes. They strove to create aesthetic interiors that expressed them, their own history, their own dreams and desires. As Bradley so eloquently noted: “It is we who bring the harmonies not time. An uninhabited room would remain crude whatever happened to the colours.”10 I begin by examining Bradley and Cooper’s love of furniture and artistic houses in the 1880s, when they were still living in that “ugly” villa in Stoke Bishop. I then move on to discuss their first beautiful house, Durdans (Reigate), where the poets lived between 1891 and 1899. In the third part of this essay I look into their second and final home at 1 Paragon, Richmond, where the women lived until 191411.

Some Lessons in Art’s Early Days

  • 12 Cooper to Bradley (September 1880). This letter is reprinted in Sharon Bickle, ed., The Fowl and th (...)
  • 13 Ibid., 35.

4Bradley and Cooper’s engagement with aestheticism encompassed all aspects of their lives, from writing and book designing to clothes and, more to the point of this paper, home decoration. In the early 1880s, just as they were becoming the aesthetic poet Michael Field, the women began to articulate the ways in which the artist experienced the aesthetic through the personal space of the home. Thus, in an important 1880 letter to Bradley (who was then visiting Italy), Cooper explains that she could not deprive herself “of the firm conviction that, since, as Wordsworth sings “The eye cannot choose but see”, beautiful objects, noble in their forms, and pure in their colour, ought to be given for food.”12 Quoting Wordsworth but following William Morris, Cooper went on to associate the artistic temperament with aestheticism and the house beautiful movement: “Would . . . that Art might be honoured in the houses of those who live plainly and think highly !”13

  • 14 See Bodleian Library, MS. Eng.letts.c.418 f. 5.

5As apostles of the beautiful, they followed the late-Victorian craze for collecting blue china, rare tapestries and antique objects—the signs and symbols of an aesthetic home.14 An 1880 letter by Cooper to her cousin Fanny shows their excitement for High Art, aesthetic homes and for the most important symbol of the aesthete, the sunflower:

  • 15 Ivor C. Treby, ed., Binary Star. Leaves from the Journal and Letters of Michael Field 1846-1914. (B (...)

I think we have found real friends in a delightful Church family—near neighbours, who live in a most High Art house, & are most refined & kindly people. . . . It was at their house that we met Miss Scott, the head of the g[rea]t High Art shop in Old Bond St., from whom we got the glorious sunflowers that will bloom in yellow beauty out of our cool, grey blue walls.15

  • 16 This letter is dated 5 August 1882 and is included in Sharon Bickle, ed., The Fowl and the Pussycat (...)

6They also learned much about the influence of “High Art” homes by visiting aesthetic houses and studios (by the 1870s and 80s a new craze among aesthetes). One of the thinkers behind the Aesthetic Movement was John Ruskin, his anti-industrial, anti-materialistic stand the impulse behind William Morris’s own development as art designer. Like Oscar Wilde, Bradley had been a member of Ruskin’s utopian road-building project “The Guild of St. George”. Though they never met, she corresponded with him for five years (1875-1880). Bradley, like Morris and Wilde, rejected Ruskin’s moral approach to aestheticism (it was her rejection of theism that caused their correspondence to end), but his teachings on art and aesthetics deeply influenced the women. As a devotee she visited his home in 1882. She described this “memorable”, “precious” visit (her own words) in a long detailed letter to Cooper.16 Entering the house she found herself at the entrance hall “facing the Master’s Copy of Botticelli’s Zipphorah, and 2 long [Burne-]Jones figures.” “The hall is low, the walls pale buff: I like [it] thus at the threshold the salutation of Art.” Bradley carefully noted the colours of the rooms: the blue curtain in the drawing room, the soft grey walls of the dining room, the milky blue green colour of the furniture and draperies, the rich shades of red in the Turkey carpet. Entering the drawing room, she admired Burne-Jones’ painting Fair Rosamund (incidentally the title of Michael Field’s second play, published also in 1884 in the same volume as Callirrhoë) and Turner’s Pass of the Splügen. She admired the windows, designed by Ruskin himself in the Gothic style. She thought the wallpaper in his study, “a copy of a bit of a Cardinal’s sleeve in an old picture”, was a “failure” (“looks very much like the pattern of a large flowery dressing gown”). She was surprised to see that the rooms displayed works of art as well as family portraits (“of the Master’s father when young” and “of the Master when a child”). She was disappointed by his study: “it is not beautiful—nor suggestive of happy work—too crow[d]ed and scientific looking piled with Cabinets and book-Cases—except in the wondrous corner, where at a little round table the Master works by the window.” The room in the house that most impressed Bradley was Ruskin’s bedroom:

  • 17 Ibid. 57-58.

There is the lesson of Brantwood. Monastic simplicity,—the one thing needful for the highest attainable art. A small iron bedstead and—eleven Turners on the walls. That one glance will shame me all my life, when I desire artistic luxury. And the room itself is very small, not larger I think that the Fowl’s [i.e. Bradley herself].17

7Against the heavy decoration styled by the Victorian middle-class, Bradley loved Ruskin’s minimalism and artistic luxury. We shall see how Ruskin’s décor influenced Bradley and Cooper’s first “House Beautiful”, Durdans, but this visit was memorable for another reason too. What is surprising about the letter is that her description of Ruskin’s home is full of affective words symbolic of the power she attached to Ruskin, because indeed, she could truly read the man more authentically through his home: the choice of paintings, colours, the lack of superfluous items, the simple bed, his library (including authors he advised others not to read, i.e. Harriet Martineau), even his seal with the motto “To-day”. She ended the letter giving the following advice to Cooper: “Think much of all I tell you—it is full of significance.”

8It is clear that Ruskin’s home made Bradley rethink her views on “High Art” homes. A week later, she went on a visit to Dean Prior Vicarage (Bluckfastleigh), in whose churchyard the Elizabethan poet Robert Herrick (an important influence on Michael Field’s Elizabethan verse dramas) was buried. Bradley wrote to Cooper thus:

  • 18 See Bickle, ed., The Fowl and the Pussycat, 62-63. This letter is dated 12 August 1882.

The exquisite shape of the wide low rooms makes me long to have the P. [i.e. Cooper] here to decorate the house aesthetically. I am only just learning how important the shape of rooms is ;—it impresses us like the figure of women. The light, or complexion of these rooms, is most soberly delicate ; hitherto we have only thought of draperies [, ] furniture and carpets, and these are simply the salient features and tresses of the chamber. The light and form are the things of most potent though unobtrusive influence on the senses. Above all things the rooms should be low. In the face of the “grand old heavens” a high room is an insolence. What we seek is a shelter from the storm—no ephemeral imitation of the ancient Babylonian pride.18

  • 19 Walter Pater, The Renaissance xix.
  • 20 Walter Pater, Appreciations with an Essay on Style (1889; London: Macmillan, 1911) 241.
  • 21 Michael Hatt, “Space, Surface, Self: Homosexuality and the Aesthetic Interior”. Visual Culture in B (...)

9Now and again there are hints in the diary that Cooper led the way in the decoration of their homes, though manuscript materials seem to suggest a more equal footing. But what interests me about this letter is Bradley’s emphasis on the house itself. By giving importance to the shape and form of a room she is beginning to articulate the sensorial influence of the house as an art object in its own right. “It impresses us like the figure of women”, she writes. This is a more complex approach to aesthetic interiors. This word “impresses” cannot but evoke Walter Pater’s “Preface” to The Renaissance, where he argued that the only way to “‘see the object as in itself it really is’ . . . is to know one’s own impression” of it.19 Bradley’s definition of the home (“what we seek is a shelter from the storm”) is moreover heavily indebted to Walter Pater, who famously theorised the House Beautiful as place where “the creative minds of all generations—the artists and those who have treated life in the spirit of art—are always building together, for the refreshment of the human spirit”.20 But, if the whole passage is deep in Pater, the feminisation and sensorial reconfiguration of that space, conceptualised as “the figure of women”, is suggestive of something else. At a time when the two women were still writing in secret, and Cooper and Bradley were more and more attached to each other, against their family’s wishes, the home as a place of and for art was a secret reality as well as a dream and a desire. In an important essay on homosexuality and aesthetic interiors, Michael Hatt has argued that “interiors were not closets, that is, they were not spaces where a true homosexual self resided apart form the world”. Instead, he notes, interiors were “attempts to create spaces where private desire and public self were integrated, where all one’s experience could be invoked and unified.”21 This unification of art, desire and selfhood is what they tried to create when they moved to Durdans, their first House Beautiful.

Durdans, Reigate

  • 22 Or its name for that matter, which they “boldly” changed to Blackberry Lodge. See Ivor C. Treby, Th (...)
  • 23 Treby, Binary Stars, 109 and passim.
  • 24 British Library. MS. Add. 46778 f. 24v [Entry by Edith Cooper]. Zoar literally means “a place of re (...)
  • 25 The first page of the diary begins:
    “Works and Days.
    Bramble Room’.”
    Both underlined in red ink. See (...)
  • 26 “My aunt & I work together after the fashion of Beaumont & Fletcher.” See Edith Cooper’s letter to (...)

10Michael Field moved from Bristol to Reigate, a residential district 23 miles away from London, in 1888. They settled first at Blackboro Lodge but they did not much like the house.22 It was “anything but ideal. I call it almost ugly outside, & it is on the unquiet highway, & rather far from the beauty of Reigate.”23 Though ugly, it was comfortable and they tried to make it pretty: “indeed one little bramble-chamber (papered with a Morris design of the leaves, fruit & flowers in terra cotta & hung with bright indigo) is beautiful”, wrote Edith Cooper. The women made of this room their retreat. “At Morris & Co.’s,” Cooper writes, “we got brass candles for our city of refuge, our “Zoar”, the little Blue-Room.”24 It was in this chamber, the Bramble Room, where Michael Field began what was to be one of their most important literary achievements, their diary Works and Days.25 They finally moved to Durdans on 3 March 1891 and inaugurated the new place by reading lines from Beaumont and Fletcher, the two Elizabethan dramatists who, like Bradley and Cooper, wrote as one poet:26

  • 27 British Library. MS. 46779 f. 23v. Entry by Katharine Bradley. The entry is marked with a star.

P. & I drive down to Durdans in a cab full to the brim of treasures. With one hand I clutch an Etruscan pot, with the other I hug my terrier. We pace the warm, empty rooms. We sit in the stalls of our unshelved bookcase. Edith reads to me, as first lyric, (for we have brought [to] town our choicest volumes) “I lean learn ye ladies that are coy.”27

  • 28 Elizabeth Aslin, The Aesthetic Movement. Prelude to Art Nouveau (London: Elek Books Limited, 1969) (...)
  • 29 British Library, MS. Add. 46779 f. 7r.
  • 30 British Library, MS. Add. 46780 f. 99v.
  • 31 British Library, MS. Add. 46779 f.26.
  • 32 British Library, MS. Add. 46778 f. 32r. The play was published as Stephania, A Trialogue in 1892.
  • 33 British Library, MS. Add. 46779 f. 24v.
  • 34 British Library, MS. Add. 46779 f. 35r.

11Elizabeth Aslin has noted that in the aesthetic movement the influence of William Morris and that of John Ruskin “were all important, though at the outset Morris’s influence was by example rather than by precept.”28 This was to a certain extent the case with Michael Field. Ruskinians in their understanding of craftsmanship, labour and home décor, their house was nonetheless a testament to William Morris’s radical approach to design. The first thing Michael Field bought for Durdans was, not surprisingly, the wall paper: “A marvellous day”, Cooper writes in their diary, “[t]he gay Morris papers were unpacked at “Durdans”—jocund designs with which a poet must be gay.”29 Many of the items for Durdans came from Morris & Co.’s, including their couch.30 During 1891, their love for Morris’s work was unbound. The poets visited his shop on numerous occasions to buy or simply to admire Morris’s artwork. “‘At Morris’ we order our Brussels Carpet to be woven—yellow mix on clouded cream & are bordered with blue in love with lavender, seen through green stems with a fleck of rare pink for a bloom.”31 They conceived their study as a place where their art would be in intimate dialogue with other arts: “It is weaving Act III of Otho even as Morris is weaving our carpet, ” they wrote as they were finalising their play.32 Like Morris, they believed that Art began at home. Only antiques (Etruscan potteries, Jacobean brasses and furniture for the study) and art objects could create the kind of home their art could grow out of.33 Their lavender settee was especially designed for them by Herbert Horne: “Horne taught us the meaning of his designs for our settee. It is to be in dark mahogany, cushioned & canopied in the fore-ordained lavender. Horne, who always simplifies elements in his decoration, insists on lavender velvet curtains for our book-case.”34 These objects created a sensorial environment pregnant with art, love and beauty. “An Invitation” [“Come and sing, my room is south”], a poem which is the poet’s invitation to “his” lady to come to her room so that they can sing together, was written by Bradley just before moving to Durdans. Published in 1893 in Underneath the Bough, the poem shows the ways in which they saw the personal (and erotical) and the aesthetical embedded in their new home:

  • 35 Thain and Vadillo, Michael Field, the Poet, 129-130.

There’s a lavender settee,
Cushioned for my sweet and me ;
Ah, what secrets will there be
For love-telling,
When her head leans on my knee !35

12One the most prized possessions of the women was their cream bookshelf. It reflected Michael Field the aesthete while also signalling Michael Field, the writer and poet. Decorated with blue china and other kinds of aesthetic objects, it also held “their Bacchic library”, which included among others the works of Keats, François Villon, Pierre de Ronsard, Angelo Poliziano, Lorenzo di Medici, Anacreon and Shakespeare, and of course Michael Field. They saw these authors as representatives of the Dionysian spirit, which was absolutely central both to their lives and works (particularly noticeable in Greek works such as Callirrhoë, which discusses the origin of the adoration of the god Dionysus, or the erotic lyrics of Long Ago [1889]). For Michael Field, being an aesthete meant one had to be a devotee of Dionysus, it meant to be a faun (they thought of themselves as such). It was a temperament that combined the appreciation of classic works of art with a more romantic and ecstatic sense of beauty. And this Dionysian spirit was not just present in the Study (see figure 1): they erected a Bacchic altar in the garden and the women often celebrated good news by dancing around it like Satyrs.

Figure 1: Michael Field’s Study (Durdans, Reigate) c. 1899. Reproduced by kind permission of the Bodleian Library MS.Eng.misc.c.304.f.22

Figure 1: Michael Field’s Study (Durdans, Reigate) c. 1899. Reproduced by kind permission of the Bodleian Library MS.Eng.misc.c.304.f.22
  • 36 British Library. MS. Add. 46779 f. 47r.
  • 37 This was not unusual in aesthetic interiors; consider for example Oscar Wilde’s room at Magdalen (O (...)

13They noted with delight the impression the Study had made on the connoisseur and art critic Bernard Berenson: “Bernie admires the study—save for the lavender curtains—which he desires to be olive-green. He thinks it a delightful working-room. His experience of Italian villas, white & sunlit, makes him an admirer of the house—this beautiful house.”36 The bookshelf and art objects can be seen in this photograph, taken in 1899 just before they were about to leave for Richmond. The Study (as well as Cooper’s and Bradley’s bedrooms) were decorated with photographs of art works.37 The choice of photographs reveals Bernard Berenson’s influence on Michael Field. Under the influence of Berenson, with whom Edith Cooper was passionately in love, the women became keen collectors of art photographs. In some ways, their walls were what André Malraux would call later in the twentieth century, a musée imaginaire, a deeply subjective museum, created out of large black and white photographic reproductions of the works of arts they loved. Up to 1893 the wall in the Study expressed the teachings of Ruskin (they had photographs of Pre-Raphaelite works and Turners) even though unlike Ruskin’s “crowded” space, theirs was truly more harmonious and less cluttered. But after the publication of Underneath the Bough (1893), which met with adverse reviews and criticism from Berenson, Michael Field went through a poetic crisis, which resulted in a re-decoration of the Study:

  • 38 British Library. MS. Add. 46781 f.47. This entry is by Bradley.

The dear study is on the eve of spring cleaning. This morning the battle of the modern raged. The past was repulsed with great slaughter. Every Millet, every Turner has been banished from study & blue-room. Italian art alone remains. This new god’s single command—Be Contemporaneous is harder to keep than all the ten old commandments. Our eyes no longer desire the Turners, our heads testify against them, yet the pain of parting from them is keen. Memory is a [?]harpy—pluck her roots & she bleeds.
To-day’s dreams & desires—the tongs with wh. the angel makes living coals of our lips to-day—these are the things to be expressed on our walls, in our furniture [,] in our dress.38

  • 39 Thain and Vadillo 85.
  • 40 British Library. MS. Add. 46781 f.23v.

14Getting rid of the Turners (which Bradley had so much admired in Ruskin’s home) meant disavowing past aesthetics. They felt they needed to re-connect with the vitality of the contemporaneous, with “to-day’s dreams and desires”. They left all the Italian paintings, some of which had been discussed by Bernard Berenson in his The Florentine Painters of the Renaissance, some they had seen in their travels around England and Europe, some they themselves had poeticised in their 1892 volume of poems Sight and Song, a book which aimed to “translate into verse what the lines and colours of certain chosen pictures sing in themselves.”39 The book became a manifesto of visual poetics in a post-Pre-Raphaelite age offering a new model of visuality where gender played an important part. By placing thus these pictures on the wall, they were bringing back to their home their own experiences of seeing these paintings as well as externalising their own dreams and desires, painful though these were (considering they had seen these paintings with Bernard Berenson at the time when Cooper realised he was in love with another woman, Mary Costelloe). Botticelli’s Spring dominates the wall (the women in fact often referred to the Study as their “Botticelli Room”). To the left of Spring was Titian’s Fête Champêtre and photographs of the poets. But on the wall one can also see more personal photographs and objects. The mirror was a present from Cooper and Bradley to Amy (Cooper’s sister). To the right of Titian’s is the 1889 photograph by Eveleen Myeers (née Tenant) of their beloved Robert Browning. Over the fireplace, there is a portrait of Cooper’s mother. Displayed on the table is William Rothenstein’s 1897 drawing of Charles Ricketts and Charles Shannon. These photographs and paintings speak again of Michael Field’s conception of their house beautiful as a place where the history of art and aesthetics is conceived through the eyes and the life of the poet Michael Field, thus creating a much more personal, unique history of aestheticism and of their own aesthetic lives. Indeed, as Bradley had noted: “It is we who bring the harmonies, not time.”40

15On their walls Berenson’s history of aesthetics competed with Michael Field’s aesthetic and personal history. Charles Ricketts, however, felt that the house spoke of Walter Pater:

  • 41 Charles Ricketts, Michael Field. Ed. Paul Delaney (Edinburgh: The Tragara Press, 1976) 1.

The place spoke of a love of books, art, travel and flowers. I noticed on one of the tables one of those early paper covered editions in which Nietzsche first appeared ; otherwise, the general atmosphere was that crystalized by Walter Pater, a survival of the less flamboyant phase of the Aesthetic movement.41

  • 42 Pater, Appreciations, 241.
  • 43 Wolfgang Iser, Walter Pater. The Aesthetic Moment (Cambridge: CUP, 1987) 82.
  • 44 Ibid., 83.
  • 45 Hatt 112.

16Bradley and Cooper never visited Walter Pater’s aesthetic home in Oxford, but they did visit him in London. Curiously they left no description of his London home, even though their diary is full of descriptions of other aesthetic homes: “it was his writings that they had ‘crystalized’ in their home.” In his “Postcript” to Appreciations with an Essay on Style Pater defined the term “House Beautiful” as the place where the classic and romantic spirit meet: It is that “which the creative minds of all generation—the artists and those who have treated life in the spirit of art—are always building together, for the refreshment of the human spirit.”42 Wolfgang Iser has argued that Pater’s “‘House Beautiful’ is conceived as an almost total identification of art and history.”43 “Emerging out of the perpetual flux of time”, it “blends art and history into one.”44 Michael Field’s “House Beautiful” follows Pater’s model: their interior was a testament to the blending of classical art (Italian Renaissance) and literature (Greek, Latin, Elizabethan) and the romantic spirit (most notably their Dionysian spirit, symbolised in their bacchic library) and this enabled the “refreshment” of their art. But Michael Hatt’s analysis of Pater’s House Beautiful throws light on another interesting point of reference that relates directly to Field’s engagement with Pater. Focusing on Pater’s essay “The Beginning of Greek Sculpture”, Hatt argues that the essay is an attempt to reclaim the bodily sensuousness of Greek sculpture as well as a re-affirmation of the late-Victorian shift to Dionysian aesthetics. In his reading of Pater’s descriptions of the walls of Alcinous’ palace, Hatt convincingly claims that it is “as if Pater wanted to assert an erotic coupling of decorative art and desire”.45 At Durdans, objects, books, and decoration spoke of this coupling of decorative art and the women’s desire as much as of their own history and aesthetics.

Flamboyant Aestheticism at 1, Paragon

  • 46 British Library. Poets and Painters. MS. Add. 61721.f. 73.
  • 47 British Library, Poets and Painters. MS. 61721f.74 and passim.
  • 48 Ricketts, Michael Field, 1.

17On the New Year’s Day of 1899, Cooper and Bradley decided to leave Durdans and look for “a new home, human fellowship and more engaging country.” Feeling isolated from London’s intellectual circles and trapped in a house full of memories of their beloved ones (Cooper’s father tragically died in 1897) they were keen to begin a new life now free from the constraints of family. As Edith put it, “I am still young for life to be memorial.”46 On the advice of the artists Charles Ricketts and Charles Shannon, the women went to see “a white, forgotten, pillared house” at the “heart of Richmond Park”.47 The house had an eighteenth-century “pillared entrance from the street”, and “at the back” Ricketts told the poets, “the garden is at such an incline that the Bassett [their dog] sitting at the top of the garden would at once slide into the river if it were not for the door”. This offered, of course, Ricketts added, “unprecedented opportunities for pushing relations through the door at high tide.” They signed the lease on the house on February 11, 1899. Ricketts had described the shell of Durdans as that of a “comfortable English home.”48 Paragon boasted by contrast of a beautiful eighteenth-century pillared entrance.

  • 49 Treby, The Michael Field Catalogue 35.
  • 50 f.109.
  • 51 As Charles Ricketts noted, the house was “made to hold Sheraton (not Chippendale) furniture”. J.G. (...)
  • 52 British Library, Poets and Painters. 28th by EC MS. Add. 61721 f.98. This was also a fashion led by (...)
  • 53 Treby, The Michael Field Catalogue, 45.
  • 54 Treby, Binary Stars, 149.

18Paragon was the first house where the women finally lived by themselves as a couple (Cooper’s sister, Amy, married in 1899)—they called it “our married home”49: “Michael and I watch each other in a little round mirror of Ricketts’ design that hangs on our gold wall and reflects our life in its circle, this new life of our deepest desire realised for us.”50 From the very moment they signed the lease, Cooper, who led the decoration of Paragon, was sure of one thing: the decorating principles would be different from those of Durdans. They used both eighteenth-century aesthetics (mostly through the use of eighteenth-century Sheraton satinwood furniture) and Japanese art to decorate the new home51. Japanese wallpaper now replaced William Morris’s: “The Artists [Ricketts and Shannon] come to find the dining-room papered with the gold Jap canvas. Both Artists are wild with admiration.”52 Later in 1910 when they visited the Japanese Exhibition Cooper noted with delight “How I love this world of Beauty to which I belong.”53 If in Durdans they had followed the aesthetic criticism of Ruskin, Morris and Berenson, the decoration of Paragon followed the flamboyant aestheticism of the painters Charles Ricketts and Charles Shannon: “Settee-Day[.] It came from Guildford, the deep, orange thing, burnt deep with like the sun . . . the old Chesterfield was carted away, so Henry [Edith Cooper] begins the twentieth century worthily, with a most lovely salon, all his own.”54 In the new home, they aimed to create moods, tempers and harmonies through colour. The following is a letter written by Ricketts to Michael Field, in which he advises the women on how to decorate Paragon:

  • 55 J.G. Paul Delaney ed., Some Letters from Charles Ricketts and Charles Shannon to “Michael Field” (E (...)

In colouring a house, see that the temper of each room is kept. When a room hides from the sun, provide it with colours and hangings that love the shade: the green of green shadows in the heart of a wood, blue of that blue haunting a grot, the colours found under the sea. Place also mirrors in it that listen to you, that look like pools. In these cool rooms, various objects may be hung or placed ; shadow is kind to ugly but useful books.
In rooms that love the sun use colours that love the sun also: white ivory, gold, yellow, fawn, some shades of rose even. In these rooms, the objects should be well-chosen ; the sun is angry with ugly, thick shapes, but loves the corners of delicate frames and dainty furniture. Here the mirrors should be allowed to talk. Provide them with subjects of conversation: carnations, roses, anemones, woodbine, rings on hands, fruit in the basket or on a silver dish, Chinese embroideries.
In a room given over to melancholy before or after lunch, a blue (the colour of my dear books) may be combined with white and enlivened with bright pieces of china, sufficiently expensive to make their sudden destruction undesirable. In all these rooms strive to keep the furniture close to the walls, as in Persia. The air and light will love you for this ; a rare carpet may then brood in an open space ; lady friends will not overset the snowdrops in slender glasses or bump against things, and male friends or relations will not leave hot briars, or smouldering cigarettes upon satin wood, or even galoshes.55

  • 56 Thain and Vadillo, 152.
  • 57 Thain and Vadillo.

19The decoration emanated from the “temperament” of the house and aimed to enhance its moods, creating a closer correspondence between the outside (with its views upon the river Thames) and the inside. Their house a beautiful object from which to admire the outside world, now transformed into an impressionistic painting. The poems “Ebbtime at Sundown” and “Nightfall” from Wilde Honey from Various Thyme (1908) are examples of this: “Closer in beating heart we could not be/To the sunk sun, the far, surrendered sea”56 they wrote in “Ebbtime”.57 Their beautiful sonnet “Nightfall” reads as a Whistler “Nocturne”. It recounts an evening when the women sat together in the Sun Room admiring the passing beauty of the River Thames. This is how it was recorded in their diary:

Love & I sit on the yellow sofa, curled up.—A boat is moored in mid-stream, its keel reflected clear in the water. Henry says—“How that boat measures the silence.”
“I like the air when the stars come out” Love says, & then our spirits close up together.
We sit together in the dusk now . . . The timber-barges with their lights, one orange & two clear gold, add in their swift passing through the mist, to the strong excitements of sunset.
And with the eyes with which we shall see god—vision purified by the beauty on which it rests—we gaze & wonder.
Just that we want to watch, as the light alters, just that, nothing else, & no more.
Two in accord, four panes of glass, a stream, a misty meadow, & the sun falling through rounded elms.

  • 58 Treby, Binary Stars 161.

20If in Durdans, the women had created an aesthetic interior that located the aesthetic and erotic in the world, at 1 Paragon they aimed to transform their life into Art. “We hold that life, between equals, requires an Art”, they wrote, “-or its style, its beauty, will be lost.”58 Even its walls were  ived as a work of art:

  • 59 British Library, Poets and Painters, MS. Add. 61721 f. 80-2.

The Artists will mix our paints. They want us to have the walls of our parlour covered with the gold of the Dial screen at Warwick Street ; then to treat it in a Dutch manner and devote it to tulips. Ricketts is enchantingly poetic on the behaviour of flowers under sunlight in different stories of a house. In the Sun Room, anemones would become like butterflies and flit to the corners of the room from which the cook with a duster would have to brush them. Flowers simply take wing when they are high up in the sunlight, while below in our Dutch room the anemones would never leave their bowl but glow quietly in their place. The Sun Room must be ivory or have walls of Indian matting. A hall should be ancestral. No effort to make it speak of oneself should be taken: it should be yielded to the passage of the generations, to the transitoriness of comings and goings. This is to keep me from an expensive paper. The lower rooms should not have such light tones or light furniture as the higher rooms, as the sun stoops to them and does not play through them fancifully. My Queen Anne bedroom must have a neutral wall and every gaiety crowed into Michael’s river bedroom. What makes Ricketts so essentially an artist in conversation and in composition is the quality of strangeness by which Life becomes Art.59

  • 60 British Library, MS. Add. 61721 f. 131.
  • 61 Pater, The Renaissance 190.
  • 62 Treby, Binary Stars 151.
  • 63 Ibid., 152.
  • 64 Ibid., 152. Entry for Dec. 1900, by Katharine Bradley.

21It is clear that this change in decoration corresponded to a change in their attitudes to their own work. As they put it “When we were “going in for every folly” and visiting theatres every Saturday we bought old oak and Jacobean furniture. Now we are serious about our work we surround ourselves with satin-wood. So with the Artists. They hold that Art should be strenuous and profound and they buy smiling Tanagras and Japanese drawings with their fragile, decorative grace, and leggy satinwood. It is well to have a smile round you when you are grave.”60 In this at least they were still under the influence of Pater. He had ended his “Conclusion” to the Renaissance by suggesting that Art was contrapuntal to the ephemerality of life: “For Art comes to you proposing frankly to give nothing but the highest quality to your moments as they pass, and simply for those moments’ sake.”61 At first Bradley was not convinced about these changes: “Henry [i.e. Cooper] in his big, satin-wood drawing-room will be altogether modern. I am not without low, muffled pain.”62 The fragility of the new aesthetics worried her. She feared they might become the aesthetic type George Du Maurier created for the satirical magazine Punch: “One asks if the old home, & all the bad art, & the big furniture was not a surer place for a child to grow up in than the Kaleidoscope rooms of the modern. Association ! And if we lose all sense of it, & love things solely for their clear, bright surfaces, we are damned !”63 In the end, however, Bradley accepted the new décor noting in their diary how Paragon was growing “daily dearer to us, &, as we can afford it, more beautiful.”64

Figure 2: Paragon, view from the River. Reproduced by kind permission of the Bodleian Library MS.Eng.misc.c.304.f.15.

Figure 2: Paragon, view from the River. Reproduced by kind permission of the Bodleian Library MS.Eng.misc.c.304.f.15.

22There are no photographs of the interior of the house, but Michael Field’s literary executor, Thomas Sturge Moore, has left a detailed description of the house:

  • 65 Sturge Moore xvii-xix.

At No.1, The Paragon, the eighteenth-century doors and mouldings were painted white, the walls of the small room to the right on entering were silver. Here Edith worked ; and here, to Ricketts’ intense disapproval, choked down out of respect for affectionate piety, was installed a mantelpiece by her father, whose hobby had been woodcarving, in which he was extremely accomplished, but conformed to Swiss taste. Yet, the birds, flowers and fruits were perhaps conscious of Ghiberti’s, though the panels and their placing were outrageously not Florentine. There were two Hiroshigi prints in this room and several lithographs by Shannon. In the slightly larger room, which opened through folding doors, out of this, they received. . . . The furniture was eighteenth-century satinwood, severely elegant rather than florid, all chosen and approved by “The Artists”. Shannon’s lithographs, dignified, for the first time, with gilded frames of beautiful proportions, made walls, distempered a warm grey, exquisite ; among them hung two of Rickett’s Hero and Leander woodcuts and a drawing of two heads of wild garlic ; later this room was papered with a narrow white and silver stripe.
On the dainty, polished table-tops stood several pieces of white porcelain and rare glass, or old plate, and a tangle of necklaces or other jewels were displayed with artful carelessness. But above all there were flowers in this “Sun Room”. . . .
The wainscoting of the stairs and of the tiny downstairs dining-room was apple green. Here the walls were covered with gilded canvas on which hung a small round mirror and the sketch for Ricketts’ lovely Tobit and the Angel now in the Birmingham Gallery ; his Jacob and the Angel, now in the Ashmolean, hung in the little adjunct to this room, which supported the small glass-house above. In this adjunct Michael worked.65

  • 66 British Library, MS. Add. 61723 f. 30-31.

23After seeing the house Berenson told them: “You ought to be very proud. I have told Ricketts your house is the most beautiful in England.”66 The rooms were decorated with objects bought in antique and specialist shops like Miss Toplady, and, of course, with art works by Rothenstein, Ricketts and Shannon.

  • 67 Treby, Binary Stars 162.
  • 68 British Library, Poets and Painters, MS. Add. 61723 f. 107.

24I would like to finish this essay by paying attention to one of these objects, because it is symbolic of the transformation they brought into their home and to their lives. Ricketts gave his painting Jacob Wrestling with the Angel to the women in 1907. They hung it in Bradley’s bedroom, but interestingly they charged Ricketts himself “2d. to see the picture in its special little gallery.” He was “charmed with its place” and gladly paid the amount but he demanded Berenson should be charged “6d. to see it.”67 This might seem like a joke and, of course, it was (Berenson had to pay more because he did not belong to their new aesthetics). But it shows the total transformation the women had brought to their home, now conceived as an art gallery. Yet this object is important for another reason too. It is a painting that symbolically represents the women’s relationship. As Cooper wrote, “we are struck at our blindness that we did not see the picture was of the inner mountain solitude of our relation to each other. Michael laurelled, active and guardian and vigorous, above me in my weary suffering and dependence on strength that has my confident love”.68 Not only was the house an art gallery but its art objects had transformed Michael Field into Art.

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Notes

1 Quoted in Richard Ellman, Oscar Wilde, New York: Knopf, 1988, p. 581.

2 Walter Pater, The Renaissance. Studies in Art and Poetry. The 1893 Text. Ed. Donald L. Hill (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1980) xxi.

3 T. & D.C. Sturge Moore, ed., Michael Field, Works and Days. From the Journal of Michael Field. (London: John Murray, 1933) ix.

4 Ibid., x.

5 Charles Ricketts, Michael Field. Ed. Paul Delaney (Edinburgh: The Tragara Press, 1976) 2.

6 Marion Thain and Ana Parejo Vadillo, Michael Field, The Poet. Published and Manuscript Materials (Peterborough, ON: Broadview, 2009) 309.

7 William Morris, “The Lesser Arts of Life” in The Collective Works of William Morris, ed. May Morris (London: Longman and Green, 1914) 239.

8 John Ruskin, “Modern Manufacture and Design” in The Two Paths: Being Lectures on Art and its Application to Decoration and Manufacture, Delivered in 1858-59 (London: Smith, Elder and Co., 1959) 121.

9 British Library. MS. Add. 46781 f. 47.

10 British Library. MS. Add. 46779 f. 23v.

11 Cooper died in Dec. 1913; Bradley stayed in the house until August 1914.

12 Cooper to Bradley (September 1880). This letter is reprinted in Sharon Bickle, ed., The Fowl and the Pussycat. Love Letters of Michael Field 1876-1909 (Charlottesville and London: Virginia University Press, 2008) 34.

13 Ibid., 35.

14 See Bodleian Library, MS. Eng.letts.c.418 f. 5.

15 Ivor C. Treby, ed., Binary Star. Leaves from the Journal and Letters of Michael Field 1846-1914. (Bury St Edwards, Suffolk: De Blackland Press, 2006) 86.

16 This letter is dated 5 August 1882 and is included in Sharon Bickle, ed., The Fowl and the Pussycat. Love Letters of Michael Field 1876-1909 (Charlottesville and London: University of Virginia Press, 2008), 56-60 and passim.

17 Ibid. 57-58.

18 See Bickle, ed., The Fowl and the Pussycat, 62-63. This letter is dated 12 August 1882.

19 Walter Pater, The Renaissance xix.

20 Walter Pater, Appreciations with an Essay on Style (1889; London: Macmillan, 1911) 241.

21 Michael Hatt, “Space, Surface, Self: Homosexuality and the Aesthetic Interior”. Visual Culture in Britain 8: 1 (Summer 2007) 105.

22 Or its name for that matter, which they “boldly” changed to Blackberry Lodge. See Ivor C. Treby, The Michael Field Catalogue. A Book of Lists. (De Blackland Press, 1998) 31.

23 Treby, Binary Stars, 109 and passim.

24 British Library. MS. Add. 46778 f. 24v [Entry by Edith Cooper]. Zoar literally means “a place of refuge.” As a result of religious persecution, the Zoar Society, a utopian German movement based on the principles of early Christianity, had left Germany in 1831 to found a city in America.

25 The first page of the diary begins:
“Works and Days.
Bramble Room’.”
Both underlined in red ink. See British Library. MS. Add. 46777 f.1r [Entry by Katharine Bradley].

26 “My aunt & I work together after the fashion of Beaumont & Fletcher.” See Edith Cooper’s letter to Robert Browning (30 May 1884). Thain and Vadillo, Michael Field, the Poet 310.

27 British Library. MS. 46779 f. 23v. Entry by Katharine Bradley. The entry is marked with a star.

28 Elizabeth Aslin, The Aesthetic Movement. Prelude to Art Nouveau (London: Elek Books Limited, 1969) 33.

29 British Library, MS. Add. 46779 f. 7r.

30 British Library, MS. Add. 46780 f. 99v.

31 British Library, MS. Add. 46779 f.26.

32 British Library, MS. Add. 46778 f. 32r. The play was published as Stephania, A Trialogue in 1892.

33 British Library, MS. Add. 46779 f. 24v.

34 British Library, MS. Add. 46779 f. 35r.

35 Thain and Vadillo, Michael Field, the Poet, 129-130.

36 British Library. MS. Add. 46779 f. 47r.

37 This was not unusual in aesthetic interiors; consider for example Oscar Wilde’s room at Magdalen (Oxford): “Along with the blue china and a grey carpet to conceal the shabby, stained floor, he had Arundel prints and photographs of Edward Burne-Jones paintings on the paneled walls.” In Charlotte Gere with Lesley Hoskins, The House Beautiful. Oscar Wilde and the Aesthetic Interior (London: Lund Humphries in association with the Geffrye Museum, 2000) 15.

38 British Library. MS. Add. 46781 f.47. This entry is by Bradley.

39 Thain and Vadillo 85.

40 British Library. MS. Add. 46781 f.23v.

41 Charles Ricketts, Michael Field. Ed. Paul Delaney (Edinburgh: The Tragara Press, 1976) 1.

42 Pater, Appreciations, 241.

43 Wolfgang Iser, Walter Pater. The Aesthetic Moment (Cambridge: CUP, 1987) 82.

44 Ibid., 83.

45 Hatt 112.

46 British Library. Poets and Painters. MS. Add. 61721.f. 73.

47 British Library, Poets and Painters. MS. 61721f.74 and passim.

48 Ricketts, Michael Field, 1.

49 Treby, The Michael Field Catalogue 35.

50 f.109.

51 As Charles Ricketts noted, the house was “made to hold Sheraton (not Chippendale) furniture”. J.G. Paul Delaney, ed., Some Letters from Charles Ricketts and Charles Shannon to “Michael Field” (1894-1902) (Edinburgh: The Tragara Press, 1979) 16.

52 British Library, Poets and Painters. 28th by EC MS. Add. 61721 f.98. This was also a fashion led by Oscar Wilde: “Paper in itself is not a lovely material, and the only papers which I ever use now are the Japanese gold ones: they are exceedingly decorative, and no English paper can compete with them, either for beauty or for practical wear.” See Gere and Hoskins 103.

53 Treby, The Michael Field Catalogue, 45.

54 Treby, Binary Stars, 149.

55 J.G. Paul Delaney ed., Some Letters from Charles Ricketts and Charles Shannon to “Michael Field” (Edinburgh: Tragara Press, 1979), 18.

56 Thain and Vadillo, 152.

57 Thain and Vadillo.

58 Treby, Binary Stars 161.

59 British Library, Poets and Painters, MS. Add. 61721 f. 80-2.

60 British Library, MS. Add. 61721 f. 131.

61 Pater, The Renaissance 190.

62 Treby, Binary Stars 151.

63 Ibid., 152.

64 Ibid., 152. Entry for Dec. 1900, by Katharine Bradley.

65 Sturge Moore xvii-xix.

66 British Library, MS. Add. 61723 f. 30-31.

67 Treby, Binary Stars 162.

68 British Library, Poets and Painters, MS. Add. 61723 f. 107.

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Table des illustrations

Titre Figure 1: Michael Field’s Study (Durdans, Reigate) c. 1899. Reproduced by kind permission of the Bodleian Library MS.Eng.misc.c.304.f.22
URL http://cve.revues.org/docannexe/image/1040/img-1.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 204k
Titre Figure 2: Paragon, view from the River. Reproduced by kind permission of the Bodleian Library MS.Eng.misc.c.304.f.15.
URL http://cve.revues.org/docannexe/image/1040/img-2.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 74k
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Pour citer cet article

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Ana Parejo Vadillo, « Aestheticism and Decoration: At Home with Michael Field », Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens, 74 Automne | 2011, 17-36.

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Ana Parejo Vadillo, « Aestheticism and Decoration: At Home with Michael Field », Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens [En ligne], 74 Automne | 2011, mis en ligne le 24 septembre 2014, consulté le 27 juillet 2017. URL : http://cve.revues.org/1040 ; DOI : 10.4000/cve.1040

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Auteur

Ana Parejo Vadillo

Birkbeck College, University of London.
Ana PAREJO VADILLO is Lecturer at Birkbeck College, University of London. She is the author of Women Poets and Urban Aestheticism: Passengers of Modernity (London: Palgrave, 2005) and Michael Field, The Poet (co-edited with Marion Thain) (Broadview Press, 2009), and has also edited (with Marion Thain) and contributed to Fin-de-Siècle Literary Culture and Women Poets (a special edition of Journal of Victorian Literature and Culture 34.2, 2006).

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