Wednesday, 12 March 2014


Whenever people come to my flat for the first time, I see the same expression on their faces, that same quizzical one. After we pass the first and the second door and walked up the first and the second stairs, that’s when they usually verbalize the thought behind that look. While we’re panting from climbing up the third staircase, they take a break from their unexpected exercise of that day and ask me “What kind of person planned this building and called himself an architect?” Each time, I reply with a smile and a mumbling, which sounds like “I don't know.”

Well, today, I decided to find out. I started with things I thought were the oldest in the building and made a list of them to search later. The list included:
  •        Very old small sash windows that make the weirdest, loudest noises
  •        The sickly greenish carpet floors
  •        Old looking, beige toilet and bath fixtures

Then I decided to look into my neighborhood, it’s history and architectural contributors. Notting Hill is an area of London, which has been in constant change. It’s become popular with the extending borders of London. In 19th century, the landowner was a family named Ladbroke. They worked on advancements of the Ladbroke Estate. Specifically James Weller Ladbroke was in charge and he worked mainly with an architect named Thomas Allason. This is when the housing plans came to life. In 1837 the Hippodrome was built, though it was unsuccessful and so was closed in 1841. On those racecourse tracks, crescent-shaped roads were built. (Blenheim Crescent, Elgin Crescent, Stanley Crescent, Cornwall Crescent, and Landsdowne Crescent). I’m assuming this was around the time my house was built. These houses on my street were a part of Allason’s plan to give each house individual gardens. Those gardens were not public but were communal “secret” gardens in the rear of the houses.
In the history of British architecture, there’s a sudden change in terms of house architectures that is called “the 1890 Pivot”. In his books from the 1850s John Ruskin mentioned a needed change and return to the medieval style. A designer, William Morris, influenced by Ruskin’s advice, started a movement in 1859 by building his own house. This arts and crafts movement revolutionized the architectural design. The movement aimed to use only the local materials and gave specific care and attention to every detail of the design. From then on, the movement spread towards many directions, interpreting different historic styles and mixing them with the Middle Eastern, Asian, Mediterranean influences.

As for the short list I had made, I looked into them specifically and found out much more than I was expecting. The sash windows have an old, weight balanced system to operate. The main problems of the kind of sash window I have in my house (the wooden ones) are based on the swelling or shrinking of the wood, which causes the window to get stuck at times and get too loose and rattle at other times. Hence, the annoying noises.
The carpet was simply a new style that came stemmed from the Victorian architectural developments and an adjustment to the lifestyles. When the floors used to be stone, it was harder to keep the heat in and with the decrease of sanitary issues; it was probably a safe option to cover the floors with carpets.
The toilet was done by a slightly more known brand, which is presently selling bathroom fixtures and plumbing supplies; a British manufacturer established Armitage Shanks in the Victorian era. I’m guessing the beige color was a correct choice according to that time’s trends.

The extra stairs up to the top floor where my room is, made more sense after I came across some information about the tax rules of the houses back in those years. It simply stated that taxing of each floor was made separately so instead of building a third floor, a different type of roof called Mansard roof was used to create extra space in the roof, allowing to use it as a third floor.
I have to add, however, that the architectural style of my house seldom covers the Victorian era architectural style. During that time, being a good architect meant to be able to combine and be aware of different architectural styles from around the world and also from the past. Many different architectural gems in London that were created around the same times, can be of different architectural styles like gothic, medieval, French, Greek, Hindu and many more.
In Victorian Literature, Notting Hill doesn’t take up as much space as it did in some authors’ lives.
“Notting Hill is a comparatively cheap district, lying between Kensal-green Cemetery and Campden-hill, and continuing the town westward from Bayswater to Shepherds Bush. Here a fair-sized house may be had from about £75 to £120, according to whether it approaches the western or eastern verge of the district. Stations: Notting Hill, Latimer-road, on the City and Hammersmith; Uxbridge-road on the West London; and Notting Hill-gate on the Metropolitan Line, A good deal of confusion arises from the similarity of name between the two stations of Notting Hill and Notting Hill-gate, which are more than a mile apart on two different lines; the former (City & Hammersmith) being at the north end of Ladbroke-grove, and the latter (Metrop.) nearly half a mile to the east of its south end in Notting Hill High-st. Omnibus routes: Westbourne-grove and Uxbridge-road.”
Charles Dickens (Jr.), Dickens's Dictionary of London, 1879

An exiled 1848 Hungarian novelist, Louis Kossuth lived near Chepstow Villas. Charles Dickens’s grandson Henry was also a local. William Bull wrote this in the Bayswater Chronicle of Portobello Road about the 1870’s Notting Hill Carnival :
“Carnival time was on Saturday nights in the winter, when it was thronged like a fair… The people overflowed from the pavement so that the roadway was impassable for horse traffic which, to do it justice, never appeared. On the left-hand side (the east side) were costers’ barrows, lighted by flaming naphtha lamps. In the side streets were side-shows, vendors of patent medicines, conjurors, itinerant vocalists…” (1923)
As the local railways expanded, more people started moving in. There were times around 1860 that for a brief time Notting Hill gained a bad reputation. The riots and sudden inclination of crowds were crowding the area and causing the constructions to be left unfinished. The whole area smelled bad and probably was unsanitary. However, the revolutions did not stop and with them the developments of Notting Hill changed it into a wanted place for upper classes in around 1866.

‘A rat crept softly through the vegetation, dragging its slimy belly on the bank while I was fishing in the dull canal, on a winter evening round behind the gas house, musing upon the king my brother’s wreck, and on the king my father’s death before him, white bodies naked on the low damp ground, and bones cast in a little low dry garret, rattled by the rat’s foot only, year to year, but at my back from time to time I hear the sound of horns and motors, which shall bring Sweeney to Mrs Porter in the spring. O the moon shone bright on Mrs Porter, and her daughter, they wash their feet in soda water.’
TS Eliot, from The Wasteland, 1922
The history of Notting Hill turned out to be much more than I had expected. The area is definitely not the central setting for the major historical events, but merely a witness to many movements, riots, celebrations, changes and wars. Perhaps, not being burned down as much as some of the places in the rest of the city had worked on its benefit and kept most of the buildings through time.
This place always gives me a feeling that whatever is happening here stays a secret and that’s why so much is happening but no outsider knows about it. It holds a place in history where people came and lived, but scarcely talked about.


Primary Sources:Bull, William. Bayswater Chronicle of Portobello Road. 1923Dickens, Charles(Jr.). Dickens's Dictionary of London. 1879Eliot, T. S. The Waste Land.1995

Victorian Spiritualism and Séances

The Victorian era saw the birth of Spiritualism, which made its way into Victorian culture due to the fall of Christianity through people questioning the “Church’s intellectual and cultural authority” (Wheeler-Barclay, 14-15). Alongside this were “scientific advances and capitalistic expansion: the first, shaking foundations of doctrinal infallibility; and the second redefining middle-class power and position. This produced the opportunity for individuals to challenge dominant ideologies” (Jenkins, 15). For example, the bible was criticised (Lamont, 898), based on the idea that it was written by people from another historical time and should be treated as such (Lyons, 104), as well as the introduction of Darwinism, which inevitably rendered the creation story as untrue if accepted.
Accepting Darwin’s theory meant that the Victorian’s found their faith challenged. Thus thousands of people turned towards Spiritualism, as leaving their traditional Christian beliefs left a gap in their lives. They felt that they no longer had anywhere to turn for guidance in terms of morality in a fast paced, changing society (Lyons, 104). The Victorians were excited about scientific findings, but also worried that they would lead them “to a materialistic worldview [and they] wanted more than a scientific agnosticism” (Lyons, 103). Therefore Spiritualism, if it could be scientifically proved, bridged the gap that Victorians felt from abandoning religion.

S.L Lyon defines Spiritualism, introducing the two core beliefs:
1.      That there is life after death

2.      That there can be communication with the spirit through mediums (105)
Point two was an important part of Spiritualism, which provided the evidence needed for Victorians who had accepted the idea of evolutions put forward by Darwinism. This communication with spirits was done through séances.
Vieda Skultans wrote Intimacy and Ritual based on fieldwork carried out on practicing Spiritualists. From her own experience, she introduces the workings of a séance, explaining that they are conducted in semi-darkness (so that there are no outward distractions) by an advanced medium in circles (6-7).
The outcome of a séance was contact with the spirit world, with the medium being in a state of possession or a trance. The results were classified as either mental or physical. Physical results being: spirit writing, spirit photography, glowing lights, moving objects, sounds and ectoplasms. Mental results included telekinesis, clairvoyance and divination (Lyons, 108).
Telekinesis is the ability to manipulate objects with one’s mind, and clairvoyance being the act of perceiving things out of range of human sense, and finally divination being the ability to foresee future events. 

F. C. E. Dimmick’s Ectoplasmic Photograph of the Medium Mrs. Henderson, 1928.

(Ectoplasms occurred during the trance state of the medium as a result of the séance. The cloth-like substance would come from various orifices on the mediums body, such as the ears, mouth and nose. This would be seen as evidence the spirit trying to materialize.)

The results of a séances were important as they would provide evidence the needed for proof of the after-life, giving the Victorians an alternative to Christianity as well as not interfering with the theory of evolution by contradicting it. Therefore according to Lamont, séances were central to Spiritualism practice and belief as well as being the primary reason for conversion to Spirituality (897-8).
By the late 1860’s séances had become very popular in Victorian society (Lyons, 108). This popularity links with ongoing scientific advances of the period and fall of Christian authority, as Spiritualism bridged the gap people felt after abandoning their religious beliefs. People turned to Spiritualism for “solace as well as hoping the séance would provide existence for the existence of the immortal world” (Lyons, 104). As Skultans explains one of the reasons of conversion and involvement with Spirituality being that it gave “that quality of spiritual balm needed to make life palatable” (5), therefore for the Victorian’s it seemed the answer for the crisis between religion and science.

Most relevant to mainstream Spiritualism were mediums and the séances they conducted. As previously mentioned, the séance would occur in a dark room and with the sitters holding hands, the medium would go into a trance. In this trance the medium would be able to achieve the mental and physical results as part of their communication with the spirit world.

Such a scene occurs in Diary of a Nobody, where in chapter XXII where the Pooter’s are introduced to Spiritual séances. Several séances take place in the chapter, with the participants “sitting in the parlour at a small round table” (202). There are various mentions of Spiritualism, mediums and séances taking place in this chapter.
During one séance, the medium declares that “a message came through the table to her of a wonderful description, concerning someone whom she … knew years ago” (203). This is an example of a mental result of the séance, with the medium surpassing human senses to receive a message.
In another séance dated June 3rd, the table tits towards Pooter, which was interpreted as him requiring to ask the spirit a question, and he does so by asking the name of an aunt. The table then spells out “C A T” (204). This is another example of a typical séance result, demonstrating a physical aspect of contacting spirits. The spirit, identified as “Lina”, has proven its existence by arranging letters on the table.
However in Diary of a Nobody there is scepticism as Pooter is not entirely convinced by Spiritualism and séances, which was common in the Victorian era as Spiritualism provided “limitless opportunities for tricksters and charlatans” (Lyons, 103).
Many mediums were exposed as frauds, faking signs from the spirits. For example, there would often be séances where a sitter would witness a physical result of contacting spirits; seeing a dead relative. This would follow a standard procedure: the medium would be tied up in a cabinet, during this time the spirit would appear and disappear. The cabinet would then be opened with the medium tied up as before. However, many of these spirits would be grabbed by sitters, who would turn out to be the medium (Lyons, 103).
As a result of this, and the scientific advances at the time, many people remained sceptical about Spiritualism, as demonstrated in The Diary of a Nobody, and often saw it as a method of entertainment, keeping their minds open to it. Cummings view on Spiritualism is expressed in chapter XXII: “he was most interested in Spiritualism, although he was bound to confess he did not believe much in it; still, he was willing to be convinced” (202). Diary of a Nobody contributes support to this view as it was serialized in Punch between 1888-9, correlating with growing spirituality and séances. This provides explanation for the popularity of séances in the late 1800’s; that people were both willing to believe, be convinced, or simply be entertained.

Spirit Photography
As mentioned before, one of the physical results of a séance and proof of Spiritualism as a practice was spirit photography. This gave evidence of the séance, working to convince people as “the camera as regarded as an instrument of revelation than of deceit” (Green-Lewis, 3).
In Framing the Victorians by Jennifer Green-Lewis talks about photography of that era. How it was seen to link with realism, representing truth in social representation (25-6), but this idea of realism and “use of photography as testimony is premised on a common belief in world” (227). With the popularity of séances and spread of Spiritualism, spirit photography became proof of life after death and thus seen as a “natural product of the supernatural world” (231). Therefore the existence of spirits became this premised common belief of the Victorian period. Through this, spirit photography was able to service Spiritualism by acting as truth, showing that science had the means of capturing “subjects beyond the spiritual world” (Green-Lewis, 232). This gave Spirituality the scientific side needed to adhere to the idea of life after death, responding to the Victorian’s needs for something more than ‘scientific agnostism’. Due to this, spirit photography was seen to have little to do with artistry but as an “urge to gather signs of resorts, scenes, objects, and persons in the name of ownership and in the spirit of possession” (Green-Lewis, 231).

Below are some examples of spirit photography. The question most people face is whether to believe the afterlife has been captured on camera or if it is a trick of the photographer or medium.

First is Frederick A. Hudson, England's first spirit photographer. His earliest results were obtained in 1872 and he was often caught dressing up as the ghost. 

Mr. Raby with the Spirits "Countess," "James
 Lombard," "Tommy," and the 
Spirit of Mr. Wootton's Mother. Hudson, 1875
Lady Helena Newenham and the Spirit
 of Her Daughter”. Hudson, 1872.

F. M Parkes was another famous spirit photographer. His earliest images were made with a medium, following directions from the spirits, the photographic plates be placed in his control in the darkroom before they were inserted in the camera so they could be "magnetised." 

"Mrs. Collins & Her Husband's Father, Recognized by Several.". Parkes, 1875

William Eglinton was Britain's most prominent medium, turning to Spiritualism around 1874. He was known to levitate, write messages from spirits in chalk and transport himself to another room.  Eglinton is mentioned alongside spirit photography; the actual photographer is unknown. 

(Left) Mary Burchett with Spirit of her School-Master, 1886
"Taken in my room with my own camera and plates by Mr. Eglinton and developed directly afterward in my presence” (

Some critics argued that Robert Boursnell’s spirit photographs were faked, claiming the spirits remained unchanged in different photographs. This revelation, however, appeared to have made no difference to Boursnell's supporters. 

“Couple with the Spirit of an Old
Family Doctor who Died
 Around 1880”. Boursnell 1893.
Self-Portrait with Spirits”. Boursnell, 1902.

The photograph above was taken in 1895-6 by Boursnell of the spiritualist, J. H. Evans with a spirit child. (

Works Cited:

American Museum of Photography. Do you Believe? Science vs Séance. 2000. Web page. 25 February 2014. <>

Bright Bytes Studio. Jack & Beverly’s Spirit Photographs. Boursnell Photographs. 2009. Web. 25 February 2014. <>

Green-Lewis, Jennifer. Framing the Victorians: Photography and the Culture of Realism. New York: Cornell University Press, 1996. Print.

Grossmith, George. Diary of a Nobody. Hertfordshire: Wordsworth Editions Limited, 1994. Print.

Jenkins, Ruth Y. Reclaiming Myths of Power: Women Writers and the Victorian Spiritual Crisis. Cranbury: Associated University Presses, 1995. Print

Lamont, Peter. “Spiritualism and a Mid-Victorian Crisis of Evidence”. The Historical Journal. 47. 4. (2004): 897-920. Jstor. Web. 25 February 2014. <>  

Lyons, Sherrie Lynne. Species, Serpents, Spirits, and Skulls: Science at the Margins in the Victorian Age. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2009. Web. Ebrary. 25 February 2014. <>

Skultans,Vieda. Intimacy and Ritual: A Study of Spiritualism, Mediums and Groups. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1974. Print.

Wheeler-Barclay, Marjorie. The Science of Religion in Britain, 1860-1915. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2010. Ebook Ebrary. 25 February 2014. <>

Tuesday, 11 March 2014

A Journey Through The Furniture Of The Victorian Era

"What furniture can give such finish to a room as a tender woman's face? - and is there any harmony of tints that has such stirrings of delight as the sweet modulation of her voice?" Here, Daniel Deronda compares Mirah to furniture, placing her beauty above the aesthetic value of furniture in a room. This comparison may sound absurd to the modern reader however; it proves just how much value furniture had in the 19th Century.

The Victorian era is consumed with lavishness and opulence. The Victorians are known to want to show that they are well positioned in society, even if that means putting themselves through suffering!
I am interested to find out why there was such a huge insistence on desiring to prove one’s place in society through the use of furniture?
The popular belief is that due to the industrialisation of the 18th and 19th centuries, masses moved out of the countryside to live in big, happening cities where they could have a better income as well as be part of the thriving scene. Hence, a new wave of middle-class families enjoyed aiming to replicate the aristocratic lifestyle, in order to look and feel valued and important. And if they could not afford to copy them, which happened most of the time, well at least they knew about the aristocratic lifestyle and forged their own conception of how they should lead their lives based on this knowledge.  

Mrs Beeton suggests “the discomfort and suffering which I had seen brought upon men and women by household mismanagement [moved me]. I have always thought that there is no more fruitful source of family discontent than a housewife's badly-cooked dinners and untidy ways.’
The Victorian era was also a time when leisure spots such as tearooms and eating-houses started to establish themselves. These were fairly new and therefore were to be feared by some. For the Victorian woman, the fear of losing her husband to the charms of all the upcoming clubs and taverns made her strive to perfect her cooking and taste in household goods and household management. Therefore, I believe considering the aesthetic value of furniture in the Victorian homes to be indubitable.

Furniture - like clothing, jewellery and postcode – was a means of showing off to your ‘friends’, the society. It was there mostly to impress and the Victorians definitely wanted to have that effect on others in their social circle in order to keep face. Such a huge importance was given to appearance, that, as Beeton mentions, not only does it avoid a marital rift, but it also makes entertaining guests a lot better. Better to impress. Living rooms, parlors and dining rooms had to be crowded with wealthy looking furniture and decoration. However, private rooms such as the bedroom or the servants’ hall had the minimum furnishings because there was no need to boast about those rooms, as no guest would enter them.

The increasing demand for furniture led to the booming of factories. New methods of manufacture meant that the machine had taken over craftsmanship and was able to produce Victorian furniture in mass amounts to satisfy the vast demand by the middle class people that desired it. Thus, manufacturing had to go at a fast pace and therein laid a reason for why quality had started to become poor, because furniture started to be designed around what the machine could make. There was no more artistic contact between the designer and the craftsmen and no contact between designer and client, as the former were too busy trying to keep ahead of each other.
By the end of the first half of the Victorian era, (circa 1840’s), everyone wanted flamboyant furniture that showed a lot of detail and work mainly in the curvatures and the ornaments. However after 1850, poor construction meant lower prices and lower standards of the finished pieces.

In the later Victorian era, the shift from bad quality to good standards was mainly due to the Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society, founded in 1888. At the top of their thinking was a new appreciation of the artistic skills of the workers and the belief that they should feel satisfied with their craftsmanship. This school of thought opposed the idea of mass factories and supported the opening of small workshops that were often in the countryside. The situation is somewhat similar today, with the presence of mega furniture and DIY stores like IKEA producing furniture en masse, thus overshadowing little artisanal craftsmen.

Artists who followed this new movement valued the natural beauty of materials. The new fashion they set was to simplify forms and use ornaments to enhance construction in lieu of masking it. However, it goes without saying that furniture built in small workshops was more expensive; again, only a certain kind of people could afford it.

The influential designer, manufacturer and writer William Morris was an avid supporter of the Arts and Crafts Movement. It is even argued that Morris influenced the creation of this movement. Penned as an innovative decorator, he set up Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co in 1861, replacing it with Morris & Co in 1875. His firms provided all the furnishings used in his decorative schemes. He aimed to show through his work the superiority of quality handmade furniture. The simplicity in his work reflected the furniture of the 18th Century, which led to the practice of purchasing second hand furniture in antique shops.
The ‘Rossetti’ armchair (circa 1863) based on the early 19th Century French country chairs. Victoria and Albert Museum, London
Dante Gabriel Rossetti - the renowned poet, illustrator and painter, designed this armchair that was produced by Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co in 1863. Even before Morris met Rossetti, he was inspired by his visions of medieval design. The two artists met in the summer of 1857 in Oxford while painting the ceiling of a debating hall, and in 1861 Rossetti became a founding partner of Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co. 
Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co.’s most popular product however, was designed by the architect Philip Webb who was penned ‘the Father of Arts and Crafts Architecture’.
The ‘Sussex’ armchair (circa 1860) based on early country designs. Victoria and Albert Museum, London
This popular armchair was part of a range of modest furnishings available from the Morris shop. Given its over-simplistic style, it became a must-have piece in households because it was versatile, affordable and was from a famous brand: it came from Morris’s firm.
Overall, what I learned from my research visit to the Victoria & Albert museum, the online resources I consulted as well as issues raised in Victorian books regarding domesticity and appearances, is that it looks as though human history keeps repeating itself. Whenever a new social class is born and some people become more affluent, their need to boast about it arises and it makes others dream of reaching them. Some even become poorer in their pursuit. In the Victorian era, boasting meant throwing lavish parties to show off one’s house and all the opulent objects of decoration and pieces of furniture it stored. In order to match the high demand for furniture, the Victorian period saw the introduction of labour saving machinery. Unfortunately, the machinery was misused because it could not keep up and caused a serious deterioration in design and construction. Hence why artists such as Morris, Webb and Rossetti rebelled against this ‘mass consumerism’ with their artistic movement, which took furniture back to basics.

Works cited:

Beeton, I. The Book Of Household Management.

Eliot, G. Daniel Deronda. < >. 20 January 2014

Styles and Periods of Interior Designs. Victorian Furniture. <>. 10 March 2014.

Victoria and Albert Museum. Style Guide: Gothic Revival. < >. 2 March 2014

Victoria and Albert Museum. Victorian Furniture Styles. <>. 2 March 2014