Saturday, 2 January 2016

Wandering With the Ghosts of Christmas Past at the Geffrye Museum

This weekend is the last chance to observe Christmas celebrations over the past 400 years at London’s wonderful Geffrye Museum.
It’s a splendid privilege to wander from one decade to another simply by waltzing down a corridor along a row of rooms.  Even better is seeing those rooms decorated for Christmas in the vastly different styles of the ages—some with barely a sprig of holly adorning the top of a picture frame and others looking like an inviting scene on an elaborate Christmas card.
After years of meaning to do so, I seized the opportunity last new year to visit the Christmas Past Exhibition at the Geffrye Museum, based in wonderfully restored Grade 1 listed 1714 almshouses that form an oasis directly behind Hoxton station.  The museum specialises in the history of the English domestic interior and lets you nearly step into those bygone days as you are subtly informed most delightfully about social history.  At this time of year, they decorate the rooms as they would have looked at Christmastime in that period, with an extra sign added to tell you how the day would have been spent then (such as with the maid helping to buy holly, snacking on anchovies and olives while having music, giving only educational toys to the children, or the family usually eating out).  Some rooms show surprisingly few signs of the festive season as that simply wasn’t done back then, and others seem to be the epitome of the old fashioned Christmas that people picture so fondly.

Even in these times when social history is enormously popular on television, either through period dramas or unexpectedly educational shows like Who Do You Think You Are?, I learned quite a bit that was new to me.   Spread amidst the rooms are little exhibitions of objects such as porcelain or tea caddies from that period, samples of fabrics used for floor coverings, details on techniques used at the time such as ‘Japanning’ (a 17th century type of black furniture finish), and illustrations or photographs of what the outside of the house would have looked like—and the difficulties faced when building them--and where the various servants and family members would have spent most of their time. 

Amongst the informative timelines—showing when important books were published, new legislation passed, famous exhibitions held, and new technology (such as railways) established--are snippets of information about, for instance, how the ‘middling classes’ would have behaved and how crucial newspapers once were, giving businessmen all they needed to know about grain prices and foreign news, and telling people of the comings and goings of ships, tides and socialites.  There are also details of how the popularity of gardening ‘as a fashionable leisure activity’ grew in the 18th century, along with the ‘pleasing London custom of dressing…windowsills with pots of greenery’.

But the highlights are the period rooms.  We see decorations with rosemary and bay and learn how friends who stopped by would be offered jellies and wine as the family sipped cordials. The rather bare 1630 hall shows little evidence of the holiday other than a green garland draped over the mantelpiece and a modest feast on the table, and we read that Christmas was banned by Parliament during the Civil War owing to Puritan values. 
Coming to a gorgeous Wedgwood blue 1830 drawing room with only a few sprigs of holly evident, I hear a man on his way out behind me comment that he likes the wallpaper but it isn’t very Christmassy, as though the museum—or the occupants of the house—would completely re-paper the room just for a couple weeks and then change it back. 

A panel tells how a small family party ‘is about to take place’ on Twelfth Night, when a king and queen would be chosen for the night based on who found a dried bean or a pea in their traditional Twelfth-Night cake, bizarrely with even the servants allowed to play so their master could end up serving them on the night.  During the revival of the Christmas celebration in the 19th century, that type of game became more like the modern day charades.  There was no mention, however, of any medieval game that led to Twister, which was the traditional Christmas Eve game in my family.

The museum has some audio exhibits that enable you to listen to readings from letters and books of the late 18th century and early 19th century, including a letter from Jane Austen about moving house, advice to servants about setting the table for a tea party, and a description of dinner with a rector.  Some 19th century advice manuals are on show, with panels telling us that ‘taste’ and debates about it in terms of home furnishings came in to play at this time.

Nearby is the wonderful Victorian drawing room from 1870, with Yuletide sheet music on the piano, different busy fabrics draped over chairs as well as covering the floor and windows, mistletoe hanging from the light fixture, and a toy farmyard set up on the table near a stunning live Christmas tree.   It’s a Christmas card into which I’d like to climb.  A poster teaches us the history of Christmas cards and says that, by this time under the burden of the new seasonal flurry, the post office began to warn people to post their cards early, which at the time meant on the morning of Christmas Eve.  That reminded me of reading the puzzling passages in the Mapp and Lucia books where people purchased their cards late on Christmas Eve and seemed to post them on Christmas for delivery that day.  Things are a wee bit different now, I mused as I thought of having to post my stepsister’s gift by the recommended date of 4th December, and it still arrived in late January last year.

Through glass doors, the new extension’s dazzling open architecture draws you towards more modern room displays, including one influenced by Japanese culture that was the rage then, a suburban Edwardian ‘Arts and Crafts’ period room with holly in a vase, and a great many samples of chairs through the ages.  

My favourite room was here, a room of a purpose built 1930s London mansion block flat, my obvious choice as I adore Art Deco and modernist architecture and anything of the period.  On show were muted colours and furniture I’d love to have today with a rather pathetic sprig of a Christmas tree on a table, but everything decorated cheerfully, albeit artificially, which was the practical fashion of the time in urban homes.  The room was set for the Christmas Eve cocktail party, the poster said, and then the couple would motor down to the country for Christmas Day with relatives, before the already firm recent tradition of hearing the King’s Christmas broadcast on the wireless at 3pm.

The 1970s room surprised me by tugging at my heart a bit, presumably touching some suppressed pleasant memory as a child, although we never decorated our contemporary (American) home for Christmas as we always travelled to my grandparents’ more traditional home in the north for the festivities. Perhaps it was the discarded Christmas wrap on the floor, although the toys it had covered were duller than what we were getting at the time, although I suppose it was later in the decade when we were getting the earliest video games and that flashing light Simon game.

Even the 1990s are covered, which could make you feel a bit old, but we are marching ever further from that decade so it might as well be in a museum. The display is a bright sparsely decorated flat with wooden floors, no doubt in a regentrified Docklands warehouse, with one of those tiny bedroom lofts that would have me too terrified to sleep for fear of rolling off in the night and falling to my death on the colourful Conran dining set below.

In the middle of the almshouses stands the original little chapel, a delightful path on your journey through the decades. It is a rather understated chapel given its location in charitable homes for the poor, with just a few pews.  On the wall are passages from Exodus Chapter 20 (including the commandments) and the Lord’s Prayer from the Gospel of St Matthew. There is also a memorial to Sir Robert Geffrye (and wife), the former Lord Mayor and Master of the Ironmongers’ Company who died in 1703 aged 91 and left the bequest that enabled the almshouses, principally for ironmongers’ widows, to be built.   The Geffryes are now buried in a small courtyard in the period gardens out back, which are not open in the winter, but which look beautiful through the wide windows of the curved, cozy garden reading room behind the chapel.  There is a statue of Sir Robert in the outside wall of the chapel facing the front gardens, which are always open.

Downstairs in the new wing was an exhibition called ‘who once lived in my house?’, which I accidentally got caught up in for an age given the lack of time I had left.  It followed certain real houses through the ages—the landowners who commissioned them, where the original owners came from, who passed them to their daughters when they married, whose children all died so they sold it to a more affluent man as the area changed or when their business went belly-up–that sort of thing, telling you often amazing facts and even showing photographs of the various real residents right up to modern day, and of course giving particular mention to the resident ghost when there was one.

The contemporary wing also houses a collection of 20th century paintings of interiors, which draw you in far more than you would expect, as does the whole museum. I generally have no interest in interior design and barely notice things like carpeting and curtains, and my own home is a cluttered disgrace decorated by a previous owner with an apparent nod towards a dingy Blackpool B&B, but this museum was fascinating and informative about so much, so I was pleased that Yuletide pleasures drew me to it.

As I went late in the afternoon and didn’t want to disturb others with a flash, my photographs are dark and blurry, so you will need to go see things yourself.  If you can’t get to London, the museum’s website has virtual tours and loads of detail about period pieces and décor, so you can wander through now.

I emerged from this wonderful visit to a past I never knew feeling reluctant to leave its magic, but smiling after a happy stroll through it.

The museum also has a tasteful café and areas with activities for children, reading rooms that are full of books you can sit down and look through, decorated with lovely portraits showing people in their homes including party scenes of yesteryear. The charming gift shop has some marvellous
Christmas cards and ornaments as well as fun books on the past and décor as well as objects and jewellery resembling antiquities.  [My only bad experience at the museum was a ‘nose-powdering session’, when I entered a loo that seemed the type to have a new Dyson hand dryer but instead had me standing amidst scary, smelly pools of liquid, and I had to struggle so long to get a square or two of tissue out of the holder that I started seriously considering how I might remove the screws, as disassembling then reassembling it seemed a quicker option to access the necessary stuff. But shame on me for mentioning unmentionables.  It had been a worrying first impression of the museum, but happily everything improved greatly from there. Perhaps the cleaners had been off for the festive period or they wanted us to experience the austerity of the past before people could pop down the road for a value pack of Velvet.  If the museum relies on grants and donations, then I guess they wouldn’t concentrate their valued funds on penny-spending.)

If you are in London on the Twelfth Day of Christmas, 6th January, the Museum holds at 3.30pm its annual ‘traditional burning of the holly and the ivy, with carol singing, stories about Epiphany and a taste of mulled wine and Twelfth Night cake’ in the front garden. It lasts until 5pm and admission is free.

Admission to the general museum is also free, although obviously donations are always welcome.  The Geffrye is opened Tuesday to Sunday from 10am to 5pm, and the Christmas exhibition ends on 3 January (but will return).  The museum also has some restored almshouses that are only occasionally opened and for which there is a £4 charge to adults and timed entry.  Details can be found here .  Do go.

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