A QUESTION OF TASTE

A MATTER OF TASTE

I was reading in fascinated horror an article in the Saturday Times about an interior designer to the mega rich, one Celia Sawyer. There is a photograph of her in the write-up. She is a hard faced dyed blonde with long hair hanging down her back, I would guess in her 40s, blue nails, short black leather skirt, very high heeled gold boots. There are two illustrations of proposed dining room and bedroom for a client’s aeroplane, which have so much glitter and gilt I think I would feel ill if obliged to sit in them.

William Morris is famous for the saying, Have nothing in your house which you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful. The interesting word there is ‘believe’. Evidently he thought it was obvious whether or not an object was useful, but its beauty had an element of taste in being so regarded.

If you regard ‘good taste’ as having the capacity to discern quality and harmony and beauty in an object, then William Morris possessed this gift to a remarkable degree. If you visit his exquisite house in Kelmscott, Oxfordshire, you can see that he kept his embellishments of it to a minimum, allowing its natural beauty to shine through. He had ‘good taste’.

But these issues are not straightforward. We are often told that ‘real’ jewellery is in better taste than vulgar costume jewellery. Now I like to enhance my appearance with a little jewellery and I do have some modest pieces. But costume jewellery can look just as good – worn sparingly on the right person. It costs far less; it’s not a worry to wear it, and skilfully worn you can scarcely tell the difference. You can throw it away when you’re finished with it. But ‘real’ jewellery has baggage. It tells of your wealth; your family’s status if it is inherited; the love the giver had for you… Are these desirable qualities to hang round one’s neck like the albatross?​

I enjoyed reading the series of novels Dance to the Music of Time by Anthony Powell (which I assumed was a spoof mocking the snobbish pretensions of the upper classes. Sadly I later discovered that Powell was in deadly earnest!) The hero regarded himself as an expert on art and was scathing about the ‘vulgarity’ of those whose walls bore cheap, vulgar and nasty reproductions. Now it must be wonderful to be able to have in your sitting room an original work by a famous artist. But is a poor original by a lesser artist ‘better’ than a reproduction of some great work that appeals to you? I think what you decorate your walls with should be chosen on the same basis as that which adorns your person. You should choose what you can afford; what makes you feel good; what you enjoy. It is not admirable to choose things because someone else has labelled them ‘good’.

The Duchess of Windsor was famed for her elegance. Her beautiful clothes were designed to show off her jewellery. Her lover, briefly King of England, used to go to the vaults where the royal family stored uncut stones gifted to it (as representatives of their country) from the nations of the British empire. He would take handfuls of these emeralds, pearls, diamonds, etc and then wander round to Cartiers and empty his pockets of these treasures on to their tables. This would then be transformed into the jewellery the Duchess most famously wore. (NB The nations gifting those gems did not anticipate them being worn by the king’s mistress as she was when he first began giving them to her. It was first recognised she was his mistress because of the stunning jewellery she was wearing.) She was also well known for the elegance of her apartments. They were lovely: her taste was flawless, except that they were explicitly created and designed to impress, and as a result became unspeakably vulgar.

I had a friend many years ago in Scotland whose husband was invariably either about to become exceedingly rich or else about go bankrupt. They lived in a very large Victorian house parts of which would be sumptuously furnished while other rooms would be bare and unfurnished. The house was so large, her children used to cycle around inside, much to my children’s envy. As you entered the large hall, you were practically met at the door by an enormous gilt and glass chandelier (which later crashed to the floor, only marginally missing a workman.) A large downstairs room was converted into a cloakroom with white marble, glass and gold fittings, huge gold framed mirrors and red carpets. Decorating the vanity unit was a life sized glass swan. One felt it was rather indelicate to use the room for the purpose intended and the outsize mirrors only added to one’s discomfort. Her sitting room, a large high ceilinged room, had one wall grey and other three a vibrant pink. One sank into pink and cream long haired carpet, before slipping on white leather sofas. But what I especially marvelled at, and what I think summed up her whole philosophy, was the ornament given pride of place on a large glass coffee table. It was an enormous representation of Cinderella’s coach in glass, gold and ceramic,complete with the princess, the fairy godmother, the glass slippers – the whole dream. I loved going there because it was such fun. She was warm and generous. She had created this sugary nest which corresponded with her ideas of beauty. It certainly expressed the fantasy section of her quite childlike personality. She drew everyone in with her laughter, her kindness, her generosity. I knew it was not in the best possible taste, but going to hers was always fun. Certainly for a short visit, you could appreciate her exuberant enjoyment of her husband’s somewhat temporary wealth.

We’ve all been to houses where everything is of exquisite taste, designed to reflect the owner’s wealth, class, and education, and where the hostess has a veneer of social politeness (what Jane Austen would describe as ‘ well bred ‘ ) but little warmth. But wouldn’t you rather spend the evening somewhere more homely, where the paintings, perhaps though charming are a mixture of reproductions of Great Masters, amateur but good drawings of their children, and unknown artists portrayals of places in the world of significance to them? Where possibly their furniture isn’t antique, but a harmonious mixture of modern classic, Ikea and a lovely desk inherited from the hostess’s grandmother. The chairs may not be Chippendale, and a trifle shabby, but they are inviting and comfortable? Or even where the only decoration is a statue of Buddha and a print of Babar the elephant. What matters is how welcome and comfortable they make you feel.

I think it was Alan Clark who sneered at Michael Heseltine because he ‘bought his own furniture” (as opposed to inheriting it.) (Nothing at all wrong with inheriting it, of course.) Furniture is for using – sitting on, writing or eating at, etc. How you acquired it, as long as it’s legal, is neither here nor there.

Returning to Morris, furniture should be useful, fulfil it’s function, and it can be in the opinion of the owner, beautiful. But. in the long run, taste doesn’t matter. Kindness does.

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About adhocannie
I am a good natured woman with a long memory and a swift tongue. I like loooking at things and thinking about them. Also food, clothes, travel, reading, sewing. I try to see the ridiculous in things, but sobriety of reflection keeps edgting in. I have husband, children, grandchildren, friends... I feel rich in things that matter. I am a happy exile. I like writing. I do not like talking about me (though I do.). You willl be much more interesting.

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