December 06, 2009

"Through the Sash Window": History of Art Seminar @ University of Warwick, 2nd December 09

As part of the History of Art Department's Seminar Series, Dr. Steven Parrissien gave a talk on Wednesday entitled "Through the Sash Window: Space and the Home in the Early 19th Century". I found this to be a thoroughly interesting and engaging talk which gave me a fresh perspective on ideas of space in the 19th Century. The focus was on the early 19th century- just up to the 1830s- which Parrissien situated as a period in which the middle-classes were able, for the first time, to choose how to decorate their homes (the term "interior decoration" was first used in 1807): with industralisation and the subsequent growing wealth of middle classes, people were more able to devote time an money to the decoration of the home. Home design was largely about demonstrations of wealth, with the home as a venue for displaying new wealth; but Parrissien also emphasised the importance of having choice over how the home was decorated, conveying the sense of excitement and possibility in this new mode of display- pictures of interiors of homes showed the new fabrics and designs on offer; the talk also touched on the periodicals and magazines on home interior design which were being produced by the 1820s, displaying all the wonderful items that could be chosen.

Much of the talk focused on windows- a subject which has interested me since reading Isobel Armstrong's Victorian Glassworlds, and many of the themes here resonated with Armstrong's work. Parrissien detailed the revoltions in glass production that allowed for developments in the construction and design of window: glass could be produced as bigger panes, and with greater clarity (earlier, thicker types of glass offered limited visibility, with windows functioning predominantly to let in light); the window could therefore be constructed to offer a bigger, clearer viewing space. The view from the window now featured as integral to a room, almost part of its decoration: this is emphasised in paintings that position the window view as almost a painting-within-a-painting, creating a landscape in itself.

However, not only was the view out improved, but so too was the view in: the passer-by on the street could more easily see into the home. This de-stabilised the typical public/private sense of space: whilst the home might be ideally conceptualised as an enclosed, private world, the window disturbs this relation and opens up the home which is now a transparent, more vulnerable space that can be penetrated by the gaze of those outside, as well as being more aware from inside of the presence of that "beyond". Parrissien ended by positing the increased importance of spaces around the home, such as the front garden and the front door, as a form of protection and boundary from the outside world.


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