Monday, May 20, 2013

An Authentic Life

It's a fact that when you move, you begin to receive catalogues addressed to the former owner or "current resident" of your new home. It's a glimpse into a world you otherwise might not have known about. Last week a very thick mailing arrived on our doorstep--literally, because it wouldn't fit through our mail slot. At first I thought it must be the Yellow Pages, but once I hauled it into the house, I realized it was a set of furnishings catalogues from "RH", also known as Restoration Hardware. Back when we lived in Wash, DC, I occasionally would saunter through the RH store at Tyson's Center Mall across the Potomac in Virginia. I would admire the restrained colour scheme of the items on display, but never contemplated actually purchasing anything. The sheer size of the pieces made them unsuitable for our tiny Cape Cod in Chevy Chase, DC, and we won't go into the prices, which were equally upscale. When we moved back to Canada, the only exposure I had to RH until now was through a couple of quick strolls through their Yonge St. shop not far from where my relatives live in Toronto.
Just as in DC, we continue to live in a small space here in Kingston, ON. We live in a relatively old small space--old for North America, that is. A Brit friend reminded me of that a few days ago. I was happy to note that the RH catalogues that arrived unexpectedly on my doorstep include one devoted exclusively to small spaces-- a Paris pied-a-terre, a Napa farmnouse, a Boston brownstone--you get the picture. The 1842 limestone row house we now own, with its three stories and long, narrow rooms done up in the style of a London townhouse has a good deal of the same romance (as well, I suspect, as a lot of the inconveniences). After some browsing through RH's small spaces catalogue, though, I'm not sure whether we're all on the same page when it comes to the definition of "small space".
That said, the catalogue that sparked this post is the one entitled, "Objects of Curiosity". Let's have a look at what you can mail order for your old house (or perhaps your new one). How about "statuesque neoclassical hand-carved urns and finials"? The details follow: " Dating to the late 18th and early 19th centuries, neoclassical elements such as finials and urns added an architectural flourish to stately homes and public buildings, garden gates, and grand monuments. Our reproductions have been hand-carved and carefully aged for a distressed, antique patina." Or you might like to have "boarding school boxing gloves" and an "english rugby bag" in "vintage cigar leather, burnished and stitched with care". The blurb goes on to add, "our reproductions of old boarding school sports equipment have a worn and weathered beauty." I'm not sure what you're supposed to do with these. Leave them lying around your vestibule the same way modern kids drop their sports equipment the moment they enter the house? Not all the items in the catalogue are reproductions. There are some handsome "retired" 19th-century Indonesian millstones on metal stands, in case you require conversation pieces. There are also items that are ambiguous in their provenance, such as "magnificent 18th century handcrafted journals", each of which "is handmade, its pages hand-cut with water, then dried under the sun, the linen binding naturally stained, the label artfully timeworn."
It's the pretention of this catalogue that irks me. It presupposes a desire for the old, the classical, the accoutrements of wealth, private education, and clubs. The idea that there's an entire segment of the buying public out there wanting to lead a sort of pretend lifestyle as evidenced by such embellishments is what really bothers me. Access to private education, an interest in classics and other historic memorabilia, and collections of mounted skulls of horned animals, may cast you as an eccentric member of the "one percent", but they don't make you into a fine human being. Pretending, through the display in your home, to lead this eccentric lifestyle makes you at best a fool and at worst a fraud.
As someone who enjoys the beauty of old architecture and antique (but modest) family possessions, the "Objects of Curiosity" catalogue led me on this Victoria Day weekend to have a good look around my own house, to assess what the things I surround myself with have to say. (We don't need to mention the "wool room"--we all know what that means.) I looked at these two little wooden plaques on our library wall.

They belonged to my great-grandfather, a younger son of a landed English family who, like so many other younger sons, went into the Church and then on to the colonies (Canada in the 1880s), where he remained impecunious but well-connected. He acquired them while studying for his divinity degree at St. John's College, Cambridge. The labels pasted on the back tell where they were made.

I grew up with my grandparents and these plaques hung on the wall in our downstairs hallway. Although my great-grandfather died long before I was born, these possessions of his were part of my everyday life and a reminder of his.
My great-aunt Isabel, called "Siddy" by the family, also lived with us. On her bedroom wall she hung this very charming 1860s portrait of her Uncle Fred (in skirts) and Aunt Isabella. This too, I saw almost every day as a child, amazed at the artist's ability to capture the delicacy of the lace petticoats.

On our current third-floor hall wall, we have a photo portrait of my grandfather by Karsh (the same who took the famous photo portrait of Churchill scowling).

It's a reminder of the man with the long nose and thick white hair, who bounced me up and down on his knee whilst reciting "There was an old woman as I have heard tell..." and other now obscure rhymes from the past.
I also have objects from our more recent family history on display. There's this group of shells that James and Isabel gathered on the beach at Newport, RI while we were on a summer holiday there,

and this plaster of Paris piece I bought on a hot May day morning many years ago at the Maryland Sheep and Wool Festival.
All these objects on display have one thing in common. They remind me of family, of people and places I love or have loved. The point? It's that we should surround ourselves with objects of meaning to our real, our authentic life, because of what those objects say to us, not what they say to the outside world. 
P.S. The Harriet Jacket continues to grow.

P.P.S. I've fallen off the Friday recipe wagon. Really, I tried, but cooking just isn't as important as other things (like knitting!)