Rooms through the ages

Saturday, January 4th 2014

Today was a dull day, as they are apt to be in January, and so we went for a warming breakfast at the Angel Inn (which is a cafe, despite its name), and discussed what we should do next. Neither of us felt like wandering about in the open and so indoor activities were indicated.

The Geffrye
The Geffrye
Museum of the Home

We walked down to the clock tower and boarded the 394. This little bus (unlike most in London, it has only one door for both entry and exit) follows an intricate route, threading its way along narrow streets among tower blocks until it eventually emerges in Kingsland Road in Hoxton. This is where we find a beautiful institution that likes to call itself simply “The Geffrye”. Once a set of almshouses built in 1714 by the Ironmongers’ Company, it takes its name from Sir Robert Geffrye whose bequest provided for its foundation. It was sold to the London County Council in 1911 and the Grade I listed building now serves as a Museum of the Home.

Admission is free, photography is allowed, and there is a cloakroom with lockers and locking coat hangers, whose use is also free of charge. While the basic plan remains the same, the displays change with the seasons and we always like to visit to see the various rooms appropriately arranged for Christmas.

A hall in 1630
A hall in 1630

Each display shows a family living room from a particular period, starting with a 1630 “hall” and continuing up to modern times. Information boards situate the room in the context of the age. For example, this hall, or day room for the family, would also have been used for entertaining guests. Placed on the first floor, with business premises on the ground floor, it would have been furnished and decorated both for family use and to impress visitors.

A parlour in 1745
A parlour in 1745

The only problem with the Geffrye is that the passage leading from room to room in the earlier section is narrow and when the building is crowded, as it tends to be at weekends, movement is likely to be a little hampered. If you want to take photos, you may have to wait patiently for your opportunities.

A drawing room in 1830
A drawing room in 1830

Each room is meticulously furnished and decorated according to its period. While everything is clean and tidy (I do not care even to think what their cleaning bill must be!), the feeling is created that you are looking into a room whose occupants have stepped outside (perhaps to welcome a visitor), leaving the room momentarily unattended. A book may have been left open beside a comfortable chair, playing cards may be laid out on a table or children’s toys scattered on the floor.

At home in 1890
At home in 1890

Fashions change through the ages and rooms become more charged with furniture and decorative objects or the decor becomes simpler. After the exuberance of the high Victorian era, a desire for plainer settings manifested itself, though there was still a desire to be surrounded by beautiful things, both for one’s own enjoyment and to impress the visitor. The 1890 room is one of my favourites, perhaps because when I was a child, many people’s homes still resembled this style.

The Chapel
The Chapel

In the middle of this section of the museum, behind the main entrance, is the chapel. Occupants of almshouses were usually required by the regulations to attend services regularly, including twice on Sundays. This chapel seems to be a fairly austere example of its kind but when in use, it might have looked somewhat different.

Bell Dedicatory plaque
Bell and dedicatory plaque

Dedicatory inscription

The door of the chapel corresponds to the main door of this wing of the building (see top picture). Above the door I noticed a fairly large bell but I don’t know whether this is a rather elaborate door bell used to announce visitors or whether its purpose was to call residents to services. On the wall facing the entrance is an elaborate plaque acting as a memorial to Sir Robert Geffrye and his wife Dame Percilla, both of whom were interred in the chancel. By clicking on the image on the left you can read the dedicatory inscription, written in a typically florid script of the era.

Entering the new wing
Entering the new wing

Continuing on, you pass through doors into a new wing that has been added in modern times. There is a cafe, a shop, where you will find an interesting collection of books on buildings and architecture, and some more display rooms. A sweeping staircase leads down to a basement area, where there are study rooms and displays of information – currently an exhibition about people researching the history of the houses they live in.

Edwardian period room Edwardian period room
Edwardian period room

Here we find more modern rooms, starting with another of my other favourites, the Edwardian period room. Though you cannot see this in the above photos, this setting allows us a glimpse through the living room door of the hallway and the front door. I always find this scenario slightly strange because it is both “modern” and “old fashioned” at the same time. The room is characterized by a mixture of Arts & Crafts and Art Deco designs but despite the passage of a hundred years, this setting feels familiar, if lacking a few of the modern “necessities”, such as a telephone and a TV set.

Chair designs Chair designs
Modern chair designs

As well as room settings, other displays show items of furniture and decorative or useful objects. The stand above shows a range of modern chair designs. Another building project is under consideration and if this goes ahead, it will interesting to see what exhibits and facilities it provides.

The Station (1930)
The Station (1930)
Lilian Gladys Tickell

In addition to the above, there are also paintings or various ages and styles. The two I have selected as examples both come from the 1930s and both are by artists who seem not to be very well known. The one above is by Lilian Tickell and is here entitled The Station but referred to elsewhere as Cheltenham Station. It is a lively, if slightly naive, portrayal of the bustle at a busy railway station in the days of steam. Today, it is easy to attach a feeling of nostalgia to the picture but such a feeling would not have been present when it was painted as it shows life as it was then.

View of an interior, showing the arrival of the Jarrow Marchers (1936)
View of an interior, showing the arrival
of the Jarrow Marchers (1936)

Thomas Cantrell Dugdale

I liked this picture because of the somewhat ironic contrasts that it embodies. It is both a serious painting and a political cartoon – almost a lampoon – at the same time. In the foreground, we have a couple of obviously affluent socialites, dressed for an evening’s jollity, while outside are the Jarrow Marchers who have just arrived. One can make out scarcely any detail of them but the movement and the hubbub are easily imagined. The woman is interested enough to look out at what is going on but we cannot see her face and therefore do not know what she thinks, whether her expression would be of bewilderment, sympathy or disdain. The man’s attitude, in contrast, is all too obvious: blowing smoke rings, he is completely unconcerned, lost in his own no doubt trivial thoughts.

The staircase (yes, again!)
The staircase (yes, again!)

Yes, another picture of the staircase. I am fascinated by staircases. But you knew that… 🙂

The Geffrye is particularly attractive at Christmas when the rooms are decorated and the atmosphere is festive. It is well run and the staff are welcoming and helpful. Whether you want to engage in serious study of the domestic interior or browse “homes through the ages”, the Geffrye is always worth a visit.

Copyright © 2014 SilverTiger,, All rights reserved.


About SilverTiger

I live in Islington with my partner, "Tigger". I blog about our life and our travels, using my own photos for illustration.
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6 Responses to Rooms through the ages

  1. Sue says:

    Great piece and nice pictures, thank you.

  2. WOL says:

    The staircase is a very fascinating design with its “floating” stair rail. One thing that caught my eye was the “puddling” of the drapes in the 1830’s room, rather like the medieval fashion of ladies having skirts excessively long so that material dragged about on the floor, showing that they were so wealthy that they didn’t mind the yardage of expensive fabric that was spoiled by contact with floors which would not have been anything remotely like what we would consider clean. Liking the color blue as I do, the color of that room is very appealing to me as well as the furniture.

    • SilverTiger says:

      I think the comparison is apt because rooms where guests were received would be decorated to impress as well as to be pleasant and comfortable for the residents.

      Living as we do in a Georgian house whose listing prevents modifications to the windows, we appreciate how important heavy window drapes would have been because the traditional sash windows let in the cold air from outside. The more layers of cloth you can muster, the better!

  3. Mark Elliott says:

    I, like WOL, especially enjoyed the photo of the 1830s drawing room. The Edwardian period room does indeed seem familiar – especially to those of us of a certain age who visited great aunts and grandparents in the 1960s!

    • SilverTiger says:

      The Victorian and Edwardian eras are in fact much closer to us than we sometimes realize. I think that in many ways, the 20th century could be seen as the “Post-Victorian Era”, in the sense that it evolved from the Victorian period rather than being a break with it.

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