Sunday 18 November 2007

The Edwardians

The Edwardian period in Britain marked an incredible period of house-building that laid the foundations for how life is lived here today in many ways. The Edwardians, with better transportation and communications made the move out into the suburbs, leaving Victorian terrace houses in favour of semi-detached and detached homes on leafy streets in neighbourhoods, rather than villages or city squares, reflecting a shift towards the privacy of the single family unit that still exists today. This is despite divorce, childless couples and the influence of immigration with extended family models; enduringly, the Edwardian model of the family house overlays our own.

The Edwardians laid out the pattern of rooms that we still use today. What was important then were more than one reception room, decent sized bedrooms, a large kitchen and scullery, a pantry and wine cellar, a bathroom with separate WC, a coal cellar, and the ‘mod-cons’ of hot and cold water, perhaps newly installed electric lighting and even a telephone connection. The Edwardians also wanted a hedged or fenced off front yard which was decorative and not used, and a private back garden which was.

What is important today for the average family is fairly similar, with the scullery transformed into the laundry/utility room marking the rise of the appliance, and the coal cellar giving way to the garage, and the additional bathrooms will more likely have showers than bathtubs. The mod-cons today are similarly focused on energy and communications – our modern homes aspire to having cable or satellite TV, wireless broadband internet and the green credentials of double glazing, insulation, and possibly solar heating.

The Victorian fascination with moral and spiritual health, gave way to an Edwardian obsession with physical health and cleanliness, which has given way to a modern desire for global interconnection and carbon neutrality. The design of houses reflects social priorities; then as now we live our obsessions on our sleeves. Today we want wall-mounted TVs, a place to put our recycle bins and off-street parking.

It is interesting to know that 90% of Edwardians rented and that most houses were built ‘speculatively’, that is, they were built for landlords to rent out and the occupiers had little say in the design or the fitting of the houses. Today two-up, two-down cottages that would have been built for workers are being snapped up by upwardly mobile young professionals; it is a purchase on that rung of the property ladder located between the single person’s first flat and the family home in the best suburb we can afford.

Even if most people will change properties several times in their lives, usually at the most significant moments of their life, the purchase of a property is a always a heavy undertaking. As Alain de Botton noted in The Architecture of Happiness for most people a house is the most important and expensive thing they will buy in their life, so it is natural that we will tend to be conservative when making this important decision. Even new houses therefore tend to be built to look a lot like older ones. De Botton bemoans this tendency and declares that we must buck the trend and opt for more dramatic modern architecturally designed homes that suit our modern lifestyles.

The rest of us can be excused for ignoring his advice. It is fine for the wealthy and arty to go for the modern, but the rest of us could be working our whole lives to pay off a single building and so we don’t want it to be experimental; we want it to keep its value. So the housing market will always, to some extent look backwards, even as we want it to adapt to our changing modern lives.

The Edwardians looked backwards, not only to the Victorians but to the Georgians and even Tudor for design inspiration. They were magpies for taking nibbles of all sorts of design elements from neo-classical columns to Jacobean plaster ceilings, but they still developed a new direction for design.

Edwardian houses differed markedly from the Victorian in their emphasis on simpler design lines, with a much greater delight in natural light and a penchant for decoration. With the rise in disposable income, and a taste for journals which the newly literate and leisured middle-classes perused eagerly, the Edwardians went to town on fancy fireplaces, wallpaper, tiles, and furniture. It is the more permanent fixtures like stained glass, fireplaces, light fixtures and tiles that we are so desperate to preserve or replicate today. These ‘period features’ are renovator’s gold as we look backwards while we look forwards when trying do decorate our homes today.


At 2 January 2008 at 07:02 , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Our homes should be an inviolable place for us and for our planet-a place in harmony with the environment.


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