Rare finds at the Geffrye Museum, Hackney
By David Dewing, director of the Geffrye Museum
The Geffrye Museum, housed in eighteenth-century, Grade 1 listed almshouses on Kingsland Road in Shoreditch, is a specialist museum focusing on the history of the home. The main displays are a series of period rooms representing the living rooms of middle-income people over the last 400 years. These are urban homes, typical of the London professional and business classes, the kind of people who can afford to keep up with current trends but are unlikely to be extravagant either in their tastes or behaviour. To give an idea of the kind of objects we collect, and why, I have selected three recent acquisitions which illustrate our approach.
The first object is a turned walnut chair with a boarded seat. This form of twist-turning was first used on English furniture in about 1670 and remained popular until the 1690s. The low, rectangular back suggests a date before about 1680, when the height of chair backs tended to increase, so on stylistic grounds we can date the chair to around 1670-80. It might have been used with a loose cushion, but the lack of fixed upholstery would have meant it was a relatively inexpensive chair, and quite affordable to a middle-income household. It came up for auction in 2010 and is in good, original condition.
The second item is a set of earthenware custard cups in the form of artichokes, dating from the 1780s to 1790s. Custards were a popular sweet dish served alongside roast or boiled meat. Contemporary recipe books explain they were made with cream, egg-yolks, cinnamon and sugar, flavoured with lemons, almonds or oranges. Parson Woodforde mentions them in his diary in 1789. A set like this with its tray is quite a rare survival and we were fortunate to be able to acquire it at auction last year.
And thirdly, a group portrait of a family in an interior, dating from the 1750s. Paintings such as this are a tremendous resource for studying contemporary tastes and domestic behaviour and here the room is modest in scale but quite elaborate in its furnishing and decoration. There is good evidence that the sitters are the Roubel family, Charles-Moyse, his wife Sarah and their three children. He was a French-born Huguenot who settled in Bath and was a jeweller. Their clothing, manners and the style of the interior all indicate a middle-income family, consistent with the level of society represented by the Geffrye’s collections.
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