Imperial Lather The gadgets may look very different, but at heart todays society has much in common with that of our enlightened Edwardian ancestors, says Clive Aslet
The gadgets may look very different, but at heart today’s society has much in common with that of our enlightened Edwardian ancestors, says Clive Aslet
THE OTHER DAY our builder came to see us. As well as patching up our crumbling property, he does some quite serious work around the metropolis, one of his latest projects having been to install a shower that uses 56 litres of water a minute. That’s over 12 gallons in old money — about half a dozen times more than the average, I’m told. Which makes one pretty fancy shower, but as its features were described to me, I realised that I had encountered them before.
I remember showering in a bath, the kind with a mahogany hood at one end, at Kinloch Castle on the Isle of Rum. There were settings for ordinary shower, douche (a deluge from above), wave (a neck-high ribbon of water shooting out with the force of a bullet) and spray (needles from the side). They controlled only the top part. Other knobs and levers set the water effects around feet and knees. That bath was installed in 1897.
The world has come full circle. We have arrived back in the Edwardian period. Once again, we’re in an era of superwealth. I don’t mean that everybody is feeling exceptionally flush; far from it. But there is enough cream at the top of the social jug to form a class, operating by its own rules and attracting envious comment from the rest.
I’ve been studying the Edwardians for a long time. My shower at Kinloch took place in 1984. I shall soon be publishing a book, The Edwardian Country House, revising a work, The Last Country Houses, that appeared in 1982. But the further we are removed temporally from the early 20th century, the closer we seem to approach it in other ways. There are only so many ways to show off, or to indulge yourself. Frankly, the Edwardians discovered most of them. The plutocracy of one age calls to another.
It goes without saying that rich people love cars and gadgets. Expensive cars, of course. Well, that’s what Edwardian cars were: big, glossy beasts with morocco leather interiors, with the added bonus, if you were out to spend money, that they kept breaking down. Early tyres were fragile and needed to be changed so often that the King travelled in two cars, so that he could transfer to the spare at times of blow-out.
Traditional families, who liked to have guests stay for the week, were scandalised by the freedom of movement. The old order of the countryside was rocked to its foundations as motorists careered through villages, scattering ducks and geese, frightening horses and terrifying slow-witted locals.
What were novelties in the Edwardian period have since become commonplace. No doubt this will, in time, prove equally true of the touch-screen technology being fitted to the ritziest modern home. The telephone began its life as a purely domestic device, useful for calling a servant up from the basement. This may seem an extravagance in this benighted and largely servantless epoch — but actually it saved labour. Had you merely rung on the bell, the servant would have had to run up for the order, gone down again and then returned with the tray.
Servants were becoming more difficult to come by, and labour-saving technology was the equivalent of the devices that make today’s home carbon-neutral — adopted as a fashionable luxury by the rich before entering the mainstream. Vacuum cleaners were advertised as ‘one-servant’ machines: no need for the footman to beat the rugs. But since they often took the form of a central pump and motor which was connected by means of tubes to all the rooms in the house (the maid plugged a nozzle into a hole in the skirting board), they were far from cheap. The footman might well have been more cost-effective.
HUMAN NATURE DOESN’T change. But attitudes do, and some of those which we regard as axiomatic today originated before the First World War. Localism is an unattractive neologism, but we know what it means: the desire to escape big business, big Tesco and globalised loss of identity and to reconnect with small producers and communities. The Edwardians were there before us. Their concerns were the ugliness of industry and the flight from countryside to city.
The shock troops to combat these evils were provided by the Arts and Crafts movement. Architects like ES Prior and Detmar Blow built houses, as far as possible, from the materials that they dug up from the site. This could lead to extremes: Prior built Voewood in Norfolk out of flint, pebbles and red brick, interspersed with herringbone patterns of tile. It looks slightly as though it were designed by a lunatic.
We are children of Nature; so were the Edwardians. They welcomed sunlight into their rooms. Windows were flung open. Gardens became extensions of houses, with outdoor rooms. Verandahs came into vogue. Some people slept outdoors. On the soap tycoon Lord Leverhulme’s sleeping balcony, where he slept throughout the year, rising at 5am, was his bath: he might have had to break the ice before getting in.
All right, the comparisons have gone far enough. It wasn’t a Jacuzzi. But I haven’t even mentioned Edwardian yachts…
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