by Barendina Smedley
Of all the books that have ever been published on English home decoration — I mean the ordinary everyday sort, not monographs on Inigo Jones’ schemes for Wilton House — the greatest is the not-quite-a-series published in the 1980s including ‘The Englishman’s Room’, ‘The Englishwoman’s House’ and, not least, ‘The Englishwoman’s Bedroom’.
The genius of this latter book lies in the realisation that, while bedrooms usually have something to do with privacy and sleep, these are really the only limitations on their diversity. And so begins a magical mystery tour round social and sexual mores, wealth, class and perhaps most of all, personal taste. The greatest joy of the tour is the way in which the woman depicted in ‘The Englishwoman’s Bedroom’, through their starkly-differing decorative choices and explanations thereof, provide remarkably frank, revealing if not always entirely conscious autobiographical profiles.
‘Ralph and I both like playing, and this is our set’ proclaims Hammer Horror actress Virginia Wetherell coquettishly. ‘The atmosphere is sensual and warm.’ And indeed, the room depicted is a cluttered, crepuscular, airless ‘love nest’ festooned with Victorian lace, curled ribbons, artificial flowers, fringes, frills, an infinity of pointless little cushions, and a fireplace filled with dusty gypsophila. ‘I feel that the bedroom serves three basic purposes: to sleep in, to make love in, and to be ill in.’ Well, quite.
In bracing contrast to this we are allowed into Lady Annabel Goldsmith’s Richmond Park bedroom: chosen as a comfortable place, because as she puts it, ‘I suppose it is rather like domestic pets who will invariably pick one place in the house in which to sleep, hide their bones, have their kittens and so on’.
Lady Annabel’s bedroom is not a private place at all: ‘Mine is almost the main room of Ormeley Lodge, and is such a perpetual meeting-place of family and friends and all the animals that I cannot think why it is not more grubby than it already is’. The photos, in contrast, depict an immaculate if very 1980s space, lined with Colefax & Fowler rose-sprigged chintz and almost filled with a massive, canopied bed, also hung with rose-sprigged chintz. The bed, shown twice, is variously occupied first by a black cat, then by a reclining Lady Annabel flanked by two tousled-headed blond creatures who, with hindsight, must be Jemina and Zac Goldsmith. Although Lady Annabel is wearing a nightdress, the wholesomeness of the scene is formidable, like fresh air blowing in from a window opening out onto Richmond Park.
‘The Englishwoman’s Bedroom’ covers all the bases of 1980s British upper middle class and aristocratic womenhood. (Other social classes need not apply.) Emma Sergeant’s room contrives to look like the most upmarket student digs ever. Dr Christian Carritt, ex Somerville College Oxford, occupies a handsome Victorian space that looks as if it might have strayed from ‘An Englishman’s Room’, for it does not much resemble a bedroom at all. Poor Anita Roddick announces ‘As this bedroom is intended to be anonymous, pragmatic and timeless, it is not a setting for intimacy.’ I felt quite sad for her after reading that. Lady Sarah Aspinall, in contrast, kept baby tigers, a gorilla and her scarcely less alarming husband in hers. In other words, within the conventional social parameters, all human life is here — and some animal life besides.
So the point about bedrooms is, really, that generalisations about them are doomed to failure, because they are as individual as we all are.
One can, of course, discover trends. For one thing, as expressions of feminine individuality go, rose-sprigged frilled chintz curtains are not what they were in the mid 1980s. Ditto pleated silk lampshades, although I think this is a great pity. Better still, 1980s bedrooms showed none of the fixation with pale, muted, neutral colours that is the curse of our own age.
Further, in ‘The Englishwoman’s Bedroom’, there are all sorts of beds — Zandra Rhodes claims ‘my bed must be round’ although sadly she never explains why — but never, ever, that increasingly common present-day thing, the super-king-sized bed. I have slept in one of these whilst visiting friends, and I have to say that I find them bizarre. For one thing, once they are paired up with a really large wardrobe and, heaven help us, a television set, they take up most of the space in the room. They are also disorienting, as if one wakes up in the middle of the night and wishes to escape from the bed, it takes an awfully long time, and a lot of exploration, to find an outer edge. During my time in that bed, I am sure I only ever occupied about a quarter of it at most. What is the point of all that extra space?
But as we have seen, these things are all down to personal whim. Personally, my bed is not, as Lady Annabel’s is, a public and sociable realm, like something from the court of Louis XIV, with a group of sofas arrayed at the foot of it to provide seating for the assembled multitudes. It’s private.
It’s also almost exclusively for sleeping. I don’t mean this in a dismissive way, for as anyone who knows me is well aware, sleep is my great self-indulgent treat in life. Constitutionally incapable of ‘lying in’, my fantasy is to be in bed by 8.30 pm, so as to have a good half-hour of cosy, untroubled day-dreaming before drifting off into actual, unmediated dreams. It is, alas, a fantasy rarely achieved. Then before 5 am I am up and about, ranging far from my bed, in search of several cups of hot tea and whatever adventure the day may bring.
As my desire for sleep is completely and nakedly selfish, I don’t much like sharing beds, although I admit that there are points in life wherein, whether for practical or other reasons, it’s a near-necessity — and, as Lady Annabel would surely understand, I make an exception for a cat or two sleeping at the foot of my bed. (I mean domestic cats, by the way. I have never tried tigers.)
Otherwise, I don’t really like sharing bedrooms. For one thing, I am far tidier by nature than my husband, who leaves heaps of things everywhere and has never knowingly straightened a cushion in his life. Part of the reason I find solitude very soothing is that I get bored of having to clear up after other people. Nor, in fact, do I really like having people visit my bedroom even in daylight hours. Not for me, the dream of a bed filled with husband, children, dogs, cats, gorillas and other assorted guests, which is perhaps why I’m fine with a double bed — early twentieth century brass, in case you are wondering, although I actually do pine for a Tudor or early Jacobean upgrade. As much as Virginia Woolf gets on my nerves, with her rather precious political stances and liberal fundamentalism, she had a point about A Room of One’s Own.
The need for such a thing can be as unconscious as it is vehement. Only recently did I notice an odd thing about the room I chose in our new house. It is set in what used to be a projecting wing of the house, evidently added after the main hall as built, so if one includes both my bedroom and the adjoining study, these rooms are literally the only ones in the house where all the walls were at one time external ones — massive flint walls, too — with a result that my room is actually quite isolated from the rest of the house, a sort of fastness set apart from everything else, with its own tiny corridor leading to it. A mighty fortress is my room, a bulwark never failing. Why is this something I want and need?
I genuinely don’t know, but I am pretty sure that other people notice it too. Rather oddly, most of the east-facing part of the first floor of our house was decorated long before our site supervisor allowed anyone even to open the door of my room, let alone get to work on it. My room is the one always left out of the walk-round at site visits. I am not sure whether what I have created is viewed as an inner sanctum of such holiness as to repel all human ingress, or merely a space about which I am unreasonably territorial and fussy. Either way, though, I am in no hurry to change it.
As for decoration, I like my room to be quite simple, old-fashioned and a little bit austere. The walls are covered with old William Morris paper. The floors are oak, wide uneven boards that are possibly quite old. There’s a bookcase full of gardening books, but that is mostly for reasons of space — it’s too large to go anywhere else. I don’t really read in my bedroom. There is a dresser for storing clothes, a big old blanket chest for storing linens, and quite a few occasional chairs which have found their way in over the years and never found their way out again.
The lighting consists of two pendant lights, one of them a double rise-and-fall with two unmatched glass shades. This isn’t intended to be ‘fun’ or ‘quirky’ by the way — it is simply a mistake. How the decorating magazines would pity me!
What pictures are present are meant to be familiar and reassuring, rather than eye-catching. There’s a pretty tiled fire-surround, above which an Arts & Crafts mantle carries some extremely cheap, chipped, eighteenth century Meissen teacups. The most beautiful thing in the room, by some way, is the view out the window and across the lawn, away towards the south. Early in the morning one can often see stars, then as the sun comes up, pheasants or even roe deer grazing on the wet grass. Perhaps that is why I like to get up so early in the morning.
Other people, though, have other ideas of the perfect bedroom. My son’s bedroom is mostly lost beneath a sea of Commando comics, Beano annuals, dusty Arthur Ransome books, the odd bugle or French Foreign Legion hat. It is less for sleeping than for making a colossal mess with limited consequences. My husband’s room appears to be a place for reading in bed, epic Sunday morning lie-ins and for making his conference calls when the kitchen is full of builders.
And for our friends with the super-king beds, one feels certain that the oversized furniture, thick pile carpet and pale neutral colour-scheme fulfil some longstanding fantasy in a way that comforts and satisfies them. This is as it should be. Let a thousand flowers bloom. As long as a bedroom offers a place to sleep, is located reasonably close to a working loo, can be made to reach a comfortable temperature and is clean enough not to present health hazards, the only other thing it has to do is to please its inhabitant(s) — and to tell its own indiscreet tales to any outside observers who may happen to pass that way.