They were young and they were in love. It was the early spring of 1872, Mandell and Louise Creighton were in Paris on honeymoon, and Mandell, a historian and fellow of Merton College in Oxford, was determined to find the perfect brass poker for their first home. Louise was only starting to comprehend what it means to be wedded to someone who does not consider wallpaper and furniture as mere necessities. No, for Mandell decorating a home was a method of perfecting the perplexing and elusive character that encompassed a man’s disposition and moral qualities. Character was a central organizing idea of Victorian culture and society. Character was nothing to be taken too lightly as many believed that it determined a man’s fate. Creighton drew a link between character and decorating by stating how “it is quite as difficult to furnish a room as to form a character” because “A room ought to be an indication of the character of its inhabitants.” For Creighton, the importance of constant development of character was self-evident and the cultivation of self was a common theme in his correspondence. Every purchase he made, then, had to be carefully considered because the pretty domestic items he acquired were testimonies of his character, class, and gender.
Shopping and decorating are often regarded as feminine pursuits and the nineteenth century for sure was not void of persisting stereotypical images of hysterical women losing control in London’s spring sales or fretting about fashionable drapes, chests, and pots. Men, for their part, were depicted either as indifferent or incompetent shoppers who could not be bothered less about conspicuous consumption or who were hoodwinked by shopkeepers and henpecked by their wives. As amusing as these stereotypes may be, they are only stereotypes and there is much evidence of women as cautious consumers and of men as avid shoppers. Louise Creighton “ached with fatigue” while she stood waiting for Mandell who explored the “innermost recesses” of “every old furniture & curiosity shop” there were in Oxford. Mandell Creighton’s fascination for furniture and accessories shows how at least a certain kind of consumerism and domesticity were not considered to undermine masculinity. Quite the contrary; because a home was an important display of individual taste and social status, Victorian middle-class men showed great interest in interior design. Towards the end of the century, though, this began to change: the crisis of gender, the flight from domesticity together with the adoration of muscular masculinity, and Oscar Wilde’s trial which established an uncomfortable link between aestheticism and effeminacy all made decorating to appear a suspiciously feminine pursuit and something to be refrained from.
As Paul Deslandes points out, decorating rooms was an essential part of the Oxbridge undergraduate experience during the second half of the 19th century: taking charge of one’s own lodgings was a rite of passage from boyhood to manhood and an opportunity for self-fashioning. The Oxbridge folklore was pregnant with stories of four distinct “types” of masculine poses – the aesthete, the athlete, the reading man, and the sporting man – and of their identifiable attributes and decorative preferences.
Mandell Creighton, who as an Oxford student placed himself into the category of a “bookworm”, was in the vanguard of the decoration fever in his university. He was interested in the aesthetic movement, and at the latest when he became a tutor in 1867 and moved into his bachelor’s den at Merton College, he began energetically to decorate his rooms and “gratify his taste for beautiful things.” He purchased fine blue china, and to confirm to his identity as a man of books, designed an oak bookcase which he extended year after year to accommodate his growing library. He converted his rooms into a striking display of his style and a space to impress his guests. Even decades later, Mrs. Humphrey Ward remembered the “Morris paper” and “the blue willow-pattern plates” in his “beautiful Merton rooms.” Even more importantly, when he brought for the first time his fiancé to his rooms, she was blown away by his “gorgeous rooms…,splendid oak furniture, quantities of beautiful china & endless beautiful photographs & prints.” When they set to get their first Oxford house in order, Mandell shared his passion for furnishing and decorating with Louise who was much less informed about the possibilities and hidden meanings ascribed to various styles and domestic accoutrements than he was.
Mandell Creighton was indisputably aware how the decorations he chose for his rooms functioned as indicators of his scholarly status and gender. He was well embedded in the masculine values that defined the Oxbridge culture. With the manly self-assurance of a recent Oxford graduate, he declared how “ladies in general are very unsatisfactory mental food,” yet allowed that women were a sort of unavoidable necessity of life: “Of course at a certain age, when you have a house and so on, you get a wife as part of its furniture, and find her very comfortable institution.” Thus, it is not surprising that Creighton hunted antique stores and decorated his home with objects such as books and rare prints which betrayed his identity as an educated Oxford man. Such purchases required education, knowledge, and refined taste – all attributes that oozed with manful scholarliness and high social standing.
Since Creighton associated decorating with character building and self-display, furnishing was a cautious project for him. A man’s character was, according to him, entirely depended on his own actions and he decidedly rejected the notion that character formation would have depended on circumstances. This was a contested topic and the question between determinism and voluntarism, that is whether a character was made for us or by us, divided opinions. Creighton firmly believed that a “Man is entirely above the power of circumstances” and thus responsible for his own character. In terms of decorating, this meant that Creighton rejected all dogmatism and aesthetic theories as these undermined the individuality of an aesthetic project. He was aware of John Ruskin’s theories of style and William Morris and the Arts and Crafts movement, but emphasized how “All people err who fall into rules on the subject [of decorating].” This was not an entirely unique notion. For example, the magazine The Decorator and Furnisher advocated similar individuality on its pages. Creighton subscribed to this wholeheartedly and insisted that his rooms expressed his personal identity, interests, and tastes, not those of an upholsterer or an art critic. He was pleased to notice that he had succeeded in this. In a letter written in 1871, he described how “Mrs. P.” had visited his room and approved it because “it gave the effect of a thoroughly individual and masculine taste throughout.” His desired manly style was confirmed by this unidentifiable female visitor.
A home – together with clothing – was the most important visual indicator of class in Victorian Britain and as this fact was not missed by the young Oxford dons either, we must, lastly, shift our attention from the furniture and decorations to the walls, and more precisely, to the papers that adorned those walls. Indeed, wallpaper gained symbolic importance in late-Victorian Oxford as a marker of education and learned society. Lewis Foreman Day, a decorative artist and industrial designer, defined wallpaper as “indispensable to the “tenantable repair” of an ordinary middle-class dwelling.” In other words, wallpaper was the second best choice after a wall painting for those who leased their houses and were unwilling to invest in property that was not their own. To compensate for wallpaper’s lack of dignity and effectiveness, the design, color, and producer had to be carefully selected. The wallpaper brands all carried their own implicit meanings and for the educated Oxford elite it was William Morris and his floral and ornamental designs that aptly defined their unique social status.
Morris’s wallpaper had found its way already to Mandell Creighton’s rooms at Merton and Louise observed how the “Morris influence was strong” in Oxford at the time the couple was furnishing their first home. The Morris-craze was further affirmed by Mrs. Humphrey Ward, who had, as a young don’s wife, noticed that in the Oxford of the 1870s “we all…furnished our houses with Morris papers, old chests and cabinets, and blue pots.” Indeed, Morris and the Arts and Crafts movement which he was associated with became household names in artistic and educated middle-class homes whereas his designs remained rather unpopular beyond these circles. For many, the handmade Morris wallpaper was too expensive and his distinct style unappealing. According to L. F. Day, Morris “had a way of his own and the courage to persist in it.” Young academics, on the other hand, were attracted by this individuality though of course the popularity of “clustering pomegranates” particularly in Oxford homes undermined the uniqueness.
The eclectic customer base earned the Morris wallpapers an artistic reputation and plastering walls with the company’s designs evolved into an act of collective self-fashioning that codified the social role of a scholar rather than expressed individual style. As Mrs. Humphrey Ward explained, most of the young families in Oxford “were very anxious to be up-to-date and in fashion, whether in esthetics, in housekeeping or in education” and one way to achieve this was to follow “the fashion of the movement which sprang from Morris and Burne-Jones.” Adherence to the Morris-style enabled them to distinguish themselves from the Belgravia and Mayfair fashions that they scorned and to underline their own unique status as young academics.
Mandell Creighton’s enthusiasm for decorating deviates from the conventional accounts of nineteenth-century historians who worked hard to disassociate themselves with domestic concerns, conspicuous consumption, and fashion at least in their autobiographical writings. The decorative pursuits of these dedicated historians were strictly limited to a study: the desk, armchair, and bookcases had to accommodate the intellectual activities and the ever-expanding library. One explanation for these conflicting images might be that they participated in different self-fashioning projects and historians’ diverse, yet overlapping identities. While historians strove to constitute a persona for the slowly emerging academic discipline of history and therefore emphasized the intellectual commitment, symbolically displayed by a writing desk and an extensive library, Creighton’s immersion into house ornaments was linked to the refinement of the categories of class and gender identity that historians also assumed. The domestic objects Creighton possessed were assigned meanings that identified their owner as a learned man and a representative of a specific academic community of Oxford scholars, a community not primarily delineated by disciplinary boundaries but by shared cultural values and practices. This explains why Creighton as a historian took the papering of the walls of his homes with such a level of seriousness: although the financial realities forced the Creightons to paper the walls of their first home with an affordable yellow design from Woollams & Co., they hoped to be able to confirm to the outward expectations later on and optimistically “looked forward to Morris papers in the future.”
Creighton Louise, Life and Letters of Mandell Creighton, Sometime Bishop of London. Vol. I. (London: Longmans, 1904).
Day Lewis F., “The Choice of Wall Papers”, The Decorator and Furnisher 20:6 (Sep. 1892): 217-219.
Memoir of a Victorian Woman: Reflections of Louise Creighton, 1850-1936, ed. James Thayne Covert (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1994).
Ward Humphrey Mrs., A Writer’s Recollections, vol. I (New York and London: Harper & Brothers, 1918).
Collini Stefan, Public Moralists: Political Thought and Intellectual Life in Britain 1850–1930 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991).
Deslandes Paul R., Oxbridge Men: British Masculinity and the Undergraduate Experience, 1850–1920 (Bloomington & Indiana: Indiana University Press, 2005).
Steinbach Susie L., Understanding the Victorians: Politics, Culture and Society in Nineteenth-Century Britain (Oxon & New York: Routledge, 2012).
Tosh John, A Man’s Place: Masculinity and the Middle-Class Home in Victorian England (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1999).