In spite of a new sense of freedom, propriety in 18th century London still required certain domestic divisions.
Contemporary interior decoration is very much a matter of individual taste. And the seemingly limitless range of options we have today means we play with space, light, materials, effects and colour in variations that were unthinkable in previous centuries. As a consequence, the way we use our domestic space is more flexible than it has ever been.
In 18th-century Britain, however, things were very different. Interiors followed a strict set of rules which changed dramatically over the Georgian period. Houses were expressions of status, and their decoration was carefully considered and for show.
Men and women occupied separate spaces then, both publicly and privately. The rising middle class often married out of mutual affection rather than dynastically and pressure on space meant that shared bedrooms became the norm. The bedroom, once as much a space for entertaining as for sleeping, was gradually removed from public life. Glimpses within it, depicted in pictures and cartoons, became intimate, sensual and, when depicted through caricature, often grotesquely sexual.
Public pallor, private colour
As the 18th century progressed, this mixing of notions and rituals, and of what constituted public and private, had a strong influence on the decoration of the home itself. Interiors became more harmonious, progressing through the different areas of the house, rather than the formal stage sets of earlier decades. Heavy use of decorative plasterwork, mirrors and lighting made spaces even more opulent, but also dictated and indicated what the room was used for. No one would expect to see a chandelier in a bedroom. Bright overhead lighting was strictly for public spaces.
It was not only architecture and decoration that created these effects – colour was key. ‘Public’ domestic spaces, such as the hall, staircase hall and a long gallery would be painted in stone shades. There are almost no exceptions to this; it is a reflection of bringing the exterior, public face of the house to its interior walls.
Conversely, private rooms weren’t restricted to this palette – it was far too severe. Print rooms, often the domain of the lady of the house, were bright yellow or pale pink. Drawing rooms were a soft blue or green. Libraries featured more intense colours, such as dark greens or browns, as did many bedrooms. The darker and richer the decoration, the more private the space.
A new domestic order
The glorious period that came to be known as Regency was the point at which the way we lived became modern: recognisable to us now, in literature, science and art. Inside the home, men and women still occupied their own spaces, and their right to do so was accepted as correct and necessary. Men dominated dining rooms and libraries, but the feminine space was more elastic, encompassing kitchen, garden, drawing room and bedroom.
The formality of late Georgian architecture, combined with the exuberance of its interior decor, implies a sort of freedom. In the sophisticated Regency home the illusion of mixing between the sexes and social classes was cleverly achieved with distracting colours and new wallpapers. Servants and lovers came and went, appearing from hidden doorways and concealed staircases, and spiriting away through the same. In the new domestic order, the dividing lines of society and sexuality were becoming increasingly blurred. A foreign visitor to London remarked, in surprise, at how spirited teenage girls would chat to male houseguests whilst sitting with their feet up on the chairs.
Another remarked on how families ran up and down their narrow townhouses, stopping to perch on their respective floors like birds in a cage. Yet this new sense of freedom was only an illusion and with Victoria, a female monarch arrived and the backlash against such ‘immorality’ began. The boundaries of sex and servility were reintroduced, and became ever more rigid as the 19th century progressed.