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Home grown


Domestic Interiors: The British Tradition 1500-1850 By James Ayres.Yale University Press,2003. £45

James Ayres' The Shell Book of the Home in Britain has lasted well since it was published in 1981. His new book, Domestic Interiors: The British Tradition 1500-1850, is a revised and much expanded version of its predecessor, which describes vernacular British interiors from the medieval house to the mid-19th-century terrace. It is about middle class homes, where tradesmen and craftsmen created interiors inspired by a tradition of decorative and craft skills without direct access to polite architectural texts.

The new book - with colour and black and white illustrations and the author's own line drawings - is sumptuously presented.

Separate chapters deal with walls, floors, ceilings, stairs, windows and doors; each conveying the essential characteristics of the interiors of a particular period. Further ones examine the servicing, decoration and use of these interiors, while the conclusion presents the vernacular interior in its context.

The study follows a tradition established by such authors as Sidney Addy in his Evolution of the English House (1898) and CF Innocent in The Development of English Building Construction (1916), who pioneered the practical research and recording of these buildings before the First World War. More recent academic studies in social history and vernacular architecture have greatly extended the field, dealing with the regional characteristics of buildings, their structural techniques and the geographical distribution of plan types. Ayres deals with all this contemporary research in a wellorganised way by the extensive use of footnotes, which loosens up the main thread of the narrative text considerably.

His book is based on extensive research in north-west Europe and America. It presents surviving examples of vernacular interiors and seeks, says Ayres, 'to capture the more fugitive qualities of the vernacular interior as an entity'. It is a tribute to him that he has been able to draw together such a wide range of illustrations and descriptions to give a sense of intellectual consistency to what would otherwise be fragments and clues.

The research work is essentially archaeological, and each find has been catalogued, described, and put in context to build a far more complete picture than the reader could gain by visiting a reconstructed folk museum. The book will be valuable as a reference for those intervening in vernacular historic buildings or for those curious about decorative eccentricities in their own home.

Inevitably, the survival of fragments of decoration from the past is rare, and it is interesting to see how they become elevated to works of art in the newly restored interiors illustrated in this book.How much better they might be appreciated if their present architectural context was more understanding of the surviving fragments. However, Ayres is always judiciously restrained in his descriptions, indicating points of intrinsic interest rather than commenting on the context. There is also plainly the excitement of discovery, with photographs of decorative wall schemes emerging from behind hardboard coverings or modern plaster.

Supported by eight appendices, a glossary and an extensive index, this is a welcome addition to the specialist field of domestic interiors.

Julian Harrap in an architect in London

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