Displaying Victoriana: book tells the rules and how to break them

HOME STYLE

August 04, 1991|By Linda Lowe Morris

It's easy to get hooked on Victoriana -- all those whatsits and thingamabobs and doodads 19th century Americans stuffed their homes with. You buy a flowery china plate or a carved wooden chair or a bit of old lace and before you know what's happened to you, you've become a collector.

Here in Maryland, that's especially true. Here, maybe because both the port and the B&O railroad thrived during the second half of the 19th century, we're blessed with a particular abundance of Victorian furniture and collectibles, not to mention all the Victorian houses to put them in.

If you've ever wondered how things were used and displayed in Victorian homes -- as well as how to buy and decorate with Victorian pieces in your own home -- you might find the answers in a new book, "Cherished Objects: Living and Collecting Victoriana" (Clarkson Potter, hardcover, $35), written by Allison Kyle Leopold with photographs by Edward Addeo.

"More so perhaps than any other cultural period," Ms. Leopold writes, "the Victorian era cherished objects. . . . In furnishing a home, if one teapot was good, two were better, and three, four, or five a positive delight."

The best collections come from a "strong emotional response," she writes, either to the beauty of the object or to the fascination of its history. And Ms. Leopold, who is also the author of "Victorian Splendor" and a frequent museum lecturer, fills the book with a well-researched text that reflects her appreciation for both.

Beautiful full-color photographs in the book show table-top vignettes and displayed collections, as well as the incredibly intricate mixing of patterns and colors and shape in Victorian-inspired rooms.

"Since they were ruled by rigid codes in so many other areas of their lives, they were drawn to the --ing jumble of the asymmetrical arrangment," the author explains.

But although asymmetrical and seemingly haphazard, she says, the arrangements of objects actually followed their own strict set of rules:

"Fine oil paintings, for example, should never be hung in the hallway; prints, family portraits (as distinct from other paintings), and statuary were best there, set on brackets or in shadowy little niches."

Students of the era will find plenty to study here, but the author doesn't just take us into "period-perfect" houses. She also shows how Victoriana can blend. Even people with contemporary houses shouldn't be afraid to indulge their passion for Victorian things, according to Ms. Leopold. Putting old shapes in a new setting is the core of "the modern mix," as she calls it. And here, all rules are suspended.

"Somehow, the Victoriana seems bolder, gutsier, more audacious than ever, almost as if it knows full well it dominates the room. With all the innocent, overbearing confidence of a well-loved child, it meets the room head on, all opulence and exultant voluptuary shapes."

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