Ralph Mills

Objects of Delight


Sketch of mantelpiece
Figure 1: A Chimney-piece in Plumtree Court, Holborn (Godwin 1856, 306)

"A chimney-piece in Plumtree-court, Holborn"

Late in the evening of November 24th 2014 I was browsing a mid-nineteenth-century edition of The Builder, a magazine edited and mostly written by architect and activist George Godwin1, when I came across an illustration captioned "A Chimney-piece in Plumtree-court, Holborn" (Figure 1). In the accompanying text, Godwin explains why he included this illustration:

Let us in a parenthesis, by way of relief from the unpleasantness of the details we are forced to go into, here refer to the love of "art" which is often exhibited in the most miserable quarters, in the shape of plaster casts and little prints, not of very refined character, it is true, but still agreeable and cheering as evidence of a striving upwards. The painted parrots and spotted cats, and red-and-blue varnished prints, which not many years ago decorated homes of greater pretence, have found a resting-place lower down in the social scale. Our sketch of an actual chimney-piece will serve as a record of some well-known barbaric favourites. Art offers itself as a social bridge of no ordinary size and strength.
(Godwin 1856, 305)

The "unpleasantness" to which Godwin refers was his experience of the living conditions of the "poor", about whose "miserable quarters" he was writing in an attempt to draw attention to their overcrowding and lack of sanitation.

Up to this point in my research I had not come across a single nineteenth-century record, other than incidental and distant details in a few paintings and drawings, of identifiable miniature objects situated in the domestic interior of an unpretentious nineteenth-century home. This sketch, which was subsequently republished in Godwin's book Town swamps and social bridges (Godwin 1859, 18-19) therefore provides a rare and extremely valuable account of a class of material culture — mantelpiece ornaments — in a context devoid of any creative, and possibly misleading, artistic licence.

Here was an example of something special, because, as archaeologist Mark Leone noted, “artifact clusters virtually never appear the way anyone would have written about them” (Leone 1992, 131). Here was a group of artefacts linked by location and time that someone had written about in a thoughtful and thought-provoking manner and which was more than a simple description.

Photography was in its infancy, and techniques for capturing images of dimly-lit interiors had yet to develop. It was also unlikely that any photographer at the time would bother with such a prosaic mantelpiece, although as this research reveals below, later investigative photography would sometimes include tantalising glimpses of ornaments.

The mantelpiece was recorded in a context on which this research concentrates — the lives of “people from below”: non-elites, “ordinary people".

The objects placed on the mantelpiece include a couple of utilitarian things — a clay pipe and a candlestick. There’s something that could be a small cup or mug as well as an unidentifiable flattened oval object that might have been a “tinder box". What really excited me, however, were the nine objects that could be regarded as “miniatures” — three cats, two bowls of fruit, an urn, a parrot and two difficult-to-identify female figures.

The love of art

As I began to investigate these objects I became convinced that as a group they should form the nucleus of my research.

The identification of one object in particular, the seated cat near the centre of the mantelpiece (Figure 2), when compared with similarly-dated examples (e.g. Figure 3), led me to realise that the “actual chimney-piece” in Plumtree Court was part of a network of material culture that no only spread across the industrialising world and would tell me much about the lives of nineteenth century working people, but also entangled me, my experiences and practices. Given its context in a grim Holborn alley and mid-century society, Godwin’s text was also enlightening, with its discovery of “the love of art", its tongue-in-cheek horror of “barbaric favourites” and its suggestions of “cheering", of “striving upwards” and “social bridges". My research, then, has been directed and informed by that chimney-piece, the objects on it and Godwin’s description of it and its surroundings.

Filling a gap

The eclectic motifs of figurines and ornamental household goods were highly prized by consumers across a social and economic spectrum spanning the Atlantic World, yet they have been largely ignored by archaeologists
(Mullins and Jeffries 2012)

Paul Mullins' and Nigel Jeffries' realisation that these once "highly prized" objects had been overlooked by archaeologists, and, I would add, historians and others researching the material culture of the recent past, confirms that there is a gap to be filled. To many historians, archaeologists and writers the nineteenth-century, "working classes" were "unthinkable, and only to be approached by the statistician or the poet," as E.M. Forster wrote in Howards End (Forster 1910, 47). Indeed, Leonard Bast, Forster's working-class anti-hero, could be an example of someone "striving upward," though, in a comment on material relevant to my research, Bast was hampered by his "scurf of books and china ornaments" (ibid, 254). Books play a minor part in this work, but ornaments, through their tangible and virtual presence and their as actors on the stage that was the mantelpiece are its stars. It is on their performances, together with those who provided stories, characters, props and audiences, that my research focuses.

Colour on the mantelpiece

Throughout this study, it is worth bearing in mind that the nineteenth century took place in colour. Godwin's sketch was in black and white of course. I have ventured to "colourise" it, based on what I have learned through my research. Figure 4 shows the result:

For a discussion of the decorative objects on the mantelpiece – Godwin’s “barbaric favourites” – see Section 8.

Presentation: how these web pages are arranged

Reflecting my practice:
After the introduction to my topic and how I approached it, in Section 1, my thesis is bracketed by two groups of narratives that reflect my practice as a writer. I begin in Section 2 by narrating and exploring a number of personal "encounters" with miniature things that demonstrate the significance of these objects in my life and, by extension, what they can mean in the lives of others. I end in Section 13 by creating two "tales" in an attempt to breathe life into my results.
In Section 3, I present the background to my research. I look briefly at the ancestry of miniature things and the importance of vision in our understanding of the miniature. I then introduce my archaeological approach and define my principal terms. Next I discuss the meaning of "image" as used in the nineteenth century, before discussing relevant past work and literature, mostly relating to material culture and how it can be applied to miniaturisation.
In Section 4 I describe my methodologies.
Focusing on a single "archaeological site" — a nineteenth century mantelpiece — I first discuss its wider nineteenth-century context in Section 5, before exploring its location in mid-century London in Section 6. I then research the source of the objects on the mantelpiece in Section 7. "Excavating" the mantelpiece in Section 8, I investigate in detail each artefact I discover. I describe how even ballads are relevant to this study of material culture in Section 9.
Analysis, discussion and conclusions:
I analyse and discuss in detail the significant implications of the results of my "excavation" in Section 10. I use this to explore the concept of "Object Worlds" in Section 11 and in Section 12 I present my conclusions.
I propose that it is possible to shed light on the past by using the collected evidence as the source for creating fictions. I have written two "tales", the first told by a young image-seller, and the second by an inhabitant of Plumtree Court. As mentioned above, these end my presentation, although there is a brief afterword.

My three appendices contain collected and anthologised source material that can be used in conjunction with the text or can be browsed independently.

Appendix I:
The first appendix is an annotated gallery of some 120 illustrations presented in roughly chronological order.
Appendix II:
The second appendix is an anthology of more than 250 texts extracted from contemporary sources, mostly newspapers and magazines, but also some books.
Appendix III:
I have summarised a number of nineteenth-century Old Bailey proceedings to demonstrate that much can be learned from the materiality of the crimes they record.


Last updated 20th April 2020


Footnote 1

George Godwin (1813-1888) was a Kensington-based architect and writer who edited The Builder between 1844 and 1883. The publication — "An illustrated weekly magazine for the architect, engineer, constructor, sanitary reformer, and art lover" — has been described as "the foremost architectural and building periodical of the nineteenth century" (London Metropolitan Archives 1997/2009). Godwin wrote about Plumtree Court while he was District Surveyor for South Islington (1853-1874) and later presented evidence to the 1884 Royal Commission on the Housing of the Working Classes that led to the 1885 Housing of the Working Classes Act.


Figure 2

plaster of Paris cat
Figure 2: Cat, probably plaster of Paris, with patches of colour and painted whiskers, detail from the illustration A Chimney-piece in Plumtree Court, Holborn (Godwin 1856, 306).

Figure 3

plaster of Paris cat
Figure 3: Plaster of Paris cat, dated 1850s, Södervika, Sweden (Jansson 2011).

Figure 4

Coloured sketch of mantelpiece
Figure 4: A simplified and coloured sketch of the Plumtree Court mantelpiece.