Summer 2022

Gloucestershire Heritage Hub

Art and Design

The stories they tell us

Buying antiques to furnish one’s home is a relatively cheap way of setting up home, and is a much greener and sustainable way of buying items which have already had a life, and which can be “recycled” or repurposed many times over. There is a resurgence of interest, today, in anything old for one’s home, whether shabby chic, mid-century modern, upcycled, or vintage.

My dining table, for example, is a late Georgian, round, tilt-top pedestal supper table, dating from about 1820. It is matched with 4 hand-made ladder back dining chairs with rush seats. All of this furniture is in dark, highly French polished English oak, with the patina of around a couple of centuries’ daily use. I like to imagine the meals eaten at the table, the characters who would have used it, sometimes by candlelight, the letters written, and the afternoon teas enjoyed around it. These are country, vernacular pieces of furniture, which would have been hand-made and sold locally, probably from workshops rather than shops, and quite often handed down from one generation to the next.

My small dining table will have been used by people who will have witnessed the dawn of the Regency era, the Crimean War, the reign of Queen Victoria, the First World War, the Art Deco period and roaring 20’s, World War Two, and so many other national and international events in their lifetimes. I like to think of the stories such humble pieces of furniture could tell if only they could speak! I find that art and antiques not only give me a sense of the past, but put me in touch with history and heritage in a very tangible way.

If you’re interested in the history of the home, a good place to visit is the former Geffrye Museum, now the Museum of the Home, in London. Or, closer to home, the Avoncroft Museum of Historic Buildings in Bromsgrove. Or, if you like reading, consider Bill Bryson’s “At Home – A Short History of Private Life”. And for decorative, domestic arts, nothing can surpass the V&A. Consider, also, the popular TV series, “A House Through Time”, presented by historian David Olusoga.


Design is all around us, even if we don’t consider it to be so. Think about advertising hoardings – they define an age and can date a moment in time; for example, the colourful, very stylised images used on the Tube, in London, in the inter-war years (now highly collectable) or the red and white “Keep Calm and Carry On” posters always associated with WW2. Visual art and design actually define an age in a way that very few other things do – save for the built environment and, to some extent, fashion. Museums are excellent sources rich with ideas and possibilities to inspire us.

Art and design endure in a way that very little else does. It is always worth fixing old items; just think of the popularity of BBC1’s “The Repair Shop” which is not only about the old items, but about the human stories associated with them, often reflecting the lives and experiences of generations. Art and design is always about the task, and the need, of reflecting human experience – whether in the shape of a well-crafted antique table or a colourful Art Deco poster on the underground; it is, above all, about expression. As William Morris said, that doyenne of the Arts & Crafts Movement, “Have nothing in your home that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful.” That is, I think, as true today as when he first coined the phrase well over a century ago.

Sally Middleton


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