Evolving tastes and challenging property markets mean that past generations’ possessions don’t fit into the homes of the next generation—aesthetically or physicallyby Hephzibah Anderson / March 29, 2019 / Leave a comment
Earlier this year, a Berkshire couple rummaging in the attic of their Victorian semi turned up a cache of Indian antiques that is expected to fetch millions of pounds at auction. Looted from the palace of Tipu Sultan by the British East India Company’s Major Thomas Hart in 1799, they were passed down through his family, consigned to increasing obscurity until they ended up wrapped in newspaper and shoved beneath the rafters.
I don’t know about you, but there is nothing that’s been in my family for two-plus centuries: we’re a clan whose time back then was spent either scrabbling underground or fleeing marauding Jew-haters. There must have been objects of beauty—scraps of Nottingham lace, silver candlesticks from the Old Country—but life was too unpredictable, too unsettled, to preserve them.
When I was a teenager, my grandmother’s death precipitated the arrival at our North London flat of a looming Welsh dresser that had been her pride and joy—and my mother’s bête noire, since her childhood chores had included keeping its wood gleaming. It was accompanied by an Oriental rug whose rich pong evoked generations of canine incontinence, but the dresser exuded an anti-social aura, refusing to sit comfortably anywhere. What’s more, on closer inspection, it revealed itself to have been cobbled together from two quite distinct pieces of furniture, its top half heavier than its delicate, more authentic, nether quarters. As a whole, it had a vaguely malevolent air about it, and when one day it toppled over and nearly flattened my mother, she summoned a creaky-jointed antiques dealer to cart both it and the rug away.
Even among those whose family tchotchkes and furniture haven’t been lost to dispossession or sold on due to being, perhaps, possessed (I’m only half joking—there was something very Shirley Jackson about that Welsh dresser), heirlooms are fast becoming a thing of the past. The underlying reasons span the gamut of changes social, economic and cultural, but they all boil down to the simple fact that nobody wants their parents’ and grandparents’ stuff any longer.
Evolving tastes and challenging property markets mean that past generations’ possessions don’t fit into the homes of the next generation—aesthetically or physically. While the occasional mid-century modern chair might be given sanctuary, so-called brown furniture is such a no-no that it’s inspired a movement agitating for its demise, and the three-piece suite has just been ousted from the ONS’s inflation-tracking “shopping basket” by smart speakers. Sets of wedding china, crystal, silverware: they all belong to a world of airs and graces that has faded along with their owners. To cap it all, Britain is in the grip of a decluttering fad led by the Japanese tidying expert, Marie Kondo—a fad now so entrenched it’s become a verb: to “konmari.”
There’s no denying that material culture has changed. Whereas once a couple wed before setting up home together, letting parents and the wedding registry take care of its contents, now they live alone first, then co-habit before marrying—if at all. Their home furnishings are patched together ad-hoc, and often -disposable even if they’re never actually disposed of (rare is the household that doesn’t have an Ikea bookcase lurking somewhere). Competitive consumption—keeping up with the Joneses—still matters, but its markers are fast becoming travel, “experiences,” and holier-than-thou wellbeing regimes rather than possessions.
Last year, Netflix’s Nostalgia, a classy if unsung ensemble piece, threaded together monologues that captured the ways in which objects become the focus for our anxieties about mortality. We invest them with meaning in the hopes that something of our loved ones will endure, but ultimately, they remain “things”—and physical reminders of loss, at that. A heart-piercing final twist highlighted the way in which our most personal belongings—the music and literature that shapes us, the photos that reveal us, even the journals in which we confide all—are increasingly digital. Perhaps it’s ever been thus. Think about it: haven’t the best heirlooms always been stories and songs, the very traits that we carry within us?
Of course, that means they’re also a lot harder to turn down or offload. Back in the realm of the physical, with the story of Major Hart’s loot in mind, you might just want to check the drawers of that bulky mahogany bureau before you consign it to the charity shop.