The Dickenses and the Politics of Decoration by Miriam Phelan

 

Charles and Catherine Dickens lived in 48 Doughty Street, the site of the Charles Dickens Museum today, from 1837 to 1839; it is the only surviving home where they lived together. The fabric of the building has a story to tell and the way in which the Dickenses would have decorated their home gives clues into their tastes, lifestyle and aspirations. Decisions about decorating would often fall under the responsibilities of the 19th century housewife, alongside the management of the servants and household finances. Early in their marriage this was also true of the Dickenses, however Charles quickly began to take over many of Catherine’s domestic duties. Lillian Nayder suggests that Catherine was ‘supplanted’ in the role of domestic manager by her husband and that ‘the home and its management were Catherine’s in a more limited sense than for wives in many socially comparable households.’[1] Charles Dickens also ‘supplanted’ Catherine in making decisions about interior decoration, and throughout his life he was continually making decorative and structural changes to his homes. In 1853 Dickens demonstrated his eye for interior decoration as he gave detailed instructions to Catherine on a new mantelpiece covering he wanted made for the study of Tavistock House:

"I have been turning over in my mind for some time, an improvement in the Study, which I wish you would have completed at once. A covering for the mantelpiece-covered shelf you know, like that in the drawing room, and a trifle broader than the mantelpiece now is-of green velvet, about the color of the green leather to the bookcase, or a trifle darker if necessary--with a green fringe intermingled with red. The form of the fringe to be, in little, something of the shape of the cornice-fringe of the curtains-so as to carry that idea, through. The green should be of a tint that will carry through both the bookcase green and the carpet green--generally--so that the greens will all tone in. Get an estimate from Shoolbreds, and then have it made and put up. The glass will have to be raised, you know, and put upon the shelf--as in the drawing room." [2]

 

Even in later life Dickens continued to redecorate; the Museum has two fragments of curtain from the library at Gads Hill that are likely to date from an 1868 redecorating project. In a letter to his daughter Mary, Dickens asked her to oversee the scheme:

"Enclosed I return you Homan's estimate; let all that work be done, including the curtains. […] Have estimate made for cash, select patterns and colours, and let the work be done out of hand. (Here's a prompt order; now I draw breath.) Let it be thoroughly well done-no half measures." [3]

These quotes show that Dickens was invested in the domestic interior and had his own tastes and preferences. Taking on the role of decorator, Dickens left Catherine with less influence over how their home would look. However, there was one area of interior decoration in which Catherine had full control and which was not at risk of being overtaken by her husband, and that was in designing and making textile decorations. Catherine was a skilled needlewoman and took pride in her skills as can be seen from the 1847 portrait by Daniel Maclise, where Catherine is depicted holding a mantel pelmet, similar to the one on display in the morning room. Nayder has suggested that the portrayal of Catherine as simply holding the piece of embroidery rather than producing it characterises Catherine as a passive object; someone whose purpose was to be admired and whose value was defined by ‘her husband’s feelings and perceptions’.[4] However, Catherine took pride in – and placed value on – her needlework skills. We know from her surviving letters that she knitted socks for a friend’s baby and made the mantel pelmet in the museum’s collection for another friend. Catherine even left some lace she made to her daughter Mary in her will. These were objects Catherine valued and it is significant that she wanted to be remembered by the objects she made.

Catherine DickensCatherine Dickens by Daniel Maclise, 1847, oil on canvas, 109 x 84 cm, DH715, © Charles Dickens Museum.

The mantel pelmet in the Museum’s collection was made by Catherine in 1853. The pelmet is an example of Berlin Wool work, a popular form of embroidery in the 19th century, and embroidery such as this was considered to be a useful pastime for middle class women.[5] Berlin wool work uses 13 different forms of stitching according to 19th century writer Mary Beeton.[6] Used to decorate cushions, borders and footstools, it was also common to make Berlin wool work slippers, bags and waistcoats.[7] Women like Mary Beeton are an example of how 19th century women found a voice through domestic duties and crafts as she published extensively on household management and cookery, similar to Catherine who published her own cookery book What Shall we Have for Dinner? in 1851. Embroidery patterns were circulated and exchanged amongst women of similar social classes in the same way as recipes. Sarah Bland was a Victorian woman who designed beautiful embroidery and Berlin wool work patterns which were exchanged and gifted to other women. The Victoria and Albert Museum has a collection of her surviving illustrations and some of them echo the design of Catherine’s mantel pelmet.  Some of these patterns were also published in women’s magazines like The Englishwoman’s Domestic Magazine and The Lady’s Newspaper, which would have been read by middle class women like Catherine throughout the 19th century.

Berlin WoolWatercolour and ink design featuring Berlin wool work elements, ca. 1836-1854, by Sarah Bland (1810-1905), E.372:23-1967, © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Craft work like embroidery provided women with a creative outlet that existed outside the sphere of men. Exchanging patterns for and gifts of these objects shows a network of communication existed between women of similar classes that was based on the skills of needlework and the decoration of the home. Although Charles Dickens clearly had an input in the interior decoration of their homes, Catherine would have been able to place her own stamp on the aesthetic of their abode through these small, but beautiful objects.

Mantel Pelmet made by Catherine Dickens, 1853, DH478, © Charles Dickens Museum.

 

Miriam Phelan is a PhD candidate in the School of Arts and Humanities at the Royal College of Art and the V&A. Miriam has worked on collecting, conserving and exhibiting men’s dress and fashion during her time at the Jewish Museum before being awarded a TECHNE AHRC doctoral award to commence her PhD in 2017. Miriam’s doctoral research focuses on commemoration and men’s dress in Ireland and she has most recently been working with the Charles Dickens Museum researching the Museum's dress and textile collection. 

 

[1] Lillian Nayder, The Other Dickens: A Life of Catherine Hogarth (Cornell University Press, 2012), p. 66.
[2] The British Academy/The Pilgrim Edition of the Letters of Charles Dickens, Vol. 7: 1853–1855: 1853–1855 (Oxford University Press), pp. 215-217.
[3] The British Academy/The Pilgrim Edition of the Letters of Charles Dickens, Vol. 12: 1868–1870: 1868–1870 (Oxford University Press), p. 73.
[4] Nayder, The Other Dickens, p. 103.
[5] Kathryn Ledbetter, Victorian Needlework (ABC-CLIO, 2012), p. 13.
[6] Mrs Isabella Mary Beeton, Beeton’s Book of Needlework (Seltzer Books, 2018), p. 559.
[7] Molly G. Proctor, Victorian Canvas Work: Berlin Wool Work (Batsford, 1972).

Write a response

Please note: responses are reviewed before they are published.

Museum Blog

This blog takes you behind the scenes at the Charles Dickens Museum, giving fresh insight on everything from discoveries new and old in our collection, to exhibitions, events and learning initiatives.

You’ll be hearing from a variety of Museum staff and volunteers as well as guest curators, academics, artists and even members of the public who want to share their experiences at the Museum. If you would like to get in touch about guest blogging or have any questions relating to the blog please email info@dickensmuseum.com

Continue shopping
Your Order

You have no items in your basket