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A Room with a View: Writers at Home
by Lucinda Gosling June 22, 2021

Lockdown may have shut down most things, but what it has opened up to us are other peoples’ homes. Whether you’ve enjoyed judging the general slovenliness of your colleagues’ living quarters during a work Zoom call, or have tuned in to television interviews with actors and politicians merely for a chance to scan their bookshelves and comment on their questionable taste in soft furnishings, we can all probably admit to indulging in a little domestic voyeurism over the past fifteen months. This newly-discovered landscape of interiors has provided endless opportunities for commentators; the twitter account ‘Rate my Shelves’ gives deadpan critiques of the personalities and intellect of the famous, based on the state of their bookshelves. Of course, this desire to see how the other half lives is nothing new. Through the Keyhole first aired on television in 1987 and around the same time, Hello! and OK magazines were feeding their readership with a diet of celebrities, paying eye-watering amounts of cash in order to share air brushed A, B & C-listers posing at home. Going further back, the ‘society’ magazines in our own archive also liked to peer at posh people at home.
The Tatler, arguably the trailblazer of this genre of publication, began in 1901 and in its early years, offered readers the chance to see the famous in their domestic habitat, although, in the 1900s, the celebrities it chose were novelists, journalists and playwrights rather than reality TV stars. These profiles amount to just one single, full-page photograph of ‘Authors at Home’ but they offer a fascinating glimpse into the homes of some of Edwardian Britain’s most creative and successful literary figures, and while it is a chance to judge their personal taste and style, the photographs often reveal more than we might expect about the subjects.

E. Nesbit

E. Nesbit – By the time this photograph appeared in The Tatler in February 1904, Edith Nesbit was already an established writer, of poems, novels and especially books for children. Her most famous work, ‘The Railway Children’ (1906) was yet to come. It is an image where her clothing rather than surroundings, mark her out as unconventional. She is uncorseted and wearing an example of ‘artistic dress’, loose, almost medieval style gowns in soft colours, favoured by aesthetic and progressive types. As a founder member of the Fabian Society, Nesbit’s choice of dress fits well with her own socialist principles. Adding another dimension to her bohemian lifestyle is the child in the picture; John Bland, born in 1898 and in fact the biological son of her philandering husband, Hubert, and his mistress Alice (who lived with them as companion and housekeeper). Nesbit had adopted John and a daughter, Rosamund, who was also the product of Hubert’s infidelity.

H.G. Wells – Nesbit’s life would overlap with the subject of our next photograph – Herbert George Wells. Nesbit would eventually move to New Romney in Kent, one of a circle of novelists of the period who settled in this area. Both Wells and the Blands were prominent members of the Fabian Society, although Wells’s involvement with the family overstepped the line when he began an affair with Rosamund Bland, Nesbit’s adopted daughter (he was a believer in free love and had a string of love affairs both brief and prolonged). Wells made his home in the small seaside town of Sandgate, near to Folkstone, and his quite spartan study at Spade House frustratingly gives little away about his home, which was built between 1899-1900 by the celebrated Arts and Crafts architect C.F.A. Voysey. Voysey and Wells had differences of opinion about the house, with the plans going through several revisions during the process of building. Wells tempered Voysey’s decorative inclinations, resulting in a plainer house than might otherwise have resulted, but Wells insisted on details such as lower door handles so that they would be child-friendly, as well as accessible to a wheelchair-bound invalid. Voysey’s usual trademark of a carved heart somewhere on the property was subverted by Wells who instead asked that it be flipped round into a spade shape, hence the name of the house. Well’s study at any rate, is fuss-free and utilitarian, although he has that classic piece of Edwardian furniture, the revolving bookcase, placed conveniently by his desk for easy access.

Hall Caine – The Wimbledon home of Sir Thomas Henry Hall Caine (1853 – 1931) is a prime example of modern Edwardian living, light-filled and airy, with white painted wall cupboards and a lovely frieze above the picture rail featuring birds and trees, popular motifs in Arts and Crafts and Art Nouveau interiors. A slim bookcase above the fireplace confirms Hall Caine’s literary credentials and a leather armchair by the hearth lends the room gravitas and offers a place for its owner to mull over his latest novel idea.

Egerton Castle – Egerton Castle presents as something of a dandyish figure in this photograph of him in his study, which is dominated by an ostentatious display of swords above the fireplace. He had been an army officer but he was also a champion fencer, leading the British team at the 1908 Olympic Games. His velvet jacket, and the gilt-framed seventeenth century portrait suggest someone with a romantic taste for the swashbuckling past, but his impressively tall bookcase (as well as the ubiquitous revolving version) remind us of his more bookish pursuits. In fact, a number of Castle’s books were co-written with his wife Agnes (sadly not in the picture) and he was also an authority on book plates, authoring, ‘English book-plates: an illustrated handbook for students of ex-libris’ in 1892. A man therefore, of diverse interests and talents.

Max Beerbohm – Advocates of the clear desk policy, look away now. The study of Max Beerbohm, essayist and caricaturist, and at the time of this photograph, the drama critic for the Saturday Review, is a little shabby. But it’s the chaotically haphazard pile of paperwork on his desk that steals the show, suggesting that Beerbohm clearly had no intention of tidying up for the photographer and perhaps rather revelled in this carefully curated display of disorganised genius.

Arthur Morrison – Arthur Morrison (1863-1945) best known for his stories of working-class life in London’s East End, and author of the 1896 novel, ‘Child of the Jago’ has clearly put a lot of effort into his self-presentation in this picture taken at his home in Loughton. Pictured nonchalantly smoking with a book in hand by his draped fireplace (surely a fire hazard?), he actually has to stand as his sofa and armchair are covered in examples from his collection of Japanese art, on which he was an expert. Further examples can be seen be seen on the wall, and his artistic tastes are further revealed by the neat row of plates above the fireplace and, above that, two mirrors with candle sconces and moulded frames.

Violet Hunt – Violet Hunt (1862-1942), was an author, literary hostess and writer of feminist novels. She founded the Women Writers’ Suffrage League in 1909 and participated in the founding of PEN International. Violet’s room is neat and tidy, and her chosen décor is tasteful and artistic. A Japanese fire screen hides any mess and above the picture rail, the walls are covered in William Morris’s ‘Daisy’wallpaper. However, both writer and room are thoroughly upstaged by Ms Hunt’s black cat, which wears a staring expression of complete and utter feline incomprehension.

G. R. Sims – The study of journalist, writer and publisher, George Robert Sims (1847-1922) in Clarence Terrace, Regent’s Park, with its clutter and Victorian knick-knackery is comfortable, cosy and in keeping with his reputation as a bon vivant. But Sims also used his journalism to highlight poverty and the problems of London’s slums. Note the strategic position of his publication, ‘Living London’ covering life in London in all its variety. It was published in three volumes between 1901 and 1903 and so Sims would have been anxious to publicise his latest project. A sizeable statuette of Queen Victoria provides an imperious presence, bound to ward against lapses towards procrastination.

Mrs Craigie – Pearl Mary Teresa Craigie (1867-1906) wrote under the nom de plume of John Oliver Hobbes. Like Edith Nesbit, she is wearing a loose dress, an elegant solution for working from home comfort. Although comparatively obscure today, Craigie was a hugely successful novelist in the 1890s, after the publication of her first book, ‘Some Emotions and a Moral’ which dealt, rather thrillingly, with marital infidelity. Craigie’s own marriage was unhappy and dissolved in 1895. One imagines the royalties from this novel, and her subsequent books, perhaps paid for the very smart glass-fronted bookshelves lining her elegant study at Lancaster Gate, with the polished desk no doubt smelling sweetly of beeswax. There is some poignancy in seeing Craigie at work here. Just four years later, she died of a heart attack on a train bound for a holiday in Scotland. She was just 38.

To view these and more writers at home, follow this link.

© Lucinda Gosling, Mary Evans Picture Library, 2021