Living Rooms | Sam Johnson-Schlee | Granta

Living Rooms

Sam Johnson-Schlee

A more manorial ten-room apartment for me please. Bored of living in this century, I think I will redecorate. I am my own magic lantern, projecting onto my room new patterns and decorations, new furniture and ornaments. Like the entertainment laid on for Proust’s sulking narrator, my wish projector can replace ‘the opacity of the walls with impalpable iridescences’. Another interior to replace the stubborn, uncooperative walls I live within. Let all the surfaces in your room waver and be replaced with something else.

Dense vines with birds hopping from branch to branch and animals climbing between leaves and reaching out their paws. The plants growing over my walls and furniture are ready for harvest, every branch heavy with fruit, and yet, impossibly, in many places they are flowering at the same time. My room is a miracle, a microclimate where everything can be alive all at once and all together, any day of the year.

Beginning to feel that the room is my own, I stand up and rearrange the soft furnishings. I adjust a doily so that it sits just right, I brush a little dust away from the glass case where my stuffed owl lives. I take a large bed covering and lay it out on the divan; taking hold of it by the two corners of one of its shorter sides, I throw my arms up and at once the large decorated palampore is filled with a bellyful of air and slowly drops to the bed. I even it out at the corners so the design sits centrally, then flatten it out with a sweep of my hand. The fabric is densely woven and smooth to the touch; the work of dyeing, fixing, painting, printing, and washing have made it supple and light. Spreading its branches out towards the edges is a large flowering tree growing from the rocky ground. And flowers everywhere! Great blousy peonies, open-mouthed flowers with haloes of small petals, monstrous orchids, anemones, dahlias, sprays of cornflowers. At the base of the tree are two peacocks with their heads turned upwards admiring the boughs.

I am an imperial lordling, admiring my chinoiserie from my divan and dreaming of the Eastern limits of the colonial world, wilfully oblivious to the plunder, violence, and death in distant places that my desire for grandeur has funded. Here I am, a lost duke, washed up on the Rue Oberkampf, dreaming of the Orient.




Before chintziness there was chintz, a fabric produced in India and imported to Europe by colonial traders. Indian chintz was all the rage in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The bright colours were made with plant-based dyes and mordants. This required a detailed knowledge of the properties of plants and minerals: blue from indigo, red from maddar, yellows from pomegranate skin and turmeric. Each colour was attached to the fabric by colour-fixing chemicals derived from myrobalan fruit and iron or alum. Complex patterns were produced in multiple stages of painting, printing, resist dyeing and mordant dyeing. The finish, the quality of fabric, the colour-fastness – all this added to the desirability of chintz. Indian textile workers were masters of a technique that was impossible to replicate in Europe.

By the seventeenth century chintz textiles were extremely fashionable. When Samuel Pepys’s wife was decorating in 1663, she chose chintz fabrics to adorn the walls of her study. The popularity of the fabric was perceived as such a threat to European cloth manufacture that British and French governments introduced tariffs, and later outright bans, on the import of Indian printed cloth lasting well into the eighteenth century, and it was only when Europe was able to undercut the cotton-weaving industry of India that the legislation was gradually lifted.

The flowers and plants that decorate Indian chintzes are not always easy to identify in nature. They are visions of trees growing from rocks and bursting with multiple flowers, or endlessly winding vines, or bright uniform sprigs, or ripe fruits. Their colours tended to be determined by the pigments and chemicals available rather than by any actual botanical referent. It is thought that styles and patterns developed through exchanges of ideas and motifs along Indian trade routes with the Middle East, China, and Japan.

Botanist Deborah Metsger writes, ‘Artists combined morphological features – or their sense of them – from a range of different flowers and leaves, and embellished them to create hyper-real flowers and fruits.’ There is something ecstatic in the cloth-flora of Indian chintz. Bright and unfading colours which are worked into woven cotton by workers who have mastered every capacity held by the raw materials.

Chintz conjures another world. For Europeans this was a generic orientalist exoticism. ‘Chinoiserie’ was often used to describe the decorative products that arrived to Europe on boats from ‘the East’. But these visions belong to the workers who designed them, not the householders who buy them. For them the dream of chintz was not of distant places, but of the immanent world of work transformed into a site of endless bounty.

When George Washington died in 1799 there were 317 enslaved people at his Mount Vernon estate in Virginia; their labour had been used to renovate the house, to farm tobacco, flax, hemp, cotton and grain, and to run the home and the estate. Some years earlier, he and Martha had chosen fashionable Indian and European fabrics to decorate Mount Vernon. One room contained block printed wallpaper with a botanical sprig pattern, while a large bed was hung with multi-coloured botanical designs. Outside their wealth was produced by slave labour, inside the Washingtons sheltered in an Eden that did not belong to them.

Chintz fabric was at the heart of a controversy involving the Washington family’s enslaved seamstress Charlotte. She was accused of wearing an expensive Indian chintz dress which had been stolen from a white Virginian ferry owner and sold on. The fact that a black enslaved woman wore such a fashionable item caused much consternation, as its previous owner, one Mrs Maciver, considered the Washingtons’ seamstress undeserving of such fine garb.

The history of chintz is entangled with the racist violence of enslavement. Cotton grown by enslaved people on plantations, like the one where the Washingtons lived, made it possible for Europe to take over the production of cotton cloth from India. The labour stolen from enslaved plantation workers enriched the capitalists of North America and Europe, leading to a drastic expansion of the bourgeoisie, while cheap raw materials fuelled the production of the imitation chintz that was used to decorate the homes of this ever-growing social class.

The science of botany helped make all this possible. One of the purposes of botany was to develop new methods for farming plants like cotton in order to increase European control over raw materials. Accordingly, the triumph of European printing techniques and the mass production of imitation chintz brought the imposition of European botanical empiricism onto the chintz aesthetic.

My street in Paris, Rue Oberkampf, was named after Christophe-Philippe Oberkampf, the French industrialist who mastered the production of printed calicos. His factory in Jouy-en-Josas gave its name to a style of printed cotton which is still used today: toile de Jouy. In 1795 Oberkampf started to produce a cloth decorated with flowers from around the world, each one directly taken from the pages of an encyclopaedia produced by the botanist Jean-Baptiste Lamarck. Unlike the floral excess of the flowering tree, these tightly packed leaves and petals bring to mind a botanical collection. The extravagant dreams of the Indian chintz artist have been brought to order by European industry and empire.

It was at this point that chintz began to signify something other than a fine Indian cloth. As imitation chintz flooded the market, the word slowly became an indicator of cheap and fussy decoration. In 1851 George Eliot wrote to her sister to describe some fabrics she had considered buying as being too ‘chintzy’. The industrialists of industrial Europe had overcome the threat posed by Indian textiles. But as patterned cloth became a product accessible to more Western consumers, it began to lose its fashionable sheen. Chintz became chintzy, and instead of lauding Indian craft the word now derided European industry.

It was a kind of trickle-down effect: the fashions of the Victorian bourgeoisie collected in the corners of the working-class homes of the twentieth century. ‘Chintz’ became a useful way for the middle classes to distinguish themselves from the frilly aesthetics of those parts of society they viewed as backwards.

When I was growing up my dad’s parents had a home that might have been called chintzy. My dad’s mum was born to traveller parents but settled when she was still young. Her husband, my grandad, was a farm labourer and factory worker. Their home was a storeroom for a dream of a different relationship with the world, a universe pieced together trinket by trinket. I remember the potpourri in a little gilt-edged pot on top of the toilet in their bungalow. I remember the bronze-cast figurine of a horse in their sitting room, the antimacassars, the porcelain figurines, the silver picture frames, the shortbread that came in a Constable biscuit tin.

My grandparents had placemats decorated with reproductions of seventeenth-century inn scenes: shouting men, dogs rolling on their backs, roast meat. One Christmas I got a big jar of marbles and we tipped them out in the kitchen all over the laminate floor made to look like flagstones. Everything in that house seemed to be reaching towards another Essex: a pastoral world where people simply lived among things, where the labour of a farm worker was a sweet and easy pursuit and there were plenty of places for stopping and resting, like that little boy in Constable’s ‘The Cornfield’ who drinks from a stream while his little dog watches the sheep. In their tastes, my working-class grandparents took the Victorian bourgeois dream of rural life and made it their own. They were constructing a utopia from bits and pieces, a place where they could summon their family to their side with a glance and where the rural and the domestic were a seamless continuum.

My grandparents loved to walk, to watch birds. At the end of their garden was a field full of horses that my grandfather would call over for us to see more closely: the man, who was otherwise so quiet, could speak to horses, and he could make anything from wood. My dad’s parents had a secret command of the landscape where they had never had power. As they grew older a hard life of exchanging their labour for a fraction of the value they produced for capitalists eventually gave way to a pleasant and quiet life of walking and sharing binoculars.

They’d waited a long time for a crumb of comfort. They decorated their house with echoes of Victorian bourgeois life, a dream of what it might be like to own the means of production, for the places where they walked to be common land and the products of agriculture shared according to need.

The reproduction pastoral scenes on my grandparents’ walls were originally commissioned by landowners who wanted to represent their holdings on the inside of their homes. But do not dismiss the interiors of their home as some kind of cultural impoverishment. Their home was not decorated in homage to the lives of the ruling classes, but in resistance to it. They were not meekly imitating the rural gentry but demonstrating their own right to the countryside that they knew more about than any landowner. I don’t know what they would make of me writing this, I didn’t know them as well as I could have.

When the working class inherited the household aesthetic of the bourgeoisie they got to imagine a society where property ownership dissolves. Displaying the trappings of the rich highlights that this wealth was stolen from the poor in the first place. Chintz allows every home to appear to be the dwelling of a landowner, and if everyone owns it then nobody owns it. The tree of life, a common chintz motif, is an image of life exceeding the limits of its environment, a vegetal revolution whereby from rocky ground grows a tree that can produce any kind of flower it wills. Maybe chintziness has become an unconscious reach for the commons: first we will inherit the landscape paintings through cheap reproductions, and next we will take our part of the land.




This is an excerpt from Living Rooms, available now from Peninsula Press.

Sam Johnson-Schlee

Sam Johnson-Schlee is an academic and writer living by the sea in North Essex. He writes non-fiction and memoir about the politics and culture of everyday life. He is interested in how paying attention to familiar objects and practices can open up new perspectives on the world we live in. Living Rooms is his first book.  

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