‘Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful,
or believe to be beautiful.’
Looking back over the past few posts, I think I’ve probably been a bit serious, writing about feminism for International Women’s Day, fundraising for Japan, saving libraries and marching in support of public services. It looks like I’m getting all political in my thirties, so here’s something about loveliness.
On Sunday I went to take tea with Isabel Losada, an author I was interviewing for For Books’ Sake. When it gets posted there I’ll write some more about that. As she was reaching down cups and saucers from the top of a cupboard, she commented ‘I’m very William Morris-y about things. I was going to get rid of this tea set because we never use it. I said to my daughter ‘This is now officially “at risk” and she begged me not to throw it away. So we’d better use it.’
Drinking tea out of proper china is a real treat. Somehow it makes the most ordinary and every day activity into a treat. You sip tea from china. You delicately hold the saucer, and attempt to be vaguely proper.
But china isn’t really useful. If I’m thirsty and I have a choice, I’d rather have a big mug of tea, than a delicate cup and saucer.
To own a tea set like this, it has to justify its existence by being beautiful. This particular tea set was quite lovely – cream with a gold trim pattern. And since we’d sipped from it, sitting in the sunshine of her garden on a picnic rug, it had proved itself useful and been saved for another day.
I tend to err on the side of utilitarian. But recently I’ve been thinking about how we need objects of beauty or things that give us moments of beauty – like drinking tea from a lovely cup and saucer (with a chocolate Hobnob on the side) – to lighten our days.
This weekend a new exhibition opens at the V&A called The Cult of Beauty, exploring the Aesthetic Movement of the 19th century. Aestheticism had this idea of the value of beauty in our every day lives at its heart. They promoted the notion of ‘art for art’s sake’ which led to William Morris’ advice ‘Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.’
Living in small London spaces, its easier to choose an Ikea-led functional minimalism, and end up with something cold-hearted, than indulge in something gratuitously beautiful. But I think I’d prefer my homes to be a place that makes me happy – with pictures that inspire me on the walls, and thick rugs that comfort me to walk across barefoot, and peacock feathers to look at for the sake of the flare of peacock feathers. And in a cupboard, an occasionally-used, but beautiful tea set.