Trains, Time Zones, and Diving Spheres

Before the late nineteenth century, there was no global standard time. There were only millions of local clock times ticking away without reference to one another. A railroad passenger traveling between Washington, DC and San Francisco in 1870 would have found it necessary to reset his watch more than two hundred times over the course of that journey. 

Railroad travel itself helped create the need for time standardization in the second half of the nineteenth century. In 1883, the four time zones still in use in the continental United States today were agreed upon by the nation’s railway carriers. 

The image below is an 1862 diagram of time zones around the world, with Washington, DC time in the center. This system left something to be desired, since Edinburgh was 12 minutes behind London. 


Around this time, too, inventions like the telegraph first made it possible to think about standardizing time not only in one continent or region, but across the world. The first transatlantic telegraph cable had been laid in 1858, greatly facilitating intercontinental communications. 

(By an extraordinary coincidence, two years later in 1860, scientists inside the first deep-sea submersible, a spherical contraption called the Bathysphere, discovered what they believed to be the world’s longest sea snake, until they realized it was the transatlantic telegraph cable lying on the ocean floor.)


In any event, new technologies like railroads and the telegraph highlighted the need for global time standardization. In 1884, representatives from twenty-five countries around the world gathered in Washington DC at the Prime Meridian Conference and proposed to make Greenwich, England the zero meridian. They also agreed to divide the earth into twenty-four time zones one hour apart, and they set a beginning for the world-wide day. 

The rest of the world, however, was somewhat slow to adopt this system. Japan’s railroad network got on board four years later in 1888. Belgium and Holland followed in 1892, and several other European nations in 1893. But other countries continued to use their own systems. In Russia, St. Petersburg time was 2 hours, 1 minute, and 18.7 seconds ahead of Greenwich meridian time. In India, hundreds of local times were announced by gongs, guns, and bells. 


But France was in total time chaos. Paris time was 9 minutes and 21 seconds ahead of Greenwich. Each French city had its own local time determined by the sun, and some French regions had four different time zones within them. An 1891 law made the railroads run according to Paris time, but to give passengers extra time to board, all trains ran five minutes behind schedule. As a result, the clocks inside train stations were five minutes ahead of those on the tracks. Finally, in 1911, French authorities decided that the legal time in France would be Paris time minus 9 minutes and 21 seconds—aligning France with the global time standard without admitting to having done so. 

The International Conference on Time in 1912 finally resolved many of these problems and set a uniform system for determining and maintaining accurate time measurements around the world. Once this system was in place, local times gradually capitulated to the new global standard.

What is authentic decor? Part IV: Decor as process

People who write about design often praise the “collected over time” look. If a room appears as though you bought everything it contains in one shopping trip, chances are it will seem characterless and artificial. The colors will match a little too perfectly. A good room, they say, is supposed to look like it was assembled gradually by a tasteful and selective eye. They use words like “curated” and “edited” to describe collections of furniture and objects. 

And the design blogs are right, of course. Any assemblage that appears to have been carefully collected and maintained over time is bound to look better than an arrangement thrown together all at once. But the “look” is not what matters. Development over time is one of the two fundamental principles of authentic decor, alongside hospitality. Improving a room, a home, an inner life over time is fundamentally good because it is creative and productive and works against the law of entropy. And these activities are better still if they are oriented outward, toward others. 

Very few of us have the luxury or the opportunity to decorate a room or a house ex nihilo. That situation generally only arises for people who are very wealthy, or for those undergoing catastrophic transitions resulting from events like fire and divorce. For most of us, assembling a home over months and years is the normal course of events, and it is the ideal one. Change over time is a fundamental characteristic of a home, just as it is a defining trait of all biological life. To use a linguistic illustration, the Russian word for “person” or “human” is chelovek. Broken down into its etymological parts, the word indicates membership in a community over time. If a human is defined as that which holds membership in a community over time, then a home is a container for a community over time. 

For this reason, it’s my personal opinion that old things should play an integral role in good decor. They are less likely to be mass produced, and the fact that they’ve been owned before means that by using them, we’re expending less of the earth’s resources. Old things widen our perspective by reminding us that things haven’t always been as they are now. Their stories enrich our conversation. Their history becomes our history. 

Collecting over time can also introduce an element of chance, a little like the controlled chaos of an artist allowing paint or watercolor to seep across a surface. A piece of furniture chanced upon or inherited can have the same effect. 

Let me further illustrate what I mean by design as process by taking a few examples from my own humble living room, the product of a decade of my husband’s and my accumulated life and stuff.


The school desk and floor lamp were my grandmother's from rural Iowa. My husband made our coffee table from a single slab of century-old walnut we found in the basement of his parents' farmhouse. We selected and cut the wood a few weeks before we moved to Moscow in January 2013, so it languished in storage for over a year before we had a chance to put legs on it and call it a coffee table. We found the mission oak desk in an antique shop in Naperville, IL, in 2006. The desk chair is also of oak, and Amish. The couch, formerly a hideous brown, came from a friend of a friend in Arizona. I frankensteined new upholstery for it using pieces of couch covers I found in the "as is" bin at IKEA. The rug is also IKEA. 


My husband and I have both been collecting books since childhood. On top of the shelves stand my samovar, some Soviet-era magazine and record covers, and a valuable vintage globe my mom found at a garage sale in Ohio. We bought the oak armchair at a consignment store in Wheaton, IL and I've redone the fabric on it about four times now. I saved up for that IKEA wingback for almost a year. The small end table behind it came from a dumpster behind our first apartment. The window frame is from a barn on my in-laws' property. 

This room is not complete now, nor will it ever be. Books and art will come and go. Hopefully someday I'll upgrade my computer. Till then, this room will remain "living" because it is, as we are, in process. 

See the other essays in this series, Part I: Authentic Materials; Part II: Hospitality; and Part III: Modes of Authenticity

The Suez Canal and some notes on Russian maritime history

This past Saturday, the first cargo ships passed through Egypt’s second Suez Canal, ahead of the new shipping lane’s grand opening in September. The new and improved Suez Canal will allow for two-way traffic along its entire length, and will accommodate larger ships than before. Construction on the original Suez Canal in the mid-nineteenth century took ten years; the added lane has taken only one year to build.

The Suez Canal’s first opening on November 17, 1869 was a very big deal for global shipping, cutting about 4,300 miles off the voyage from South Asia to Europe. 

 The Suez Canal from space, with natural colors boosted

The Suez Canal from space, with natural colors boosted

The new canal was an especially big deal, strategically and commercially, for the Russian Empire, because its location at the eastern end of the Mediterranean brought international shipping lanes much closer to Russia’s southern port of Odessa on the Black Sea. 

Imperial Russia was an enormous land empire, encompassing many of the world’s longest and mightiest rivers, but oceanic navigation in Russia has a pretty short history. The Eastern Slavs, of course, had used boats from ancient times. But a regular Russian navy was not created until Peter the Great issued an order to construct one in October 1696. 

 The port of Odessa on the Black Sea 

The port of Odessa on the Black Sea 

Fast forward about a century to 1799, when Tsar Paul I created the Russian American Company, Russia’s first joint-stock company, with the goal of supporting Russia’s colonization of northwestern North America. Russian ships circumnavigated the globe for the first time in 1803-1806, under the joint leadership of Adam Johann von Krusenstern and Nikolai Rezanov. A second round-the-world voyage followed in 1814-1816, and this one furnished a great deal of important biological and ethnographic information about what is now Alaska and California. 

 An eighteenth-century Russian map of the Russian Far East and North America

An eighteenth-century Russian map of the Russian Far East and North America

Tea smuggling was as huge a problem for Russia in the nineteenth century as it had been for Britain in the eighteenth, and in 1861, the Russian authorities admitted defeat and opened up the empire’s western borders to tea importation by land as well as by sea. Starting in 1865, Russian ships en route from Vladivostok to Odessa stopped in Shanghai and Canton to purchase tea. So the opening of the Suez Canal opened in 1869, coupled with the newly legalized maritime tea trade, effectively ended the solvency of the great overland caravan tea trade with China, and ushered in a new era for Russian international shipping.

 The Alaska Purchase, 1867. The big guy to the right of the globe is the Russian Ambassador Baron Eduard de Stoeckl

The Alaska Purchase, 1867. The big guy to the right of the globe is the Russian Ambassador Baron Eduard de Stoeckl

In the late 1850s, strapped for cash because of the disastrous loss of the Crimean War, and fearing that it might lose its North American colonies to the British in some future conflict, the Russian Empire offered its American territories up for sale. The British weren’t interested, having just discovered massive amounts of gold in Canada, and the Americans were initially too engrossed in the Civil War to give the matter much thought. Finally, after an all-night negotiation session, on March 30, 1867, the United States agreed to buy Alaska from the Russian Empire at the low, low price of $7.2 million.

Russian shipping in the Far East continued, of course, but with its North American colonies sold to the United States, the Russian American Company fizzled out by 1881.

Medieval Colors

I love the exuberance of the medieval European aesthetic. One aspect of this aesthetic I find irresistibly attractive is the brightness and purity of the colors used in illuminating medieval manuscripts. In my amateur observation, medieval illuminators seemed to love two color pairings in particular: red and blue, and yellow and green. 

The image below features the unpleasant subject of an eye operation, but it illustrates all four of these colors beautifully. Note the yellow border on the surgeon's green tunic. 


Medieval manuscript illuminators did not simply color their pictures with whatever hues they felt appropriate. They followed carefully thought-out conventions and used a widely understood visual language to communicate nuanced political and theological ideas. Moreover, the colors were either limited to whatever pigments were readily available in the surrounding environment, or, if the artist were affiliated with a wealthy and well-connected monastery or town, he could avail himself of expensive imported pigments and dyes. Thus the colors used in any given image are neither arbitrary, nor chosen from a limitless palette. Similarly, until new discoveries in chemistry and technology allowed glassmakers to diversify their colors, medieval stained glass makers were more or less limited to the colors I'm discussing here: blue, red, green, yellow, and also purple and white. Given these limitations, it's amazing to me that medieval European culture produced such varied and creative images. 

Let's first consider the blue and red combination. Blue is the color of deep heaven, and saturates medieval Christian imagery. Blue is also the color of grace, which is why the Virgin Mary is almost invariably depicted wearing blue robes or a blue veil. Medieval artists derived their brilliant blues from silver acetate, from indigo dye, or, most romantically, from finely ground lapis lazuli stone, sourced in Central Asia. In the image below, Christ sits enthroned in glory in a brilliant red ground, suggesting the Holy Spirit, against a blue heavenly background with gold stars. 


Red is the color of passion, the Holy Spirit, and Pentecost. Different reds could be derived from various woods and plants (including rose and Brazilwood), insect dyes, or white lead (ceruse) roasted with fire until it turned red. This process produces a splendid red but is highly toxic. Check out the blues and reds on this series of scenes from the life of David. 


On to yellow and green. Yellow is the color of renewal, hope, and light. To create yellow pigments, medieval artists had access to lead-derived yellows, yellow earth, arsenic sulfide, and a number of plant-derived dyes, including those from Reseda luteola and Crocus savitus. A lovely example of the yellow and green combination can be found on the breviary page below, which features a number of green plants resting on a yellow background. 


And last but not least, green. Green, of course, is the color of nature, fertility, and new life. Medieval artists used copper sulfates and dyes derived from any number of plants, including buckthorn, cabbage, leeks, and nightshade. Here's another page from a breviary showing that lovely green and yellow combination.


Both of these color combinations—red and blue, and yellow and green—can be used to great effect in interiors. Navy blue and true red both work well as accents, and are more attractive together than separately. But this combination must be used sparingly; one wouldn't paint a wall in either shade. Yellow and green, by contrast, can be used liberally. Yellow and green is a very exuberant, life-affirming combination. What could be happier than a yellow flower amongst green plants? 

Perhaps part of the great attraction of medieval colors is the fact that they are simply the historical primary colors we still teach to schoolchildren (red, yellow, and blue), plus green. At one time, in fact, these were considered to be the four primary colors. Goethe believed so and wrote about it in his book Theory of Colours in 1810. They are often still known as the "four psychological primary colors." 

Without getting too deep into color theory or psychology, it seems to me that there is something comforting in the basic simplicity of these four colors. They are simultaneously ardent and calming. They all look lovely in combination with natural wood tones, grey, and white. I don't really follow a rigid color scheme in my own home, but if I did, these would certainly be central to it. 

Muscovy on the Menu: Europeans get a taste of Russian culture, 1600-1800

Churches, icons, crosses, bells,
Painted whores and garlic smells,
Vice and vodka everyplace—
This is Moscow’s daily face.
To loiter in the market air,
To bathe in common, bodies bare,
To sleep by day and gorge by night,
To belch and fart is their delight.
Thieving, murdering, fornication
Are so common in this nation,
No one thinks a brow to raise—
Such are Moscow’s sordid days.

These colorful lines were composed sometime in the 1630s or 1640s, and were recorded by Adam Olearius, the author of what scholars consider to be one of the richest and most important descriptions of seventeenth-century Russia. These myopic and mean-spirited lines pretty well encapsulate the European consensus on Russian culture in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, which I’ve touched on before: Europeans imagined Russia as a land of religious fanaticism, drunkenness, moral laxity, culinary overindulgence, and overall shameless debauchery. 


In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, I argue, Europeans’ observations of Russian practices and behaviors concerning food impacted their more general evaluation of Russian culture. This evaluation was conditioned by two interrelated phenomena specific to Western European culture of the time: first, the evolving concept of “civilization,” along with the racial and cultural hierarchies it created; and second, the genre of the travel narrative, which, thanks in part to the emergent discourse on civilization, had already pegged Russians as “Asiatic” and culturally backward by the advent of the seventeenth century. 

In a now-infamous two-volume work called The Civilizing Process, renowned twentieth-century sociologist Norbert Elias explored in great depth how discourses about what constituted good manners, politeness, and above all, “civilization” had been slowly transforming European attitudes and behaviors since the sixteenth century. Elias’s “civilizing process” is the historical process by which modern standards of table manners, personal hygiene, and privacy developed, along with the notion that transgressing these norms was shameful. Moreover, to quote Elias, Europeans regarded it as “completely self-evident that theirs is the way in which the world of humans in general wants to be viewed and judged.” Elias writes that the basic framework of the modern, “civilized” norms of behavior at table, which take up about half of his massive study, existed by the eighteenth century. Along similar lines, the contemporary historian Larry Wolff contends that Eastern Europe was “invented” by Western Europeans in the eighteenth century, as a way of ranking and evaluating different regions based on their comparative positions on a scale of “civilization” imagined by the West. This was hardly fair, since all the criteria of “civilization” were invented by Western Europeans and based on their entirely arbitrary preferences and cultural mores.


Thus it is hardly surprising that European commentators writing in the 1600s and 1700s overwhelmingly agreed that Russian table manners were substandard at best. One of the most striking aspects of this body of literature is the unanimity of its condemnation of the Russians’ conduct during meals. For example, Johan Georg Korb, secretary to the Habsburg envoy to Moscow in 1698-99, recorded two men hitting each other over the head with loaves of bread at a banquet hosted by Peter the Great. He remarked in this connection that “the good men shone all the more, as their species was evidently very rare.” The French priest Jacques Jubé, who served briefly as tutor and chaplain to the Catholic princess Irina Dolgorukii during the brief reign of Peter II, described food being allowed to spill all over tablecloths and dinner guests throwing themselves at the food with no consideration whatsoever for the feelings of others. He wrote, “It is...rare to find gentle people among the Russians, among whom it is normal to see gluttons, gourmands, and drunkards.” After a description of how the German residents in Moscow bathed chastely and enjoyed pleasant refreshments afterwards, the above-mentioned Olearius commented: “Such honorable hospitality and cleanliness, however, are not to be sought among the arrogant, self-interested, and dirty Russians, among whom everything is done in a slovenly and swinish fashion.” These accounts are amusing to some degree, but that does not excuse the sentiments they betray, which are typical features of these European travel narratives as a whole. They are remarkably unanimous and repetitive in their indictments. More damningly, in their observations of Russians’ behavior at table, the European visitors consistently connected moral character with bodily states. Korb contrasted the food-fighting men with “good” people; Jubé juxtaposed “gluttons and drunkards” with “gentle” people; and for Olearius, “slovenly and swinish” were antonyms for “hospitable” and “clean.”

Not only did the Russians display terrible table manners, but the Europeans condemned their food as well. Differences between foods available in different parts of Europe were, of course, due to geography, climatic conditions, and tradition. Many of the travel writers did in fact make some effort to accommodate and understand cultural difference, but they drew the line at the supper table. The Englishman Samuel Collins, physician to Tsar Aleksei Mikhailovich, remarked, “They know not how to eat Pease and carrots boyld, but eat them shells and all, like Swine.” The account of Koenraad van Klenk, the Dutch ambassador to Muscovy who travelled there in 1663, generally displayed a positive attitude toward Russian food, but stated that it was habitually very ill-prepared. For Jubé, even worse than the Russians’ conduct at table was, in his view, the fact that none of the food was cooked “comme il faut”: “They also have stews as grotesque as they are disgusting, patés and cakes more highly praised by the Russians than the recipes are ancient, [such] that, accommodating as I am to foodstuffs, I could never accommodate: my first attempt was the last and the only one I wanted to make.” Jubé also noted with horror that the Russians routinely ate undercooked meat, “stinking eggs,” and “stinking fish.” Regarding salted and pickled fish, the German-born diplomat Friedrich Christian Weber wrote, “though they may be smelt at a great distance, yet the Russians, especially the common People, eat them with a great deal of Appetite and prefer them to fresh Fish.” Similarly, Olearius: “In Moscow, they use coarse salt fish, which sometimes stinks because they are thrifty with the salt. Nevertheless, they like to eat it. One can detect a fish market by the odor well before he sees or comes upon it.” Olearius attributed the poor quality of Russian food to the excessive number of fast days prescribed by the Orthodox Church.


Not only was Russian food generally terrible, European visitors insisted, but the environments surrounding its service and consumption were routinely described as dirty and smelly. Korb, Olearius, and Klenk all complained that the Russians possessed few fine silver dishes and vessels, and the few they did possess were always dirty. Korb critiqued the cleanliness of Russian dishes at the court of Peter the Great at Moscow: “The cups in which drink is presented to the Czar are made of gold and silver, in sooth, but so coated with filth that it is hard to discover which precious metal lies hidden beneath the dirt. There is no order in the arrangements of the viands; they are thrown higgledy-piggledy; and they are generally torn asunder, not carved.” Klenk’s secretary likewise noted that Russians possessed few bowls and dishes, and what few they did possess they rarely washed. Again connecting food with the disagreeable state of Russian interior spaces, Olearius remarked: “They generally prepare their food with garlic and onion, so that all their rooms and houses, including the sumptuous chambers of the Grand Prince’s palace in the Kremlin, give off an odor offensive to us Germans. So do the Russians themselves (as one notices in speaking to them), and all the places they frequent even a little.” In what was very likely a direct borrowing from Olearius, the author of Klenk’s account inserted almost the exact same comment toward the end of his narrative.

For these European commentators, virtually every aspect of the Russian dining experience was distasteful, from the quality of the food, to the Russians’ awful table manners, to dirty dishes, to smelly rooms. Clearly, Russians did not know how to properly handle and maintain food, the dishes it was served on, or the spaces in which it was consumed. In general, while the foreign visitors were impressed by the quantity and variety of food served by Russian courtly elites, they were appalled by what they perceived as its low quality and the squalor in which it was served. For the Europeans, personal prestige and social standing were increasingly measured by bodily restraint. The ability to maintain one’s dress, possessions, and living space to certain standards of cleanliness, while suppressing bodily functions now deemed shameful, was understood to be the primary measure of one’s civility. Assuming their own standards to be universal, and failing to recognize that the Russians had their own standards of honor, European travel writing perpetuated the stereotype of Russians as dirty and unruly, a stereotype that, in many ways, continues today.

In spatula spaturlorum. Amen.

On Robert Farrar Capon's The Supper of the Lamb

In 1967, a grumpy Episcopal priest tried to write a book on cooking. 

But since Robert Farrar Capon (1925-2013), by his own admission, was unable not to write books on theology, what he ended up with was “a culinary reflection,” a collection of thoughts on “the cracks and interstices of the culinary keyboard.” In short, The Supper of the Lamb is a book that is always beginning to talk about food and cooking and always ends up talking about the fundamental goodness of the created order. And the fundamental goodness of large amounts of real butter. 

Capon structures the book around variations on a recipe for roast lamb, which functions as “a fixed star under which the length and breadth of cooking is explored.” He begins by inviting the reader to contemplate an onion, and in so doing, to encounter its thingliness. At the risk of scaring his reader away altogether, Capon proceeds to spend an entire chapter on slicing an onion. “What we are up to here,” he explains much later in chapter seven, “is not the hasty shaking loose of a culinary result, but a patient rumination on cooking itself. There are more important things to do than hurry.”


Subsequent chapters discuss cookware, stocks, meat, wine, the ideal number of guests at a dinner party, the vicissitudes of good pastry, and even the merits of baking soda. The reader may be confused in places as to whether the author is discussing bourguignon or the Eucharist. With wit, theological acuity, and self-deprecating humor, Capon manages to dwell at length in that liminal space between the holy and the ordinary in such a way as to show that the ordinary is holy and the holy is ordinary.

Medieval Novgorodian Icons of St. George

Located in the northwest of Russia on the river Volkhov, the medieval city-state of Novgorod escaped the Mongol invasions that destabilized most of the rest of Rus′ in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. Having evolved along a different political trajectory than other Rus′ principalities, Novgorod was free and wealthy. Too far from the Byzantine world to be much overshadowed by its artistic influence (unlike its political and economic rival Moscow), Novgorod had established a distinctive iconographic style by the 1370s. 

From its inception, Novgorodian iconography demonstrated a close relationship between religious art and everyday concerns. Medieval Novgorodians looked to the figures portrayed on icons for help with practical needs, and the local school of iconography was characterized by an almost innocent simplicity and a “popular” style. Before Novgorod lost its independence to Moscow in 1478, it had produced many of Russia’s best and most enduring icons, beloved today for their frankness, sincerity and chromatic brilliance. 

St. George was one of the most popular saints in medieval Novgorod. According to legend, St. George slew a dragon that had been terrorizing a town and devouring its livestock. Perhaps for this reason, St. George came to be revered in Novgorod as the protector of fields and flocks. Hymns and legends glorified him as the defender of Novgorodian civilization, and many churches in the region were dedicated to him. In one ritual believed to protect peasant flocks (admittedly Muscovite in origin), the peasant would circle his pasture three times with an axe in one hand, a candle in the other, a sickle around his neck, an egg, and an icon of St. George. Flocks and herds were traditionally put out to pasture on St. George’s Day (April 23), when, according to legend, the saint would ride out on his white horse to protect the peasants’ livestock.

 One of the earliest known Novgorodian icons of St. George, made at the Yuriev Monastery between 1130 and 1150.

One of the earliest known Novgorodian icons of St. George, made at the Yuriev Monastery between 1130 and 1150.

One of the earliest Novgorodian icons of St. George, made at the Yuriev Monastery and now in the Tretyakov Gallery, is a full-length portrait of a handsome youth painted between 1130 and 1150. The saint is shown with his lance in his right hand, his sword in his left, and his shield slung over his back. The iconographer allowed the spear to intrude upon the border of the icon, but the sword is cut off. The somewhat squat proportions of the figure are typical of the Novgorodian style. The elaborate decoration of George’s clothing are uncharacteristic of later Novgorodian works, however, and may indicate that the icon was painted to please the tastes of a prince or some other person of high status. According to one authority (Viktor Lazarev), this icon’s large dimensions (about four by six feet) make it likely that this was the principle icon in its church of origin, and adorned one of its main pillars. Possibly it was commissioned by some high-ranking warrior who enjoyed having George has his patron saint. The image must also have appealed to the men of Novgorod’s citizen army. 

 Another early portrait-like icon of St. George, written about 1170.

Another early portrait-like icon of St. George, written about 1170.

Another early portrait-like icon of St. George, this one half-length, was made around 1170 and now resides in the Cathedral of the Dormition in the Moscow Kremlin. Again, the saint is pictured wearing a red cloak and holding his lance and sword. The face radiates youth and virility, and is surrounded by thick, brown, curly hair. This icon was also likely commissioned by a prince, as the sword was considered the symbol of princely sovereignty. The combination of youthful beauty, princely dignity, and military valor make this a truly stunning icon and a must-see for visitors to the Moscow Kremlin.

 Hagiographical panel of St. George, early fourteenth century

Hagiographical panel of St. George, early fourteenth century

A hagiographical panel of St. George from the early fourteenth century, now in the Russian Museum in St. Petersburg, tells the story of St. George’s most famous miracle in great detail. Unlike many other renderings of St. George and the dragon, this one shows the deed already done, and Yelisava (the princess in the Russian version of the story) leading the tame dragon on a cord as her parents and a bishop watch from a high tower. St. George seems suspended in midair above Yelisava and the dragon, and the effect is heightened by the bright red background. The combination of red and white is characteristic of the boisterous yet unostentatious Novgorodian iconographic style. George’s face is utterly calm and passive. Both the saint and his horse are totally non-threatening, and seem to be gazing off into the distance outside the space of the icon, as if already preoccupied with guarding peasants’ livestock.     

Extremely interesting are the fourteen scenes from George’s life on the edges of the panel. The saint is stoned, boiled, whipped, stabbed, tortured on a wheel, and beheaded. Scenes of martyrdom such as these are always relegated to the periphery of Orthodox icons, in order to shift the focus away from the martyrdom itself and onto its joyful outcome. In each scene, George’s face retains the same serene expression, and often his hands are lifted in prayer. Each time he emerges unharmed from the tortures his enemies inflict on him. Death is nowhere to be found on the icon, only victory over evil and oppression. 

 A very fine icon of St. George from the late fourteenth century.

A very fine icon of St. George from the late fourteenth century.

A true gem among Novgorodian icons, and probably the finest icon of the lot, is a rendition of St. George and the dragon produced in the late fourteenth century, which now hangs in the Russian Museum in St. Petersburg. George appears larger than life on his brilliant white horse, an effect heightened by the fact that George’s hand, his flowing cloak, and one of the horse’s hoofs encroach upon the border of the icon. The saint drives his lance through the dragon’s head with joyful exuberance. George’s downward glance, parallel to his weapon, and the horse’s intense gaze in the same direction, draw the viewer’s eye down to the head of the writhing dragon. The eye then naturally follows the beast’s serpentine body back to the horse’s rear legs, whence they are drawn up again to the relaxed figure of George. The overall effect is sublimely smooth and harmonious. Each element in the icon is perfectly balanced: the dark hole out of which the dragon emerges mirrors the semi-circle of heavenly blue from which the hand of God emerges to bless George’s deed; the differing heights of the mountains balance each other out; and the axis of George’s lance and the graceful shape of the horse’s body form a pleasing X at the center of the icon.     

The flamboyant use of red and white accentuates the flatness of this icon. Nevertheless, St. George upon his white horse stands out dramatically from the rest of the scene, and even seems to be leaping forth out of the frame, as if to aid the viewer in whatever trouble he or she may be facing. Doubtless this element of victorious hope was part of what made representations of St. George so popular among peasants, subject as they often were to famine, fire, and disease.

 Another St. George slaying the dragon from the fifteenth century.

Another St. George slaying the dragon from the fifteenth century.

A similar composition from the fifteenth century, now in the Tretyakov Gallery, shows the hero bent backwards over his horse’s flank, slaying the dragon underneath his horse’s back legs. Unlike the other icons considered here, the dragon has no legs at all and appears as a colossal serpent; the allusion to the serpent in the book of Genesis is unmistakable, adding a layer to the allegorical meaning of the image. No mountains or topographic features of any kind are to be seen. St. George gazes serenely at the viewer, utterly confident in his victory, which is being overseen from above. The horse is actively engaged in conquering the dragon, and seems to trample it with its hind legs. 

 An early fifteenth-century rendition with showing St. George in Roman armor.

An early fifteenth-century rendition with showing St. George in Roman armor.

This representation of St. George slaying the dragon, also from the early fifteenth century and in the Tretyakov Gallery, shows the saint in decidedly Roman-looking armor, wielding not a lance but a sword. This he brandishes over his head as his horse prances confidently, appearing to actually step on the dragon, and preparing to circle back so that George can strike the final blow. The decorations adorning the horse, as in the previous icon, are whimsical and give the horse a more Russian look than his rider. The face of George is very youthful, and his head seems disproportionately small compared to his tall stature and great billowing red cloak. Though this scene takes place before the dragon is conquered, the assurance of victory is present in the confident face of the youth and power of his uplifted arm.

 St. George and the dragon, fifteenth century.

St. George and the dragon, fifteenth century.

Another, very different version of St. George and the dragon, also produced in Novgorod in the fifteenth century, currently resides outside of Russia, in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. George’s lance is surmounted by a cross, and his horse is a brilliant white. St. Dionysius the Areopagite believed the pure whiteness of St. George’s horse to be an allusion to the uncreated light of God, a vision of which is considered the highest spiritual attainment of an Orthodox Christian. 

 St. George standing in prayer from a Deisis row, c. 1400.

St. George standing in prayer from a Deisis row, c. 1400.

Finally, an icon of George standing in prayer, made about 1400. This work, taken from the Deisis row of an iconostasis, resides now in a private collection in Switzerland. St. George wears a red robe, signifying his status as a martyr, and because he stands in the “order” row of the iconostasis, he is shown without military gear of any kind. Though there is little movement in the icon save for the pleasing rhythm of George’s robes, the saint is, as Uspenskii and Losskii put it, “full of a special inner life.” This work, like the others, portrays George as victorious yet submissive to a higher power.

John of Damascus wrote, “The icon is a song of triumph, and a revelation, and an enduring monument to the victory of the saints and the disgrace of the demons” (and here we may appropriately substitute “dragons”).

The Curious Mystery of the Teapots in the Paintings

For historians, visual images can sometimes supply important information in situations where textual documentation is lacking. 

Part of my dissertation on the history of tea culture in the Russian empire concerns the evolution of European tea ware and its introduction into Russia in the eighteenth century. That investigation has led me on a search for the earliest known visual depictions of tea drinking in Europe, and what these can tell us about how the first European tea drinkers brewed, sipped, stirred, and decanted their tea. 

In fact, the very first post I wrote for this blog was a very brief description of a painting commonly attributed to Richard Collins (d. 1732). Known simply as “Family of Three at Tea,” the canvas features a domestic group sitting down to tea with their little dog. No one really knows who painted it, and it was probably finished sometime around 1727. 

 "A Family of Three at Tea," att. Richard Collins, c. 1727

"A Family of Three at Tea," att. Richard Collins, c. 1727

In the first half of the eighteenth century, and especially in the 1730s, portraits of wealthy British  families typically depicted the sitters in their finest clothes and displaying their finest possessions. The consumer revolution was just beginning, and affluent elites lined up to have paintings made that would showcase their expensive taste and attention to current fashion. During this period, there were few better ways to show off one’s wealth, status, and refinement than to commission a portrait of your family drinking tea. Tea was a fashionable, expensive luxury enjoyed by those few who could afford not only the pricey imported leaf, but also fine Chinese porcelains and the latest designs in English domestic silver. William Hogarth’s 1730 painting “The Wollaston Family" is a fine example of this trend. (Note how each member of the group on the right is demonstrating that they know how to hold teacups and teapots properly.)

 "The Wollaston Family," William Hogarth, 1730

"The Wollaston Family," William Hogarth, 1730

Thus it is not surprising that Richard Collins, or whoever painted “Family of Three at Tea,” should have chosen to depict his subjects holding expensive porcelain cups and sitting in such a way that their fabulously expensive matching tea service is displayed prominently in the foreground. 

What did surprise me, though, was this painting, which I found later. This one was done by Joseph Van Aken (1699-1749), a Flemish painter who spent most of his career in England, and is dated 1725, so probably within the same five-year period as the Collins painting. 

 "English Family at Tea," Joseph Van Aken, 1725

"English Family at Tea," Joseph Van Aken, 1725

Even a cursory glance shows that the Collins and Van Aken paintings are virtually identical. The headgear of the man and woman are the same. The family’s poses, down to that of the little dog, are very similar. But most importantly, for my purposes, the tea service is unmistakably the same. 


Not the same as in, both families probably bought the same tea set from a department store. No. In the 1720s, a set of silver tea implements that matched each other was stupid expensive. In the 1720s, English silversmiths were not mass producing tea silver. The market for it was just too small, and mass production would not emerge for about another century. Virtually all tea vessels, like the kettle and stand featured in both paintings, were custom made to order. Sheffield plate would not be invented until 1742, which meant that these pieces were not just plated, they were solid silver. If I owned that tea service, I’d have it painted into my family portrait too. And probably buried with me. 

That means that the tea ware in these two paintings is the same tea ware. The very same objects. Either that, or Collins (whose painting was probably made after Van Aken’s) simply copied Van Aken’s painting, substituting only the human figures and copying the tea service wholesale. 

Why would Collins (assuming it was Collins) have done this? I really have no idea, but I can furnish a few educated guesses. Possibly the family who sat for Collins’s portrait borrowed the tea service so that they could look wealthy and fashionable in their picture. Alternatively, perhaps they simply wanted a portrait that included a tea service, and Collins, maybe because he lacked access to a real tea service, used the tea ware in Van Aken’s painting as a model. 

And, as a matter of fact, there is a third painting. The compositional resemblance of this one to the other two is not quite so compelling, but the similar tea ware is unmistakable. And the two figures are certainly the same father and child featured on Van Aken's canvas.

 "Man and Child Drinking Tea," anonymous, c. 1720

"Man and Child Drinking Tea," anonymous, c. 1720

We don’t have any idea who painted this one, but it’s dated about 1720. If it really was painted in or around 1720, that makes it the original prototype for both of the other two. Since the man in the painting is identical, down to the hooked nose, to the man in the Van Aken painting, it seems reasonable to assume that this may have been an early study of Van Aken's for his later painting. 


There is certainly a mystery here, which, if solved, could tell us a lot not only about art history and portraiture during this period, but also about the social function of tea drinking and tea-related material culture in the 1720s and 1730s. Whatever the relationship between these three paintings, it’s clear that having one’s portrait painted with a tea service was highly desirable among those who could afford it. Tea, along with other colonial products like coffee, tobacco, and chocolate, helped drive the massive changes in consumer habits and domestic life that developed hand in hand with the Industrial Revolution. And, incontrovertibly, many English families wanted to be remembered as tea drinkers. That's not such a bad legacy, in my opinion.

Object Lessons: When Scholars Study Physical Stuff

As a historian, I’m interested in lifestyles of the past. I enjoy studying people’s possessions and everyday life. You would think that a concern with material culture—a fancy term for the physical objects used and produced by humans—has always been central to the discipline of history, but that’s not the case. It turns out that when historians and other scholars get interested in people’s physical stuff, things get very philosophical very quickly. 


In the late 1960s and throughout the 1970s, a set of academic trends popularly known as the “cultural turn” stimulated the interest of scholars across the humanities disciplines in the role of culture in historical processes. An egalitarian impulse inspired by Marxism led historians to consider the quotidian lives of women, slaves, peasants, and other marginalized actors to be just as significant as the political lives of dead white men. As historians began to care more about cultural production, everyday life, sex, and other topics, they turned to non-traditional sources when written documents were silent on the themes they wished to investigate. Historical study became more synthetic as scholars sought a more complete, integrated picture of the life of past societies.

But the academic preoccupation with material culture stretches far beyond the discipline of history. Material culture studies is a child of the Enlightenment-era fascination with the trappings of material life. The great museums in Europe and America also arose from this preoccupation, and their halls were home to the first practitioners of a new discipline called anthropology. In the eighteenth century, the first museum collections furnished proof of knowledge about, and contact with, exotic foreign peoples. The term “material culture” made its first appearance later, in the nineteenth century, when in Britain, the phrase became virtually synonymous with the discipline of anthropology itself. In the late nineteenth century, the study of material culture also became associated with another discipline that had arisen from the eighteenth-century fascination with ancient cultures: archaeology.

Ironically, while Marxism had helped give new impetus to material culture studies early in the twentieth century, a few decades later, the rise of British social anthropology (also inspired by Marxism) almost caused the study of material culture to be abandoned altogether. Social anthropologists considered kinship and social structure to be of more fundamental importance than physical objects. Meanwhile, archaeologists, being stuck with nothing but material culture, developed their own “social archaeology,” which allowed them to read class struggle into little broken pieces of clay. (As an undergraduate, I was subjected to an entire very fat textbook on the social relations of ancient people whose existence is attested solely by bits of baked earth. It was horrible.) As a result, both archaeologists and social anthropologists came to understand material things as subordinate to social structures, which were considered the most basic element of human life.

The story gets more interesting in the late 1960s, when the “linguistic turn” inspired both archaeologists and anthropologists to start treating material objects as texts. Material culture took center stage once again, and it became fashionable to “read” material culture as a system of signs that could help scholars unlock the mysteries of culture. Ferdinand de Saussure’s model of semiotics taught that all signs are arbitrary, and some scholars used this to argue that language constructs reality. Accordingly, items of material culture became stand-ins for abstract concepts, and were valued for the symbolic role they played in social relations. When thinkers like Derrida were added to the mix, the arbitrary nature of signifiers meant that there was nothing outside the text. Accordingly, prominent material culture theorists like the Cambridge archaeologist Christopher Tilley began publishing books with titles like Reading Material Culture.


All this changed drastically in the late 1990s, when some archaeologists began to point out that the “material culture as text” paradigm tended to leave out something rather important: materiality. This is perhaps best illustrated in the evolution of Tilley’s own thought. He had argued in Reading Material Culture (1990) that material objects are given meaning by virtue of their interaction with other types of symbols (i.e., linguistic signs). By 1999, Tilley was arguing in Metaphor and Material Culture that meaning relates to the form and use of objects employed in ritual practice. His break with the linguistic model was evinced by the statement that “...material forms, unlike words, are not communicating meaning but actively doing something in the world.” Similarly, in a 2003 article, the Norwegian archaeologist Bjørnar Olsen asked why the physical or “thingly” nature of things had been forgotten in so much recent scholarship. By this time, Tilley too was stating that words and things are fundamentally different, and that linguistic models obscure as much as they reveal about material forms. All the same, he acknowledged that since archaeologists are forced to think and write about things, the problem of language will not go away in material culture studies.

Tilley reasoned that to be human is to speak and also to make and use things, and that neither language nor material things has ontological primacy. Rather, material artifacts and linguistic forms are both modes of communication, and play complementary roles in social life. What links them together is that they are both products of an embodied mind—a mind that makes sense of the world through association with the body. This conception of humanity acting within the material world has been termed “mutualism,” and derives from the work of archaeologists George Herbert Mead (active in the 1930s) and James J. Gibson (1970s).

In her 2008 monograph Material Cultures, Material Minds, the archaeologist Nicole Boivin took these ideas to their logical conclusion. While she did not ignore or discredit the fact that the material world can and does symbolize abstract concepts, Boivin endowed material objects with agency pure and simple. Many archaeologists, including Tilley, and social anthropologists such as Alfred Gell, had contented themselves with giving objects a type of secondary or derivative agency dependent on the agency of humans. Boivin, by contrast, insisted on the non-arbitrariness of the sign, and this has huge implications for the study of culture in general. In her view, since human beings are themselves material objects, it doesn’t make sense to draw a line between the material and non-material in the study of culture. Even the most abstract ideas and concepts exist inside our physical brains. She ended her book by calling for a radical breakdown between the “hard” and “soft” or social sciences: since the mental and physical are totally integrated in the human person, then cognitive psychologists, historians, neuroscientists, and anthropologists all need to work together to understand the human person and human society.

How does the material object signify?

When archaeologists and anthropologists moved beyond linguistic models of material culture, they very quickly found themselves deep in philosophical territory. In a sense, things had been simpler when material culture was just a text. All scholars who work on material culture now agree that the endeavor is by definition interdisciplinary and integrative. The archaeologist Carl Knappet wrote that in order for material culture studies to move forward, scholars must address the question of the relationship between mind and matter, agent and artifact. Knappet argued that while different theorists have drawn the boundary between the symbolic/communicative and the practical/functional in different ways, the real task is to develop a theory that incorporates both. 

The most fundamental question here is, How does the material object signify? In order to answer this question, we must first first address questions such as the nature of matter, the nature of language, and the relationship between the two (not to mention the nature of the human person). Scholars who work on material culture now acknowledge the centrality of phenomenology and ontology to their theory and practice, but since few if any are trained philosophers, they are still trying to figure out where to go from here.

What does all this mean for my little blog? Many things, but perhaps most importantly, it means that the study of art and of design history should not be separated from the most fundamental questions of human existence. I hope this goes to show that, for historians just as much as archaeologists, material culture should not be a peripheral concern.

Top Ten Things You Didn't Know about Tea

I haven’t talked tea much here, although I believe I’ve mentioned that I am writing the first comprehensive history of tea drinking and tea culture under the Romanov dynasty in Russia (1613-1917). Maybe I’ll blog about that little project sometime soon. 

Knowing that I write tea history, people often send me links to articles about tea, which I find interesting.

What I find very boring is that most of the popular literature out there on tea—and believe me, gentle reader, there is a TON of it—all says pretty much the same thing. The same landmark events are rehearsed, the same tired quotes trotted out. 

Well, as someone who has spent the last eight years researching tea, I here present to you, in no particular order, ten of what I consider to be the most interesting and entertaining moments in tea history. 


1. Cuppa smouch. From the very earliest days of the European love affair with tea, underhanded tea dealers tried to pawn off different species of leaves and various additives as genuine tea. Sometimes the adulteration would take place before the product even left China, and very often, Europeans were none the wiser. In the eighteenth century, a popular illegal tea surrogate was known as “smouch,” and consisted of a mixture of sheep’s dung and dried ash leaves. In 1785, Thomas Twining wrote a short recipe for smouch so that his readers could identify and report it: “When gathered they [ash leaves] are first dried in the sun then baked. They are next put on the floor and trod upon until the leaves are small, then lifted and steeped in copperas [hydrated ferrous sulphate], with sheep’s dung, after which, being dried on the floor, they are fit for use.” Twining estimated that in one small area of eight or nine square miles, approximately 20 tons of smouch were manufactured each year.

2. Sold by the candle. In the first decades of the British East India Company tea trade, tea was auctioned off “by the candle.” Someone would light a candle, and the auction would begin. The hammer fell when one inch of the candle had burned away. Records show that in 1678, a certain warehouse employee earned the handsome sum of £10 for “setting up the candle” for an EIC tea auction.

3. Bowels of Mercy. History has not given John Wesley, that famous Methodist, enough credit for coining this phrase, which he did in 1748. In his anti-tea tract Letter to a Friend Concerning TEA, Wesley entreats his readers to abstain from this oh-so-pernicious beverage: “Pray earnestly for a clear Light, for a full, piercing and steady Conviction that this is a more excellent [tea-free] way, for a spirit of universal Self-Denial, for Bowels of Mercy, for a mild, even Courage. Then you will once more, in all Readiness of Heart, make this little sacrifice to God.” Contrary to his own exhortations, Wesley himself drank multiple cups of tea per day. 


4. Tea salad. From ancient times, many people have eaten tea leaves, instead of using them to make a hot drink. The Burmese used to make a sort of pickled tea salad, and Tibetans still sometimes mix tea with rancid yak butter, barley meal, and salt to make a high-calorie breakfast or snack. Occasionally, Europeans and Americans didn’t get the memo and ate their tea instead of drinking it. In 1850, the poet Robert Southey told a story about the first tea ever to reach Massachusetts. The anecdote may be entirely apocryphal, but it’s no less entertaining for that: “It [the tea] was sent as a present without directions how to use it. They boiled the whole at once in a kettle, and sat down to eat the leaves with butter and salt; and they wondered how anybody could like such a dish.”

5. Shorthand and defluxions. You have probably read that Samuel Pepys, the celebrated seventeenth-century diarist, famously recorded on September 25, 1660, that he “did send for a Cupp of Tee (a China drink), of which I had never drank before.” What you may not know about Pepys is that he kept his diary in shorthand, and it looked like this: 


Seven years later, in 1667, Pepys came home to find his wife making tea, “which Mr. Pelling the potticary, tells her is good for her cold and defluxions.” What are defluxions? A runny nose. 

6. Liquid assets. Almost from its very first appearance in China, tea leaves were used as currency, as were coffee beans in Arabia, cola nuts in Africa, and cacao pods and mate leaves in the Americas. Chinese peasants preferred small compressed bricks of tea leaves over paper money, because the latter diminished in value the further one travelled from the imperial center. Plus, at a pinch, the tea money could be crushed and consumed. 

7. Theine. The use of caffeine-bearing plants by humans predates recorded history, but caffeine as a substance was not discovered until 1819, when the young German physician Friedlieb Ferdinand Runge first isolated it. About six years later, the medically active substance in tea was also isolated, and was called theine. It would take about another century, however, before modern science realized that caffeine and theine are the same substance, and that caffeine is also present in chocolate, mate, and other plants. In 1874, a Russian named A.P. Vladimirov published a pamphlet about the dangerous effects of theine on human health. These are, according to Vladimirov:

1) Laziness toward physical labor
2) Laziness toward mental labor
3) Excessive talkativeness
4) Literary garrulousness, which he defined as an excess of fiction and lies in the popular press
5) The consumption of such useless literature, which is in itself a form of mental laziness
6) Careless and thoughtless attitude toward practical life
7) Premature and excessive sexual excitement
8) An artificial sense of spiritual excitement, which can plummet as fast as it comes on. 


8. A leaf and a prayer. Any tea drinker worth his or her salt will tell you that steeping time makes all the difference. In 1664, Sir Kenelm Digby penned the following advice to would-be sippers: “In these parts we let the hot water remain too long soaking upon the tea, which maketh it extract into it self the earthly parts of the herb. The water is to remain upon [the tea] no longer than whilst you can say the Miserere psalm very leisurely...Thus you have only the spiritual parts of the Tea, which is much more active, penetrative and friendly to nature.” 

9. Down with Tea! Long live Beer! The great Scotch jurist Duncan Forbes was scandalized that tea had begun to replace beer as the breakfast beverage of the honest British worker. He went so far as to protest against tea in a letter to Parliament, in which he wrote: “The cause of the mischief we complain of is evidently the excessive use of tea, which is now become so common that the meanest families, even of labouring people, particularly in boroughs, make their morning meal of it, and thereby disuse the ale which heretofore was their accustomed drink.” 

10. The bubbling and loud hissing urn. I’ll leave you with this deconstruction of yet another beloved tea quotation. The eighteenth-century poet William Cowper penned a much-loved stanza in 1783 that gets quoted in every popular tea book under the sun. 

Now stir the fire, and close the shutters fast,
Let fall the curtains, wheel the sofa round, 
And while the bubbling and loud hissing urn
Throws up a steamy column, and the cups
That cheer but not inebriate, wait on each
So let us welcome peaceful evening in. 

The tea urn, or samovar, is a metal device for heating water for tea that has been around since the eighteenth century. In fact, they had been in existence for only about 30 years when Cowper wrote those famous lines. Less famous is the sad fate of Cowper’s own tea urn. He wrote to a friend complaining about “the one we have at present having never been handsome, and being now old and patched. A parson once, as he walked across the room, pushed it down with his belly, and it never perfectly recovered itself.”

What is authentic decor? Part III: Modes of authenticity

This blog owes its existence, in part, to my fascination with Peter Thornton’s book Authentic Decor. Before I even cracked it open, when I first ran across the volume while browsing the stacks at Duke’s Lilly Library, I was intrigued by its title. What does it mean for decor to be authentic? What are the criteria for authenticity in interior design? In this essay, I will consider two ways in which design schemes might be considered authentic, or, put another way, I will present two different definitions of authenticity and see where those definitions might take our discussion about decorating. 

In my first post on authentic decor, I posited the idea that authentic materials are (or should be) foundational to authentic decorating. In that essay, I defined “authentic” as “naturally occurring,” and I wrote about natural fibers and natural materials like wood and stone. But the authentic-as-natural criterion is not absolute because “natural” and “manmade” are not hard and fast categories. Consider glass as an example. My instinct is to consider glass a natural material, but very rarely does it occur in nature. Glass is melted silicon dioxide. Silicon dioxide is a principal constituent of sand, which you can pick up anywhere, but in most cases it doesn’t reach its vitreous state without human intervention, so arguments can be made both for an against its classification as “natural.”


I stand by what I wrote in that previous post. But as I suggested there in passing, my definition of  authenticity as the use of natural materials does not always apply if we consider adherence to a particular period or style as a mode of authenticity in decorating.

Let me furnish an example that will clarify what I mean by that. One possible definition of authenticity in relation to interior design is strict adherence to the parameters of a style and/or period. I’ll call this mode of authenticity “period accuracy.” If we use mid-century modern as an example, a style that is much in vogue right now, then the “authenticity as natural materials” maxim goes right out the window, because objects and furniture belonging to that style often incorporated plastics and artificial fibers. The accurate reconstruction of a 1950s or 1960s room would require the use of manmade materials, and could never be authentic if authenticity depends on naturalness. So the authenticity of naturalness and the authenticity of period accuracy are not wholly compatible. But this doesn’t bother me too much because it’s a problem that only arises when we consider the twentieth century—in other words, it doesn’t apply to the vast majority of design history.

But the proposition of authenticity as period accuracy is a thorny one. This may sound contradictory, but by definition, there can be no such thing as purity in period design. As Thornton pointed out in his book, all periods in design history, and all styles named after them, were and are historically contingent. All styles develop gradually and fade in popularity gradually. They are subject to interpretation by contemporary cultures and personalities. No two eighteenth-century rococo rooms were alike; there was French rocaille and then there was English rococo. Period accuracy is a spectrum, a moving target, a Platonic form. It can never be perfected, only approximated. Played with, imitated, but never mastered. Concerning period accuracy, “authenticity” proves to be a more helpful standard than “perfection” or “purity.” A room may be authentically art deco, but it will never be perfectly so, and that is as it should be.

Period accuracy is a spectrum, a moving target, a Platonic form. It can never be perfected, only approximated. Played with, imitated, but never mastered.

The second measure of authenticity I would like to consider here is the taste of the individual decorator or architect. In this scenario, authentic decor means that the homeowner has chosen furniture, fabrics, fixtures, and accessories according to personal preference. He or she is guided by instinct rather than fashion or pretension. The result may be a hodgepodge, an aesthetically unpleasing assemblage, but chances are that visitors will be comfortable in such a space because the homeowner is comfortable and confident in it. 

This is probably the best description of the way I choose to decorate. I tend to choose items for my home that I instinctively like, rather than those that conform to a specific or predetermined style, period, or color scheme. I can theorize all day about what style or category my “personal style” may belong to, but in the end, it’s simply made up of things I subjectively enjoy. The authenticity of personal taste is the most ingenuous, and probably the most common, mode of authenticity in decorating. 

Authentic decor, then, can mean any number of things. Authenticity is a multivalent concept. But the more I think about modes of authenticity in decorating, the more I am convinced that authentic decor is characterized by two fundamental principles: design for others, or hospitality, which I discussed in my second essay on authentic decor; and design as process. I will be exploring this latter principle in a future post, but for now, I will close by making a rather bold claim: that these two principles are timeless. Decorating for others, for real people living real (read: messy) lives, will always produce decor that is authentic in the most important sense of the word. This kind of decorating is always in process because people are always in process. We may aspire to and even achieve authentic decor, but our homes will never be perfect because people aren’t perfect. And the freedom that realization creates is the freedom of creativity.

Check out the other essays in this series on authentic decor: 

Princess Dashkova repaints history

On the night in question, Princess Ekaterina Romanovna Dashkova (née Vorontsova, 1743-1810) was traveling for her health. Married at fifteen and widowed at twenty-one, she’d had three children, lost two, and played a decisive role in the coup that brought Catherine the Great to the throne in 1762.

 The Vorontsov family crest

The Vorontsov family crest

Now, at twenty-five, she resented the new Empress’s paying more attention to her lovers than to their friendship, formerly a warm and close one. She had helped bring Catherine to power, and although they would remain lifelong friends, it must have seemed to Dashkova that the most important events of her life were already behind her. She decided to tour Europe, and set out in 1768. According to her memoir (which I highly recommend, by the way), she only took enough money with her to cover food and horses for the journey.

 Dmitrii Levitskii painted Dashkova in the dress an imperial lady-in-waiting, and wearing the Order of St. Catherine in diamonds.

Dmitrii Levitskii painted Dashkova in the dress an imperial lady-in-waiting, and wearing the Order of St. Catherine in diamonds.

On that night in 1768, Dashkova had already changed Russian history, and could have no idea of the role she would subsequently play in Russian literature and scholarship—indeed, she would become an important figure in the global Enlightenment. She was one of the first women to hold public office in Europe. She founded and served as President of the Russian Academy in 1783. Just one year later, when the Russian Academy of Sciences was created, Dashkova was appointed to lead it. She wrote plays, articles, and essays, and published one of the first journals ever to appear in Russian. Benjamin Franklin, after meeting Dashkova in Paris in 1781, nominated her to become the first ever female member of the American Philosophical Society. The second woman joined only after 80 years had passed.

There’s a lot I could say about Dashkova, but here I’d like to talk about her one-night stint as an artist.

 Dashkova's home at Kiryanovo outside St. Petersburg

Dashkova's home at Kiryanovo outside St. Petersburg

That night, as I said, she was traveling for her health. She was still in Russian territory, staying at an inn in Danzig (present-day Gdańsk). In one room of this inn, frequented by rich Russians, Dashkova was embarrassed to see two paintings depicting the Russian Army being soundly defeated by Prussian troops. This affronted her patriotic spirit, and she demanded that the paintings be removed. When that didn’t work, Dashkova recruited two men who happened to be present—the military commander Aleksei Orlov and Chargé d’Affaires Rähbinder—and took matters into her own hands.

Dashkova locked herself in that room with Orlov and Rähbinder—a scandalous thing to do in 1768—ordered some oil paints to be brought, and spent all night carefully switching the soldiers’ uniforms. By morning, the paintings depicted Russians thrashing Prussians, not the other way around. Highly pleased with herself, Dashkova departed early, before her stunt was discovered, and continued her adventure.

"Where tea and horses run"

Iakov Borisovich Kniazhnin (1740?-1791) was a well-known author of tragedies, comedies, and satires. Kniazhnin was the son-in-law of Alexander Sumarokov, the father of classical theater in Enlightenment Russia.


In his one-act comic opera The Miser (1772), a servant woman named Marfa pretends to be a rich countess in order to deceive the eponymous miser, Skriagin, into marrying her. Marfa’s co-conspirator, Prolaz, sings an aria extolling the wealth of Marfa’s faraway (and nonexistent) villages, from whose agricultural produce and trade she can expect a handsome income:

   Ее деревни... говорят,
   Их много... а лежат...
   Они вблизи Китая,
   Вот там, где много чая,
   Где чай и лошади едят.
   Вот так-то говорят;
   Там горы, горы золотые,
   И там по улицам блестят
   Везде каменья дорогие.
   Мужик, коль хочет что испечь,
   Одной корицей топит печь,
   А сапоги гвоздикой подбивает;
   Не квас, мадеру испивает.

Or, as it runs in English (my translation, which sadly lacks the rhyme of the original):

    Her villages, so they say,
    Are many, and lie
    Right next to China,
    There, where there is so much tea
    Where tea and horses run.
    There, they say,
    There are mountains, mountains of gold
    And there the streets shine
    All over with precious stones.
    If a man wants to bake something,
    One stick of cinnamon will heat the stove,
    And his boots are soled using cloves;
    Not kvas, but Madeira he enjoys.

The reference to cloves is a play on the words "nail" (gvozdik) and "clove" (gvozdika), a clove being so named in Russian presumably because of the physical resemblance between nails and cloves.

Anyway, I think this little aria is interesting because China has little to do with the plot of the comedy, but serves only as a stand-in for unimaginable wealth. Prolaz endues this imaginary China with all the luxuries he can think of: gold, tea, spices, and inaccurately, Madeira. He also erroneously assumes that the Chinese must cook with stoves of the Russian type. Another aria later in the opera describes Chinese boats and caravans arriving at Marfa’s villages bearing gold and silver. (When Skriagin inquires as to the exact amount in puds, Prolaz pleads ignorance.)

In the minds of these characters, and possibly in the mind of the author, Kniazhnin, China was a land far off on the borders of imagination, a place where precious stones were so common that streets were paved with them.

The irony of the plot is that Skriagin and Marfa are both trying to deceive each other into believing the other is rich, so as to benefit fiscally from an amorous liaison. In the final scene, they discover each others' schemes; Skriagin is humiliated, and Marfa and Prolaz laugh him off the stage. In the end, Kniazhnin seems to be saying, chasing after fabled foreign wealth leads only to deceit and disappointment. So much for the land where tea and horses run.

Our cozy bedroom

I hope it's clear by now to readers who follow this blog that I intend the title "Authentic Decor" to cover a wide variety of themes that could probably all be grouped under the broad headings of "material culture" and "history." And that's what a home is, isn't it? Material culture plus history. A physical space inhabited by a family over time.

Since the blog is intended to engage with the field of interior design, among other things, it's high time I displayed my decorating cred, and I am doing so now, with some photos of the bedroom I share with my husband. We rent an 860-square-foot apartment in Oak Cliff, Texas, so I don't have much control over the building blocks of the space. Still, I've done what I can. I apologize in advance for the graininess of these shots. I am not a good photographer, and all I've got to work with is my vintage iPhone.

 Vintage Eastern European embroidery provided me with inspiration for our bedroom. The bed, mattress, bedding, and bedside lamps are from IKEA.

Vintage Eastern European embroidery provided me with inspiration for our bedroom. The bed, mattress, bedding, and bedside lamps are from IKEA.

The focal point of the room, and the piece I've used as inspiration for the whole space (small and humble as it is), is the 1950s wool felt embroidery piece hanging above the bed. I bought it from an old woman on the side of the road in St. Petersburg while I was conducting research there for my dissertation in the fall of 2012. It was a Saturday, I believe, and I had gone up to Udel'naia, one of those spots in St. Petersburg where people tend to congregate and sell things on the street—a sort of flea market consisting mostly of elderly people with odds and ends of household possessions spread out on blankets on the ground. It's just a little depressing, actually, to see these people selling small bits of their lives for kopeks on the dirty sidewalk. But for 300 rubles ($10), I walked away with an amazing piece of vintage gorgeousness and a feeling of self-satisfaction when the woman I bought it from told me she hadn't realized I was a foreigner until near the end of our conversation.

The other embroidery pieces have an interesting story too. I bought them in Szentendre, Hungary, while on a tour of Eastern Europe with my grandparents in 2004. Because I have the kind of grandparents who travel with their granddaughters around Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, and Romania, booking nothing in advance but making up the itinerary as they go along and having many adventures in the process.


I'm lucky to come from a family that saves old things. The cradle at left is the one I slept in as a baby, which someone made for me by hand; I don't know who. The stuffed red giraffe is another holdover from my babyhood. Under the chair in the corner is a chamber pot that I believe belonged to my great grandmother. I've repurposed it for bedside book storage.


To fill up some space in this corner, I hung up some sticks I found outside, and suspended my small air plant garden from them. The rocking chair has been in my family for at least four generations. My mom bought us the dresser for $25 at an antique shop in Glen Ellyn, IL; I found  the mirror resting on top of it in a dumpster at Wheaton College, my alma mater. I wrote about the Bellotto print in a previous post.

 St. Basil the Blessed lounges on our bed. The wool rug is from IKEA.

St. Basil the Blessed lounges on our bed. The wool rug is from IKEA.

Here's another view of the whole room. It's not very big, as you can see, and it's difficult to get a good angle for photos. The rug at the foot of our bed is my most recent acquisition, a lovely geometric design in wool from IKEA. We bought the antique cobblers bench at antique shop in Wheaton, IL when we were first married. The bed and all our bedding are from IKEA except for the black and white striped pillow, which I made. Not a strand of artificial fibers in sight, except for that horrid beige carpet. It's not much, but it's home.

"They came to court balls dropping pearls and vermin": Macaulay on Peter the Great's Visit to England in 1698

Russia’s reputation as a “backward,” “uncivilized,” “barbaric” place has a pedigree dating back to the sixteenth century. As the historian Irena Gross put it, “[t]his opinion was stated, one might say, not as a judgment but as a fact.” European intellectuals’ negative opinion of Russia owed much to Baron Sigismund von Herberstein, whose Rerum Moscoviticarum Commentarii, first published in 1549, was based on two trips to Muscovy in 1517 and 1526. His Russians were rude, uncultured, ignorant, and superstitious. The Russian government was exploitative, and the people dishonest and so degraded as to prefer slavery over freedom.


The Commentarri heavily influenced the majority of subsequent European “eyewitness” accounts of Russia down to the nineteenth century, many of which simply quoted long sections of it verbatim and without attribution. European travel narratives about Muscovy had developed in to something of a mini-genre already in the seventeenth century, thanks largely to Herberstein and also to Giles Fletcher, an English diplomat who traveled to Russia in the service of Elizabeth I in 1588 and published his influential and equally damning Of the Russe Commonwealth in 1591. By the nineteenth century, Russia’s reputation for religious fanaticism, drunkenness, moral laxity, gluttony, and overall shameless debauchery was indelibly fixed in the European imagination.


So when Peter the Great, Tsar of all the Russias, sailed up the Thames in a small Dutch boat in 1698, he caused something of a stir. Previous to this, Russian tsars were not generally in the habit of leaving Moscow for purposes other than wars or religious pilgrimages. Londoners were fully prepared to find Peter fascinating, dirty, and dangerous, and the young monarch, just shy of his twenty-sixth birthday and standing six feet eight inches tall, did not disappoint them.

 Godfrey Kneller painted this portrait of Peter during the latter's visit to England in 1698. Upon his departure, Peter gave the painting to William III as a gift.

Godfrey Kneller painted this portrait of Peter during the latter's visit to England in 1698. Upon his departure, Peter gave the painting to William III as a gift.

I would like to share some selections from a nineteenth-century English account of Peter’s visit, not because I condone its bias or believe it to be the most accurate representation of this event. Instead, I think this story is best read as a cultural artifact—a product of European cultural exceptionalism, built on centuries of misinformation about, and prejudice against, the “Asiatic” countries to the East.

The account is by Thomas Babington Macaulay (1800-1859), a British historian and Whig politician. The following is taken from his History of England, Chapter XXIII.

In the same week in which Whitehall perished [in a great fire], the Londoners were supplied with a new topic of conversation by a royal visit, which, of all royal visits, was the least pompous and ceremonious and yet the most interesting and important. On the 10th of January a vessel from Holland anchored off Greenwich and was welcomed with great respect. Peter the First, Czar of Muscovy, was on board. He took boat with a few attendants and was rowed up the Thames to Norfolk Street, where a house overlooking the river had been prepared for his reception.
His journey is an epoch in the history, not only of his own country but of ours, and of the world. To the polished nations of Western Europe, the empire which he governed had till then been what Bokhara or Siam is to us. That Empire indeed, though less extensive than at present, was the most extensive that had ever obeyed a single chief. The dominions of Alexander and of Trajan were small when compared with the immense area of the Scythian desert. But in the estimation of statesmen that boundless expanse of larch forest and morass, where the snow lay deep during eight months of every year, and where a wretched peasantry could with difficulty defend their hovels against troops of famished wolves, was of less account than the two or three square miles into which were crowded the count ing houses, the warehouses, and the innumerable masts of Amsterdam. […]
The English embassies [to Muscovy] had historians whose narratives may still be read with interest. Those historians described vividly, and sometimes bitterly, the savage ignorance and the squalid poverty of the barbarous country in which they had sojourned. In that country, they said, there was neither literature nor science, neither school nor college. It was not till more than a hundred years after the invention of printing that a single printing press had been introduced into the Russian empire; and that printing press had speedily perished in a fire which was supposed to have been kindled by the priests. Even in the seventeenth century the library of a prelate of the first dignity consisted of a few manuscripts. Those manuscripts too were in long rolls: for the art of book binding was unknown. The best educated men could barely read and write. It was much if the secretary to whom was entrusted the direction of negotiations with foreign powers had a sufficient smattering of Dog Latin to make himself understood. The arithmetic was the arithmetic of the dark ages. The denary notation was unknown. Even in the Imperial Treasury the computations were made by the help of balls strung on wires. Round the person of the Sovereign there was a blaze of gold and jewels: but even in his most splendid palaces were to be found the filth and misery of an Irish cabin. So late as the year 1663 the gentlemen of the retinue of the Earl of Carlisle were, in the city of Moscow, thrust into a single bedroom, and were told that, if they did not remain together, they would be in danger of being devoured by rats.
Such was the report which the English legations made of what they had seen and suffered in Russia; and their evidence was confirmed by the appearance which the Russian legations made in England. The strangers spoke no civilised language. Their garb, their gestures, their salutations, had a wild and barbarous character. The ambassador and the grandees who accompanied him were so gorgeous that all London crowded to stare at them, and so filthy that nobody dared to touch them. They came to the court balls dropping pearls and vermin. It was said that one envoy cudgelled the lords of his train whenever they soiled or lost any part of their finery, and that another had with difficulty been prevented from putting his son to death for the crime of shaving and dressing after the French fashion.
Our ancestors therefore were not a little surprised to learn that a young barbarian [Peter], who had, at seventeen years of age, become the autocrat of the immense region stretching from the confines of Sweden to those of China, and whose education had been inferior to that of an English farmer or shopman, had planned gigantic improvements, had learned enough of some languages of Western Europe to enable him to communicate with civilised men, had begun to surround himself with able adventurers from various parts of the world, had sent many of his young subjects to study languages, arts and sciences in foreign cities, and finally had determined to travel as a private man, and to discover, by personal observation, the secret of the immense prosperity and power enjoyed by some communities whose whole territory was far less than the hundredth part of his dominions. […]
Such was the prince whom the populace of London now crowded to behold. His stately form, his intellectual forehead, his piercing black eyes, his Tartar nose and mouth, his gracious smile, his frown black with all the stormy rage and hate of a barbarian tyrant, and above all a strange nervous convulsion which sometimes transformed his countenance, during a few moments, into an object on which it was impossible to look without terror, the immense quantities of meat which he devoured, the pints of brandy which he swallowed, and which, it was said, he had carefully distilled with his own hands, the fool who jabbered at his feet, the monkey which grinned at the back of his chair, were, during some weeks, popular topics of conversation. He meanwhile shunned the public gaze with a haughty shyness which inflamed curiosity. He went to a play; but as soon as he perceived that pit, boxes and gallery were staring, not at the stage, but at him, he retired to a back bench where he was screened from observation by his attendants. He was desirous to see a sitting of the House of Lords; but, as he was determined not to be seen, he was forced to climb up to the leads, and to peep through a small window. He heard with great interest the royal assent given to a bill for raising fifteen hundred thousand pounds by land tax, and learned with amazement that this sum, though larger by one half than the whole revenue which he could wring from the population of the immense empire of which he was absolute master, was but a small part of what the Commons of England voluntarily granted every year to their constitutional King.
William [William III of Orange] judiciously humoured the whims of his illustrious guest, and stole to Norfolk Street so quietly that nobody in the neighbourhood recognised His Majesty in the thin gentleman who got out of the modest looking coach at the Czar’s lodgings. The Czar returned the visit with the same precautions, and was admitted into Kensington House by a back door. It was afterwards known that he took no notice of the fine pictures with which the palace was adorned. But over the chimney of the royal sitting room was a plate which, by an ingenious machinery, indicated the direction of the wind; and with this plate he was in raptures.
He soon became weary of his residence. He found that he was too far from the objects of his curiosity, and too near to the crowds to which he was himself an object of curiosity. He accordingly removed to Deptford, and was there lodged in the house of John Evelyn, a house which had long been a favourite resort of men of letters, men of taste and men of science. Here Peter gave himself up to his favourite pursuits. He navigated a yacht every day up and down the river. His apartment was crowded with models of three deckers and two deckers, frigates, sloops and fireships. The only Englishman of rank in whose society he seemed to take much pleasure was the eccentric Caermarthen, whose passion for the sea bore some resemblance to his own, and who was very competent to give an opinion about every part of a ship from the stem to the stern. Caermarthen, indeed, became so great a favourite that he prevailed on the Czar to consent to the admission of a limited quantity of tobacco into Russia. There was reason to apprehend that the Russian clergy would cry out against any relaxation of the ancient rule, and would strenuously maintain that the practice of smoking was condemned by that text which declares that man is denied, not by those things which enter in at the mouth, but by those things which proceed out of it. This apprehension was expressed by a deputation of merchants who were admitted to an audience of the Czar: but they were reassured by the air with which he told them that he knew how to keep priests in order.
He was indeed so free from any bigoted attachment to the religion in which he had been brought up that both Papists and Protestants hoped at different times to make him a proselyte. Burnet [Gilbert Burnet, Bishop of Salisbury], commissioned by his brethren, and impelled, no doubt, by his own restless curiosity and love of meddling, repaired to Deptford and was honoured with several audiences. The Czar could not be persuaded to exhibit himself at Saint Paul’s; but he was induced to visit Lambeth palace. There he saw the ceremony of ordination performed, and expressed warm approbation of the Anglican ritual. Nothing in England astonished him so much as the Archiepiscopal library. It was the first good collection of books that he had seen; and he declared that he had never imagined that there were so many printed volumes in the world.
[…] With all the high qualities which were peculiar to himself, he had all the filthy habits which were then common among his countrymen. To the end of his life, while disciplining armies, founding schools, framing codes, organising tribunals, building cities in deserts, joining distant seas by artificial rivers, he lived in his palace like a hog in a sty; and, when he was entertained by other sovereigns, never failed to leave on their tapestried walls and velvet state beds unequivocal proof that a savage had been there. Evelyn's house was left in such a state that the Treasury quieted his complaints with a considerable sum of money.
Towards the close of March the Czar visited Portsmouth, saw a sham sea-fight at Spithead, watched every movement of the contending fleets with intense interest, and expressed in warm terms his gratitude to the hospitable government which had provided so delightful a spectacle for his amusement and instruction. After passing more than three months in England, he departed in high good humour.

Elizabeth Lady Craven disapproves of Venice, drinks the water in Tartary

Elizabeth Craven (née Berkeley, 1750-1828) had seven children and possibly as many affairs.  

She also had opinions.


An acquaintance of Johnson and Boswell and a friend of Horace Walpole, Lady Craven was a prolific author of second-rate plays, bad musical compositions, and travel journals. Today she is best known for the latter, for reasons that may become apparent when you consider her initial opinion of Venice: “The innumerable quantity of gondolas...that look like swimming coffins, added to the dismal scene; and, I confess, Venice on my arrival struck me rather with horror than with pleasure.”

To be fair to Venice, she did eventually come to see it in a more favorable light.

In 1789, she published an account of her travels through the Russian empire in A Journey through the Crimea to Constantinople.

In this work, Lady Craven opined that parts of the “Venice of the North”—St. Petersburg—could be positively civilized, unlike its Italian counterpart. “Dans le ligne Anglais,” she wrote of what we now call the English Embankment, “...I find English grates, English coal, English hospitality, to make me welcome, and the fire-side cheerful.”

While she welcomed the creature comforts that reminded her of home, she also lamented the homogenizing force exerted by European fashion on Petersburg society. “The Empress and the Princess D’Ashkow [Dashkova] are the only ladies who wear Russian dress,” she complained. “It is I think a very handsome one; and I am more surprised every day, that nations do not preserve their own fashions—and not copy one country that is at present only the ape of every other.”

Unlike most of the other English ladies to visit Russia in the eighteenth century (and there were many), Lady Craven ventured far outside the capitals. After passing through a certain Tatar village outside of Perekop (which she did not find particularly clean), she recalled finding some lovely “downs” suitable for outdoor rest and refreshment. “I stopped there and made tea,” she wrote, then quickly added: “You must not suppose, my dear Sir, though I have left my coach and harp at Petersburgh, that I have not all my little necessaries even in a kibitka [a small type of Russian carriage]—a tin kettle in a basket holds my tea equipage, and I have my English side-saddle tied behind my carriage.”

Roughing it in the Tatar countryside, for Craven, involved a limited diet: “What I have chiefly lived upon is new milk, in which I melt a little chocolate.” One must also give her credit for her bravery in drinking the local water: “At every place I have stopped at I asked to taste the water from curiosity, I have always found it perfectly good.” So much the better for brewing tea.

Book review: Common Places: Mythologies of Everyday Life in Russia by Svetlana Boym

Svetlana Boym was born in Leningrad, and studied Spanish at the Herzen Pedagogical Institute. After emigrating to the United States, she earned her MA from Boston University in 1983 and her PhD from Harvard in 1988, where she currently teaches in the Department of Comparative Literature. She is also a media artist, and published a novel, Ninochka, in 2003. Common Places is Boym’s second (of four) scholarly books, and was written in the immediate aftermath of the dismantling of the Soviet Union. Published in 1994, the work is perhaps best described as cultural anthropology—Boym refers to herself at one point as a “cultural mythologist”—and aims “to put at the center what is marginal to certain heroic or apocalyptic self-definitions of Russian culture: the attitudes toward ordinary life, home, material objects and art, as well as expressions of emotion and ways of communication” (2). There are many arguments and themes pursued in this book, but one principal overarching argument is that in order to describe Russian culture, rather than merely perpetuate its cultural mythology (30), we must investigate the mythology of the everyday with all its eclecticism, banality, and beauty.

Using a broad source base that includes literary classics, song lyrics, art installations, household decor, and samizdat, Boym analyzes and historicizes Russian cultural myths, and particularly those which swirled around in such abundance during the heady months surrounding the August 1991 coup. She structures her book around several “untranslatable” Russian concepts that “reflect common places of everyday life” (4).  Boym distinguishes between “commonplaces”—worn-out clichés—and “common places,” a term she uses to refer to cultural myths. By referring to these myths and untranslatable concepts as common places, Boym seeks to “preserve all the multiple historical significations and poetic allusion of the word [or myth, or concept], from public architecture to topography of memory” (4). In her investigation of “the unwritten laws of everyday existence,” common places are touchstones of collective understanding, islands in the ever-changing stream of cultural discourse.

After an introduction that surveys cultural and literary theories concerning the everyday, the remainder of the book consists of four long chapters. Rather than presenting a unified argument, each chapter is a compendium of short, loosely connected essays. In chapter 1, “Mythologies of Everyday Life,” Boym reflects on a number of cultural “untranslatables.” The first of these is byt, which Boym translates as the daily grind, everyday routine, existence, and/or stagnation. Two respected Russian theorists, Iurii Lotman and Boris Uspenskii, have attributed the binary opposition between byt and bytie (spiritual being) to the centuries-old influence of Russian Orthodox Christianity. Boym critiques Lotman and Uspenskii for reifying Russian cultural mythology, rather than describing Russian culture, and reflects on the “Russian dream” of spiritual purity and messianic mission.

Next, she investigates the concept of poshlost′, which is “the Russian version of banality,” an idea that combines spiritual impoverishment with sexual degradation (41). Boym examines the prevalence of poshlost′, and invective against it, in Russian literature and culture, finally noting how even the war against poshlost′ can begin to appear banal. Then she moves on to meshchanstvo, meaning middle class or middlebrow. Meshchanstvo is the “other” against which the Russian intelligentsia defines itself; the clash between the two, for Boym, “informs all of modern Russian intellectual history” (67). After cogitating on the “nationalization” of the Russian soul in the late nineteenth century, the primacy of inner life over private life in Russia, and the Stalinist kul′turnost′ (literally, “cultureness”) of hand-painted lacquer boxes, Boym ends this chapter by musing on what song lyrics can tell us about late Soviet citizens’ attitudes toward their own country and the West.


Chapter 2, “Living in Common Places: The Communal Apartment,” is somewhat more focused. Arguing that “[t]he communal apartment was the cornerstone of the...Soviet civilization,” Boym proposes that “[i]f there had been such a thing as a Soviet cultural unconscious, it would have been structured like a communal apartment: with flimsy partitions between public and private, between control and intoxication” (123). This chapter consists of a “thick description” of life in the communal apartment, complete with physical descriptions of residents’ personal possessions, stories about people urinating where they weren’t supposed to, and reflections on the “alternative” kitchen culture that emerged in the 1960s. Boym herself was raised in a communal apartment in Leningrad, and here and elsewhere she shares her own memories and experiences. She concludes that “the effect of imposed communality was often contradictory and paradoxical; people professed to hate any form of communal interaction yet they internalized the communal structures and later recall them with nostalgia” (149).

In Chapter 3, entitled “Writing Common Places: Graphomania,” Boym looks at the history of graphomania, or writing mania, which is characterized by “handling literary commonplaces clumsily and inappropriately, and about excess: writing too much, plagiarizing too much, behaving too much like a writer” (169). This curious “cultural disease” (this reader is unsure whether Boym also believes it to be a serious psychological disorder) is worth investigating because it “poses the problem of the boundaries of literature, of the relationship between writing and the making of the self” (169). This chapter introduces the reader to a galaxy of second-rate literary stars, including both real writers and fictional characters, who make up an alternative history of Russian literature from the early nineteenth century to the “electronic age” of the late twentieth. Most relevant to the study of the late Soviet Union is Boym’s inquiry into the explosion of graphomania during glasnost′, a time when “[i]t became possible to write without thinking of the censor as one’s first reader.” She asks, “Can Russian literature survive double-speak?”, leaving her readers to draw their own conclusions (205).


“Postcommunism, Postmodernism” is the title of the fourth chapter, in which the 1991 coup takes center stage. One feature that post-communism and postmodernism share is the loss of the master narrative, which “could be both liberating and frightening” (224). In this world of newly minted “posts” (post-Soviet, post-glasnost′, etc.), new art forms arose: Boym sees the fall of monuments, the rise of political figures painted on nesting dolls, the sale of kitsch on the streets, and the co-opting of the banal by higher art as episodes in the “history of kitsch” that parodied and sometimes embodied Soviet history. Boym thoughtfully considers the work of several women artists such as Larisa Zvezdochetova, who incorporated forgotten quotidian objects (matchboxes, chocolate wrappers) into their art, confronting the avant-garde insistence on originality as they did so; “poshlost′, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder” (265). Finally, she chronicles the entrance of Western-style advertising into the fray, documenting the “at once pseudo-Russian and pseudo-Western” language of post-Soviet culture (282).

Scholarly reception of this book has been somewhat mixed: it certainly contributes a great deal to our understanding of Russian mythologies of everyday life, but could have been more carefully organized and argued. Readers unfamiliar with Russian culture will not understand the unexplained references to cultural artifacts and concepts. The book is also full of errors, large and small. Unfortunately, the complexity of this book, which borders on convolution, renders this rich and sophisticated study unsuitable for undergraduates. Despite these problems, Boym certainly attains her goal of presenting and reflecting on the changing cultural mythology of everyday life in Russia, and she does so with verve and wit. Common Places deserves a prominent place in the growing literature produced by Russian émigrés trying to make sense of the Soviet Union’s demise. As she confesses in the conclusion, Boym has also succeeded in historicizing her own nostalgia. Whether this qualifies as a scholarly project, or an artistic one, or both, is open to debate.

Concerning a painting by Bellotto, a print of which is hanging in my bedroom

My husband and I picked up a print we liked at the Erie Book Store around 2006, framed it, and it’s been hanging in our bedroom ever since. It’s a late-eighteenth-century street scene featuring the Church of the Holy Cross in Krakow. Here it is hanging on my wall in its fancy thrift store frame. (I apologize, gentle reader, that I am not one of those bloggers who also has fabulous photography skills.)


I recently learned more about the artist, Bernardo Bellotto (1721-1780), an Italian urban landscape painter. In 1764, while en route to St. Petersburg to look for a job as court painter to Catherine the Great, the newly elected King Stanislaus Augustus Poniatowski of Poland snagged him instead. (I can’t omit mentioning that Poniatowski had been one of Catherine’s lovers before she became empress. She had a hand in installing him on the Polish throne in 1764.)

Bellotto never did make it to St. Petersburg, but remained in Poland for the rest of his life as official court painter to Poniatowski. He painted dozens of Warsaw street scenes for the Royal Castle and the King positively ate them up. Here’s an image showing an early study for his painting of the Church of the Holy Cross.


Now here’s where it gets even more interesting. Recently I was catching up on old episodes of my new favorite podcast, 99% Invisible (if you’re not a listener, check them out!). I learned that Bellotto was not entirely faithful to his architectural subjects. He would embellish the structures he painted with features not present in real life, even adding storeys to buildings in order to better please his painterly eye. (You can see some examples of this, and listen to the podcast episode on Bellotto, here.)


In the aftermath of World War II, the Soviets rebuilt many Polish cities, including Warsaw and Krakow, from the ground up. The architects who designed the reconstructed buildings often referred to Bellotto’s paintings, but his works were not always true to life. So today, many of the buildings in the Old Town districts of Warsaw and Krakow don’t reflect the historical reality, but rather the personal taste of an eighteenth-century Italian as imagined by twentieth-century Communists. 

What is authentic decor? Part II: Hospitality

Advent is a good time to talk about hospitality, since the season is centered around two archetypal acts of hospitality (well, two at least that spring to mind at this moment; I’m sure there are many more). I mean, first, the Virgin Mary’s submission to God’s will that she become the Mother of His Son, and second, the Incarnation, at which God radically accepted humanity into the divine life.


This has everything to do with the physical stuff of our daily existence, since, as John of Damascus famously argued, at the Incarnation, God sanctified matter for all time by becoming part of it.

All this is terribly important, but for purposes of this essay it serves simply as the background and foundation for what follows. Anyone who may have seen the previous installment in my series of Authentic Decor essays is also probably wondering how on earth we got from authentic materials—wood, stone, natural fibers—to theology. My answer is that hospitality, properly understood, is another one of those authentic materials that necessarily comprises good decorating. I will spend the rest of this essay attempting to explain what I mean by this.

Authentic decor is decor for others. It is hospitable. It is the arranging of a home in such a way as to meet the physical and spiritual needs of anyone who happens to enter it, with the understanding that this meeting of needs will inevitably cost the host time, money, and labor.

The sort of hospitality I am describing involves two closely interrelated attitudes.

First, the understanding that decorating and maintaining a home is a process. Like the liturgical year, it is cyclical. Good hosts and good decorators know this. Rugs are vacuumed only to be walked upon with muddy shoes. Clothes are washed only to be worn and dirtied again. A home may reach a perfection of cleanliness momentarily (mine never has, though I suppose it’s theoretically possible), but then the kids come home from school, or the dog comes in from the yard, and one must start again. This is something to be celebrated, not lamented. The “why-wash-it-when-it-will-just-get-dirty-again” attitude is antithetical to both good decorating and to hospitality, because it doesn’t value things enough to maintain them. It also undervalues people by not bothering to provide the best for them.

 A good host cleans his or her house in preparation for the arrival of guests, and readies a bedroom, joyfully looking forward to the guest’s relief and comfort. The host knows full well that the cleanliness and tidiness of the space prepared for the guest will only last for a moment. But in that moment, it is as though the host is saying to the guest, “Look, I have cleaned and prepared this space for you. I have anticipated your needs and thought about your desires and met them as best as my means allow. Welcome, and refresh yourself.” And then within thirty seconds the duvet is crumpled by the plopping down of a suitcase and the bedside stand is cluttered with the contents of pockets.

The second attitude acknowledges that this is what authentic decor is for—to be used and enjoyed by others. A good host holds his possessions lightly, and freely abandons them to the use of others. A good decorator anticipates the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune and plans accordingly, placing antique tapestries on walls rather than on throw pillows. And here is yet another reason why authentic materials make for hospitable spaces. Wool repels dirt; cotton is washable; dented or scratched wood is easily repaired; stone is durable. A house too fragile to be lived in or too precious to be touched and used is no home at all.

Check out the other essays in this series on authentic decor: 

In praise of black and white floors

I’m a big fan of black and white tile floors in kitchens, bathrooms, and entryways. Black and white floors are elegant and timeless. I've explored decorating with black and white over on my Pinterest board entitled Black and White Stripes Go With Everything. Here’s an interesting little essay on the history of black and white floors over on Apartment Therapy.

I first acquired a liking for black and white floors at the tender age of fourteen, when I visited the Château de Chenonceau during a school trip to France. I immediately fell in love with the black and white floor of the Galerie du rez-de-chaussé on the main level. In fact, that floor is almost my only memory of the place, that and some huge swans swimming in a canal somewhere on the grounds. The black squares are of slate, the white ones of chalk.


The Chenonceau estate dates from at least the eleventh century, the present château to the sixteenth. Many Renaissance architects, including those who designed Chenonceau, favored a checkerboard floor oriented at a 45-degree angle to the walls, which is, in my opinion, much more visually harmonious than a floor with lines perpendicular to the walls. Here's a close-up of the fireplace at the end of the gallery.


I can’t resist including this photo of my junior-high self outside the château, complete with thumbtack hole.


The black and white checkerboard pattern will never go out of style because it complements every color scheme and won’t clash with any pattern. It is bold and graphic, but not excessively so; for reasons I can’t quite describe, the very starkness of the contrast between the black and the white squares satisfies the eye. I wonder if Piet Mondriaan had the same idea when he resolved a tree into a black grid on white with squares of primary colors.

I came to love black and white floors all the more during the three-plus years I lived with one. When my husband and I lived in Durham, North Carolina, we had a black and white checkerboard floor made from vinyl tiles in our kitchen. Not the most luxurious of materials, but we loved the pattern. In the unlikely event that I’m ever able to design my own kitchen from the ground up, its floor would certainly consist of black and white marble tiles.

The seventeenth-century Dutch had fabulous taste, and not surprisingly, black and white floors show up in all kinds of Dutch paintings from that period, such as this one by Vermeer.


Here’s a lovely variation on the theme from a painting by Pieter Janssens.


Black and white floors visually anchor the furniture resting atop them, and make colors and patterns pop, as this painting demonstrates. No wonder the pattern has been a design staple since the dawn of recorded history. Patterns, like ideas, don't last unless they work.