Chairs With Arms

After drawing Virginia Woolf’s reading chair, I began noticing armchairs and asking myself why they appeal. Partly it’s location, wanting to sit and have tea with a friend – our two armchairs classically pulled up by a warm fire. Or it’s longing – to be curled in a commodious armchair lost in a book, friendly feline apurr. Armchairs in bedrooms imply a generous room and a place to retreat. I know a double armchair in a bedroom – holds baby, mom, and older sibling – and it rocks!

The anthropomorphic character of armchairs, their limbs and heft embrace us. Accompanying adjectives reveal personality: overstuffed, shredded, or worn, floral, velvet, or leather. The few armchairs in those modern houses in the enjoyable TV series, “Big Little Lies,” appropriately look firm and toned.

Armchairs most often include pillows for color and comfort, or to beef up a saggy anatomy. They hang out with footstools, ottomans – some place for feet – whether of matching fabric or something repurposed, a trunk, a pouf. Armchairs need a lamp and a table right within reach, landing spot for teacup or beer and chips.

My parents had a voluminous armchair with sturdy square arms, slipcovered in an awful faux-tweedy fabric – I loved it. The arms held coffee cup and books, and I could hole up there for hours. With an old cabin, we inherited wooden-armed chairs with uncomfortable cushions, but so useful the flat surface of those broad arms.

My clever friend gave me a wicker armchair. It sits near my workroom with a little footstool and a great view. But, filled now with three old wool sweaters, fur-lined and curled into a nest, and occupied most days, all day, by Frances, it’s lost to me for afternoon tea.

You can probably sense a series coming – armchair pictures and paragraphs on “Her spirits rose…!”

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Maggie O’Farrell – Book Riches

Sometimes social media delivers a wondrous gift. A while ago Priya Parmer, who wrote “Vanessa And Her Sister” (the novel about Vanessa Bell and Virginia Woolf), posted on Instagram a photo of a small stack of books. I could make out one title and author, “This Must Be the Place” by Maggie O’Farrell.

Born in Northern Ireland and living in Edinburgh, O’Farrell has published seven novels set mostly in the U.K. Her characters – sufferer of eczema, journalist, linguist, reclusive movie star who disappears at the height of her career – are siblings, children, parents. Amongst themselves they grapple with secrets, loss, love, and tragedy. In “The Hand That First Held Mine,” O’Farrell guides parallel stories, separated in time, until they intersect.

Such a fine storyteller, she writes the kind of language I read for. Describing a café gone quiet: “A sack of coffee beans slumps, exhausted, against the counter. A bicycle skims past the window, the beam of its light veering over the dark street. The sky outside is mineshaft black, washed with orange. As if sensing the nighttime calm, the refrigerator obligingly shudders into silence.”

Later the sky goes from “mineshaft black” to “five-fathom blue,” and then “drains slowly into a milky gray.” I love how her observations, often piled up in lists, set scenes and capture the layers of grief or joy.

Describing a new mother after the baby feeds and falls asleep: “She looks about her, in the manner of a traveler who hasn’t seen their home for a long time. She is light-headed with the possibilities open to her. She could read a book, phone a friend, send an email, write a letter, do a sketch, make some soup, sort out her clothes, wash her hair, go for that walk, turn on the television, check her diary, mop the floor, clean the windows, fiddle about on the Internet. She could do anything.

But should she risk moving him?”

Houses – in the best books there are always houses (ones where the kitchen might hold a “kitchen dresser”). “She peeled up the rotten carpets and old, damp lino, scrubbed the boards and varnished them. She whitewashed the back of the house. She rubbed the windows with newspaper and vinegar until sunshine glowed through…. It seemed astonishing to her to own a patch of land, an arrangement of bricks, mortar and glass. It seemed an impossible swap: some money for a life like this.”

Given how often and well O’Farrell writes about children and parents, I enjoyed finding this piece about her “typical” writing day. https://www.theguardian.com/books/2016/dec/17/my-writing-day-maggie-o-farrell

I’ve read just two of her books so far, beginning with her most recent, so I’ve missed years of anticipating a new book – but now have treasures in reserve!

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Kind and Dear

It’s January and cold – in Washington these days the thermometer rarely tops 32° and sinks to 22° – making me long for our usual winter 42° and appreciate house and heat.

This month I try to turn my attention to the house, clearing Christmas, which stops looking jolly and becomes clutter (except the tree, those lights are still so welcome). And January also invites more organizing, seeking comfort and cheer from order.

But in numerous ways I avoid those tasks. Although this year, I happily reboxed Christmas on January 6, energized after reading about the Irish tradition of “Women’s Little Christmas,” the old, but still observed celebration of the women (and surely now men), who worked so hard to make the holidays for their families.

A more typical stalling maneuver is to look at books about houses, including a Christmas present, Ben Pentreath’s “English Houses,” a beautiful book full of photos of loved houses that creak with tilted floors and worn Turkey rugs. Pentreath introduced a room new to me, the “snug,” a tiny room with books and fireplace looking just like the word. (I discovered while writing this that Pentreath writes a blog about his life in Dorset:    http://www.pentreath-hall.com/inspiration/).

And this January I miss “Red House West” – may it return soon! I did see a Pin from the blog’s proprietors of an imaginative under-the-stairs bed, cozily curtained off. And I began thinking about how certain house elements, sunny French windows, odd but comfy chairs, deep window sills, long pine tables make me stare at a photo and want to be there.

Leanne Shapton, an illustrator I admire, said she processes life by employing series and repetition in her work. Maira Kalman does that too. And an artist, Debbie George, I discovered while painting teacups last November, paints antique teacups and flowers one lovely image after another.

January lets such thoughts string together into a project. So, I’m going to look for little moments in rooms that make a difference – quirks, rumples, using houses I know or photos from books or the Internet. Done up doesn’t always do it, but personal often does.

And I can start with this little poem that William Morris had embroidered around the top of his four-poster bed:

     The wind’s on the wold

     And the night is a-cold

     And Thames runs chill

     Twixt mead and hill,

     But kind and dear

     Is the old house here,

     And my heart is warm

     Midst winter’s harm…

That’s the idea!

wm-morris-bed

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“Novel Interiors”

January, oh January – in need of a jolt of color, a list of possibilities, a gathering of beauty, an inspiration of visuals – and so I offer Lisa Borgnes-Giaramonti’s “Novel Interiors: Living in Enchanted Rooms Inspired by Literature.” It’s so good!!

On the afternoons of Christmas and Boxing Day I devoured Lisa’s book in the best possible setting, propped on the daybed in our living room, covered by a little plaid blanket, surrounded by pillows while the fire blazed for hours, fed by the younger son who sat reading gardening books in an armchair nearby.

And then I reread “Novel Interiors” in the harsher light of January – and loved it even more. I’m a fan of Lisa’s blog and wrote about her here, so I knew about the book as she worked so hard on it. I recognized her very clever idea – to meld her love of literature with her equally intense passion for stylish living. She’s done a terrific job of noting those moments of scene setting in favorite books that linger long in our minds.

She’s organized her book into chapters illustrated with fabulous photos by Ivan Terestchenko of real houses, lived in, imaginative, comfortable houses. Chapter titles hint both at books and the “distinct design aesthetic” each chapter focuses on – “Shall I Put the Kettle On?,” “Anything Goes,” “Remembrance of Things Past.”

Lisa seeks both style and comfort and writes with charm and wit, “Patina is what gives our possessions – and ourselves – character and meaning.” I’m often suspicious of books heavy with quotes, but Lisa knows these 60-some novels, and she lets her chosen authors speak: Dickens and Elizabeth Gaskell, Willa Cather and Isak Dinesen. “I Capture the Castle” is here, which in my mind has always been about green velvet, and I like it that “Buddenbrooks” and “Cold Comfort Farm” both provide inspiration.

My favorite chapters are the ones with a bohemian anything-goes-in-an-orderly way vibe – comfort and color being primary. But I also respect the “rooms designed with order and purpose in mind” that fill chapters on elegance and glamour.

Lisa adds “lessons” learned from the novels in each chapter. And here is her voice, a modern woman with a family who must throw a great dinner party, and loves to curl up with her cat and read and read (“literary wandering” she’d call it). The lessons suggest in doable ways how to create cozy corners, memorialize mementos, or add “drama with portieres.”

Nowhere in my house could a portiere hang, but oh I love the idea of it, a curtain or heavy drape to add mystery. I could, however, right away make her velvet pillow 12 by 18 inches, filled with dried lavender and buckwheat hulls, and settle down to dip yet again into this treasure of a book.

Treat yourself to a January break in the fascinating world of “Novel Interiors!”

windowseat - January

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Garden at Monk’s House

For ten years Caroline Zoob and her husband lived as caretakers and tenants at the miniature (by modern standards) Monk’s House in Sussex, longtime home of Virginia and Leonard Woolf. Responsible for maintaining the garden and the house and keeping them open to the public on set days, their brief from The National Trust suggested they garden “in the spirit of Bloomsbury,” “using bright colors in a painterly style.”

And now Zoob has made a beautiful book in the spirit of Bloomsbury – “Virginia Woolf’s Garden: The Story of The Garden at Monk’s House.” Along with Zoob’s text, photographs from the Woolfs’ time, and lavish contemporary photos by Caroline Arber, the book contains Zoob’s truly delightful, embroidered garden maps – a unique touch in a garden book. Zoob’s narrative of Virginia’s life serves as a good refresher or introduction, and the book also stands as a gardening book with planting recommendations based on experiences in the Monk’s House garden and descriptions of its garden rooms.

Zoob often uses Virginia’s own words to describe the garden and her pleasure in the seasons there: “The snow came down on Saturday, thick white cake sugar all over the garden…,” “the nights are long and warm, the roses flowering; and the garden full of lust and bees, mingling in the asparagus beds” – a gardening book with Virginia Wolf’s observations!

In the mid-90s I visited Monk’s House (before Zoob’s time and most of the plants quiet for the season), and was among those Zoob would call “visitors on a pilgrimage.” Thrilled to walk where Virginia walked and see the views she saw, I watched a woman pick an apple from one of Leonard’s apple trees and bite into it. Startled, I felt both dismay – should she do that? – and complete understanding of why she would want to.

The house remains much as it was a hundred years ago, and only a limited part of it is open to the public. You envy Zoob living day in and day out as the Woolfs did, with her black-and-white cats, Handlebars and Boy, at home in their garden, and morning sunshine coming down the steps into the kitchen. You also shudder at the trials – water pouring down the same steps into the kitchen when it rained, a clawed bathtub on a tilt. Both couples endured bitterly cold winters – the Woolfs with no central heating, and the modern couple a long stretch with a broken boiler.

Gardens rarely outlast their creators, so I loved this book describing its ongoing life. I think Virginia would be pleased with things, including this treasure of a book.

A little painting Arber photo

 

House Words & House Pictures – Escapees from a House Journal V

“Monk’s House lay at the bottom of the village street that winds down from the high road between Lewes and Newhaven and on which nearly all of Rodmell has been built. It was a modest brick and flint dwelling, weather-boarded on the street side, two stories high with a high pitched slate roof; inside, many low small rooms opened one from another: the ground floors were paved with brick, the stairs were narrow with worn treads: there was of course neither bath nor hot water or W.C. Rising behind the house was a profuse and untidy garden, with flint walls and many outhouses, and beyond the garden was an orchard and beyond the orchard the walled churchyard. The more Leonard and Virginia looked at the place, the more they liked it. They tried their best to find faults, but only succeeded in liking it better.”

Quentin Bell  Virginia Woolf: A Biography

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Strawberries in honor of Monk’s House and VW, and and all the creativity and lifted spirits inspired by houses!