A couple of weeks ago, BBC Radio 4’s Today programme posted a tweet asking listeners to send in photos of their mantelpieces as part of a celebration of the anniversary of Mass Observation (You can revisit this wonderful piece here). One photo in particular caught my attention – that sent in by @JonBurke, who proudly displayed a poster of the ‘Socialist Ten Commandments’ above his mantelpiece. Politics are often seen as a very public pursuit, but here was a political statement in a private home, and in a place which Terence Conran, on the BBC programme, described as ‘a blueprint of the soul’.
Expressing political ideals in the home is not that unusual. My own research project aims to examine the intricate ties between private homes and public politics in the late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth century, and I’m particularly interested in how ordinary men and women used items within the home to reflect their political allegiance. In the print John Bull in his Glory, for example, the cottage interior clearly designates its owner as a loyal supporter of King George III in the turbulent 1790s, when Britain went to war with Revolutionary France. There is a portrait of the king on the wall, which is also heavily bedecked with oak branches, a symbol of loyalty to the monarchy. The companion print shows the ‘sad reverse’ – a French family, their walls festooned with a Cap of Liberty and images of revolutionary heroes such as Marat and Robespierre. The non-too-subtle message of these propaganda prints is conveyed by the material wellbeing of the loyalist British family as compared to the misery and starvation of the revolutionaries. However, the striking use of household objects to convey political affiliation in the prints seemingly did have a basis in reality. A large quantity of surviving commemorative pottery from the period carries a political message – whether it be a celebration of King and Constitution or a memorial for an opposition tragedy, such as Peterloo, or victory, such as the 1832 Reform Act. Literary sources also offer evidence of household objects. Samuel Bamford, for example, noticed a bust of the reforming hero John Horne Tooke in the home of Francis Burdett.
The desire to represent one’s politics within the home seems to have been a continuous one. I’ve recently been reading Ethel Carnie Holdsworth’s early-twentieth century socialist novel, This Slavery, in which the very first paragraph describes portraits of William Liebknecht and William Morris, whose utopian News from Nowhere is celebrated throughout the novel. My housemate told me that her family used to have a portrait of Lenin in the hallway – one of the neighbours asked if it was her grandmother. And of course, we come back to the Socialist Ten Commandments. When I sent Jon a message to ask permission to use his photo in this post, he kindly sent me a clearer photograph, and a list of the contents of his mantelpiece. These were as follows:
‘L-R: a photo frame containing a photograph of Karl Marx’s headstone and a postcard on which is printed the socialist ten commandments; a photo frame containing a photo of, and quote from, J.K.Galbraith; a stone brought back from a holiday; a stone with the word ‘happiness’ carved in to it; a photo of my wife and I with the large socialist ten commandments at Stoke Newington Town Hall on our wedding day; some hair slides; a Labour Party rosette; a small box containing cufflinks; a Labour LGBT drinks coaster backing Ken Livingstone; a small bottle of face oil; a two-handled cup containing a pair of cardboard dressing-up glasses on a stick, a red flag order of service flag from our wedding, my wedding day buttonhole, and some left-over passport photographs; a photo frame containing a photograph of my wife and I from about seven years ago (the small piece of card in the bottom left-hand corner is a entrance ticket to Musee Art et Metiers).’
What I find most interesting is the mix of socialist memorabilia with items relating to Jon’s family life and more prosaic everyday objects such as hairslides. What Jon’s mantelpiece seems to convey is that his politics are firmly interwoven into his existence – he is demonstrating that his socialist ideals are fundamental in his life. Of course, some ostensibly political objects do not reflect such firm convictions. For example, many adolescents proudly adorn their walls with Che Guevara posters despite their vague-at-best knowledge of who he was or what he did. Likewise, in the early-nineteenth century, items featuring Napoleon’s image were popular, probably due to a fascination with Britain’s great enemy rather than support for his deeds. This kind of expression is interesting in itself, and it can be difficult to separate it from the attempts to communicate ‘genuine’ politics within the home. What I’m really interested in is why the home is used as site of display for political objects at all. In a private space, they can only be seen by friends and family who are likely to already be aware of the homeowner’s strongly-held beliefs. In times of heavy state surveillance, such as during and just after the wars against Revolutionary and Napoleonic France, the need to keep expressions of dissident opinion private is obvious, but in modern Britain it is –fortunately- less likely that one would be persecuted for oppositional beliefs. Instead, it seems that political items within the home are intended more for self-affirmation, reflecting and projecting the political self in what the Radio 4 programme described as a ‘two-way mirror’. Like religious icons, they serve as both a reminder to oneself and a notice to others of what the owner feels to be a key aspect of their personality.
These are ideas I’m hoping to explore further in my research. Which brings me to a plea for some audience participation. If you have any examples of household political objects – historical or contemporary – please share them here, along with any ideas you have about why the owner may have chosen such an object to express themselves. I’d love to hear your views.
*Many thanks to Jon and Ciara Burke, for sharing their fantastic mantelpiece. T. Ovenden’s satires are courtesy of Professor John Barrell at the University of York and the British Museum’s online collection.