The silvery tinkling of servants’ bells welcomes me into the house of merchant Joshua Gee. There’s a fire in the grate and sweet treats on offer in the Still Room where I’m handed a candle to illuminate the winter afternoon, a parchment inventory of household goods and a quill pen so that I may note the contents as I explore the stories of ‘Lives, Loves and Loss’. This is the latest immersive experience from Traces London, who work within the fabric of buildings to retell old stories through contemporary objects. Fenton House in Hampstead is their latest canvas, framing the lives of the Gees, a family of a prosperous Quaker silk trader who lived here in 1730. Beautifully crafted exhibits reimagine the stories of the family through objects and sensory cues. For Traces the past is contemporary.
All of the items that form the stories, and even some of the furnishings, have been created by 80 contemporary designer-makers. Fourteen were specially commissioned in response to the period and the individual stories of the Gee family, the others thoughtfully curated and all are – discreetly – for sale as listed in the neat copperplate of the inventory. Before possessions were made ubiquitous by mass production all goods were made by hand, as individual as their makers. Even the most everyday items expressed a relationship to their owners. This is where Traces mingles past and present seamlessly: the porcelain, preserves, and textiles of contemporary designer-makers charmingly at one with their environment.
It is a subtle and multi-sensory experience. Jo Davies’ porcelain plates and glorious urns are luminous in the dimness of the Still Room as our eyes acclimatise to the crepuscular light. In the dining room, where a clock invisibly chimes the hour, you are invited to join the feast. Cleverly scented napkins by AVM Curiosities in clear boxes describe the different courses – open the drawer and sample them for yourself. Discarded letters on desks and in drawers illustrate the family’s lives, disagreements and desires. Anna Gee’s dressing room is rich with silk robes, bags and gloves. A pearl necklace spills from Anna’s portrait onto the desk below where letters confirm her love of finery, seemingly at odds with her Quaker beliefs. Anna’s black mourning dress by Eva Ott stands soberly on a mannequin, but pass a hand across it and the beaded silk glows, illuminating luxurious underwear beneath. Then as now the things we accumulate have their own back stories.
Contemporary silks, scarves and handkerchiefs displayed in Joshua Gee’s study remind us of the basis of his wealth. In his day silks were bought on trips his son made to Aleppo, then one of the great trading cities of the Silk Road in a shrinking world dominated by trade.
This installation brings into focus a moment in the life of one family of Fenton House, expressed through personal and household items, and in doing so gives a nod to the lineage of makers from then to now. These new collections, curated into a temporary relationship for this event, also echo the many different occupants and objects the house has sheltered over time. These include the specific collections of paintings and musical instruments usually on display in its role as a National Trust property.
If I expected Lives, Loves and Loss to be a clash or a mash up of cultural references there’s no such jarring. And although I like the idea of a palimpsest, the accumulated layering of time, here in Traces its about continuity, in the everyday, the handmade, the beautiful or useful so familiar in our own possessions. As time slips between past and present in the low light of a chill December afternoon what these ‘contemporary Georgian’ artefacts tell me is that the past is not another country but all around us in the here and now.
Lives, Loves, and Loss is at Fenton House, London from 3rd to 23rd December 2016. Book your tickets now!
To find out more about Traces London, read our interview with co-founder Donna Walker.
Image credits: Traces / Giovanna Del Sarto 2016.