Yesterday I made my first visit to the Geffrye Museum. Entrance is free.
One of the dozens of excellent specialist museums around town, the Geffrye is based in Hackney, about 10 minutes’ walk to the north of Shoreditch High Street. In a tightly built-up area that has enjoyed a more prosperous past and apparently brighter times to come, the museum is housed in a tranquil lawned square surrounded on three sides by historic two-storey terraced cottages along three sides. These were originally alms-houses for impoverished geriatrics, built in 1715 from a charitable endowment by Sir Robert Geffrye (d1704), a moderately successful ironmonger based in the City. Originally hailing from Cornwall he was a solid Anglican Tory, serving as an Alderman, Lord Mayor and numerous charitable institutions such as the Bethlehem Hostpital.
In 1910, the aged inmates of the alms houses were moved to lodgings in the countryside and their former homes became the Geffrye Museum. The museum specialises in the history of middle-class domestic interiors from 1600 to the present day. Specifically, it concentrates on the family living space, that is to say the parlour, the drawing-room, the living room, the lounge, the front room as it has variously been called down the years.
Room by room we are taken on a journey from the late Elizabethan period when everything happened in this living space: meals, business, relaxing, socialising. A time when Protestantism demanded modesty and practicality in furniture and decoration. As the middle-classes become both more numerous and successful as Britain grows as the leading world power, we are taken through the Georgian and Victorian period. We are shown how ostentation becomes more acceptable, how taste develops more rapidly, strongly influenced by far-flung Eastern styles in furniture, crockery and bric-a-brac; the taking of tea and coffee with one’s guests and the associated rituals. We learn about the Arts and Crafts reaction against Victorian decorative excess. An finally we meet 20th Century Modernism, the electric and electronic environment, and our journey ends with the home of the 1990s (scarily out-dated!).
The period rooms are all divided one from the next by a “link” room, which houses display cabinets of contemporary artefacts, crockery, cutlery, tea services, mirrors, clocks and so on with explanatory notes. One such had examples of contemporary magazines. I “lost” a good half hour reading early 18C copies of The Tatler, The Spectator, The London Gazette etc. This historian found the advertisements and government notices deeply absorbing.
In addition to the rooms, the Geffrye retains its original alms-house chapel, which you encounter about halfway through the exhibition. This is where the residents were obliged to attend church service. It also owns an impressive collection of paintings, most of which are appropriately hung in the period rooms themselves. The remainder are in two separate galleries. Most of them demonstrate interiors and fashion in some way.
Because of the structure of the building, the museum perforce is long and narrow. This helps, in a way, to reinforce the historical linearity of the displays and also allows the visitors to reacquaint themselves with their favourite bits on the return journey to the exit.
The museum has restored some of the almshouses to their original condition inside and out. These are open on selected days of the month, unfortunately not on the day of my visit. So I shall have to visit again soon. I recommend you do too.
Give yourself at least two hours to get the most from this delightful museum.