Oriental Interiors
Oriental Interiors

John Potvin

John Potvin is Associate Professor in the Department of Art History at Concordia University, Canada, where he teaches on the intersections of art, interior design and fashion. Author affiliation details are correct at time of print publication.

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Bloomsbury Academic, 2015


Content Type:

Book chapter

Peoples, Cultures and Religions:

European, Near Eastern (Early Western World)

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Paradise in the Parlor: Cozy Corners and Potted Palms in Western Interiors, 1880–1900

DOI: 10.5040/9781474263788.ch-012
Page Range: 203–218

We may find ourselves surrounded with imagery of tropical luxuriance, while the forms and fragrance of real plants will complete the delusion.

(H. J. Cooper, “The Art of Furnishing on Rational and Aesthetic Principles” 1879: 5)

In the postcolonial early twenty-first century, much work still needs to be undertaken to fully unravel the cross-cultural influences that occurred during the era of European imperialism and colonization and the early years of international trade and travel. In particular, its effects upon material and spatial culture and everyday life need more attention as it was within those arenas that new cultural norms and practices were established. The complex transnational effects of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century European imperialism and colonization in this area are only just being addressed and the tools with which to undertake that work still to be fully defined (Wild 2000). Inevitably, much was lost, or re-constructed, in translation.

While a significant amount of work has been done on the effects of European culture and style being imposed on to colonized nations, and on recapturing the indigenous, local cultures that were eclipsed as a result, less has been done to unpack the meanings of the reverse movement of culture, that is, on the cultural influences of the colonized nations on the colonizers (King 1984). In the area of material culture and the decorative arts, this has, to date, been mostly focused on the influences of trade relations with China and Japan and, to a lesser extent, India (Sato and Watanabe 1991). It has become clear from this work that, in the colonising countries, so remote were the origins of those cultures and styles that the boundaries between them became porous and that, for many, they merged into a single phenomenon that simply stood for exoticism and “otherness” in the broadest sense of the terms.

The work undertaken by the cultural theorist Edward Said in the late 1970s has helped us focus on the fact that what he called “Orientalism” (which for him was linked primarily to the culture of the Arab, Islamic world), was a Western construct which, in his eyes, acted as a form of active and deliberate marginalization. By depicting the Oriental other as irrational, lazy, sensuous and feminine, he claimed, it was understood as being all the things the West was not, that is, rational, industrious and masculine (Said 2003). Homi Bhabha took that debate one step further, however, venturing beyond the binary situation outlined by Said to posit the existence of a “Third Space” that was hybrid in nature and which understood cultural categories as being in a permanent state of transformation (Rutherford 1990: 207–221).

While that debate continues within the world of cultural theory it has also impacted on the ways in which historians of material culture and the decorative arts understand their objects of study. While Said’s work helps them to understand that the view of the “other” tells us more about the viewer than the viewed, and that they have to be diligent when deconstructing the myths that have been created within the context of transnational cultural exchange, Bhabha’s ideas helps them grasp the fact that most material cultural manifestations are inevitably hybrid in nature, the results, that is, of continually ongoing transformations and combinations of the complex cultural influences that have helped form them. This study recognizes the importance of both these insights. In the context of the subject under discussion—the inclusion, that is, of tropical palms which originated in a wide range of geographical areas, the Caribbean and Central and South America among them, in an otherwise exclusively Oriental setting—Bhabha’s notions of “transformation” and “hybridity” are highly relevant.

This account of exoticism and otherness (which, in the context of this chapter, are both Oriental and tropical in their origins) in the late nineteenth-century Western domestic interior offers an example of the ways in which new and complex meanings can be constructed in that space through the appropriation and display of multiple objects and styles presented as a whole. Given the huge propensity for hybridity in that context, both within individual objects and in their combinations in a spatial setting, care is required in unpacking their complex and often seemingly internally inconsistent cultural meanings. Given also, that the only access to them in combination is through photographs the heavily posed, seemingly consistent and misleadingly static nature of the imagery in question needs to be taken into account.

The cozy corner

A photograph of the New York-based interior decorator Elsie de Wolfe (1867–1950), taken in 1896, just before she refurbished her 122 East 17th Street home, situated on the corner of East 17th Street and Irving Place, in the French eighteenth-century style, shows her reclining on a sea of silk-covered, patterned and embroidered cushions and surrounded by lush potted palms and an aspidistra [Figure 12.1]. Closer inspection reveals a carpet of Middle-Eastern origin covering a low plinth beneath her feet, and, to her right, two inlaid, Turkish-style side tables with what appear to be Middle-Eastern-style metal bowls (used as plant holders) positioned on them.

Figure 12.1. The Interior Decorator, Elsie de Wolfe, lounging on a cozy corner, in her house at 122 East 17th Street, New York, 1896. Reproduced with permission from the Museum of the City of New York.

In spite of Miss de Wolfe’s overtly Western, high Victorian “Aesthetic” dress, and the William Morris-style wallpaper located behind her, the Oriental flavor of this complex scene is indisputable. Reminiscent of a Turkish harem—or at least of one that had been widely seen in European paintings and photographs that we now call Orientalist—it sits within the early nineteenth-century French painting tradition of the odalisque—a slave or concubine in a harem who was depicted as a sexually available woman—most notably embraced by the artists Eugene Delacroix and Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres. In the photograph of de Wolfe in her Irving Place home, however, the overtly erotic, early nineteenth-century naked odalisque, was replaced by a fully clothed, highly fashionable figure located in an albeit equally exotic (although less overtly suggestive) “cozy corner.”

Also widely referred to as a “Turkish Corner,” the “cozy corner” was a reconstruction of a highly informal lounging area, originally found in harems (or at least represented as such by male Orientalist artists who were, ironically, forbidden to enter them), that found its way into, firstly, artistic and, later, style-conscious middle-class domestic interiors of the mid-1890s in both Europe and the USA. The extant photographs that depict examples of that particular late nineteenth-century domestic decorating genre present their female subjects as dreamy, reflective, relaxed (perhaps even work-shy), frequently overtly sexual and embedded within a carefully constructed theatrical set denoting physical comfort and luxury. The set usually comprised a low carpet- or fabric-covered plinth, draped patterned fabrics and cushions, and a range of furniture pieces and decorative items, including inlaid tables, metalwork (occasionally a hookah or a lamp), and frequently exotic plants, usually palms.

While this depiction would have been denounced as a false construction by Said, created by the West (the colonizing Occident) in order to undermine the Orient (the colonized East), in the context of the history of the interior, it can be understood, quite simply, as a Western decorating fashion—linked to late nineteenth-century Aestheticism as it entered the popular arena. Arguably, it ultimately said less about the Orient per se than about Western social aspirations in an urban setting. Seen from that perspective “Turkish Corners,” and the so-called “Oriental Interior” as a whole, can be seen to have represented the idea, or ideal, of a liberal household, one in which artistic practices were embraced, beauty was prioritized and femininity was ever present. The first “Turkish corners” existed in homes that were inhabited by an artistic avant-garde that was situated at the margins of society. By the 1890s, they had entered the houses of a wider range of middle-class home-makers who had sufficient fashion sense and social know-how to understand that to appear to be marginal, and to be seen to embrace artistic values in the domestic sphere, positioned them firmly as members of upwardly mobile, sophisticated, metropolitan middle-class society. The home-makers in question acquired their knowledge about the kind of interiors that would communicate this message from contemporary magazines and advice books, as well as from access to model interiors presented at exhibitions and in photographers’ studios.

Oriental interiors were rarely stylistically pure. Indeed, they did not need to be. Rather, they occupied a spectrum, one end of which was inhabited by Gesamtkunstwerk interiors, within which every element was indisputably either directly derived from or inspired by the East, or a Western idea of the East, and the other end by decorating schemes that merely contained, say, an item of Turkish metalwork or a Turkish or Persian carpet—sufficient signs of the presence of the Orient in an otherwise eclectic setting. Of all the Oriental symbols used in domestic settings, the carpet was, perhaps, the most widespread and it quickly became a key element within the basic vocabulary of the language of Victorian domesticity. Indeed, it could also be found outside the private arena, bringing domesticity to a wide range of semi-public and public settings including hotel lobbies and even lunatic asylums.

The “cozy corner” was part of a wider fascination with all things described at the time as “Oriental” that had penetrated fashionable, middle-class interior décor by the end of the nineteenth century. Broadly speaking, it signified an interest in the past and with the sensuous, the bodily, the feminine and the decorative. It contrasted strongly with the more rational “proto-modern” design style that emerged at the end of the nineteenth century, which was epitomized by the work of the William Morris and the members of the Arts and Crafts Movement. This widely disseminated decorative idiom, which featured vernacular country chairs and textiles featuring patterns abstracted from natural forms, has tended to dominate historical accounts of the period, as well as design historical discourse, eclipsing the fashion for all things Oriental (Naylor 2001). The two styles frequently co-existed in a single setting, however: Oriental metalwork could be found in the drawing room of William Morris’s Kelmscott House, built in London’s Hammersmith, for example, while the dining room of the same home featured a Persian carpet and a chest full of more Oriental metal-ware.

Although the West had been entranced by the art and culture of the Middle East for centuries, and numerous European examples of interest in countries from that part of the world influencing the interior schemes of the nobility and the wealthy in the eighteenth century existed, that interest resurfaced in the nineteenth century, reaching the peak of its popularity in the mid-1890s when aspirational middle-class home-makers began to emulate an interior style that had already been manifesting itself in more rarefied artistic circles. Leading artists, architects and designers of the day led the way: In Britain, for example, Owen Jones demonstrated a strong interest in the Islamic decorative arts in his 1956 book The Grammar of Ornament, which proved hugely influential; and in 1890, the artist Frederick Leighton included an Arab Hall in his London home. It combined stylistic features inspired by Syria, Egypt, Persia, Damascus and Algeria, among other exotic locations.

“Turkish taste,” formed an element of French décor throughout the nineteenth century (Grier 2010: 38), while, on the other side of the Atlantic, the taste for all things Oriental was manifested by, among other examples, the Moorish Revival mansion designed for the circus impresario P. T. Barnum in New York in 1848 by the architect Leopold Eidlitz. Other notable instances of the fashion for the style on the East Coast of the USA included the “Persian”-style home—“Olana”—designed in 1872 by Calvert Vaux for Hudson River painter Frederick Edwin Church. In 1893, the Columbian Exposition in Chicago featured a Turkish village and bazaar, as well as a “Streets of Cairo” exhibit, both of which proved hugely popular. Indeed, the bazaar offered all the items required by home-makers to create their own “Turkish Corners.” By the mid-1990s, the popular Oriental style had become a pan-Western phenomenon represented by loose melanges of settings, furniture items and artifacts which, although they had their origins (fictionally, if not factually) in North Africa, Turkey, and the Middle East, could be bought locally.

Above all, the cozy corner served to undermine the high formality of the mid-nineteenth-century parlor, the furniture items of which had required a quite different and much more controlled set of postures and a greater degree of formal social interaction on the part of its inhabitants. It introduced a new level of personal privacy, relaxation and interiority into the home and, above all, a new, sexualized and independent image of the domesticated woman. In the image discussed above, for example, de Wolfe (a professional actress at the time) was assuming a very specific pose for the photographer. Suggesting independence and reflection, she achieved this by holding her head and looking into the middle distance. The idea of interior decoration becoming an important medium through which women could express their individual creative identities was in line with the tenets of Aestheticism (Gere and Hoskins 2008: 8). De Wolfe was at one with her personal identity and her domestic privacy. However, it was a posed privacy, visible to the many visitors who came to admire the fashionableness of the interior décor on display. De Wolfe and her partner, the theatrical agent, Elizabeth Marbury (1856–1933), opened their house in Irving Place on Sunday afternoons to a gathering of celebrity cultural figures, including Dame Nellie Melba. Their aim, in so doing, was undoubtedly to have some of that celebrity status rub off from them and, when de Wolfe turned from being an actress to an interior decorator, to attract clients.

The potted palm as exotic “Other” in the late nineteenth-century middle-class home

The set for the posed privacy expressed in the de Wolfe photograph was achieved through a combined use of textiles, furnishings and a range of decorative items, including potted palms and an aspidistra. The last were not an obligatory component of cozy corners. However, records exist of other examples in which they were included and they certainly served as a visual complement to the other elements used to construct that particular theatrical setting.

While palms are associated with many of the geographical areas that can be described as Oriental—Southern Asia, North Africa and Southern Turkey among others—they have their origins in a wider range of tropical locations. They are seen as highly exotic natural objects, therefore, linked with the ideas of warmth, sensuousness and relaxation. In the nineteenth century, they had the capacity to inject a level of exoticism into the West that could supplement Oriental settings but which could also be added to a wide range of other domestic settings and styles. While, that is, when accompanied by the other necessary components of that interior decorative scheme, or language, they could contribute to a specifically nineteenth-century Oriental exoticism, they also provided exotic otherness in more conventional nineteenth-century middle-class interiors. In Britain, that otherness not only evoked the sumptuousness and warmth of a tropical environment but also, given many of their countries of origin, the authority of the British Empire.

The link between palms and Orientalism was not new however. Numerous eighteenth- and nineteenth-century paintings and photographs of Oriental scenes, including fantasized images of harem interiors, created by European travelers and others, depicted palms. This was both because they often existed in the locations of choice (when those locations were in tropical zones) but also, undoubtedly, because of the tree’s inherent visual elegance and abundant capacity to contribute to the picturesque nature of a work by providing height, a visual softness, which contrasted with architectural solidity and regularity, and, frequently, a convenient framing device. As such they came to play a significant role within Oriental iconography and were therefore, not surprisingly, frequently included in nineteenth-century interiors that expressed an Oriental theme, such as the one in de Wolfe’s New York home. They were by no means restricted to such interiors, however, as has been suggested, but took on an important role in countless late nineteenth-century middle-class domestic interiors across a wider stylistic spectrum, introducing an element of exoticism into them.

The roles played by the Oriental style and potted palms in the middle-class home were both related and distinct: They both injected a sense of otherness and exoticism into interiors that derived from the distance of their geographical origins and their cultural difference. Where they parted company lay in the difference of the specifics of their geographical origins in many cases and in the fact that another face of palms’ otherness lay in the fact that they were a symptom of the industrialising world needing to keep one foot in the natural world. By bringing nature inside, in the form not only of plant and flowers, but also of birds, fish and reptiles, the Victorians sought to avoid a split between nature and culture and, thereby, avoid alienation from the pre-industrial world that they had all but abandoned,

Oriental-style furnishings and potted palms in the home both had their roots in Western colonization—the former through the Europeans exerting their power over the Islamic World and the latter through the European colonization of places in a range of geographical locations, including Asia, the Pacific Islands, Africa and the Americas. The introduction of both helped fulfill a deep desire—one that had already been met by the aristocracy through the embrace of chinoiserie and japonisme, as well as citrus fruit trees—to inject exoticism into the home.

As they did in paintings and photographs, so within interior settings palms frequently provided a frame, a set of stage side curtains as it were, for all the other interior elements—rugs, cushions, hangings, metalwork, tables and a range of other decorative objects among them—in either an Oriental-style ensemble or in a more conventional nineteenth-century home in the neo-Classical, neo-Tudor, neo-Gothic, japoniste, or Arts and Crafts styles, or, quite frequently, a mixture of some or all of them. Palms also offered sculptural elegance and architectural structure. They could perform the role of screens and their presence frequently served to offset the effects of clutter and stylistic mixing, enabling eclectic settings to appear unified. They also added height where it was needed and the color green to complement the widespread use of deep reds that pervaded the Victorian parlor. Although they could not emulate their exotic role, indigenous ferns frequently provided a cheaper alternative that could offer some of the same aesthetic benefits.

The journey of palms into the middle-class home, via the conservatory, was initially less a response to the requirements of taste, however, and more to ones of scientific inquiry. However, as the century progressed, they became increasingly aestheticized and integrated into the fashionable interior, both in wealthy country houses and in more modest middle-class dwellings. Palms brought with them the exoticism of the tropics, as well as memories of empire and of an un-tamed world in which nature had held sway over culture. In Britain, the first large-scale glass and iron palm houses were built in the grounds of the Duke of Devonshire’s home, Chatsworth House (1837–1840) in Derbyshire, designed by Joseph Paxton who went on to create the Crystal Palace that housed the Great Exhibition held in Hyde Park in 1851. Between 1844 and 1848, the enormous palm house at Kew came into being. So popular were the palm houses and the 1851 exhibition that they fueled a fashion for the creation of palm houses in public parks. This was followed by a rash of domestic conservatories (made possible by the recent development of sheet glass) attached to the homes of the wealthy and of the urban nouveau riche [Figure 12.2].

Figure 12.2. Nineteenth-century conservatory in the Gothic style at Orton Hall, Peterborough. Photograph: Penny Sparke.

In Liverpool, for example, one of the country’s most important ports at which numerous merchant ships arrived filled with imported plants, the Isla Gladstone conservatory was built in 1896 in Stanley Park, which itself had opened twenty-six years earlier. The conservatory was stocked with a large collection of exotic plants, including palms. At exactly the same time, not far from the Park in Aigburth Vale, the furnisher and decorator S. J. Waring (1837–1907), who was to became a partner in the well-known British furnishers and decorators Waring and Gillow (following a merger in 1897), bought a house which he called Palmyra (the name of both a type of palm and of a place in ancient Syria [Corner 1955: 285]). Waring added to the rear of the early nineteenth-century villa an octagonal-roofed conservatory which led to a sequence of elaborate, intersecting glass houses [Figure 12.3]. He filled the conservatory with exotic plants, mostly palms but also a few ferns, as well as with some garden furniture and a standard lamp, thus transforming it into an outside parlor. A paper Chinese lantern hung from one of the metal beams. The glasshouses were linked to the rear of the house through the addition of some Moorish-style arches and tiles (reminiscent of those depicted by Owen Jones in his Grammar of Ornament (1856), which had been inspired by the Alhambra in Granada). Just as de Wolfe had added a mirror to the rear of her cozy corner to create an enhanced sense of space, so S. J. Waring also injected one into the middle archway at the rear of his house. In the same year in which he built his conservatory, the Journal of Horticulture and Practical Gardening reported that S. J. Waring’s gardener, Mr Pattinson, won a prize for a palm grown at Palmyra, showing the extent of the furnisher’s commitment to nurturing that exotic plant.

Figure 12.3. Palm House at Palmyra, Aigburth Vale, Liverpool, 1896. Reproduced by permission of English Heritage.
Figure 12.4. Dining room in Palmyra, Aigburth Vale, Liverpool, 1896. Reproduced by permission of English Heritage.

Interestingly, Waring did not limit his interest in palms to the conservatory, but also introduced some small examples into his dining room [Figure 12.4]. In spite of the overtly Oriental flavor suggested by the name of the Waring home, that style was notable by its absence in the interior décor. Instead, the dining room was highly conventional in its familiar eclecticism and historicism: It featured Chippendale-style dining chairs, some French eighteenth-century-style electric sconces, a Japanese-style bamboo fire-screen and a neo-Tudor molded plaster ceiling. The only sign of Orientalism—as was the case in so many middle-class homes of the period—was the presence of either a Turkish or a Persian carpet on the floor. To that small taste of exoticism was added the presence of three small palms, one of them placed at the center of the dining table.

Advice literature and the exotic home of taste

While the owners of country houses had decorators undertake their interior schemes, including the positioning of their potted palms, middle-class urban dwellers were left to make their own decorating decisions. In helping the latter engage in the fashion for both Orientalizing the domestic interior, and rendering it exotic through the introduction of potted palms, the role of two bodies of advice books—those focusing on furnishing and others oriented towards the activity known as “window gardening”—cannot be under-estimated. It is impossible to know how much they actually influenced practice, but they undoubtedly played a key role in communicating the ideals to which home-makers aspired.

In the first category, Mrs Haweis, for example, a widely read advisor on furniture and furnishings to British home-makers, devoted a chapter of her book Beautiful Houses to a description of Alma-Tadema’s house in Regent’s Park in which she noted the existence of a conservatory, complete with a hammock, palms and Chinese lanterns and, in the interior itself, the use of hanging textiles instead of doors, which gave the house, in her words an “Oriental character.” Both features seemed to get her seal of approval (Haweis 1882: 25).

Where advisors on plants in the home were concerned on both sides of the Atlantic there was a strong consensus about the beauty and superiority of palms over other plants. There was also a significant interest in indigenous ferns placed in Wardian cases as they were deemed to be the best alternative to palms for those for whom the latter were a financial impossibility. This strategy was discussed at length by Shirley Hibberd in his influential book Rustic Adornments for Homes of Taste, first published in 1856 but re-printed in 1857, 1870 and 1895. The final edition contained a chapter entitled “The Fern-Case” which described the plants in question as being of great beauty and as playing a key role in the “circle of household adornments” (Hibberd 1987 [1856]: 136). Attention was also paid to fern stands, which could, according to Hibberd, be acquired in a number of desired styles, presumably Oriental among them. Palms were included in a chapter dedicated to window gardens and enclosed exterior window cases, but they were not considered at length in the text. They were visible, however, in an illustration depicting a conservatory leading from a dwelling-house (Hibberd 1987 [1856]: 240).

Hibberd’s engagement with the Oriental style came to the fore in a discussion about indoor bird cages. In the 1856 edition, he highlighted one fantasy creation in particular that was designed for “Homes of Taste” by Mr William Kidd. With its repeated decorative arches, abstract patterning and onion-shaped domed top, it had a strong mosque-like appearance. Its presence in the book demonstrated Hibberd’s awareness of the role played both by nature, in its many forms, and by styles derived from distant lands, as exotic, tasteful others in the 1890s home, however modest. He also included an illustration of a parrot house “in the Moorish style” which he claimed was “well adapted for use as an open bird and vine-house during summer” (Hibberd 1987 [1856]: 256). He went on to explain that “[a] collection of parrots and paroquets would have a splendid effect in such a building and give it a true oriental appearance.” Evidence of Hibberd’s acute awareness of the contemporary vogue for all things Oriental was reinforced by a discussion of a fiction that in his view “beat the ‘Arabian Nights’ out of all hope of competition” (Hibberd 1987 [1856]: 250).

Because of their elegance and architectural structure palms were seen as being particularly useful in the area of table decoration. In his 1874 book Domestic Floriculture: Window-Gardening and Floral Decorations, being practical directions for the propagation, culture and arrangement of plants and flowers as domestic ornaments, F. W. Burbridge illustrated a table decorated with palms. The display featured multiple palms with a large one at the center surrounded by others of descending height. The plants’ pots were concealed beneath the table’s surface, supported by a metal structure secured beneath it (Burbridge 1874: 142–143). In Floral Decorations for the Dwelling House of the following year, Annie Hassard repeated the same idea of placing palms on tables with their pots positioned beneath, explaining that she did exactly this for two tables she designed for Royal Horticultural Society shows at South Kensington and Birmingham. The specific plants she used on those occasions were a “graceful pair of Pteris tremula and . . . a pair of Chamaedoreas,” the former a type of fern and the latter a small palm from the Americas (Hassard 1875: 14).

Across the Atlantic, “window” and “parlor” gardening also became popular household pursuits, modeled upon European examples. Henry T. Williams’s book, Window Gardening, of 1862 and 1972, and Edward Sprague Rand’s The Window Gardener of 1863, 1870, 1871 and 1882, both embraced the exotic implications of bringing nature—in the form of plants and tropical birds—to accompany furnishings inspired by the styles from distant lands, into the home. Ferns were given special attention once again, but Williams also devoted a section of his book to palms explaining that the discovery of dwarf versions made it a much more flexible plant for the interior (Williams 1872: 262). As a result, he recommended using palms as table decorations. Williams predicted prophetically that “they will soon be the favorites of our parlors” (1872: 262). He also pointed out that, although many palms grew to be very big, their growth was slow and they could be used in rooms for considerable periods of time (Williams 1872: 264). Rand adopted a more practical approach and explained of palms that, “[t]heir stiff foliage is well adapted to endure the impure air of apartments and is not injured by gas . . . Where plants are needed for effect, and little attention can be given, palms . . . . are eminently useful” (Rand 2009 [1863]: 123).

The last decades of the nineteenth century and early years of twentieth century saw palms used as part of fashionable decoration move beyond the home and into a wide range of semi-public and public spaces, including ones in hotels, ocean liners, department stores, seaside winter gardens and “people’s palaces.” The idea of the “palm court” emerged at that time, a space in which guests, shoppers and audiences could take tea in a fashionable environment while being entertained by music, often played by a “palm quartet.” Palm courts emerged in huge numbers across both sides of the Atlantic—examples included those in the Langham and Ritz hotels in London and the Plaza hotel in New York; Harrods in London and Au Printemps and the Galeries Lafayettes in Paris; the ocean liners Aquitania, Olympic and Titanic; the English winter garden at Blackpool; and the “People’s Palaces” in London and Glasgow. To a significant extent, their appeal undoubtedly lay in the exotic ambiance provided by the plants themselves. By 1914, the palm court had mostly disappeared from view, however.


In describing his theory of culture in the context of cultural translation, Homi Bhabha has described the importance of understanding incompleteness. “Translation,” he has explained, “is also a way of imitating, but in a mischievous, displacing sense—imitating an original in such a way that the priority of the original is not reinforced but by the very fact that it can be simulated, copied, transferred, transformed, made into a simulacrum and so on: the ‘original’ is never finished or complete in itself” (in Rutherford 1990: 210). The use of both the Oriental style and the potted palm in interiors continued to be copied and transformed through the course of the nineteenth century, sometimes in isolation and sometimes in conjunction with each other (as in the de Wolfe photograph). While based on a set of fairly stable themes—those of exoticism, escapism and aspiration—both their material and spatial languages as well as their contexts and meanings continued to evolve over half a century.

Taken together with Said’s insights into the fact that “otherness” in a colonizing culture is usually more fiction than fact, Bhabha’s ideas help make sense of the nature and meaning of the exoticism present in de Wolfe’s Irving Place home, as well in the other examples of both Oriental and palm-filled interiors discussed in this chapter. While there was not necessarily any inherent logic, consistency or authenticity in their contents the effects of the whole had a validity that was meaningful to contemporaries. At a time of rapid industrialization, urbanization and growing international political unrest in Europe and the USA, the escapist appeal of distant lands and of the increasingly remote world of nature, represented by the inclusion of a Turkish carpet and an exotic potted palm in the home, served to help assuage the anxieties of two continents.


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