Monash University

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Comfort and judgement : nineteenth-century interior advice manuals and the scripting of Australian identity

posted on 2017-03-01, 03:37 authored by Bawden, Gene Thomas
Nineteenth-century advice manuals have, for some time, been the subjects of academic enquiry. The works of Isabella Beeton, Charles Eastlake, Lucy Orrinsmith, Lady Barker and Martha Loftie have been extensively interrogated by eminent scholars, among them Penny Sparke, Anne Massey, Trevor Keeble and Grace Lees-Maffei. There is, however, an understandable English bias to the study, and while English advice manuals aided the scripting of middleclass dwelling across the globe, including Australia, there remains a gap in the investigation with regard to colonially authored advice. This exegesis and subsequent exhibition dissects the advice administered through three significant, but thus far under-acknowledged nineteenth-century Australian documents; William Henry Rocke’s 'Remarks on Furniture and the Interior Decoration of Houses' (1874); Harriet Frances Wicken’s 'Australian Home' (1891) and Wilhelmina Rawson’s 'Australian Enquiry book of Household and General Information: A Practical Guide for the Cottage, Villa and Bush Home' (1894). On first examination these three documents provide the evidence of Australia’s compliance with the complex protocols of nineteenth-century English dwelling. They clearly encouraged and promoted imported notions of class, gendered behaviour, moral probity, material culture and ‘civilized’ dwelling. But, they also identified the necessity for adaption. Australia was not England, but with dogged determination and cunning manipulation, an English domestic memory could be cast over the most inhospitable of Australian landscapes. The home interior, no matter how grand or rudimentary, was a space defined by its prescriptive content and well-rehearsed behaviour. It united Australia’s widely dispersed and often isolated residents with each other and, importantly, with those of a distant motherland. The domestic interior provided a single, shared identity among a transnational body of British middleclass aspirants. Via the richly descriptive language of Rocke, Wicken and Rawson, this exegesis and exhibition reveals the significance of the early Australian interior beyond an easy dismissal of it as little more than a pastiche of English domestic values. The touchstone of familiarity carefully honed and protected within the interior was a key factor in the resilience of Australia’s colonial communities. The advice of Rocke, Wicken and Rawson would help Australians to define their homes as both comforting private havens and public sites of peer judgement. Simultaneously, they provided the material evidence of the colonials’ comprehension of the complex system of Victorian domesticity and their right to operate within it. The terrors of the landscape outside–either the unforgiving bush or a raw, new community–could be quelled momentarily by well-rehearsed acts of English-inspired gentility among the delights of the abundantly appointed colonial drawing room. 

Awards: Winner of the Mollie Holman Doctoral Medal for Excellence, Faculty of Art, Design and Architecture, 2015.


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Luke Morgan

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Doctor of Philosophy

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Faculty of Art, Design and Architecture

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