MASS OBSERVATION: ‘MANTLEPIECES’

Osbert Lancaster, ‘Modernistic’, from Homes Sweet Homes (1939)

Curious as to how ceramic figures were displayed in their heyday in the 1920s and 1930s (I’ve written about them here and here), I popped down to the University of Sussex archive to read the Mass Observation report on Mantlepieces yesterday. Ceramic figures were produced in large quantities by factories, especially Doulton and Royal Worcester, and by studio potters. In fact, they were so common that, for most people, ‘studio pottery’ meant ceramic figures and not the plain stoneware vessels that it came to mean after the war, something that it’s hard for us to appreciate today. But we really know very little about their place in the home.

Osbert Lancaster included in his sardonic cartoons of Homes Sweet Homes the Modernistic home (above), with its comfortable-looking Art Deco furnishings and its comfortable-looking owner, her nicely curated mantlepiece with a square clock in the centre and figurines on either side. Was that how they were displayed?

Mass Observation was a famously muddled attempt by poet Charles Madge, anthropologist Tom Harrison and filmmaker Humphrey Jennings to make anthropological studies of the British people. There were intriguing results, like the chapter on the Lambeth Walk, the ‘thirties dance fad, in the Penguin book Britain by Mass Observation. But in other studies (MO called them ‘Directives’) the bias and capriciousness of the selections are obvious. In the Mantlepiece Directive, for example, it’s noticeable how many of the subjects are reported to be left-wing in their views and to have books by writers like Dostoevsky on the mantlepiece.

But what about the figurines? In fact there were very few on the mantlepieces observed and the overwhelming impression given in the reports was of chaos. Sociologists reading through the observations today and hoping to find pattern or significance in them have recorded their despair, irritation and ennui. There were 158 MO observers and they listed getting on for three thousand items. Unlike Osbert Lancaster’s Moderne lady, these mantlepiece-owners had little interest in display. There were a few china dogs and crinoline ladies, but on the whole there were random deposits of clocks, pipes, matches, postcards, brass ornaments, photos, vases, ashtrays, pencils, pens, bottles of ink, bowls with collar-studs and paper clips in them, and generally the detritus of everyday life whose classification would be like Luis Borges’ Celestial Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge.

LUTON TOWN HALL

town hall

I’ve been reading my diary for 1993 when I worked for Luton Borough Council, where I moved from the London Borough of Camden.

Luton was the worst example of callous post-war town planning in England. It was cut in half by the massive Arndale Centre (now called The Mall), where ghosts of old vanished streets lingered in the names of corridors. In the deserted side roads, old trades survived – a grocer with a bacon slicer, a bag and case shop with a window full of jumble, a stove enameller – and an exceptionally large number of nonconformist chapels. I liked Luton, which was untidy, varied, comic and glum. Although it was in the south, it felt like a northern city, largely because of Vauxhall Motors.

The philosophy of town planning was very different in the 1990s from what it had been in the 1960s and the Council was trying to atone for its sins. The district surveyor, who was on the point of retiring when I arrived, told me that the greatest regret of his professional life was acquiring the land for the Arndale. In the town planning guidance of the period, modernism was bad and Victorianism good.

I was reminded how much I liked the town hall. It was built in 1935 to replace the old town hall burned down in the infamous Peace Day riots of 1919, when disgruntled ex-servicemen revolted against their mistreatment and their exclusion from the official celebrations. Although the mayor was lucky to escape with his life, the riots had a funny side when a music shop was looted and a piano pushed out into the street to accompany a rendering of Keep the Home Fires Burning.

The listed building by Bradshaw, Gass and Hope is a mixture of civic classical and art deco, with a Doric entrance and a neon clock. The council chamber is walnut-panelled and lit by cubist pendants and retains original fittings and finishes in timber, plaster and metal designed by the architects.

luton council chamber

When I worked there, the office doors had PRIVATE in gold letters on frosted glass panels but no name of the officer who worked inside. The building was beautifully preserved and smelled of furniture polish, a welcome change from working in Camden town hall, whose walls were smothered in unofficial placards and whose stairways smelled of piss.