Tidy up time at Shrewsday Mansions.
This time it is my son who is deserving of the most almighty clearout. All toys but the most played with and beloved must go.
His favourites remain to inhabit a newly refurbished room: his two model elephants; a showy model Ferrari his grandmother bought him; Bumpy the soft elephant and an army of soft toys; Buzz Lightyear.
Books litter the room, hidden in unusual places for a rainy day. Captain Underpants nestles close to Paddington. The great book of Narnian stories lies close by.
By the end of this week he will have a freshly painted garret room with a gleaming wooden floor. For now, his great favourites- his tub of soldiers, his castle fortifications and his Lego have moved to the middle floor while my husband affects a transformation.
After only eight years, here is proof that a small human can leave an indelible mark on a room.
This small definite boy has moved into a space which belonged to someone else, and lived pointedly, fighting mock-soldier battles, playing hide-and-seek with friends and writing PRIVATE KEEP OUT notices to stick on the door. Small contraband doodles lurk in corners. This space emanates Felix. His hardy little spirit has permeated the very walls.
During our whistlestop tour of Cornwall we saw another nursery. It was purpose-built for children and took up the whole of the upper floor of the wing of an illustrious mansion.
The owners have lived there since 1620. Before the Robartes came along, the farmstead of Lanhydrock, just outside Bodmin, belonged to monks and, at dissolution, was briefly handed to a neighbouring family.
But since James I’s man, Sir Richard Robartes, purchased it, the family has seen no reason to move elsewhere.
A fire did cause terrible devastation, back in 1881. But it did not phase the Robartes, who painstakingly rebuilt the rather beautiful, symmetrical mansion which exists today and sited the nursery with efficient pragmatism on the first floor of a wing far from the grown ups.
It seems the wing, which also housed all the servants, was famous for tricycle races round and round the spacious apartments, and high-spirited games with Nannies and any other sympathisers.
We stood in the nursery and looked: it, like Felix’s room, was stuffed with old beloved toys, the definite signs of youthful occupancy. Here a rocking horse, there a set of Russian dolls; soldiers, stuffed toys, all the paraphernalia of a group of people who were still in the early years of their lives. And on the windowsill something to make this mother’s heart stand still: a set of model elephants, very like Felix’s.
Plus ca change.
Children have always been given their own apartments in big country houses. But with the rise of a very British middle class in the nineteenth century people began to think that perhaps they should have childlike things around them.
And suddenly literature is full of them: two of the most famous can be found in JM Barrie’s Peter Pan and PL Travers’ Mary Poppins. They are still backdrops: we learn little of their layout, but they are a way of life, a place where children are separated from their parents.
A home-improvement periodical of 1838- the The Suburban Gardener and Villa Companion – includes earnest advice to its readers that all the smart set were putting aside dedicated rooms for children and that these rooms should be called “nurseries’.
And so the manufacturers of the time spotted a market niche: furnishings and fittings designed with the younger client in mind.
That included wallpaper. Early attempts were a little dismal: they were aimed at instructing the room’s tenants with biblical scenes and parables like Bunyan’s Pilgrims Progress.
While it pleased the adults the children were less enamoured. One Col. RW Edis, author of The Decoration and Furniture of Town Houses, commented:”‘ln the dreariness of town houses, nothing has struck me as so utterly cruel as the additional dreariness which generally pervades the rooms especially devoted to children.”
But gradually the focus changed. Walter Crane, illustrator or fairy tales and nursery rhymes, worked with prominent wallpaper company Jeffrey and Co to produce child-friendly papers. Kate Greenaway illustrated some more child-friendly offerings including an illustrations of ‘The Months’.
The twentieth century saw papers which kids could take delight in without learning a thing.
Bring on Mickey Mouse, I say, and Manchester United.
That said, Felix will be having the minimalist approach to his walls. Phil will paint them white to attract the light.
But very soon they will be covered in posters from his Spongebob and FIFA collections, and despite the minimalist look so fashionable amongst today’s middle classes he will have moved in, and stamped his mark.
The walls will be Felix’s once more.
With thanks to the V & A for this wonderful site