If you are a fan of movies inspired by the novels of Jane Austen but you haven’t read her books, you may be surprised to know that the beautiful period backdrops achieved in films like Emma are not the work of the novelist herself. Though highly emotional in a way that brings all of her characters to life, her narratives are quite limited in the concrete details that film companies like Miramax achieve in the grand productions they create to emulate England’s historical periods, such as the Victorian and Georgian Eras.
This means serious research is involved to illustrate the way life was lived during the time these characters moved around in their worlds. The work of talented set decorators make these fictional constructs ring true (or not), as do historians and knowledgeable purveyors of fine antiques. When an email from Pippa Roberts landed in my inbox regarding Might & Magnificence: Silver in the Georgian Age, I thought this would be the perfect opportunity to highlight how the design world, and those who provide it with the wares that populate its realities, makes such an impact on films produced the world over.
Georgian Silver at The London Silver Vaults
The sale, which continues through October 4, 2014, is being held at The London Silver Vaults on Chancery Lane. Guest Curator Philippa Glanville has drawn from the inventory of the 30 shops in the complex to illustrate each of the major design trends that held sway during the Georgian Era—from embellished Rococo to neo-classical, which then read as a more restrained style given the aesthetics of the time, though we now think of it as being fairly ornate.
I wish I could make my way across the Atlantic and see the grandeur for myself given Glanville’s resume, which includes a position as the former Keeper of Metalwork at the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A), especially since each piece she’s chosen is for sale. In case you’d like to benefit from her knowledge, Glanville has a number of interesting books available, many of them relating to silver and all of them excellent additions to a design bookshelf.
To illustrate my opening salvo today, I thought it would be fun to juxtapose Austen’s novel Emma against the 1996 version of the film based upon the book. Snippets from the novel prove how the author resolutely lets us under the skin of her characters through pointed dialogue while leaving the backdrop to the imagination.
Georgian Silver in the film Emma
The film—directed by Douglas McGrath, and staring Gwyneth Paltrow and Jeremy Northam—does the heavy lifting in illustrating how life could have been for the inhabitants of Highbury Village, down to the silver tea urn placed commandingly in the center of the scene in the video below.
Now that you’ve watched the scene, here it is taken directly from Austen’s novel:
“I do not ask whether you are musical, Mrs. Elton. Upon these occasions a lady’s character generally precedes her; and Highbury has long known that you are a superior performer.”
“Oh! no, indeed; I must protest against any such idea. A superior performer!—very far from it, I assure you. Consider from how partial a quarter your information came. I am doatingly fond of music—passionately fond;—and my friends say I am not entirely devoid of taste; but as to any thing else, upon my honour my performance is mediocre to the last degree. You, Miss Woodhouse, I well know, play delightfully. I assure you it has been the greatest satisfaction, comfort, and delight to me, to hear what a musical society I am got into. It is a necessary of life to me; and having always been used to a very musical society, both at Maple Grove and in Bath, it would have been a most serious sacrifice. I honestly said as much to Mr. E. when he was speaking of my future home, and expressing his fears lest the retirement of it should be disagreeable; and the inferiority of the house too—knowing what I had been accustomed to—of course he was not wholly without apprehension…”
The above image illustrates a scene during which Emma, played by Paltrow, and Mr. Knightley, played by Northam, disagree over the appropriateness of the match between Harriet and Robert Martin. It’s a perfect example as to how central silver was to the custom of having tea during Jane Austen’s era. In the film, the pair had just been shooting a round of archery so the tea was set up on the lawn, silver and all.
Jane Austen’s Novel Emma
In the book, the conversation didn’t take place out-of-doors but the gist of their argument mirrors the book’s point of view perfectly (just in a sumptuous setting that the novelist had not scripted). Here’s how Austen fleshed out the heated exchange in the story, foregoing any set direction:
“Emma made no answer, and tried to look cheerfully unconcerned, but was really feeling uncomfortable and wanting him very much gone. She did not repent what she had done; she still thought herself a better judge of such a point of female right and refinement than he could be; but she had a sort of habitual respect for his judgment in general, which made her dislike having it so loudly against her; and to have him sitting just opposite to her in angry state, was very disagreeable. Some minutes passed in this unpleasant silence, with only one attempt on Emma’s side to talk of the weather, but he made no answer. He was thinking….” After he gathered himself, he expressed more of his exasperation and then hastily left. “‘Good morning to you,’—said he, rising and walking off abruptly. He was very much vexed…”
I hope you found this comparison of the literary and the cinematic as interesting as I did given how film productions that create microcosms of design significance are so driven by historical context.
The Georgian Era in Downton Abbey
This occurs in television, too. Though the series doesn’t take place during the Georgian Era, productions like Downton Abbey are equally dependent upon superb set decorators and historical accuracy (the series’ creator Julian Fellowes is famous for being a stickler for accuracy). The Emmy’s are coming up in a few weeks (see them on NBC at 8pm ET on Monday, August 25th), and Downton is nominated for an Emmy for Outstanding Art Direction for a Period Series, Miniseries or a Movie (Single-Camera) for Season 4/Episode 8.
Their most lavish episode to date, it is the piece of the Grantham story when Rose is introduced into society (and last season’s finale). Congratulations to production designer Donal Woods, art director Mark Kebby and set decorator Gina Cromwell for the nomination and good luck!
To see a broader array of silver for sale in The London Silver Vaults, visit this Pinterest board filled with the magnificent artisanship that held sway during the Georgian Era. If you happen to travel to London for the show, let me know what you find for your collection, will you?
The Diary of an Improvateur and this literary design encounter © Saxon Henry, all rights reserved. Saxon is an author, poet and journalist, as well as a contributor to Architizer. Her books include Anywhere But Here, Stranded on the Road to Promise and Four Florida Moderns.by