Report: The Love of Houses by Vivien Greene
Sunday 29 November 1998
Houses have influenced my life so deeply. They have entered into dreams, made me stand enraptured, suddenly, in unexpected places, filled me with a longing to possess; or they occasionally frighten. In the strange way in which certain objects - here speaks the collector - gravitate towards anyone who will love them, I have been fortunate in living in houses previously occupied by interesting people. Possibly the house in Antwerp where I, then aged six, saw for several minutes the apparition of a naked child. Even the house in Beaumont Street, which had been part of an hotel where Henry James stayed on a visit to Oxford, and my house in Iffley, where Mrs Jemima Newman and her daughters lived when her son John Henry Newman, later Cardinal, was Vicar of St Mary's.
Because of his job, my father was constantly moving, and we lived in what seemed an endless number of towns. We went to Long Ashton, Bristol, Liverpool, Antwerp, Munich; no sooner had we arrived than it seemed to be time to move on again. I was miserable and grew to hate the impermanence of our life and to long above all for a settled home.
From this longing grew, I think, my enduring interest in houses and their contents. At the age of about eight, I stayed with my maternal grandparents in Clifton, an elegant Regency town perched above the Avon Gorge. They, of course, lived a life which was essentially Victorian. My grandfather was a solicitor, and every morning we had morning prayers; he read the prayers to the family and the two maids, and then went to the office. He collected antiques and wrote articles on old Bristol. He took me to see its buildings. The city then retained many ancient houses, most of which were bombed during the Second World War.
In my grandparents' home there was much interesting furniture. I remember a vast piece topped with black marble, reputed to have come from Beckford's Gothick Revival Fonthill Abbey; an old circular table in the drawing room had drawers all round which would have been used in an estate office to receive rents; and a blond wood work-table with all the little bone needlework tools, which fascinated me. I still have the work-table. At teatime a heavy Benares-ware brass tray would be brought up to the drawing room, with toys for me to play with. I remember the solitaire set with its marbles, and the dolls' blue and white dinner service, which I still have. I also had a teddy bear, which was given to me when we were in Liverpool when I was about five, so it was quite an early bear, as bears go. There was also a doll's pram, which in one of those inexplicable but never forgotten tragedies of childhood suddenly disappeared. I was told that it had been given to Cousin Mary.
None of the other houses we lived in when I was a child had such happy memories.
From `The Vivien Greene Dolls' House Collection', by Vivien Greene with Margaret Towner, published by Cassel at pounds 20. To order: 01202 665 432
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