Last week a favourite cartoon from the sixties popped into my mind’s eye. It showed a large, unshaven prison escapee, dressed in a characteristic arrow-covered uniform, bearing down on an old woman standing by a fork in the road. He asks “Which is the best way to the railway station?” She replies, pointing to the road to the left, “Well, that’s the prettier route.” There is a look of exasperation on the prisoner’s face but for the old lady the choice is obvious – why spend time in an ugly environment when there is a pretty, eye-catching, alternative at hand?
As I see it, finding pleasure from looking at pretty things or from being in pretty surroundings – and of course that extends to things beautiful – is part of the human condition. Moreover, to satisfy this predisposition people have, where possible, made and exchanged objects that please the eye. At museums it would be rare to see furniture for example, without shapes, patterns, or marquetry designed to enhance their appearance.
The same goes for the earliest pottery to the more recent china ware. Of course, jewellery, which is nothing but prettiness itself, is designed expressly to embellish the wearer. And this desire to embellish goes much further than the personal or the domestic. In the past the dullest and most matter-of-fact equipment was decorated, often to excess. In the Victorian era cast-iron lampposts were draped with garlands of cherubs, fruits, fish and flowers. From much earlier, even ship’s cannons, designed for killing and maiming and used by toughened men in the grubbiest and grimiest conditions, have been dotted with flowers, animals and geometric patterns.
What is going on, at least for the bigger projects? The easy assumption is that it is the entrepreneurs who are behind it all. When funding a product they demand that it be made pretty, and often this is the case. It certainly was for Shah Jahan when he designed and paid for the Taj Mahal [ Why Bother, Greyhares, 14 March 2011 ]. But recently I realised that entrepreneurs may not always work in that way. Perhaps prettiness can occur despite them. After all, ‘pretty’ almost certainly costs more than ‘dull’ or ‘ugly’.
This possibility came to me when I met ‘Mr Big’, a man who earns his living by building new houses, or converting old houses and offices and selling them on. I knew him of old and in the past he was not particularly interested in frills or fancy. He was rather gruff, his buildings were not exactly flamboyant or easy on the eye and in my experience he had little concern for his would-be neighbours’ sensibilities. Often it was left to the Council to negotiate changes to his proposals to make them more ‘friendly’.
A new building of his just nearby, indeed within our line of sight, is nearing completion and on one, three-storey-high wall, there will be a hanging garden. In addition, on the roof of a large garage – about the size of two tennis courts – there will be a lawn. This was a puzzle. It happens that because of the way they are sited these ‘gardens’ will not be visible to the new occupants; but only by a handful of neighbours, which include us.
Here was an altruistic piece of designing beyond belief, and so when I met Mr Big by chance recently, I congratulated him on his new vision, and thanked him for his generosity. He looked surprised, and when a colleague confirmed that greenery was indeed the plan, he even looked taken aback. One has to assume that somehow his architects and designers had slipped these lovely embellishments past him without his knowing – perhaps dressing them up as selling points.
Could it be that it was the foundrymen, rather than either the town planners or the admiralty, who gave us decorated lampposts and guns. Here were individuals and artisans for whom prettiness was important and who had had their way. It would be their handiwork that would prevail. Long may this tradition persist.
Photograph: Victorian Lamp Post, Tooting Broadway (Richard Büttner, 2010)