Research for house restoration projects often leads me into stranger waters than you may imagine.
I recently came across a most interesting stage setting for Tristan & Isolde, I became riveted by the curtains of the set. In this version Isolde’s 5th Century world has beautiful curtains in gorgeous colors. Which left me wondering –what made the set designer decide to give Isolde such an anachronistic, if lovely, curtain call?
In Isolde’s time curtains, for windows at least, were non-existent. You would probably find wooden shutters- glass would be a thing of the future. Tapestries were used to alleviate the boredom of bare interior walls, and drapery was also employed as a draught excluder between rooms or across recessed alcoves, an expedient dating back to the Hellenic period. (Remember poor old Polonius finding himself behind the wrong arras at the wrong time in the twelfth-century Denmark of Hamlet).
Thirteenth-century Italian frescoes show domestic scenes with hangings on a more intimate scale: around beds and even baths. Not entirely surprising since, until around 1600, beds were usually located in the main living room of the house; the only way to achieve some measure of privacy (and warmth) was to draw the curtains around you, snuff the candle and hope for the best. In medieval times, curtains were also used to enhance the status of the great and the good in the form of a canopy over their dais. Apart from being conveniently cosy in a chilly Great Hall, this had another practical function: protecting the sitter from bird droppings - and subsequent brutafigura.
By the 1570s, while hanging materials of all sorts were commonplace, there is still little mention in contemporary literature or art of curtains for windows. The Elizabethan writer William Harrison refers in his Description of England: ‘even unto the inferior artificers and many farmers, who have also learned to garnish their cupboards with plate, their joined beds with tapestries and silk hangings, and their tables with carpets and fine draperie, whereby the wealth of our countrie dooth infinetely appeare’. Now that glazed windows were more prevalent and shutters excluded the elements, curtains were rare. Moreover, most welcomed the dawn as a natural alarm clock and only the very affluent could afford the luxury of 'lying abed' and preventing early day-light from disturbing their slumbers.
Window-curtains first appeared as an interior-design feature in Northern Europe in the 1670s, hanging simply in pairs, on rings and rods. Eventually, the latter, being thought unsightly, were hidden behind a pelmet, which became more or less standard after 1720. Around 1690, a mechanism appeared by means of which a single curtain could be drawn up by cords and pulleys. Some of these curtains were set into the window embrasure and others on a projecting pulley-board, which made a useful base for the pelmet.
Stimulated by the taste for elaborate bed-hangings during the baroque era, curtain-making became very sophisticated. The eighteenth century saw the introduction of blinds and, in 1741, The Craftsman advertised 'Spring Curtains and Blinds for Windows of a new Invention, Convenient to keep the Sun off in Summer, or the cold winds from coming in between the Sashes in Winter, and particularly necessary in Rooms up Stairs in narrow Streets, where the opposite Windows overlook each other'. By the end of the century, the window-curtain was well established and available in a bewildering selection of fabrics, hues and patterns. Coordination in texture, pattern and color between upholstered furniture, wallpaper and, of course, bed-hangings became fashionable; arbiters of taste such as Robert Adam designed elaborate pelmets and often made suggestions as to the curtains themselves. Rooms became increasingly reliant on curtains to create an atmosphere, be it an exuberant rococo froth, complete with tassels, fringes and generous tiebacks or an austere recreation of classical Rome.
The style wars of the nineteenth century found, in the window-curtain, a reliable foot soldier. Whether Greek, Gothic or Jacobean revival, the curtain took up its position and defended it stoutly. Horrible confusion ensued, prompting Walter Crane to write: 'every species of design debauchery is indulged in upon carpets, curtains, chintzes and wall-papers.' Technology produced the brass curtain rail, with its machine-tooled runners, and the metallic 'whish' of curtains drawn morning and evening by the housemaid entered the sound archive of Victorian consciousness.
Perhaps because of association with the stage variety, window-curtains have never lost their theatrical impact: Scarlett O'Hara used them to run up a convincing, if rather heavy, ensemble with which to seduce Rhett; Pip dragged down the dust-laden tatters in Miss Havisham's dining room in an attempt to save her, and (if you count shower curtains) the psychotic Norman Bates's victim clutches at the translucent folds to devastating effect. Over to you, Isolde.