As building archaeologists we record and analyse the form, structure and ornamentation of 19th century dwellings to learn about the lives led by past occupants. The Victorian era was a time of invention and achievement. Society was dominated by middle-class morality as they relentlessly pursued comfort and material wealth. Their houses expressed the energy and exuberance of this time, as they presented their best face to the public.
These efforts can be directly observed through the choice of internal linings used in 19th century dwellings. Wealthy homes were commonly lined with timber laths and lime plaster, while poorer houses used roughly sawn butted sarking boards. When we recorded a modest workman’s cottage in the Avon Loop we uncovered some of these roughly sawn butted sarking boards in the parlour, a room purposely decorated for public display.
Over time, however, seven layers of wallpaper had been applied to this room to disguise the poor lining material.
When we record these historic dwellings, we try decipher the social conventions at play during the Victorian era and how they influenced the way in which their dwellings were decorated. But when it came to recording this workman’s cottage in the Avon Loop, we were confronted with the juxtaposition of how 19th century society decorated their houses and a very unique way one 21st century occupant had decided to decorate her humble abode.
In its irreparable state the creative owner of this house took to it with a fine paint brush and turned its rough-cast plastered walls into a mural of poetry.
The street-facing south elevation bore the words of Percy Shelley's sonnet 'Ozymandias'.
Ozymandias - Percy Bysshe Shelley
I met a traveller from an antique land Who said: "Two vast and trunkless legs of stone Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand, Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command Tell that its sculptor well those passions read Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things, The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed. And on the pedestal these words appear: `My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings: Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!' Nothing beside remains. Round the decay Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare, The lone and level sands stretch far away".
(Source: Wikipedia, 2001).
‘Ozymandias’ was one of English romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley’s most famous works, first published in 1818. Shelley’s works often attracted controversy as they spoke out against oppression, convention and religion (Source: Wikipedia, 2001).
His poem ‘Ozymandias’ acts as a a metaphor for the ephemeral nature of political power. Its central theme explores the indiscriminate and destructive power of history, by contrasting all leaders’ pretentions to greatness and their inevitable decline. It is a powerful statement about the insignificance of human beings to the passage of time (Wikipedia, 2001).
Along the north elevation of the cottage were the words of Denis Glover's iconic New Zealand poem 'The Magpies'.
The Magpies – Denis Glover
When Tom and Elizabeth took the farm The bracken made their bed, And Quardle oodle ardle wardle doodle The magpies said.
Tom’s hand was strong to the plough Elizabeth’s lips were red, And Quardle oodle ardle wardle doodle The magpies said.
Year in year out they worked While the pines grew overhead, And Quardle oodle ardle wardle doodle The magpies said.
But all the beautiful crops soon went To the mortgage-man instead, And Quardle oodle ardle wardle doodle The magpies said.
Elizabeth is dead now (it’s years ago) Old Tom went light in the head; And Quardle oodle ardle wardle doodle The magpies said.
The farm’s still there. Mortgage corporations Couldn’t give it away. And Quardle oodle ardle wardle doodle The magpies say.
(Source: Xyphir, 2011).
‘The Magpies’ by Denis Glover is one of New Zealand’s most famous poems, first published in 1941. This poem relates to the passage of time as it laments the fate of farmers in hard economic times (Wikipedia, 2006). The hard-working farming couple become victims of an oppressive social system that exploits the working man. In this poem, the cruel and impartial nature of time is personified by the distinctive caw of the magpies, as they watched the farmers struggle away (Shieff, 2008).
As architectural styles and their decorative features can help us understand the conditions of bygone generations, the choice of poetry used here to decorate this workman’s cottage may be a reflection on the current post-quake social condition of Canterbury. Or perhaps the owner was merely commenting on the passage of time and its indiscriminate treatment of her home. Who knows, as archaeologists we can only speculate...
Wikipedia, 2001. Ozymandias. [online] (22 September 2015) Available at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ozymandias [Accessed 1 October 2015].
Xyphir, 2011. The Magpies - Denis Glover. A poem a day, [online] 26 April 2011. Available at: http://nzpoems.blogspot.co.nz/2011/04/magpies-denis-glover.html [Accessed 1 October 2015].
Wikipedia, 2006. The Magpies. [online] (2 May 2015) Available at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Magpies [Accessed 1 October 2015].
Shieff, Sarah, 2008. Denis Glover, 1912 – 1980. [online] Wellington: Victoria University. Available at: file:///Users/Shebitch/Downloads/716-622-1-PB%20(1).pdf [Accessed 1 October 2015].