Review by Kenneth L. Ames
Living in Style: Fine Furniture in Victorian Quebec |

John R. Porter, editor. Living in Style: Fine Furniture in Victorian Quebec. Montreal: Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, 1993. 527 pages; 60 color and 490 bw illustrations, bibliography, index. $95.00.

Victorian Quebec—what potential for cultural collision in those words. On the one hand, the adjectival term (defining, modifying, possessing?) evokes the long-lived queen whose name is synonymous with a weighty package of cultural and design values exported around the world by Britain at the height of its power. The other term, however, defines Canada’s separatist province, ancient heartland of New France, where French has long been the dominant language and where license plates still bear the evocative slogan, “Je me souviens.”

The juxtaposition of these words, nevertheless, is not hypothetical. French Quebec has been part of British Canada for over two centuries. Like other places dominated by Britain, it, too, underwent the process of Victorianization. The evidence of this process is still clearly visible on its urban landscapes. This book now tells us that corroborating evidence can be found inside the buildings as well. Editor John Porter and his associates demonstrate convincingly that there really is Victorian furniture in Quebec; furthermore, some of it is pretty remarkable.

Neither of these messages will be universally welcome, for Quebec’s accepted design history has, at least in some quarters, long been dominated by emphasis on early French traditions. Porter explicitly states that one of the purposes of Living in Style is to counteract common stereotypes about Quebec as a land of habitants, of rural descendants of the early French settlers, somehow living outside of time, adhering to venerable French ways, and free from the corrupting influences of British imperialism and, later, the invasive cultural expressions of the industrialized United States. As attractive and ideologically functional as these stereotypes may be, they misrepresent or ignore much of Quebec’s material culture of the nineteenth century and later. There can be no doubt that traditional French-inspired design continued into the nineteenth century, as Jean Palardy (Les meubles anciens du Canada français, 1963) and others have demonstrated. Still, there can also be no doubt that the style of international capitalism, which is another way of describing Victorianism, became increasingly prominent in nineteenth-century Quebec. A major accomplishment of Living in Style may well be its willingness to speak the obvious truth about cultural and design change in culturally conflicted Quebec.

Living in Style reveals that the story of furniture in nineteenth-century Quebec is in many ways like the story of furniture in the eastern United States. We see gradual transitions from hand to machine production, from small shops to large factories, from local production and consumption to national and even international networks of exchange. There is, though, an important difference as well, for Quebec had a caste system of sorts that finds no exact parallel in the States. There, the upper reaches of society and commerce were dominated by an English-speaking, Protestant minority, while the French-speaking, Catholic majority constituted something of an underclass. The most wealthy patrons and the most prestigious furniture manufacturers were thus, with some exceptions, English-speaking. What impact this situation may have had on furniture production or preference, however, is never directly addressed in this volume, and that omission strikes me as somewhat odd.

The ideological barriers to frank examinations of British imperialistic culture in Quebec may explain much that is odd about this book, for I have to admit that I find Living in Style a rather difficult book to assess. If I were more fully versed in Quebec political discourse, I might have a better understanding of the conditions that spawned and shaped this ambitious production. From my distance in the States, I can only describe the freely commingled strengths and weaknesses of this volume with the hope that my commentary will be helpful to others seeking some evaluation of this work. Frankly, I wish I liked it more.

Living in Style is an elegant, massive, and very heavy volume—over seven pounds, in fact. Design, printing, and paper are all of the highest quality; this book must have been very expensive to produce. Leafing through the pages of the book is most enjoyable, for they are richly adorned with hundreds of well-printed images, both in color and black and white. Reading it from cover to cover is another matter, however. As I made my way through the hundreds of pages, I wondered if this book might be the product of yet a different kind of cultural conflict than the one described in its text.

Living in Style is the outcome of a joint venture, with prominent parts played by the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, the Museé de la civilisation in Quebec City, and the Université Laval. Editor John Porter was joined by fourteen other contributors, including conservators, curators, historians, and art historians, several of them graduate students at Laval when the book was written. In the preface to the book, ranking officers of the three collaborating institutions speak proudly of supporting “scholarly research on a subject situated at the point where art and material culture meet.”

“Where art and material culture meet”—the phrase not only has a nice ring to it but also seems generous and open-minded. What it reveals, of course, are the different stances and intellectual orientations of the two museums involved. Although the phrase suggests parity of the two perspectives, it also points to a confusion of purpose that seems to plague the entire volume. Is this the catalogue of an art exhibition? Is it an essay on material culture? Curiously enough, while it is nominally both, it turns out to be neither. Although we are treated to vast masses of data and seemingly countless essays and papers, the furniture itself seems largely ignored, given neither the customary celebratory treatment of the art museum nor the more contextualized examination and analysis of a material culture study. Since the authors may be surprised by this assessment, I will describe the organization and contents of this volume at some length and then comment in detail on what seems to be missing from this aggressively lavish production.

The text of Living in Style is arranged into four major sections: The Context, The Users, The Furniture Makers, and The Furniture. Each of these major sections contains between eight and fifteen separate entries, including survey essays newly written for this publication; brief studies of particular figures, buildings, furnishings, or phenomena; and reprints of period texts of several sorts. The more sweeping or survey essays are printed on white paper; the more focused, on gray. Like a good exhibition, the book is color coded. So far so good.

The quality of the essays, however, varies considerably, as does their relevance. The first section begins with a history of Quebec society in the nineteenth century, sketching the broad contours of a century of domination, conflict, and social and cultural conservatism. This essay on white paper is followed immediately by four short works on gray paper, each describing the contexts for which extravagantly expensive pieces of Victorian furniture were produced. We get a glimpse of the furniture made for Hugh Allen, the richest man in Canada in the 1860s and 1870s. From a reprint of an article published in 1866 we learn about a lavish mirror frame created for the steamship Quebec but now lost. Other entries tell us about a bedroom suite constructed for the visit of the Prince of Wales to Montreal in 1860 and a large settee installed in a reception room at Université Laval in 1859. We nevertheless learn little beyond the fact that these objects exist or existed. There is little analysis, little interpretation.

The next white-paper essay, on the arts in nineteenth-century Quebec, begins to reveal some of the structural and intellectual problems that hobble this book. In the first place, the relevance of a chapter dealing primarily with painting and sculpture to a book on furniture is not immediately apparent. The final sentence of this essay notes that “home interiors and furniture naturally evolved along the same lines” (p. 78), but that case is not made here or elsewhere. This essay, like many others in the book, suffers from a lack of explicit integration into a central thesis or even a dominant story line. Essays follow one another like letters in the alphabet, but linkages between them are slight at best. We might surmise that they possess relevance to the alleged subject through association or proximity, but the burden remains on readers to puzzle out how one chapter relates to the others and how, together, they illuminate the topic of “fine furniture in Victorian Quebec.”

I suspect that the art chapter was included because one of the sponsoring institutions is an art museum, which brings us to another unresolved, even unacknowledged problem with this book. The subtitle of Living in Style includes the ambiguous term, “fine furniture.” The term is never clearly defined. I understand it as meaning expensive furniture that art museums are willing to exhibit. How, then, can the authors claim to reconcile a material culture approach to the study of furniture with the cultural biases of contemporary art museums? If the work specified that the study was of furniture of Victorian Quebec’s ruling elites such a reconciliation would have been possible, and the study could have had real merit; but no such candor or sophistication informs these pages. Instead, we struggle along under the delusion that art and material culture are happily married and that this study rests on an objectively selected sample of cultural production. Not so. We never learn the ideology behind the determination of which objects to include and which to exclude. We have no idea how many well-documented objects were passed over because they were not considered “fine.” We do not know which documents, catalogues, photographs, or inventories were brushed aside because they helped us understand furniture inappropriate to this book.

I mentioned candor and sophistication. Lack of candor may be less a problem with this publication than lack of sophistication. Although there are some exceptions I will discuss shortly, a good deal of this book strikes me as naive and out of touch. Parts of it could have been written thirty years ago. Texts typically generalize from secondary sources instead of particularizing from data at hand. Authors often seem uncomfortable with their material and unfamiliar with other writing on related subjects. Few if any of the essays acknowledge studies of the furniture of other regions or address ongoing discussions or problems within the history of furniture. In short, this book seems to have been written in a vacuum. As such, it does little to sweep away stereotypes of isolated Québécois, and that is unfortunate.

Too much of this book is blandly descriptive and derivative. As such it adds only minor details to our understanding of cultural change in nineteenth-century North America. Some of the essays, however, have real merit. The most original and useful part of the book, at least as I see it, is the section on the furniture makers. John Porter provides a helpful overview of transformations in the furniture business in nineteenth-century Quebec. Rénald Lessard uses census data from 1871 to reconstruct a cross-section of the furniture trade. His essay deals not only with the large metropolitan firms that dominated the trade but also with the more than three hundred smaller operations scattered around the province employing one, two, or three people. Although these little firms were abundant, their share of the market was slight. Quebec’s three largest firms were responsible for one-third of all production in the province.

Even in this valuable essay problems emerge, however. A full picture of the furniture industry includes both ends of the spectrum. Here we get a verbal description of the entire phenomenon but no images of the products of these smaller shops. In this curious and unequal meeting of art and material culture, material culture may get an essay or two, but art gets most of the images.

In the same section, Jean-François Caron’s account of William Drum and the advent of industrialization provides exactly the kind of particularized data missing in other sections of the book. Although its focus is on a single manufacturer, and Caron makes little attempt to compare Drum to other manufacturers in Canada or the States, the essay is informed, capable, and mature, and it generates a real sense of confidence in its author.

I wish I could say the same about the final section of the book, the one that alleges to deal with the furniture. After four hundred pages of other material, I was more than ready to enter into deep and meaningful communion with the furniture itself, but, alas, disappointment was to be my lot. This book turned out to be a furniture version of Waiting for Godot.

What do readers actually encounter in the furniture section? A short essay explains that Quebec furniture is based in large part on design ideas generated elsewhere, including France, England, Germany, and the United States; another essay describes patented furniture and novel materials; there is commentary on woods, veneers, and finishes, on construction techniques, and on metal furniture; a highly derivative essay speaks of styles; and a discussion exists on decorative motifs. Little of this narrative directly confronts the abundant and excellent images, which decorate the pages like so much wallpaper. Even the caption data accompanying the images is not particularly reassuring or rewarding. An upholstered armchair with carved caryatid arm supports in the style of Jelliff is represented as the work of Marius Barbeau, born in 1883. If so, this attribution is noteworthy. A Gothic-style chair with upholstered seat, made of an unidentified wood, is ascribed the date of 1900 but is virtually identical to chairs made in this country in the 1840s. Is this date accurate? A pedestal table, apparently ebonized and gilt with a marquetry top, would date from the 1870s on this side of the border. Can it really have been made between 1880 and 1900 in Quebec? Dates in general seem on the late side. Perhaps they are accurate, but because the authors do not share their documentation with us, we have no way of knowing. Perhaps they are not aware that dates are themselves cultural data. Elsewhere, a laminated rosewood chair of the sort associated with Meeks is reported to be by Belter. Other captions are unsatisfying in various ways.

The discussion of comfort and innovative materials gives ample evidence of American and foreign penetration of the Quebec market. The text mentions the plywood furniture of Gardner & Co. and illustrates a Hunzinger chair. We encounter papier-mâché furniture from England, bentwood goods from Thonet and Kohn of Vienna, and wicker or rattan chairs, many of which, I suspect, came from Heywood-Wakefield in this country. We are left to speculate, however, on how rare or common any of these goods were.

This book is, then, strangely unsatisfying. Its grand scale and glorious production led me, at the outset, to anticipate something mature and interpretive, but form seems to have triumphed over content here. Art and material culture may have met, but, keeping alive an old Quebec tradition, that meeting has not been on an equal footing. Material culture has come off badly. One of the basic tenets of material culture inquiry has been ignored here, for although material culture study may involve contextualization of goods, it also typically relies on a close analysis of those goods. Context we have plenty of here, at least in a general way, but object analysis is almost totally lacking. Consequently, after more than five hundred pages, the furniture still remains elusive, beyond my understanding. I really do not feel that I know much about Quebec furniture, only a lot about this book, which is not the same thing. Perhaps the fault is entirely mine, but I suspect that much of the responsibility can be attributed to the derivative and diffuse character of this luxurious but undisciplined book.

Still trying to figure out why I learned so little, I finally recognized that, although there is a more or less logical order to the various episodes of the text, there is none whatsoever to the images. They are scattered over the five hundred plus pages of the book without regard to date, style, form, or any other organizing principle that I could discern. I am probably not the only one who will therefore find it difficult to get a cognitive grip on the material. To make sense of the random data, it must be organized in some way. Without order, as arbitrary as it may be, comprehension is difficult. Here we find hundreds of pieces of a picture puzzle, randomly paraded before us. Some of the individual pieces are surely fascinating, but it is extremely difficult to figure out from these pieces what the assembled picture might look like. At the end of this book, I still had little idea how Quebec furniture changed over time, how it varied according to region, social class, or taste culture, when and how the most prominent forms developed and changed, or much of anything at all concrete. A very basic understanding of how learning takes place has been ignored in organizing this book. Actually, art and material culture people tend to be visually oriented. Logically, then, the images should have formed the core of the book, and the text arranged to conform. This book was apparently put together backwards.

For me, the best thing about Living in Style is the inclusion of some sixty wonderful period photographs from the Notman Studio of Montreal. Notman images have been published before, but their full potential as documents of domestic life has not yet, as far as I know, been fully exploited. Including them here was a good idea, but more can be done. I offer, then, a modest proposal to our friends in Montreal. Seek funds from agencies in Canada and the United States interested in supporting comparative cultural studies. With those funds, bring together a circle of knowledgeable people from Canada, the States, France, and England to examine and analyze the content of the most detailed and best documented of the Notman photographs of furniture and domestic interiors. Turn the cumulative insights of this group into an exhibition and a book. Both will be worthy successors to Living in Style.

Perhaps it is best to think about this book as a beginning exploration of relatively unknown material. If the package seems too lavish for the contents and we learn too little about too much, we can attribute both to the enthusiasm of discovering new terrain. If future products emerge, whether they take the shape I have suggested or some other form, we will know that this book has had the impact that I think its creators hoped for. This work is, after all, a first attempt. Creative and inquiring minds looking through this book will be able to frame a host of questions that will require further exploration, and that is exactly as it should be. Sometimes the greatest accomplishment of introductory studies is their offspring. From that perspective, the profusion of topics, references, objects, and images included in this book will be beneficial, for the suggested lines of exploration are abundant and alluring.

Kenneth L. Ames
New York State Museum

American Furniture 1995