Ways of Seeing the English Domestic Interior, 1500-1700

The case of decorative textiles

This research network investigated peoples’ experience of household life in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries – the time in which Shakespeare was writing – and considered how we might use this information to enhance our experience of visiting historic properties in the twenty-first century.

The network used the latest developments in computer science and cognitive science in order to understand how the domestic interior was experienced in early modern England. Dr Richardson and her co-investigator Dr Tara Hamling from the University of Birmingham brought together researchers in the humanities and sciences, conservators, museums curators and heritage professionals, including individuals from English Heritage, the Victoria and Albert Museum, Historic Royal Palaces and the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust. We experimented with, for instance, virtual reality environments that recreate historic atmospheric effects and eye tracking equipment that measures where and for how long we look at our surroundings, and saw how this technology might be used to reconstruct historical perception. In order to make the task more manageable, we focused on a specific case study – ‘how did early modern men and women respond to decorative textiles in their houses?’

We asked the following questions:

1. How did someone living in Tudor or Stuart England prioritize, interpret and assimilate the various messages being communicated by the combination of domestic surfaces, materials, colour, form, imagery and texts?
2. What was the effect of this combined visual, material and textual dynamic on how people experienced the space in which they lived and on how they thought and behaved?
3. How can we use new technologies to interrogate these issues and represent our findings to academics, heritage professionals and visitors to museums and historic houses?

Professor Catherine Richardson’s project was funded by an AHRC grant.