Friday - 22 August 2014

Sins at their sparkliest

04 March 2002Written by ATG Reporter

Divinely Decadent by Stephen Calloway, published by Mitchell Beazley. ISBN 1840003286 £30hb

IT was Verlaine who said: “I like this word decadent; all shimmering with purple and gold”, and having met the author, one would rush to say that Mr Calloway has no seeming appearance of decadence but does cultivate the look of a dandy to startling effect.

He describes himself on the flyleaf as “an an aesthete and wit, an elderly roué who has for many years been one of the more recherché and picturesque curators at the V&A”.

Calloway is big on Aubrey Beardsley, as prime a candidate for charged sensuality and eroticism as one could think of, along with Oscar, who described sin as “an essential element of progress without which the world would stagnate or grow old or become colourless”; slightly less known in this hymn to self-indulgence comes TE Lawrence, a man who slept on a brown leather mattress.

This rather dazzling and off-the-wall book on interiors, printed in gold, takes as its theme the Seven Deadly Sins to reveal a lavish collection of fabulously photographed and gloriously pretentious homes for each sin. There’s the ruined palazzo effect, the whimsical fractured mirror look, the troubadour style and for complete, ostentatious display there’s Brian Lewis’s fantasy grotto bathroom, “reminiscent of a chamber in Ludwig of Bavaria’s castle at Neuschwanstein”.

Lust, of course, gets the full “tart’s parlour” treatment with bedroom walls “lined with the lapidary intensity of Gustave Moreau’s watercolours... leather-bound books of engravings depict cruel couplings and depraved acts... rich furs are caressed by languid fingers...”. You can feel an ennui headache coming on as you read. Calloway’s text is witty, urbane and highly readable and this book is certainly a wild antidote to “the affected chastity and uncompromising chill of a minimalist room, where only the owner’s steely self-control is presented for admiration”.

To read this book is to understand the nature of obsessive collecting and reveals the delicious nonsense of corners of the decorators’ market, of rooms which offer “a general air of heightened strangeness and the sudden, unexpected conjunction of unlikely objects that have the power to create a distinct frisson”. So amusing.

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