Home is where the art is

Dickens’ preoccupation with bricks and mortar was likely sparked by losing his own home as a boy, and it’s unsurprising novelists and artists continue to be inspired by it

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Whether we live in one or not, it’s fair to say we are obsessed with houses. They are the staple of dinner-party conversations, and magazines and social media are dominated by images of the carefully curated homes of celebrities and actors.

Perhaps this is why we are drawn to depictions of houses in all artforms. Writers, filmmakers and artists are adept at exploiting our fears and longings about what is fundamental to all of us – the notion of house and home. Fictional houses, starting with the ones in fairy tales and fables, can be as memorable as the characters who inhabit them, and sometimes more so.

“The fascination about houses in books could be because we are compensating for what has become almost a prostitution of property, where the home is seen purely as a material asset,” says writer Christina Hardyment, who discusses 20 emblematic houses, from Manderley and Wuthering Heights to Bleak House and Mansfield Park in her new book Novel Houses.

But houses’ influence extends beyond the page.

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A sense of being on the threshold of momentous events is exploited in the 1992 production of JB Priestley’s classic play An Inspector Calls – still touring today with the same inventive set. Where novelists can evoke the atmosphere of a house with powerful description, a director has to rely on scant stage instructions. But imaginative design can continually reinvent the set and refresh the messages of the play.

The action takes place in the dining room of a well-to-do family, but one that is hiding secrets, protected by their wealth and grand house. A young woman has committed suicide and they are all implicated. But the 1992 production, directed by Stephen Daldry and designed by Ian MacNeil, inverts this so that the audience sees not an interior but the whole house, lit from within and also by a streetlamp, which becomes a kind of spotlight on each family member in turn.

“We used film iconography, with elements of gothic dramas like Rebecca and Jane Eyre but also of noir and horror, so we could show the inspector approaching the door, lit by a porch light that’s somehow both welcoming and repellent,” says MacNeil.

MacNeil consciously evoked the famous poster for the 1973 film of William Peter Blatty’s novel The Exorcist. The priest standing outside the demonic house in the dark – lit by a streetlamp but also bathed in light from an upstairs window – represents change. He is about to enter the house but is also hesitating in very human trepidation.

This poster in turn was inspired by The Empire of Light, a painting by the Belgian surrealist René Magritte, of a house shrouded in shadow and lit by a streetlamp, but where the sky above shows a bright cloud-dappled day.

The houses painted by American artist Edward Hopper are not all moodily lit and isolated – some are sunlit and brightly coloured, or half and half like Magritte’s – but they are all intriguing as to the lives within and also their relationship to Depression-era America. Hopper’s 1925 House by the Railroad inspired the glowering gothic house in the Hitchcock film Psycho. Although the murder happens in the motel, it’s the spooky house on the hill that we remember.

Even high-rise flats can offer scope for hauntings of sorts. The setting of Andrea Arnold’s 2006 film Red Road is a bleak high-rise tower block on a Glasgow estate, where the lift and foyer offer the only human interaction and the “ghosts” manifest themselves as images on CCTV monitors.

External forces are both implicit and explicit in British artist Rachel Whiteread’s House, expressed in concrete from the carcass of a house awaiting demolition, which won the Turner Prize in 1993. It only lasted three months before it was itself demolished to make way for new homes in a rapidly gentrifying part of London. But her ideas of permanence, transitoriness and illusion were influential on other “house” artists.

In 2004 visitors saw semi-detached, artist Michael Landy’s moving recreation of his father’s interwar house wedged into the classical space of Tate Britain. The more playful 2013 installation, From the Knees of my Nose to the Belly of my Toes by artist Alex Chinneck, was a house in Margate with its façade sliding into the front yard as if melting, its top storey exposed to the elements and to the passers-by in an almost indecent way.

The brick walls and back yards of housing estates that feature in the contemporary paintings of Frank Laws also have this “rear window” quality. But these are working-class homes imbued with a romanticism and even reverence usually reserved for grand mansions and castles. Architectural detail and materials are rendered as meticulously as a portrait painter would hair and skin.

“I do see the buildings as characters,” says Laws. “And one of the reasons for leaving out the human figure is to focus on the buildings themselves, but then also to make the viewer consider what goes on in and around them. I see my paintings as a question mark and not a full stop – the start of a conversation and not the end.

“A lot of architecture is represented in painting but not often of the everyday, relatable kind. I’m trying to show the warmth of a home, and how they can hold a lot of personal memories, both good and bad, but also that these homes are standing in the face of change. I want to remind people of their original purpose and what is happening to social housing.”

In the post-war housing landscape, among bombsites and the disruption of rebuilding, and the 21st century pressures of gentrification, it’s memories that are passed down rather than property. In a sense all these houses are haunted, by past and other lives. The ghosts can’t leave, and we can’t look away.

Main image:  Liam Brennan as Inspector Gould and cast in An Inspector Calls

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