Ancestral Roofs

"In Praise of Older Buildings"

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Spadina - art imitates life imitates art...

285 Spadina Road - 1905 port-cochere for the chauffeur and auto
On March 24 a group of Downton Abbey (no doubt you've heard of it) fans junketed to Toronto, to a favourite house, Spadina. This wonderful museum house depicts life in the Toronto high society of the 1920's and 1930's. On this occasion Spadina was even more fabulous than usual as it hosted the Canadian-exclusive exhibition 'Dressing for Downton' featuring twenty costumes worn by actors in the series which depicts the life of British landed gentry between 1912 and the early 1920's.

dresses from Toronto's high society

The Downton collection was augmented by items from the City of Toronto collection, from 1900-1920. The display of Downton Abbey costumes and jewellery was ably interpreted by display panels, and our charming guide, program director Doug Fyfe.
wouldn't you just recognize that dress anywhere?
one of many informative panels

 Downton fans can no doubt still hear the imperious tone in the Dowager Duchess' voice, as she wore this costume to take the measure of young Mathew Crawley.
worn by Shirley Maclaine's character 
remember lovely Lady Sybil in blue?
when good heiresses go bad - and what they wore

An exploration of art imitating life might easily imagine these Downton Abbey frocks comfortably (well, certainly more comfortably than a decade or two earlier) at home in the drawing rooms at Spadina.

Spadina is a museum house well worth a visit, real or virtual. It is a multilayered place, built by the father of the Honourable Robert Baldwin in 1835, purchased and remodelled several times by Toronto financier James Austin and his descendants between 1866 and 1984 when the home became a museum, with many of the family's original furnishings intact.

As a student of buildings and interiors, I enjoyed seeing how changes in style (and in society) impacted the house over the Austin's tenure. (And as a Downton fan, I can imagine the discussions and tensions as social and domestic change took place in those rooms.)

Although the drawing rooms with their Jacques and Hay suite of upholstered furniture, and stately Renaissance Revival over-mantel mirror anchors the home in Victorian style, other areas of the house illustrate changes in taste and activity.

The guidebook explains the 1905 changes to the house: "Interior alterations, such as widening doorways, removing walls, and curving the front staircase, reflected changes in architectural fashions and social customs" and made the Victorian house brighter, more spacious and adaptable to enertaining and dancing. (Do scenes of the servants rolling up the Downton carpets leap to mind?)

for the coming out party grand entrance

Two of my favourite rooms at Spadina are the blue room and the palm room.  The second-floor blue room, at the top of the stairs, received an update in 1905, a wall replaced by a delicate arcade. Incidentally, the blue room is hung with a number of paintings by women artists. Anne and Margaret, James Austin's daughters, one of whom started the Women's Art Assocation, were talented painters.Work by many of the association members are in the Spadina collection. (and if we think about Edith Crawley and her struggles to become a jounalist, we might imagine parallels?)

The visitor's guide explains that the wicker and rush furniture which fill the "chic" palm room, part of a 1905 expansion, "came into fashion at the turn of the [last] century."

Styles began to change with the restless late c.19/turn of the century mood. The billiard room showcases Arts and Crafts pieces like the bentwood chairs and oak desk, and the William Morris design armchair. And the Art Nouveau frieze is astonishingly modern.

Art Nouveau styling in front foyer
I've just had a prowl through photos of Spadina online. I realize (never having visited in the summer) that I have paid no attention to the gardens and outdoor terraces, nor mentioned the unique exterior silhouette created by the addition of a third floor, and the incorporation of several expansions.

And I failed to mention the archaeological research under the house. Truly below stairs.

Time for another visit this spring.
Join me?

1 comment:

  1. Say the word! I'd have loved to have seen the Downton exhibit! Brenda