New light on the past

Exploring a historic building lit only by candlelight offers a new sensory understanding of the past, as Matt found at York’s Fairfax House.

From the outside the house was dark, shutters closed against the night.  Yet even if they had been thrown open, little light would have escaped to flow out into the street. For this was ‘Fairfax House After Dark’, a rare chance to see the house by candlelight without the filter of electric lights.

Fairfax House after dark

Our group were shown round by the ‘family servants’, as well as the ‘original owners’, Lord Fairfax and his daughter Anne. The actors created some wonderful scenes and exchanges, such as the housekeeper trying to persuade Lord Fairfax to look over the accounts and the lady of the house arguing with the butler over arrangements for a dinner party. These little vignettes were informed by historical records and lent the event a real air of verisimilitude, highlighting such details as the cost of redecorating the saloon and the benefits of beeswax candles compared to those made of tallow. Yet the house was also a star, with the flickering candlelight hiding features of the rooms but also casting other elements into sharp relief. The silverware stood out brightly on the dining table and the woodwork glowed in the library. In the saloon, the importance of mirrors was revealed with their ability to reflect light back into the room.

Candlelit dining room at Fairfax House

The event brought home just how diverse the experiences of the house in the eighteenth century would have been. This would not just have changed according to the person (depending on whether they were a family member, servant or visitor) but also according to the time of day and the lighting available. The different types of candle also raise sensory issues. Tallow candles were cheaper but also much more prone to guttering and were perceived to smell. This suggests the interesting possibility that smell could also have been used as an indicator of social status within domestic interiors, especially for those below the level of the aristocracy. Could you afford beeswax candles at all? And if you could did you have to limit them to certain occasions? The event was very thought-provoking and a great chance to see a historic house literally in a new light.

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