When we lived in England, we were constantly visiting old homes, stately mansions, and castles, and were always impressed by how deep the history went, especially in the oldest, darkest oak-paneled rooms. If those panels could talk, what a rich history going back perhaps six centuries they might tell, of what had happened in those rooms, what agreements signed, what assignations made, and so on. Some of those elaborate decorations were Jacobean, others were what might be called Jacobethan. I am only now learning that plenty were Jacobogus. John Harris is an architectural historian who let me in on this sordid secret (and the new word), in _Moving Rooms: The Trade in Architectural Salvages_ (Yale University Press), a documentation of a part of the antique and interior decorating worlds that does not otherwise get much attention. It's a story of centuries, money, and more than a little chicanery, and Harris has covered one room and one desecration after another. It is obvious that he has done copious research, and some of the text is mere listing of owners, rooms, and prices, as if he wanted to make sure that all the data got in. The patterns of the trade, and of deception within it, are fascinating, and the large-format, glossy book has hundreds of photographs well aligned with the text.
Much of Harris's book concentrates on the movements of rooms and room parts over the later nineteenth and twentieth centuries, but the trade had gone on long before that. Paneling was easily removed, easily reinstalled, and easily shuffled to fit into rooms of various sizes. Interior wooden paneling over walls had the same job as tapestries, to help insulate the room and keep drafts out. There were fashions in carving paneling, with some of the oldest being carved to look as if it had folds of linen on it. Thereafter, more fanciful decoration took over in the Renaissance. The French versions, called _boiseries_, were flat, broad panels with raised floral or geometric decoration around the edges, often gilt. Fashions change, and when paneling was taken off, it might be used again for a servant's room or an attic, or it might be put in storage. It could then be pulled out decades or centuries later for the express purpose of giving a room an antiquarian look. Paneling and other wooden parts were often installed in American museums, and some such rooms are careful and get Harris's praise, but other museums seemed to go gaga over rooms without a sense of curatorial judgement. Some museums joined in a spending spree for entire rooms, thereupon finding them too entire to install in entirety, or install at all. Many of them stayed crated up, and some simply became lost (there are many rooms here that no one knows where they are).
The presence who enters these pages more than any single individual is William Randolph Hearst. "So prolific was he as a magpie accumulator of salvages that it is difficult to evaluate his discrimination when the vast scale of his acquisition is considered. `Collecting' implies acquisition with a collection in mind, but so mind-blowing was the scale of his purchases, so diverse and unequal the quality, so grotesque the utter lack of self-discipline, that his motivation, beyond the lust of acquisition, is baffling." A compulsive buyer, he was lucky to have the services of his architect Julia Morgan, who incorporated much of it happily in San Simeon. Hearst gathered much more than he could ever use, or even ever unpack, and in 1941 it was catalogued for sale. Harris reproduces the nine pages having to do with "buildings and parts", and if you needed twelfth century Romanesque portals or a fifteenth century Venetian door knocker, you should have been at that sale. Harris's chapter on "The Great Accumulator" winds up this comprehensive tour of a specialized and peculiar topic. His lists of accumulations become entertaining as they are coupled with tales of lucre, deception, pride, and the folly of the rich.