Sylvia Plath is a cultural figure.
For any of us who study her, often we find ourselves moving beyond the poems and prose to explore the historical moment she inhabited and how that helps us situate her work. As a sociologist, I am fascinated how her upbringing and background, as well as her social standing influenced what she read, studied, watched, liked, and bought. Equally as a sociologist, I am fascinated by objects; by things. Things that leave their traces behind, like domestic relics, that have stories to tell.
Plath had a distinctive style. She appeared to love mixing the modern with the more traditional. Reading in her letters and journals how she chose to decorate her rooms, flats, and houses, takes us back to 1950s America, or 1960s London, specifically Camden High Street. Plath moved from student-inspired objects (wine bottles turned into lamps) through to solid, well-made pieces of furniture buying her carpets from Wilton and her table and chairs from Selfridges.
She loved to be surrounded by colour. Her bedroom wallpaper for 3 Chalcot Square, London, had a white background with budding and blooming red roses emerging from a cradle of green leaves. This wallpaper, chosen in 1960, features in her short story ‘Day of Success’ and her poem ‘Morning Song’.
Her kitchen wallpaper epitomised 1960s style, with cartoonish graphics of hot air balloons, penny farthings, a wheelbarrow, and some sort of odd chariot. Plath paired this with opposing walls painted a deep rose colour to give the kitchen a homely, cosy feel.
By the time Plath moved to Devon in 1961 she was mixing more traditional pieces into her ancient thatched house, Court Green – solid wooden desks with wrought-iron drawer handles and a tea tray, that quickly became stained with ink. Her rugs and carpets, which she took months to choose, were what she called a traditional oriental style with medallions of colour in the centre and swirling leaves around the edges.
Yet by the time she moved back to 23 Fitzroy Road, London in 1962, her taste had turned more minimalist and modern again as she favoured Bowmans Furniture store on Camden High Street where she bought her carpets and a bureau. The store advertised itself as offering ‘traditional and modern’ pieces, so it is easy to see why it appealed to Plath. Her cheque book shows the purchases she made there, as well as at the Co-operative store on the same High Street and Selfridges in town. She chose pieces made from glass and bamboo and replaced her traditional rugs with rush matting.
The Co-op and Bowmans no longer exists, though Bowmans has on the front of the red brick building (now a Burger King, Poundland, and Waterstones), ghost signs back from when it was a furniture store advertising curtains, furniture, and drapery. Plath too is long gone from the streets of Camden, carefully choosing pieces for her flat, but the objects remain, preserved from that time years ago; intact, solid, holding onto their histories.
(Wallpaper photographs courtesy of Peter K. Steinberg; Bowmans advertisement, unknown; all other images, my own.)