Looking around the Smoking Room, your gaze may be held by some of the paintings in beautiful carved frames or instead settle on the huge leather sofas and large rug. Pause long enough though and you might notice some exceptional clocks on the mantleshelf. With its warm terracotta walls, the room is quietly inviting, asking you to take some time out and admire works crafted to the highest standards in past times. It is a room designed to give a sense of relaxed opulence with perhaps a slightly masculine bias. Somewhere to hide out, indulge in some quiet conversation or simply read a paper without interruption. It is a world of quiet and unobtrusive luxury.
Watches, cars, views from hotels, infinite sandy beaches, polo ponies, immaculate tablescapes and oversized sunglasses. These are just a few examples of items that are often beautifully photographed and choreographed in advertisements designed to symbolise worlds of luxury for us to admire and buy into. The adverts promote comfortable moments of utter idleness as if merely buying the items concerned will give you this life style.
Despite the magazines, in reality, the moments of idleness we have all experienced over the last 18 months have felt far from luxurious, with the twin realities that very little was actually possible in lockdown and, in any case, for most of us such things are an aspirational fantasy rather than a potential reality. Thinking about it, in essence many of the goods thus advertised are everyday items – food, clothing and holidays – but elevated to luxury level by detail, depth of fabric, limited access, available leisure time and, of course, price.
The word luxury has assorted associations depending on how kind you are feeling, from a suggestion of excess and self-indulgence to a sense of refinement, self-reward and pleasure. It doesn’t just have to be about money either but can include environmental and cultural awareness such as choosing to buy free range eggs or organic homemade sourdough bread.
Socrates wrote that in a good state “families do not exceed their means; having an eye to poverty or war … And with such a diet they may be expected to live in peace and health to a good old age, and bequeath a similar life to their children after them”. This may be very admirable, not to mention sound economic sense, yet I cannot help thinking that I agree more with Winnie the Pooh: “the things that make me different are the things that make me me.” Thus, I like to reposition the association of luxury to something special, something that is beyond an everyday necessity but which is also achievable.
We all have our own idea of what constitutes luxury. For one girlfriend it is a pair of top of the range Wellington boots, dogs to walk and muddy paths to explore. For another it is a really indulgent afternoon tea with her daughters, or for others just a good night’s sleep.
Furthermore, the idea of luxury changes over time – the luxury of childhood was being encouraged to read, play sports, to be independent, to climb trees or hunt shrimps in the rock pools, spending time in the country, looking at trees to estimate points of the compass and counting magpies to avoid bad luck. Going abroad was a luxury, not a given, and going to a restaurant was a treat. Looking back, today I think that being able to grow up in that environment was in itself a luxury: a luxury of time, space and freedom.
Ironically, it was Christian Dior, one of the most quintessential purveyors of luxury items, who summed it up the best when he said: “I believe that in it there’s something essential. Everything that goes beyond the simple fact of food, clothing and shelter is luxury; the civilization we defend is luxury.”
For myself, it is going for a walk, doing some yoga, picking flowers or sharing a simple supper outside and catching up. Also, I would really like to go on holiday, to see other places and hear other voices, to be curious. That I think that is rapidly becoming less of a luxury and more of an essential!