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Who Do We Think You Are?

Hockney-Salts-MillNow, let’s be honest, at times we all adore a bit of a snoop. There’s probably at least one celebrity’s home that you’d like to look round: not to see the carefully staged and styled glossy magazine shots but see the house in “the raw” as it’s lived in. There’s also at least one house that we all know and looks so intriguing that we’d love to check it out. After all, this is one of the main reasons that visiting stately homes and palaces is so popular. We’re desperate to see how other people live, as we believe that from this we can work out exactly who they are and what they’re like.

If you’re in any doubt about this just ask an estate agent. They’ll tell you exactly who are the professional “viewers” of properties: they look and never buy.

We often play amateur psychologist and regularly judge people by the clothes they wear, the cars they drive, their hairstyles, their accents and the restaurants and shops that they frequent. All these characteristics are very visible and very public. But a home, on the other hand, is a personal and private space and we know that a good look inside will reveal the true personality of its owners.

Given half a chance and just like an experienced detective, once inside, we’ll scrutinize the shelves of books, CDs and DVDs to identify particular interests and expose the real nature of the collector. Our eyes take in every piece of furniture and every interior decoration detail. We gloat over inconsistencies. We snigger at the cool, sleek, crisp white, minimalist home that has children’s paintings held in place on a pristine Smeg fridge with colourful little alphabet magnets. We raise an eyebrow at a beautiful Georgian antique dining room with ultra modern, high tech LED lighting or cringe at a chintzy, cottagey floral print sofa in front of a massive flat screen television with surround sound and 150 satellite channels. We scoff at the latest culinary gadgetry in the knowledge that the most complicated dish to come out of the kitchen is an Indian take-away!

But what reveals most about people is what’s hanging on their walls. This could be sporting memorabilia: a rosette, team scarf or even an oar from a bygone university rowing era. It could be a religious artifact, academic certificates, African masks, a Spanish sombrero, or a stag’s head. All lead us to certain assumptions that may or may not turn out to be accurate.

As we walk around someone else’s home, we instantly become art critics. We carefully inspect works to see which are signed originals and which are by well known, prestigious artists. We nod approval or shake our heads in disbelief and disgust at what we see. There may be photographs of loved ones (relatives, old friends or pets) or images that remind us of a particular place. There are pictures that record significant occasions and rites of passage (new born babies, graduations, weddings, military service and so on). This isn’t new. After all cave men were painting walls thousands of years ago.

Just think what a house full of nineteenth century watercolours tells us or, for that matter, walls covered in reproductions of contemporary masterpieces (think Andy Warhol’s Campbells Soup, Damien Hirst’s “spots” or David Hockney’s Yorkshire landscapes). With the advances in digital print, these are readily available and also can be of really quite high quality. While pop star posters still adorn kids’ bedroom walls, portraits of the Queen that were so ubiquitous not so long ago, have virtually disappeared. Consequently, when you see one, you immediately think that you have delved deep into someone’s consciousness.

We take in all these details and in the more contemporary homes, note the atomic age inspired clocks designed by George Nelson that not only tell the time but also look so modern and stylish. In short, we think we know all about a home’s residents. In fact, if we stopped for a moment and thought about it honestly, these observations and our conclusions really say far more about us than anyone else.