Villa Mona: A Proper Kind of House

This is a modest book, with minimal captions, yet plenty of intrigue. Between the wooden doors that beckon you in through the front cover, and the interior flower-print wallpaper, a family and their house is revealed in photography and writing.

Belgian-born Marjolaine Ryley has created a portrait of the home on the Belgian coast in which she spent much of her childhood, as had her mother before that, and her grandmother before that. The continuity of generations and accumulated treasures and belongings is the story’s focus. Patterns and light provide repeated motifs in this gentle homage. It is about as sharp a contrast to the idea of home purveyed on programmes such as Location, Location, Location, where a home is a property, as you can imagine. Perhaps that’s why Ryley has called the Villa Mona a “proper kind of house”. It is proper because it is an evolution and a history, where things don’t match and clutter tells stories. But perhaps there is also irony, because not all is “proper” as the bourgeois validation implies (nor would it want to be).

Patterns criss-cross, adorn and swirl in fabric, curtains, plates, cushions, rugs, aprons, tablecloths, but also in family life and domestic routines: the making and preparing of food, the drinking of tea, the sitting together and talking. These are the daily activities that weave the family and house together, creating its familiar refrain.

Patches of light are captured in quiet stillness as they move slowly across the rooms, warming carpets and furniture as they make their journey from east to west. These pictures are nostalgic for childhood when you notice such things, and a poignant nod to old age when there is time to watch the hours’ passing.

The feminine presence is strong and defining. Men feature in photographs only twice – once reading the paper in a darkened room, and another blurred into the background by the focus on a vase of roses. There is, however, a third and beguiling image which appears to be soft homosexual erotica. It is the framed sepia-tinged picture of an athletic naked man in Grecian discus pose. It’s rather beautiful, and is in fact, the great-grandfather – M. Marin – a physiotherapist who taught fitness in local schools. In one of three elegant and imaginative written accompaniments to the pictures, Brigitte Ryley, recalls how her grandfather “became more and more at home in the area of physical perfection and beauty than in the chaotic realms of women and sexual desire.” So delicately put.

Marjolaine Ryley has put together an eloquent study of, and tribute to, her family home, that is not without wit, subversion and sadness, but is held together with love.
Ruth Hedges

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