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Empire Furniture


There are great crises in the history of a nation which stand out in prominent relief. One of these is the French Revolution, which commenced in 1792, and wrought such dire havoc amongst the aristocracy, with so much misery and distress throughout the country. It was an event of great importance, whether we consider the religion, the politics, or the manners and customs of a people, as affecting the changes in the style of the decoration of their homes. The horrors of the Revolution are matters of common knowledge to every schoolboy, and there is no need to dwell either upon them or their consequences, which are so thoroughly apparent. The confiscation of the property of those who had fled the country was added to the general dislocation of everything connected with the work of the industrial arts.

Nevertheless it should be borne in mind that amongst the anarchy and disorder of this terrible time in France, the National Convention had sufficient foresight to appoint a Commission, composed of competent men in different branches of Art, to determine what State property in artistic objects should be sold, and what was of sufficient historical interest to be retained as a national possession. Riesener, the celebrated ébeniste, whose work we have described in the chapter on Louis Seize furniture, and David, the famous painter of the time, both served on this Commission, of which they must have been valuable members.

There is a passage quoted by Mr. C. Perkins, the American translator of Dr. Falke's German work "Kunst im Hause," which gives us the keynote to the great change which took place in the fashion of furniture about the time of the Revolution. In an article on "Art," says this democratic French writer, as early as 1790, when the great storm cloud was already threatening to burst, "We have changed everything; freedom, now consolidated in France, has restored the pure taste of the antique! Farewell to your marqueterie and Boule, your ribbons, festoons, and rosettes of gilded bronze; the hour has come when objects must be made to harmonize with circumstances."

Thus it is hardly too much to say that designs were governed by the politics and philosophy of the day; and one finds in furniture of this period the reproduction of ancient Greek forms for chairs and couches; ladies' work tables are fashioned somewhat after the old drawings of sacrificial altars; and the classical tripod is a favourite support. The mountings represent antique Roman fasces with an axe in the centre; trophies of lances, surmounted by a Phrygian cap of liberty; winged figures, emblematical of freedom; and antique heads of helmeted warriors arranged like cameo medallions.

After the execution of Robespierre, and the abolition of the Revolutionary Tribunal in 1794, came the choice of the Directory: and then, after Buonaparte's brilliant success in Italy, and the famous expeditions to Syria and Egypt two years later, came his proclamation as First Consul in 1799, which in 1802 was confirmed as a life appointment.

We have only to refer to the portrait of the great soldier, represented with the crown of bay leaves and other attributes of old Roman imperialism, to see that in his mind was the ambition of reviving much of the splendour and of the surroundings of the Caesars, whom he took, to some extent, as his models; and that in founding on the ashes of the Revolution a new fabric, with new people about him, all influenced by his energetic personality, he desired to mark his victories by stamping the new order of things with his powerful and assertive individualism.

Cabinet in Mahogany with Bronze Gilt Mountings, Presented by Napoleon I to Marie Louise on his Marriage with her in 1810 Period: Napoleon I
The cabinet which was designed and made for Marie Louise, on his marriage with her in 1810, is an excellent example of the Napoleonic furniture. The wood used was almost invariably rich mahogany, the colour of which made a good ground for the bronze gilt mounts which were applied. The full-page illustration shews these, which are all classical in character; and though there is no particular grace in the outline or form of the cabinet, there is a certain dignity and solemnity, relieved from oppressiveness by the fine chasing and gilding of the metal enrichments, and the excellent colour and figuring of the rich Spanish mahogany used.

On secretaires and tables, a common ornament of this description of furniture, is a column of mahogany, with a capital and base of bronze (either gilt, part gilt, or green), in the form of the head of a sphinx with the foot of an animal; console tables are supported by sphinxes and griffins; and candelabra and wall brackets for candles have winged figures of females, stiff in modelling and constrained in attitude, but almost invariably of good material with careful finish.

Tabouret, or Stool, Carved and Gilt; Arm Chair, In Mahogany, with Gilt Bronze Mountings. Period of Napoleon I
The bas-reliefs in metal which ornament the panels of the friezes of cabinets, or the marble bases of clocks, are either reproductions of mythological subjects from old Italian gems and seals, or represent the battles of the Emperor, in which Napoleon is portrayed as a Roman general. There was plenty of room to replace so much that had disappeared during the Revolution, and a vast quantity of decorative furniture was made during the few years which elapsed before the disaster of Waterloo caused the disappearance of a power which had been almost meteoric in its career.

The best authority on "Empire Furniture" is the book of designs, published in 1809 by the architects Percier and Fontaine, which is the more valuable as a work of reference, from the fact that every design represented was actually carried out, and is not a mere exercise of fancy, as is the case with many such books. In the preface the authors modestly state that they are entirely indebted to the antique for the reproduction of the different ornaments; and the originals, from which some of the designs were taken, are still preserved in a fragmentary form in the Museum of the Vatican.

The more ordinary furniture, however, of the same style, but without these decorative accessories, is stiff, ungainly, and uncomfortable, and seems to remind us of a period in the history of France when political and social disturbance deprived the artistic and pleasure-loving Frenchman of his peace of mind, distracting his attention from the careful consideration of his work. It may be mentioned here that, in order to supply a demand which has lately arisen, chiefly in New York, but also to some extent in England, for the best "Empire" furniture, the French dealers have bought up some of the old undecorated pieces, and by ornamenting them with gilt bronze mounts, cast from good old patterns, have sold them as original examples of the meubles de luxe of the period.

In Dutch furniture of this time one sees the reproduction of the Napoleonic fashion — the continuation of the Revolutionists' classicalism. Many marqueterie secretaires, tables, chairs, and other like articles, are mounted with the heads and feet of animals, with lions' heads and sphinxes, designs which could have been derived from no other source; and the general design of the furniture loses its bombé form, and becomes rectangular and severe. Whatever difficulty there may be in sometimes deciding between the designs of the Louis XIV period, towards its close, and that of Louis XV., there can be no mistake about l'epoch de la Directoire and le style de l'Empire. These are marked and branded with the Egyptian expedition, and the Syrian campaign, as legibly as if they all bore the familiar plain Roman N, surmounted by a laurel wreath, or the Imperial eagle which had so often led the French legions to victory.

It is curious to notice how England, though so bitterly opposed to Napoleon, caught the infection of the dominant features of design which were prevalent in France about this time.

Nelson's Chairs. Designs Published by T. Sheraton, October 29th, 1806
Thus, in Sheraton's book on Furniture, to which allusion has been made, and from which illustrations have been given in the chapter on "Chippendale and his Contemporaries," there is evidence that, as in France during the influence of Marie Antoinette, there was a classical revival, and the lines became straighter and more severe for furniture, so this alteration was adopted by Sheraton, Shearer, and other English designers at the end of the century. But if we refer to Sheraton's later drawings, which are dated about 1804 to 1806, we see the constrained figures and heads and feet of animals, all brought into the designs as shewn in the "drawing room" chairs here illustrated. These are unmistakable signs of the French "Empire" influence, the chief difference between the French and English work being, that, whereas in French Empire furniture the excellence of the metal work redeems it from heaviness or ugliness, such merit was wanting in England, where we have never excelled in bronze work, the ornament being generally carved in wood, either gilt or coloured bronze-green. When metal was used it was brass, cast and fairly finished by the chaser, but much more clumsy than the French work. Therefore, the English furniture of the first years of the nineteenth century is stiff, massive, and heavy, equally wanting in gracefulness with its French contemporary, and not having the compensating attractions of fine mounting, or the originality and individuality which must always add an interest to Napoleonic furniture.

There were several makers of first-class furniture, of whom the names of some still survive in the "style and title" of firms of the present day, who are their successors, while those of others have been forgotten, save by some of our older manufacturers and auctioneers, who, when requested by the writer, have been good enough to look up old records and revive the memories of fifty years ago. Of these the best known was Thomas Seddon, who came from Manchester and settled in Aldersgate Street. His two sons succeeded to the business, became cabinet makers to George IV., and furnished and decorated Windsor Castle. At the King's death their account was disputed, and £30,000 was struck off, a loss which necessitated an arrangement with their creditors. Shortly after this, however, they took the barracks of the London Light Horse Volunteers in the Gray's Inn Road (now the Hospital), and carried on there for a time a very extensive business. Seddon's work ranked with Gillow's, and they shared with that house the best orders for furniture.

Thomas Seddon, painter of Oriental subjects, who died in 1856, and P. Seddon, a well-known architect, were grandsons of the original founder of the firm. On the death of the elder brother, Thomas, the younger one then transferred his connection to the firm of Johnstone and Jeanes, in Bond Street, another old house which still carries on business as "Johnstone and Norman," and who some few years ago executed a very extravagant order for an American millionaire. This was a reproduction of Byzantine designs in furniture of cedar, ebony, ivory, and pearl, made from drawings by Mr. Alma Tadema, R.A.

Somewhat later, Trollopes, of Parliament Street; Holland, who had succeeded Dowbiggin (Gillow's apprentice), first in Great Pulteney Street, and subsequently at the firm's present address; Wilkinson, of Ludgate Hill, founder of the present firm of upholsterers in Bond Street; Aspinwall, of Grosvenor Street; the second Morant, of whom the great Duke of Wellington made a personal friend; and Grace, a prominent decorator of great taste, who carried out many of Pugin's Gothic designs, were all men of good reputation. Miles and Edwards, of Oxford Street, whom Hindleys succeeded, were also well known for good middle-class furniture. These are some of the best known manufacturers of the first half of the present century, and though until after the great Exhibition there was, as a rule, little in the designs to render their productions remarkable, the work of those named will be found sound in construction, and free from the faults which accompany the cheap and showy reproductions of more pretentious styles which mark so much of the furniture of the present day. With regard to this, more will be said in the next chapter.

There was then a very limited market for any but the most commonplace furniture. Our wealthy people bought the productions of French cabinet makers, either made in Paris or by Frenchmen who came over to England, and the middle classes were content with the most ordinary and useful articles. If they had possessed the means they certainly had neither the taste nor the education to furnish more ambitiously. The great extent of suburbs which now surround the Metropolis, and which include such numbers of expensive and extravagantly-fitted residences of merchants and tradesmen, did not then exist. The latter lived over their shops or warehouses, and the former only aspired to a dull house in Bloomsbury, or, like David Copperfield's father-in-law, Mr. Spenlow, a villa at Norwood, or perhaps a country residence at Hampstead or Highgate.