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history of victorian furniture


With the restoration of the Monarchy in France came the inevitable change in fashions, and "Le style de l'Empire" was condemned. In its place came a revival of the Louis Quinze scrolls and curves, but with less character and restraint, until the style we know as "baroque," or debased "rococo," came in. Ornament of a florid and incongruous character was lavished on decorative furniture, indicative of a taste for display rather than for appropriate enrichment.

It had been our English custom for some long period to take our fashions from France, and, therefore, about the time of William IV. and during the early part of the present Queen's reign, the furniture for our best houses was designed and made in the French style. In the "Music" Room at Chatsworth are some chairs and footstools used at the time of the Coronation of William IV. and Queen Adelaide, which have quite the appearance of French furniture.

The old fashion of lining rooms with oak panelling, which has been noticed in an earlier chapter, had undergone a change which is worth recording. If the illustration of the Elizabethan oak panelling, as given in the English section of Chapter III, be referred to, it will be seen that the oak lining reaches from the floor to within about two or three feet of the cornice. Subsequently this panelling was divided into an upper and a lower part, the former commencing about the height of the back of an ordinary chair, a moulding or chair-rail forming a capping to the lower part. Then pictures came to be let into the panelling; and presently the upper part was discarded and the lower wainscoting remained, properly termed the Dado,20 which we have seen revived both in wood and in various decorative materials of the present day. During the period we are now discussing, this arrangement lost favour in the eyes of our grandfathers, and the lowest member only was retained, which is now termed the "skirting board."

As we approach a period that our older contemporaries can remember, it is very interesting to turn over the leaves of the back numbers of such magazines and newspapers as treated of the Industrial Arts. The Art Union, which changed its title to the Art Journal in 1849, had then been in existence for about ten years, and had done good work in promoting the encouragement of Art and manufactures. The "Society of Arts" had been formed in London as long ago as 1756, and had given prizes for designs and methods of improving different processes of manufacture. Exhibitions of the specimens sent in for competition for the awards were, and are still, held at their house in Adelphi Buildings. Old volumes of "Transactions of the Society" are quaint works of reference with regard to these exhibitions.

About 1840, Mr., afterwards Sir, Charles Barry, R.A., had designed and commenced the present, or, as it was then called, the New Palace of Westminster, and, following the Gothic character of the building, the furniture and fittings were naturally of a design to harmonize with what was then quite a departure from the heavy architectural taste of the day. Mr. Barry was the first in this present century to leave the beaten track, although the Reform and Travellers' Clubs had already been designed by him on more classic lines. The Speaker's chair in the House of Commons is evidently designed after one of the fifteenth century "canopied seats," which have been noticed and illustrated in the second chapter; and the "linen scroll pattern" panels can be counted by the thousand in the Houses of Parliament and the different official residences which form part of the Palace. The character of the work is subdued and not flamboyant, is excellent in design and workmanship, and is highly creditable, when we take into consideration the very low state of Art in England fifty years ago.

This want of taste was very much discussed in the periodicals of the day, and, yielding to expressed public opinion, Government had in 1840-1841 appointed a Select Committee to take into consideration the promotion of the fine Arts in the country, Mr. Charles Barry, Mr. Eastlake, and Sir Martin Shee, R.A., being amongst the witnesses examined. The report of this Committee, in 1841, contained the opinion "That such an important and National work as the erection of the two Houses of Parliament affords an opportunity which ought not to be neglected of encouraging, not only the higher, but every subordinate branch of fine Art in this country."

Mr. Augustus Welby Pugin was a well-known designer of the Gothic style of furniture of this time. Born in 1811, he had published in 1835 his "Designs for Gothic Furniture," and later his "Glossary of Ecclesiastical Ornament and Costume"; and by skilful application of his knowledge to the decorations of the different ecclesiastical buildings he designed, his reputation became established. One of his designs is here reproduced. Pugin's work and reputation have survived, notwithstanding the furious opposition he met with at the time. In a review of one of his books, in the Art Union of 1839, the following sentence completes the criticism:—"As it is a common occurrence in life to find genius mistaken for madness, so does it sometimes happen that a madman is mistaken for a genius. Mr. Welby Pugin has oftentimes appeared to us to be a case in point."

Prie-dieu, In Carved Oak, enriched with Painting and Gilding. Designed by Mr. Pugin, and manufactured by Mr. Crace, London.
At this time furniture design and manufacture, as an Industrial Art in England, seems to have attracted no attention whatever. There are but few allusions to the design of decorative woodwork in the periodicals of the day; and the auctioneers' advertisements—with a few notable exceptions, like that of the Strawberry Hill Collection of Horace Walpole, gave no descriptions; no particular interest in the subject appears to have been manifested, save by a very limited number of the dilettanti, who, like Walpole, collected the curios and cabinets of two or three hundred years ago.

Secretaire and Bookcase, In Carved Oak, in the style of German Gothic
York House was redecorated and furnished about this time, and as it is described as "Excelling any other dwelling of its own class in regal magnificence and vieing with the Royal Palaces of Europe," we may take note of an account of its re-equipment, written in 1841 for the Art Journal. This notice speaks little for the taste of the period, and less for the knowledge and grasp of the subject by the writer of an Art critique of the day:—"The furniture generally is of no particular style, but, on the whole, there is to be found a mingling of everything, in the best manner of the best epochs of taste." Writing further on of the ottoman couches, "causeuses," etc., the critic goes on to tell of an alteration in fashion which had evidently just taken place:—"Some of them, in place of plain or carved rosewood or mahogany, are ornamented in white enamel, with classic subjects in bas-relief of perfect execution."

Towards the close of the period embraced by the limits of this chapter, the eminent firm of Jackson and Graham were making headway, a French designer named Prignot being of considerable assistance in establishing their reputation for taste; and in the Exhibition which was soon to take place, this firm took a very prominent position. Collinson and Lock, who have recently acquired this firm's premises and business, were both brought up in the house as young men, and left some thirty odd years ago for Herrings, of Fleet Street, whom they succeeded about 1870.

Another well-known decorator who designed and manufactured furniture of good quality was Leonard William Collmann, first of Bouverie Street and later of George Street, Portman Square. He was a pupil of Sydney Smirke, R.A. (who designed and built the Carlton and the Conservative Clubs), and was himself an excellent draughtsman, and carried out the decoration and furnishing of many public buildings, London clubs, and mansions of the nobility and gentry. His son is at present Director of Decorations to Her Majesty at Windsor Castle. Collmann's designs were occasionally Gothic, but generally classic.

There is evidence of the want of interest in the subject of furniture in the auctioneers' catalogues of the day. By the courtesy of Messrs. Christie and Manson, the writer has had access to the records of this old firm, and two or three instances of sales of furniture may be given. While the catalogues of the Picture sales of 1830-40 were printed on paper of quarto size, and the subjects described at length, those of "Furniture" are of the old-fashioned small octavo size, resembling the catalogue of a small country auctioneer of the present day, and the printed descriptions rarely exceed a single line. The prices very rarely amount to more than £10; the whole proceeds of a day's sale were often less than £100, and sometimes did not reach £50. At the sale of "Rosslyn House," Hampstead, in 1830, a mansion of considerable importance, the highest-priced article was "A capital maghogany pedestal sideboard, with hot closet, cellaret, 2 plate drawers, and fluted legs," which brought £32. At the sale of the property of "A man of Fashion," "a marqueterie cabinet, inlaid with trophies, the panels of Sêvres china, mounted in ormolu," sold for twenty-five guineas; and a "Reisener (sic) table, beautifully inlaid with flowers, and drawers," which appears to have been reserved at nine guineas, was bought in at eight-and-a-half guineas. Frequenters of Christie's of the present day who have seen such furniture realize as many pounds as the shillings included in such sums, will appreciate the enormously increased value of really good old French furniture.

Perhaps the most noticeable comparison between the present day and that of half-a-century ago may be made in reading through the prices of the great sale at Stowe House, in 1848, when the financial difficulties of the Duke of Buckingham caused the sale by auction which lasted 37 days, and realised upwards of £71,000, the proceeds of the furniture amounting to £27,152. We have seen in the notice of French furniture that armoires by Boule have, during the past few years, brought from £4,000 to £6,000 each under the hammer, and the want of appreciation of this work, probably the most artistic ever produced by designer and craftsman, is sufficiently exemplified by the statement that at the Stowe sale two of Boule's famous armoires, of similar proportions to those in the Hamilton Palace and Jones Collections, were sold for £21 and £19 respectively.

We are accustomed now to see the bids at Christie's advance by guineas, by fives and by tens; and it is amusing to read in these old catalogues of marqueterie tables, satin wood cabinets, rosewood pier tables, and other articles of "ornamental furniture," as it was termed, being knocked down to Town and Emanuel, Webb, Morant, Hitchcock, Raldock, Forrest, Redfearn, Litchfield (the writer's father), and others who were the buyers and regular attendants at "Christie's" (afterwards Christie and Manson) of 1830 to 1845, for such sums as and occasionally £10 or £15.

It is pleasant to remember, as some exception to this general want of interest in the subject, that in 1843 there was held at Gore House, Kensington, then the fashionable residence of Lady Blessington, an exhibition of old furniture; and a series of lectures, illustrated by the contributions, was given by Mr., now Sir, J.C. Robinson. The Venetian State chair was amongst the examples lent by the Queen on that occasion. Specimens of Boule's work and some good pieces of Italian Renaissance were also exhibited.

A great many of the older Club houses of London were built and furnished between 1813 and 1851, the Guards' being of the earlier date, and the Army and Navy of the latter; and during the intervening thirty odd years the United Service, Travellers', Union, United University, Athenaeum, Oriental, Wyndham, Oxford and Cambridge, Reform, Carlton, Garrick, Conservative, and some others were erected and fitted up. Many of these still retain much of the furniture of Gillows, Seddons, and some of the other manufacturers of the time whose work has been alluded to, and these are favourable examples of the best kind of cabinet work done in England during the reign of George IV, William IV, and that of the early part of Queen Victoria. It is worth recording, too, that during this period, steam power, which had been first applied to machinery about 1815, came into more general use in the manufacture of furniture, and with its adoption there seems to have been a gradual abandonment of the apprenticeship system in the factories and workshops of our country; and the present "piece work" arrangement, which had obtained more or less since the English cabinet makers had brought out their "Book of Prices" some years previously, became generally the custom of the trade, in place of the older "day work" of a former generation.

Cradle, In Boxwood, for H.M. the Queen. Designed and Carved by H. Rogers, London
In France the success of national exhibitions had become assured, the exhibitors having increased from only 110 when the first experiment was tried in 1798, by leaps and bounds, until at the eleventh exhibition, in 1849, there were 4,494 entries. The Art Journal of that year gives us a good illustrated notice of some of the exhibits, and devotes an article to pointing out the advantages to be gained by something of the kind taking place in England.

From 1827 onwards we had established local exhibitions in Dublin, Leeds, and Manchester. The first time a special building was devoted to exhibition of manufactures was at Birmingham in 1849; and from the illustrated review of this in the Art Journal one can see there was a desire on the part of our designers and manufacturers to strike out in new directions and make progress.

Design for a Tea Caddy, By J. Strudwick, for Inlaying and Ivory. Published as one of the "Original Designs for Manufacturers" in Art Journal, 1829
The cradle was also, by the Queen's command, sent to the Exhibition, and it may be worth while quoting the artist's description of the carving:—"In making the design for the cradle it was my intention that the entire object should symbolize the union of the Royal Houses of England with that of Saxe-Coburg and Gothe, and, with this view, I arranged that one end should exhibit the Arms and national motto of England, and the other those of H.R.H. Prince Albert. The inscription, 'Anno, 1850,' was placed between the dolphins by Her Majesty's special command."

Rogers was also a writer of considerable ability on the styles of ornament; and there are several contributions from his pen to the periodicals of the day, besides designs which were published in the Art Journal under the heading of "Original Designs for Manufacturers." These articles appeared occasionally, and contained many excellent suggestions for manufacturers and carvers, amongst others, the drawings of H. Fitzcook, one of whose designs for a work table we are able to reproduce. Other more or less constant contributors of original designs for furniture were J. Strudwick and W. Holmes, a design from the pencil of each of whom is given.

In furniture, straight lines and simple curves may be plain and uninteresting, but they are by no means so objectionable as the over ornamentation of the debased rococo style, which obtained in this country about forty years ago; and if the scrolls and flowers, the shells and rockwork, which ornamented mirror frames, sideboard backs, sofas, and chairs, were debased in style, even when carefully carved in wood, the effect was infinitely worse when, for the sake of economy, as was the case with the houses of the middle classes, this elaborate and laboured enrichment was executed in the fashionable stucco of the day.

Large mirrors, with gilt frames of this material, held the places of honour on the marble chimney piece, and on the console, or pier table, which was also of gilt stucco, with a marble slab. The cheffonier, with its shelves having scroll supports like an elaborate S, and a mirror at the back, with a scrolled frame, was a favourite article of furniture.

Carpets were badly designed, and loud and vulgar in colouring; chairs, on account of the shape and ornament in vogue, were unfitted for their purpose, on account of the wood being cut across the grain; the fire-screen, in a carved rosewood frame, contained the caricature, in needlework, of a spaniel, or a family group of the time, ugly enough to be in keeping with its surroundings.

The dining room was sombre and heavy. The pedestal sideboard, with a large mirror in a scrolled frame at the back, had come in; the chairs were massive and ugly survivals of the earlier reproductions of the Greek patterns, and, though solid and substantial, the effect was neither cheering nor refining.

In the bedrooms were winged wardrobes and chests of drawers; dressing tables and washstands, with scrolled legs, nearly always in mahogany; the old four-poster had given way to the Arabian or French bedstead, and this was being gradually replaced by the iron or brass bedsteads, which came in after the Exhibition had shewn people the advantages of the lightness and cleanliness of these materials.

In a word, from the early part of the present century, until the impetus given to Art by the great Exhibition had had time to take effect, the general taste in furnishing houses of all but a very few persons, was at about its worst.

In other countries the rococo taste had also taken hold. France sustained a higher standard than England, and such figure work as was introduced into furniture was better executed, though her joinery was inferior. In Italy old models of the Renaissance still served as examples for reproduction, but the ornament became more carelessly carved and the decoration less considered. Ivory inlaying was largely executed in Milan and Venice; mosaics of marble were specialites of Rome and of Florence, and were much applied to the decoration of cabinets; Venice was busy manufacturing carved walnutwood furniture in buffets, cabinets, Negro page boys, elaborately painted and gilt, and carved mirror frames, the chief ornaments of which were cupids and foliage.

Italian carving has always been free and spirited, the figures have never been wanting in grace, and, though by comparison with the time of the Renaissance there is a great falling off, still, the work executed in Italy during the present century has been of considerable merit as regards ornament, though this has been overdone. In construction and joinery, however, the Italian work has been very inferior. Cabinets of great pretension and elaborate ornament, inlaid perhaps with ivory, lapislazuli, or marbles, are so imperfectly made that one would think ornament, and certainly not durability, had been the object of the producer.

In Antwerp, Brussels, Liege, and other Flemish Art centres, the School of Wood Carving, which came in with the Renaissance, appears to have been maintained with more or less excellence. With the increased quality of the carved woodwork manufactured, there was a proportion of ill-finished and over-ornamented work produced; and although, as has been before observed, the manufacture of cheap marqueterie in Amsterdam and other Dutch cities was bringing the name of Dutch furniture into ill-repute—still, so far as the writer's observations have gone, the Flemish wood-carver appears to have been, at the time now under consideration, ahead of his fellow craftsmen in Europe; and when in the ensuing chapter we come to notice some of the representative exhibits in the great International Competition of 1851, it will be seen that the Antwerp designer and carver was certainly in the foremost rank.

In Austria, too, some good cabinet work was being carried out, M. Leistler, of Vienna, having at the time a high reputation.

In Paris the house of Fourdinois was making a name which, in subsequent exhibitions, we shall see took a leading place amongst the designers and manufacturers of decorative furniture.

England, it has been observed, was suffering from languor in Art industry. The excellent designs of the Adams and their school, which obtained early in the century, had been supplanted, and a meaningless rococo style succeeded the heavy imitations of French pseudo-classic furniture. Instead of, as in the earlier and more tasteful periods, when architects had designed woodwork and furniture to accord with the style of their buildings, they appear to have then, as a general rule, abandoned the control of the decoration of interiors, and the result was one which—when we examine our National furniture of half a century ago—has not left us much to be proud of, as an artistic and industrious people.

Some notice has been taken of the appreciation of this unsatisfactory state of things by the Government of the time, and by the Press; and, as with a knowledge of our deficiency, came the desire and the energy to bring about its remedy, we shall see that, with the Exhibition of 1851, and the intercourse and the desire to improve, which naturally followed that great and successful effort, our designers and craftsmen profited by the great stimulus which Art and Industry then received.