Early Victorian Furniture
In the work of the manufacturers just
enumerated, may be traced the influence of the "Empire" style. With the
restoration, however, 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,"
19 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 1840-1 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."
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. (From Drawing by Professor Heideloff,
Published in the "Art Union," 1816.)
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
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
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 thirty-seven 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 8s. 6d. 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 6s.,
15s., and occasionally £10 or £15.
A single quotation is given, but many such
are to be found:—Sale on February 25th and 26th, 1841. Lot 31. "A small
oval table, with a piece of Sêvres porcelain painted with flowers. 6s."
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, illustrated on p. 57, 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.
We are able to reproduce some of the
designs of furniture of this period; and in the cradle, designed and
carved in Turkey-boxwood, for the Queen, by Mr. Harry Rogers, we have a
fine piece of work, which would not have disgraced the latter period of
the Renaissance. Indeed, Mr. Rogers was a very notable designer and carver
of this time; he had introduced his famous boxwood carvings about seven
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."
Design for One of the Wings of a Sideboard,
By W. Holmes. Exhibited at the "Society of Art" in 1818, and published
by the Art Journal in 1829.
In a criticism of this excellent specimen
of work, the Art Journal of the time said:—"We believe the cradle
to be one of the most important examples of the art of wood carving ever
executed in this country."
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.
Design for a Work Table, By H. Fitzcook.
Published as one of the "Original Designs for Manufacturers" in the
Art Journal, 1850.
But though here and there in England good
designers came to the front, as a general rule the art of design in
furniture and decorative woodwork was at a very low ebb about this time.
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
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
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
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.
Venetian Stool of Carved Walnut Wood.
Sideboard in Carved Oak, with Cellaret.
Designed and Manufactured by Mr. Gillow, London. 1851 Exhibition.
Chimneypiece and Bookcase. In carved walnut
wood with colored marbles inlaid and doors of perforated brass. Designed
By Mr. T. R. Macquoid, Architect, and Manufactured by Messrs. Holland &
Sons. London, 1851 Exhibition.
Cabinet in the Mediaeval Style. Designed and
Manufactured by Mr. Grace, London. 1851 Exhibition.
Bookcase in Carved Wood. Designed and
Manufactured by Messrs. Jackson & Graham, London, 1851 Exhibition.