Romantic furniture

 

There would seem to be little in common between the romantic furniture of the Chippendale period and that of the Victorian. Yet, although almost a century apart, certain characteristics of evolution present a striking parallel. The Chippendale designs were masculine, tending at times toward the pompous; those of the Victorian era were feminine and likely to be languid. But both in their more ornate examples inclined toward the rococo, and both styles had behind them the traditions of the periods they succeeded.

Each also introduced seemingly irreconcilable elements, Gothic lines and French curves. Both inspirations continued to manifest themselves through the span of each period, with the French style of curves in general gaining the upper hand.

In neither period, however, did this Gallic influence succeed in obliterating the motif based on the architecture of Canterbury, York, and Westminster Abbey. The Gothic came first and remained, even though it seemed to yield somewhat to the curves imported from across the English Channel.

Chippendale built on the design trends of the Queen Anne and Early Georgian styles; the Victorian style was evolved as an answer to the desire for change from the late designs of Sheraton and his contemporaries. These were basically classical Roman, Egyptian, or Greek, and about all the possible changes had been accomplished within these limitations when the furniture designers of England turned their attention to the forms and outlines of their great Gothic buildings.

By 1830 or 1835 a "new" style, now known as Victorian Gothic, began to make its appearance in English romantic furniture design and, later, gradually to migrate to the United States. Various books of design reflecting this change were published in London. As early as 1826 there was The Practical Cabinetmaker, Upholsterer and Complete Decorator, by Peter and Michael Angelo Nicholson, which showed both classical and Gothic designs. Grecian, Elizabethan, and Gothic styles were displayed in Furniture with Candelabra and Interior Decoration, by R. Bridgens, published in 1838. Two years earlier, Ackerman of London published Pugin's Gothic Furniture, which contained twenty-six plates, largely in the Gothic design. Between 1830 and 1835, Thomas King had designed and published two books of furniture style. Their titles ran:

Household Furniture, Comprising 38 Designs of Utility and Elegance, in which are combined novelty, practicability and economy. Designed and published by T. King, Furniture Draftsman, 18 Wilmot Street, Brunswick Square, London,
and Cabinetmaker's Sketch Book, by Thomas King, London.

The latter was in two volumes, and Volume II with its sixty lithographic plates is pure Victorian style. Another broadcaster of the change in furniture fashion was the trade catalogue of William Smeed & Son, published in London about 1840:

Designs of Furniture
by William Smeed & Son.
A stock of which is kept always ready for sale at their cabinet and upholstery manufactory and warerooms, 6 Finsbury Pavement, London.

Further, J. C. Loudon's Encyclopaedia of Cottages, Farm and Villa Architecture & Furniture, published in London, must have found favour in the United States, for fifteen years later A. J. Downing published his Architecture of Country Houses in New York, and in Section XII under Furniture reproduced the Victorian designs from Loudon's book, plate for plate.

But this was the romantic era, in literature, music, and the plastic arts. To produce household furnishings more in keeping with the movement that produced the Scott novels, the poetry of Byron and Shelley, the designers looked eastward and found in the style of Louis XV an underlying affinity between French curves and the romantic spirit. So the Victorian style accented them in preference to the pointed arches, trefoils, and tessellated battlements of architecture that fundamentally expressed the spirit of the Middle Ages.

The Gothic, however, was never wholly obliterated. In America its influence ranged from pulpit sets to the steeple clocks of Elias Ingraham. Sometimes, too, Victorian designs attempted and achieved the seemingly impossible feat of combining Gallic ornateness with Gothic simplicity.

Like the Chippendale period, the Victorian designs brought a change in cabinet wood. With the former, walnut declined in favour of mahogany, which soon rose to universal popularity and held its place for over seventy years. Then it in turn was replaced by rosewood and that specially treated walnut so aptly named "black walnut."

It was no accident that this new style of the mid-nineteenth century took its name from the young queen who had been crowned in Westminster Abbey in 1837. Something about it was closely keyed to the personality and preferences of the new sovereign of England. Even in her state portrait, clad in her coronation robes, she seemed a fitting expression of the romantic. Her marriage and family life carried this further and made Victorian and romanticism almost interchangeable terms. Victorian furniture and furnishings were a proper setting for the queen and the prince consort. Otherwise the style would not have persisted for almost half a century. In its most ambitious execution it could take on palace proportions, but it was more at home in less pretentious villas and country homes. Homey, comfortable, and middle class, it again reflected the personality of the queen.

"Victoria was above the aristocracy, not of it," wrote one of her many biographers. "With the other side of her nature she was a simple wife and widow-woman who would have been at home in any cottage parlour." The comparatively modest Osborne House that she bought and furnished on the Isle of Wight was her refuge from overpowering Windsor Castle during a long reign, and there she spent her last hours.

If one is inclined to wonder how this style first evolved in England, travelled to the United States, and gained complete mastery of our taste from about 1850 until after the famous Centennial Exposition of 1876 in Philadelphia, the answer is to be found in another and earlier fair. This was the Crystal Palace Exposition, devised and carried out by the prince consort and held in Hyde Park, London, in 1851. Here all sorts of household furnishings and ornamentation were on display. The designs were, of course, in the Victorian idiom. Elaborately illustrated handbooks picturing these exhibits were published and found their way to the United States. Americans who could afford the Atlantic voyage made the pilgrimage in fairly large numbers and came back deeply impressed with the new style.

Having lived overlong with the last stages of the American Empire period, the public was ripe for a change. The comments of the returning voyagers and the influx of the illustrated guides were all that was needed. Soon American cabinetmakers and designers of other items of household decoration were working in the Victorian style. Mahogany disappeared and first rosewood and then black walnut replaced it.

A few American pieces were made in the Gothic, but the majority followed the undulating lines inspired by the Louis XV period. The romantic revival was at its height, and women's fashions gave added impetus. The colored fashion plates which decorated issues of Godey's Lady's Book depicted the latest Paris fashions. Here, hooped skirts and florally decorated textiles predominated. It was a matter of curves, with those of the costume in harmony with those of the furniture. So the Victorian style was accepted and remained in favour for a generation.

But our craftsmen did not follow the Victorian furniture of England to such an extent as to become merely copyists. As usual, they adapted and interpreted the designs to suit the tastes of their public. Consequently, the American version was often somewhat simplified, especially that intended for village and farm homes. Some of these less ambitious pieces now rank among the most charming of those made in this style in the United States.

It was an era of comfort and relative prosperity. There was buying power in city and village and on the farm. This naturally aided the spread of the Victorian style. Wherever people had ample purses there were cabinetmakers ready to produce as ornate examples of this furniture style as was desired. The blight of the factory-made furniture was not yet. Before it came many excellent cabinetmakers in leading cities and towns of America were to work in the furniture expression of the movement that swept over Europe, England, and the United States, Victorian in the two latter countries, Louis Philippe in France, and Gothic revival in Germany, succeeding the Biedermeyer.

In New York there was John Belter, whose name was a household word during his working years from 1844 to 1865. He produced much distinctive furniture, chiefly in rosewood, richly carved but laminated to achieve the curved backs characteristic of his work. Competitors of his, but lacking his superlative skill, were Joseph and John Meeks. Still another New York craftsman was Marcotte, whose satinwood bedroom set decorated with applied carvings of rosewood in the master bedroom of the Theodore Roosevelt birthplace is one of the unique examples of American furniture in the Victorian manner.

Elijah Galusha, master cabinetmaker of Troy, New York, worked in rosewood in the latter years of his life. Apparently many of the fine old houses there were completely furnished by him. Also among the many fine cabinetmakers of New Orleans was A. Seibrecht, who worked between 1840 and 1861 and was a fitting rival to John Belter in the treatment of his chairs and sofas.

Rosewood, however, was never plentiful, nor was it easy to carve. American ingenuity soon found a substitute that grew plentifully in our native forests. This, after the proper chemical treatment, took on a hue similar to that of the imported rosewood. Thus began that characteristic of American home life during the middle part of the nineteenth century, black walnut.

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