Sunday, 17 November 2013

Attempting to be rich by means of furniture

Decoration of interiors hasn’t changed very much with the passing of the years. I mean, when you now decorate your home with specific furniture, you do it in order to make an impression, you want your guests to love it, and, of course, you spend a lot of time making up your mind about distribution and modeling of the furnishing because you want to live in a place that you actually find pleasant, cozy and nice.

Victorian furniture keeps perfectly this contemporaneous essence.  It is true that Queen Victoria considered herself as a middle-class person; therefore, there was a huge furniture market for this middle-class population. However, she still was the Queen, so she had to represent a high status. Wealthy people used to choose every item carefully, always keeping in mind how their peers would like it, how they could realise they were high-class.

At the beginning of the Victorian era, a change in manufacturing was taking place, hand labour was replaced and this fact made machine-work increase. No need to say, Victorian furniture became very easy to purchase, but at the same time, every designed item was losing its value.

That is why, in that time, the more ostentatious the furniture was, the better. And how could they achieve this swanky style? There were four main principles when embellishing the house:
  1. The first one, color, changed drastically if we compare the Early period and the Later period. At the beginning of the era, the intention was to use lighter and richer colours with the intention of representing open and big spaces, facing the époque in a positive way. Later Victorians turned to deeper tones, because they aimed to highlight the importance of a room. Sometimes, dark colours were used to cover the stains that gas or oil lamps left, or to minimize the effect of grime and soot. 
  2. Secondly, Victorian population really cared about the pattern of the walls. Those who weren’t as rich used wallpapers equally patterned. As I will talk about later, when influences of other eras came, patterns were adjusted to these specific themes that were in trend. Not only the walls followed a style, but carpets and rugs too. 
  3. The third point is basically a word: excessiveness. Rich flourished their wealthy, and the aspirants to that status imitated them by means of cheaper materials that looked alike the others. This is the reason why mass production and machinery helped the middle class to fake such opulence. Extravagantly ornate decorations, china, lace, stained glass, flowers, knick-knacks, busts, souvenirs, framed paintings or prints, multi-layered window treatments, richly patterned fabrics, and accessories galore were used liberally throughout the house. Restraint was not part of Victorian interior decorating. 
  4. Finally, the motif that puts all the rest together: romance.  We are aware that the main basis of any kind of Victorian art is the romantic feeling. The furniture of this era tries to evoke the Romantic one in some way, they want you to put your mind into a fairy tale world. Lush fabrics and exotic trimmings increased the sentiment.

In the first years of the Queen’s reign, most of the pieces were merely imitations of previous artistic periods, like Medieval and Tudor, which were really decorative. A good sample to make us an idea of the influence of the yore is St. George’s Cabinet, by William Morris, in 1861. The surface of it is the most outstanding part, the paintings, which represent the well-known legend of St. George and the Dragon. The curious fact is that the artist portrayed himself and his wife as characters of the artwork. This piece started leading the way towards the romantic intention inside the furniture of that time.

St. George Cabinet, William Morris, England, 1861 - 1862.
Image sourced from the Victoria and Albert Museum, London

After this first period, manufacturers realised that the best way to embody the romance was imitating the Gothic style, above all, in terms of structure and form: heavy proportions, dark finish, elaborate carving, wood paneling, luxurious upholstery and some ornamentation like heraldic imagery, fleur de lys, trellises, stylized roses, and ecclesiastical motifs such as crosses formed the main basis. Home decoration based on Gothic revival is a style that embodies the romantic tales of knights and dragons, of King Arthur and of mythical gargoyles and other creatures. The biggest representation of the Gothic movement is the Palace of Westminster (after its reconstruction because of the fire of 1834) and, of course, some of its interiors. Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin (1812-1852) was one of the assistants of this reconstruction who provided the building with the vast majority of Gothic Revival details. The pictures below represent works made by A. W. N. Pugin, one variant of one of the clocks inside the Palace and the chairs in the House of Commons and the House of Lords.

Images sourced from the Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Towards the 1850’s there was a unanimous feeling of expansion and internationality of any kind of art, boosted by Queen Victoria and, most of all, the Prince Consort Albert. That’s why in 1851, the first Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of all Nations took place, in London. It was such a huge success that that was the beginning of the “world’s fair” events, where multiple countries contributed with their works and people were able to see them, while the host company and the city involved made profit of the exhibition. When the third one was about to take place in 1862, in London again, it completely opened the market eastwards. Especially, Japanese and Chinese art happened to be really acclaimed by a wide public, mainly characterised by their motifs and unusual geometrical shapes. This made manufacturers start to mix that esthetic with the Victorian trend of the time. This hybrid was called the Aesthetic or Anglo-Japanese art.  The new tendency was seen as a need for reform in Britain. Among the people who made a difference in this Aesthetic field were Christopher Dresser and E. W. Godwin. Sometimes, iron was included in their pieces of art in aspiration of rebellion in the ideals of the time.

Images sourced from the Victoria and Albert Museum, London

It’s in this very same exhibition, the one in 1862, that William Morris (1834-1896), probably the most influential furniture artist of the Victorian era, began to be recognised. His firm worked in several fields: embroidery, stained glass, tapestries, textiles, cabinets and chairs. By the time, his works were quite luxurious and, therefore, expensive. At first, he was more related to the Gothic Revival spirit, but with the passing of time he acquired the Aesthetic ideals. The important role of this artist is the rebellion he started against the increase of factories and machines that left behind hand-made pieces. He demonstrated the superiority of hand-made furniture, starting the Arts and Crafts movement in the 1880’s. From this new movement, the Art Noveau was born. This new form of art consisted in purchasing second-hand furniture because of their higher value. In consequence, the antique shopping began.

Victorian period was also influenced by other movements as the fashionable French Style, the Renaissance Revival, Greek Revival or Egyptian Revival. All together with the two most important styles explained before made Victorian furniture a whole world of possibilities that worked better for the middle-class population because of their accessibility. Factories and machines helped the people of this status to feign easily. Victorian period meant grandeur and magnificence. Thus, furniture, as any other aspect of daily life, had to prove it.

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  1. I like the tone of your writing - it is easy to understand and makes it interesting to read. I also like your background research into Queen Victoria's reign and what Victorian furniture meant during that time.