Sunday, 3 November 2013

Furnish your Victorian Life - Eccentricity

To equip, or to embellish, what role does furniture really fulfil? The Oxford English Dictionary defines ‘furnishing’ as the “action of fitting out or equipping,” whilst too defining such a process as an “action of decorating or embellishing.” The use of the words “equipping” and “embellishing” to define the act of ‘furnishing’ reflects a shift apparent in furniture as of the Victorian period as the eccentricity of the age meant houses were no longer merely “equipped,” but homes were rather “embellished.” As commented by Clive D. Edwards in his book Victorian Furniture, Technology and Design, as well as considering “comfort, cost, and suitability, consumers demanded other attributes from an object that would convey particular images and connotations to themselves and to others,” (4). I am going to explore such a shift in furniture from a means of 'equipping' to an end of 'embellishment' in the Victorian period.

Image sourced from the Victoria and Albert Museum, London 
This elaborate Indian table epitomises the eccentricity of the Victorians. Made in 1880, the high probability for its production being in response to an escalating demand for Middle Eastern furnishings within Europe reflects the shift from the ownership of furniture as a means of 'equipping' your abode to an end of 'embellishment.'  The meticulously designed patterns and octagonal shape displays how furniture was a manifestation of the people as the decorated pattern reflects the desire of the Victorians to laden their lives with ostentatious items. The octagonal shape of the table is striking as the unconventional design represents the shift in the purpose of furniture from a means to an end; as such a decision reflects a supply for an apparent demand based wholly on aesthetic desire. The Indian origin of this table is pivotal as such trade of furniture that could quite easily be created at home depicts the unconventional nature of the Victorians as the escalating desire for such an item reveals how far removed from tradition the Victorians really were.  This display of eccentricity can be seen in Elizabeth Gaskell’s unorthodox novel Mary Barton through the scrutiny of the Barton’s “table, which I should call a Pembroke, only that it was made of deal, and I cannot tell how far such a name may be applied to such humble material,” (15). It is clear that Gaskell’s use of the words “should” (15) alongside the idea of a “name” (15) to be “applied” (15) is a deliberate decision to depict the eccentricity of the Victorians as the need to comment on what “name” (15) “should” (15) or shouldn’t be “applied” (15) to the table is reflective of the Victorian desire to possess different and daring furniture in an attempt to portray a higher class.
Image sourced from the Victoria and Albert Museum, London
This image exhibits an oriental appearing tea set that expresses Victorian eccentricity at its most charmingly untraditional. The set was produced  from 1891 to 1894 and Victorian eccentricity lies in its foreign appearance which indicates the unconventional desires of the Victorians. Eccentricity is revealed in the fact that the creator of this tea set was in fact British. Christopher Dresser designed the tea service most likely with Japanese art in mind since he was the first designer from Europe to travel to the country in 1876. The way this art was made by a British man for a British Antiques store, Leuchars and Sons, evidences eccentricity as they were recreating foreign art in their own. The intricate ‘willow’ effect design of the tea set with the electric blue pattern set against a bright white background exhibits eccentricity as the bold colours reflects the bold movement in furniture from a means to an end. Victorian furniture as such a manifestation of irregularity can also be seen in Mary Barton in the description of the Barton’s home that outlines how “resting against the wall, was a bright green japanned tea tray,” 15. The use of the word “japanned” (15) here reflects this unconventional shift as the use of the past tense suggests a process that has been undertaken to achieve such an effect as opposed to the tea tray actually being of Japanese origin. This adoption of Japanese design is further explored in the notes to the text that explain that so called ‘Japanning’ is a process by which a piece is “varnished to imitate Japanese lacquer work,” (400). The word “imitate” (400) highlights the move from furniture as a means to an end as it was such an expression of the eccentricity of the people that it was even accessibleto and sought after by the working class.
Image sourced from the Victoria and Albert Museum
This elegantly painted tray demonstrates the eccentricity of the Victorians. Created in 1850, it expresses the extravagance of the Victorians in a similar way to the tea set seen above as the scene depicted on the piece “imitate(s)” (400) an oil painting, the original owner of which was the Duke of Devonshire. Eccentricity is seen through the inconsistent nature of the fact that focal to the tray is a painting that “imitates” (400) another, but such is bordered by gilt and mother of pearl. This tray was manufactured by Jennens and Bettridge whose work displays great Victorian eccentricity. In his book Victorian Furniture, Technology and Design, Clive D. Edwards comments that the reason for Jennens and Bettridge’s “fame rests on their use of unusual materials to decorate the blank shapes,” (128). This idea of filling “blank shapes” (128) demonstrates how this era was so eccentric the excess was even made accessible to the working classes. This can too be seen in Mary Barton within the description of the “bright green Japanned tea-tray, having a couple of scarlet lovers embracing in the middle [of it]. The firelight danced merrily on this, and ready (setting all taste but that of a child’s aside) it gave a richness of colouring to that side of the room,” (15). Displaying the accessibility of eccentricity is the idea of “all taste but that of a child’s [is] set aside,” (15) combined with the fact that the very same tray provided “a richness of colouring,” (15). The “richness” (15) supplied by the tray reveals the extravagance of even the working class in their wares, whilst the idea of it only appealing to the “taste (…) of a child,” (15) demonstrates how, as displayed in Jennens and Bettridge’s tray, this is nothing more than a mere working class Imitation.
Image sourced from the Victoria and Albert Museum

I also discovered this charming, floral dinner service at the Victoria and Albert Museum and it too reflects the quirky eccentricity of the Victorians. This set was made around 1820; the vibrant colours and exquisite patterns are quite clearly a reflection of excess and ostentatiousness, whilst the jagged edging of the included pieces is a move towards more modern design as opposed to emulating traditional ceramics, information sourced from the Victoria and Albert museum. Such indication of Victorian eccentricity is seen in Mary Barton as it is described how the Barton’s cupboard was “apparently full of plates and dishes, cups and saucers (…). However, it was it was evident Mrs Barton was proud of her crockery (…), for she left her cupboard door open, with a glance round of satisfaction and pleasure,” (14). The use of the idea that Mrs Barton leaves her cupboard door “open” (14) coupled with the contradicting word “however” (14) at the beginning of the sentence is clearly an indication of eccentricity within this Victorian family. The cupboard door is left “open” (14) for all to gaze at her “crockery” (14), but the use of the word “however” (14) at the beginning of this proclamation suggests that such crockery is rarely in use. This clearly exhibits the transition in the Victorian period from furniture as a means of “equipping” to a means of “embellishing” as eccentricity grew.
Through not only the trade but recreation of foreign art, the use of rare, ornate materials and the accessibility to such excessiveness within necessary domestic objects displays how Victorian furniture is a manifestation of the eccentricity of the people of the age. As declared by Edwards furniture and “furnishings are a classic case of the unspoken communication. They reflect the times and conditions that have made them, but at the same time express the aspirations and values of the owner,” (4). As Victorian furniture starkly expresses eccentricity it “reflect[s] the time,” (4) and acts indeed as an “unspoken communication” of the shift from furniture as a means to “equip” to and end of “embellishment.”   
Works cited
Edwards, Clive D., Victorian Furniture, Technology and Design. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1993.
Gaskell, Elizabeth, Mary Barton. Hertfordshire: Wordsworth Editions Limited, 2012.
Oxford English Dictionary Oxford: Oxford University Press 2013. 3rd November 2013. 


  1. I like your take on how furniture has the capacity to fulfil one's life especially in the Victorian period where it holds a major component in the domestic household and highlights one's social status. I enjoyed reading this entry as I found the detail in it was as specific as the detail one would find in the pieces of furniture.

  2. I also looked at japanned items in the Victorian home, I enjoyed your take on this. As well as this, I enjoyed your ideas on whether the furniture 'embellished' or 'equipped' the Victorian home.