Tuesday, 11 March 2014

A Journey Through The Furniture Of The Victorian Era

"What furniture can give such finish to a room as a tender woman's face? - and is there any harmony of tints that has such stirrings of delight as the sweet modulation of her voice?" Here, Daniel Deronda compares Mirah to furniture, placing her beauty above the aesthetic value of furniture in a room. This comparison may sound absurd to the modern reader however; it proves just how much value furniture had in the 19th Century.

The Victorian era is consumed with lavishness and opulence. The Victorians are known to want to show that they are well positioned in society, even if that means putting themselves through suffering!
I am interested to find out why there was such a huge insistence on desiring to prove one’s place in society through the use of furniture?
The popular belief is that due to the industrialisation of the 18th and 19th centuries, masses moved out of the countryside to live in big, happening cities where they could have a better income as well as be part of the thriving scene. Hence, a new wave of middle-class families enjoyed aiming to replicate the aristocratic lifestyle, in order to look and feel valued and important. And if they could not afford to copy them, which happened most of the time, well at least they knew about the aristocratic lifestyle and forged their own conception of how they should lead their lives based on this knowledge.  

Mrs Beeton suggests “the discomfort and suffering which I had seen brought upon men and women by household mismanagement [moved me]. I have always thought that there is no more fruitful source of family discontent than a housewife's badly-cooked dinners and untidy ways.’
The Victorian era was also a time when leisure spots such as tearooms and eating-houses started to establish themselves. These were fairly new and therefore were to be feared by some. For the Victorian woman, the fear of losing her husband to the charms of all the upcoming clubs and taverns made her strive to perfect her cooking and taste in household goods and household management. Therefore, I believe considering the aesthetic value of furniture in the Victorian homes to be indubitable.

Furniture - like clothing, jewellery and postcode – was a means of showing off to your ‘friends’, the society. It was there mostly to impress and the Victorians definitely wanted to have that effect on others in their social circle in order to keep face. Such a huge importance was given to appearance, that, as Beeton mentions, not only does it avoid a marital rift, but it also makes entertaining guests a lot better. Better to impress. Living rooms, parlors and dining rooms had to be crowded with wealthy looking furniture and decoration. However, private rooms such as the bedroom or the servants’ hall had the minimum furnishings because there was no need to boast about those rooms, as no guest would enter them.

The increasing demand for furniture led to the booming of factories. New methods of manufacture meant that the machine had taken over craftsmanship and was able to produce Victorian furniture in mass amounts to satisfy the vast demand by the middle class people that desired it. Thus, manufacturing had to go at a fast pace and therein laid a reason for why quality had started to become poor, because furniture started to be designed around what the machine could make. There was no more artistic contact between the designer and the craftsmen and no contact between designer and client, as the former were too busy trying to keep ahead of each other.
By the end of the first half of the Victorian era, (circa 1840’s), everyone wanted flamboyant furniture that showed a lot of detail and work mainly in the curvatures and the ornaments. However after 1850, poor construction meant lower prices and lower standards of the finished pieces.

In the later Victorian era, the shift from bad quality to good standards was mainly due to the Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society, founded in 1888. At the top of their thinking was a new appreciation of the artistic skills of the workers and the belief that they should feel satisfied with their craftsmanship. This school of thought opposed the idea of mass factories and supported the opening of small workshops that were often in the countryside. The situation is somewhat similar today, with the presence of mega furniture and DIY stores like IKEA producing furniture en masse, thus overshadowing little artisanal craftsmen.

Artists who followed this new movement valued the natural beauty of materials. The new fashion they set was to simplify forms and use ornaments to enhance construction in lieu of masking it. However, it goes without saying that furniture built in small workshops was more expensive; again, only a certain kind of people could afford it.

The influential designer, manufacturer and writer William Morris was an avid supporter of the Arts and Crafts Movement. It is even argued that Morris influenced the creation of this movement. Penned as an innovative decorator, he set up Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co in 1861, replacing it with Morris & Co in 1875. His firms provided all the furnishings used in his decorative schemes. He aimed to show through his work the superiority of quality handmade furniture. The simplicity in his work reflected the furniture of the 18th Century, which led to the practice of purchasing second hand furniture in antique shops.
The ‘Rossetti’ armchair (circa 1863) based on the early 19th Century French country chairs. Victoria and Albert Museum, London
Dante Gabriel Rossetti - the renowned poet, illustrator and painter, designed this armchair that was produced by Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co in 1863. Even before Morris met Rossetti, he was inspired by his visions of medieval design. The two artists met in the summer of 1857 in Oxford while painting the ceiling of a debating hall, and in 1861 Rossetti became a founding partner of Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co. 
Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co.’s most popular product however, was designed by the architect Philip Webb who was penned ‘the Father of Arts and Crafts Architecture’.
The ‘Sussex’ armchair (circa 1860) based on early country designs. Victoria and Albert Museum, London
This popular armchair was part of a range of modest furnishings available from the Morris shop. Given its over-simplistic style, it became a must-have piece in households because it was versatile, affordable and was from a famous brand: it came from Morris’s firm.
Overall, what I learned from my research visit to the Victoria & Albert museum, the online resources I consulted as well as issues raised in Victorian books regarding domesticity and appearances, is that it looks as though human history keeps repeating itself. Whenever a new social class is born and some people become more affluent, their need to boast about it arises and it makes others dream of reaching them. Some even become poorer in their pursuit. In the Victorian era, boasting meant throwing lavish parties to show off one’s house and all the opulent objects of decoration and pieces of furniture it stored. In order to match the high demand for furniture, the Victorian period saw the introduction of labour saving machinery. Unfortunately, the machinery was misused because it could not keep up and caused a serious deterioration in design and construction. Hence why artists such as Morris, Webb and Rossetti rebelled against this ‘mass consumerism’ with their artistic movement, which took furniture back to basics.

Works cited:

Beeton, I. The Book Of Household Management.

Eliot, G. Daniel Deronda. < http://www.gutenberg.org/files/7469/7469-8.txt >. 20 January 2014

Styles and Periods of Interior Designs. Victorian Furniture. <http://styles-and-periods.interiordezine.com/furniture-history/victorian-furniture/>. 10 March 2014.

Victoria and Albert Museum. Style Guide: Gothic Revival. <http://www.vam.ac.uk/content/articles/s/style-guide-gothic-revival/ >. 2 March 2014

Victoria and Albert Museum. Victorian Furniture Styles. <http://www.vam.ac.uk/content/articles/v/victorian-furniture-styles/>. 2 March 2014

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