Baroque Style and The Restoration – When Charles II of England was re-instated as king in 1660, he and his courtiers had experienced a taste for the luxurious style of life they had briefly shared in exile in the royal households of Europe and especially at the highly extravagant court of his cousin, The Sun King – Louis XIV of France.
Britain’s upper classes began to relax after the tough, joyless years of Cromwell’s Protectorate. They indulged in lavish comforts in the home, sensuous clothing and enjoyment of the arts, theatre entertainment, horseracing and gaming tables.
With government and monarch now in harmony, new banking, investment and insurance organisations grew to fund commerce and the nation prospered. Overseas trade grew and London was rapidly becoming the greatest port in the world, bringing in spices, tea, coffee, chocolate, pineapples, Oriental porcelain and lacquer work, cane, tortoiseshell, ivory, rugs and Indian chintzes.
This basic order and prosperity lasted through the Restoration years and, in 1688, proved sound enough to survive the ousting of Charles IIs Roman Catholic successor James II. It continued throughout the reigns of James’s two daughters – Mary, who ruled jointly with her Dutch husband William of Orange, and Queen Anne –and was ruffled only briefly when the succession of George I, a prince of Hanover, outraged the Jacobites who had wanted a Stuart to be king. During these affluent times the band of people who could afford such luxuries widened.
They wanted not only more goods but skilled craftsmanship and sophisticated French style- and just by chance, this demand coincided with a massive immigration of French Huguenots who were fleeing persecution in France. Some 50,000 Huguenots came to Britain, among them skilled workers of all kinds, but in particular silk weavers and silversmiths.
The Drama of Baroque
The most striking development of style during the Restoration period was the use of curvaceous decoration to produce drama, tension, exuberance, and grandeur in sculpture, painting, architecture, literature, dance, theatre, and music. The look was known as Baroque and it arose from Italian, Spanish and German influences, and was abundantly displayed in the grandeur that surrounded Louis XIV of France. Baroque used classical motifs such as floral swags, cornucopias, fruit, helmets, nymphs, amorini (winged cupids) and scallops. These were very boldly executed and tended to be overpowering in their flamboyance. On furniture, the wood was often deeply carved, covered with gesso – a mixture of plaster of Paris and glue – and gilded.
In Britain, the taste for Baroque that seized the court was slower to reach the rest of the country, where many still preferred austere marble floors, oak chests and high-backed chairs.
But Baroque curves were to prove irresistible and were reflected in a new look in furniture. Walnut, mostly imported from France, now began to replace oak, and walnut veneer made decoration possible without carving. Patterns found in burrs and root wood were used to advantage. Strips cut across the grain were used for crossbanding along edges, and marquetry created floral designs from the differing colours of walnut, rosewood, sandalwood, box and sycamore.
The taste for curves also embraced the legs. Transformed, first with a scroll or hoof foot and then with a projecting knee, it was eventually simplified into the well know cabriole – a leg with a gentle S curve, wide and carved at the knee. Light, yet strong enough for tables and tallboys as well as chairs and footstools, it was the start of an era of shapeliness and delicacy.
Comfort was now a major consideration, loose pads and cushions were replaced by fixed upholstery in lavish fabrics such as brocades, silks, velvet and embroidery. The upholstered armless chair evolved to one with full back and arms and by the 1690s to the wing armchair with the cabriole leg being the only wood on show.
Furniture was designed with particular needs in mind, gate-legged and drop-flap tables, card tables, kneehole desks and dressing tables, escritoires, glass fronted display cases, corner cupboards and drop fronted writing desks.
Silver and Science
In keeping with the changes taking place in polite society (stylish people couldn’t possibly be seen tearing food apart with their hands!), late 17th century diners now had forks to match their silver spoons and silver handled knives.
Other new silver tableware included centrepieces, sauceboats and soup tureens, breadbaskets, teapots, coffee pots and chocolate pots, kettles and stands for the tea table, and little trays for spoons. Many pieces bore embossed and repousse work or engraved floral decoration.
Aristocrats whose possessions had been sold during the Civil War or seized during the Commonwealth needed to set themselves up in style, as did the merchants now growing rich from booming trade. They wanted plates and dishes, tankards and mugs – and toilet sets including glue pots, patch and powder boxes, bowls for lotions and ointments and candlesticks. Elaborate silver wall sconces for candles became status symbols.
Huguenot silversmiths benefited from the demand, they excelled at exuberant Baroque ornament, and the new purer silver that became the legal standard in 1697 was heavier, softer and better for their method of casting ornament to apply separately to an item.
Gradually though elegance of line rather than fussy ornament was appreciated.
Homemade Glass and Exotic Porcelain
By 1676 English businessman George Ravenscroft had developed a method of making clear lead crystal glass, a breakthrough that allowed a British glass industry to compete with imported Venetian glass.
The new glass was not as runny as Venetian glass in its liquid state and it could not be blown as thin, so styles were adapted to suit it. Wine-glass stems, were sturdy but graceful balusters and a bubble of air in the stem was a poplar decoration.
Particularly coveted were products of the workshop that George Villiers, 2nd Duke of Buckingham, had opened in 1663. It made silvered glass and created a huge market for mirrors. Only the development of cast glass in about 1700 made it possible to satisfy demand.
In pottery too, more home-produced wares became available. Earthenware covered with cream and coloured slips, or with a tin glaze that fired to a white background for the brightly painted decoration of delftware. But none of it equalled the translucent but tough and cheap white Chinese porcelain painted with dragons, birds and flowers in blue or polychrome.
Imitation of Oriental blue and white ware was the seed of the boom in the delftware industry in both England and Holland during the 17th and 18th centuries. William of Orange brought with him from Holland a taste for delftware (as well as for bulbs).
William’s wife Queen Mary, was a keen collector of Chinese and Japanese porcelain – one of many who collected not just blue and white but the more colourful and expensive famille-vert, which the Chinese made for export from the late 17th century. Pieces of furniture, and even whole rooms, were designed for displaying this precious porcelain.
This gathering of objects of antiquity, curiosity and beauty was to grow even more during Georgian times.
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