Merit, good fortune, education and patronage, corruption and service to the nation were among the various means of advancement in early Georgian Britain. The band of people considered to belong to polite society increased to receive many from relatively humble backgrounds. Artists and architects, bankers and businessmen, as well as those born into the nobility and the landed gentry were able to join the fashionable upper set in the reigns of George I (1714-27) and George II (1727-60) and they indulged their spending urge – often to excess. This led many to ruin, but it also allowed craftsmen, designers and artists to make great reputations for themselves.
The Social Whirl of the Early Georgian at Home and Abroad
In this prosperous age, the well-to-do enjoyed a constant, extravagant round of dinners, balls, gambling and horseracing. Spending money – and being seen to spend it – was in vogue. No shame was attached to going bankrupt if it was done with style. For all its acceptance of the lowly who rose to join it, polite society liked to show itself a cut above the rest. Its absurd clothing, for example, used expensive imported fabrics to excess – fine silk, lace and high heels – even for the men – that was beyond the means of social inferiors.
Women’s oblong hooped skirts measured some 6ft (1.8m) across and men’s coat cuffs doubled back to their elbows. In early Georgian Britain no wig was too high or too heavily powdered. Fine silk, lace, and high heels – even for the men – were the order of the day. Ladies took their inspiration from aristocrats like Marie Antoinette of France or Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire.
For the wealthy Georgian man or woman about town, the highlight of the year was the London Season. The Season was a social whirl of balls, dances, theatre outings and other events designed to see and be seen. It was also the ideal place for the wealthy to find suitable matches for their offspring. This busy Social life along with business interests, attending parliament and the inconvenience of travel all made it desirable to have a house in London. A summer trip had to include a trip to a spa town, where a leader of fashion would act as master of ceremonies, as “Beau” Nash did at Bath.
And style dictated that each year, the sons of those in polite society who had finished their formal education should go to the Continent for the Grand Tour. Learning and Culture were increasingly the marks of a gentleman.
The Grand Tour lasted anything up to five years and took the young men and their tutors, to visit great houses, palaces and cities of France and Italy, to admire the ruins of antiquity and to collect trophies – imitations as well as genuine pieces of Classical sculpture, and paintings not just by masters of the past but by the very latest successful artists such as Canaletto.
A Taste of Italy
One influential young man, the Earl of Burlington, returned from his travels in Italy inspired especially by the work of the 16th century architect Andrea Palladio. Lord Burlington studied the work of Palladio’s only previous British champion, Inigo Jones before designing and building Chiswick House between 1725 and 1729 to hold his collection of art and sculpture.
Its restrained, Classical-temple style was copied in many of the town houses that now sprang up in London and in fashionable spa towns such as Bath, Tunbridge Wells and Scarborough. Terraces lining the streets and built around squares had the facades and proportions of Palladian villas.
The buildings were Classical inside as well as outside. The proportions of the rooms were based on the cube, and the measurements of columns and pilasters agreed with Classical rules – the height of a Corinthian column, for instance, is ten times its diameter. Doorways were framed with columns and pediments.
Classical restraint did not extend to the furniture, however. William Kent, a protégé of Burlington developed his own line of heavy, richly carved pieces, typified by marble topped tables on gilded pedestals of birds or female or animal figures. Kent’s furniture, essentially Baroque, set the pattern for many other designers until about 1740.
The Lighter Touch of Rococo and Chinese Style
On the Continent, the cumbersome Baroque style had – about 1730 suddenly lightened into the more delicate style known as Rococo.
The name is derived from the French rocaille, “rockwork”, and coquillage, “shell”. The style evokes rocky grottoes, and makes liberal use of scallops and garlands.
When the Rococo reached Britain after 1740, it tended to appear in graceful details – on mirror frames, girandoles (wall fixed candle holders), chimney pieces, furniture, wallpaper, textiles and ceilings.
Similarly light-hearted was the use of Chinese motifs. This exciting foreign style of porcelain, lacquer work, embroidered textiles and hand painted wallpaper imported form the Far East was the inspiration for decorating whole rooms, especially ladies bedrooms, with Chinoiserie. Chinese figures, pagodas and the long necked ho-ho birds similar to cranes found their way onto mirror frames and European porcelain. Thomas Chippendale applied this style so emphatically to a range of his furniture that it is called Chinese Chippendale.
Just as ideas from distant places were used in Chinoiserie, ideas from distant times were adapted to give a gothic touch. The pointed arches and tracery seen in medieval churches appeared on furniture – in chair backs and the glazing bars of bookcases, for example and in fake ruins built on country estates.
All these styles – Palladian, Rococo, Chinoiserie, Gothic – could be used in one house, even in one room. A variety of tasteful effects was the aim of the fashion conscious.
A Reputation Larger than Life
A joiner’s son from Otley in Yorkshire, Thomas Chippendale (1718-79) went at the age of about 20 to London, where he set up a workshop near Covent Garden market. Chippendale was never as celebrated in his day as his reputation suggests now, when he is one of only three or four British furniture makers whose names are widely known. His fame comes chiefly from his influence – indeed little so-called Chippendale furniture was actually made in his workshops.
Chippendale’s influence was established largely by “The Gentleman and Cabinet Maker’s Director”, published in 1754. This was the first catalogue by a cabinet-maker dealing exclusively with furniture. It contained some 160 designs and in effect summarised current tastes, including Chinese, Rococo and Gothic styles. Just as important for cabinet-makers was that the book showed in a practical way how they could apply fashionable detail to their work. No one style encapsulates Chippendale, but a common thread in his designs is their understanding of the wood – usually mahogany – and their union of elegance and inventiveness.
Further editions of the Director kept Chippendale in vogue. He produced some of his finest work for the designer Robert Adam and his work was known as far away as the USA, where it dominated furniture of about 1760 -85.
Adapting to Mahogany
Nature forced changes on furniture, in which solid walnut and walnut veneer had reigned supreme for some 50 years. In 1709 France suffered severe weather that killed off many of its walnut trees, In 1720 France stopped exporting walnut, and furniture-makers in Britain lost their major timber source. The Caribbean solved the problem and mahogany was imported from Jamaica, Hispaniola, Puerto Rico and Cuba from about 1730.
It was appreciated for its colour and the close grain that made it suitable for precise joinery and for carving. Many shapely pieces were made in solid mahogany, amongst them the typical Georgian armchair with wide upholstered seat, pierced splat of interlacing bands, gently curving arms, and cabriole legs with carved knees and – the emblem of early Georgian furniture – ball and claw feet.
Another typical early Georgian item is the three footed pedestal table with a round top, often with a piecrust border and hinged to swing up for the table to stand flat against a wall when not in use. The tripod pedestal was also used on kettle stands, candlestands, dumb waiters –and pole screens to shield heavy face make-up from the heat of a fire.
Tallboys and bureau bookcases, incorporating architectural forms, were topped by a pediment. Whereas in 1700 such pieces were generally given cabriole legs, now they tended to have bracket feet – low straight feet curved at the inner edge. The Rococo influence was seen in the lines and ornament of armchairs and the serpentine or bombé shapes of commodes (elaborate chests of drawers).
Silver, Ceramics & Glass
The Palladian, Rococo, Chinoiserie and Gothic styles inspired other craftsmen besides furniture makers. The best silversmiths of the age such as Paul de Lamerie, worked in all these styles. A salver might have restrained Classical-style borders and a candlestick might represent a Classical column, while a basin and ewer might bear the shells and garlands of Rococo. One dish might be engraved with Oriental figures and another be heavily chased with Gothic traceries.
Ceramics and in particular the new ranges of European porcelain from Meissen and Sevres, also showed varying styles. After many abortive attempts, Johanne Friedrich Bottger, an alchemist working in Meissen near Dresden, Germany, for the Elector of Saxony, devised a hard-paste porcelain to equal the translucent porcelain of China and Japan. A factory was set up which by 1719 was making excellent pieces, among them vases, plates and tea services with superbly painted and gilded scenes. From about 1730, Meissen made figures of people, animals and pastoral scenes that embodied the Rococo vision.
Meanwhile, France had managed to develop only a soft-paste porcelain. In 1740 a factory was set up at Vincennes, moving to nearby Sevres in 1756; it produced very fine work, usually vases, plates and other such wares – rarely figures, except the renowned biscuit figures. British craftsmen were starting to make soft-paste porcelain but were far behind the skills of the German and French.
The great English porcelain factories were soon established – set up by and for the merchants and middle classes. The Chelsea factory (1745 – 69) was noted particularly for its delightful figures and other factories were producing at Bow (1746 – 76), Derby (from 1750) and Worcester (from 1751).
Britain’s glass industry had now developed its own style – which European countries were copying. The tax by weight on English glass from 1745 encouraged makers to produce thinner glass, more suitable for engraving, which was in any case the most frequent method of decoration.
Early Georgian drinking glasses tended to have conical or trumpet bowls, skilfully engraved and set on plain or baluster stems. The stems often contained either air bubbles or opaque glass rods formed into spring like twists. A wide selection of other pieces were made, including little glasses for sweetmeats, jellies and custards, bowls and salvers, decanters and jugs. There was some shallow cutting – of faceted diamonds, for example – on glass chandeliers.
Dressing the Floors, Widows and Walls
There were well made knotted carpets from Axminster, Kidderminster and Wilton, but they were more expensive than imported Oriental carpets. Many rooms had fitted carpets made of broad strips and a border sewn together; or floors might be painted or spread with “floorcloths” of canvas painted with a design or simply with black and white squares.
Curtains were also now more elaborate, in the early Georgian period the festoon was the most popular form, but pairs of curtains drawn to the centre were becoming more common. Popular fabrics were lightweight, with delicate rococo designs printed using a new copperplate process.
Rich fabrics were still used to decorate walls. They were not broken up into panels as before but stretched across the whole wall, or at least down to the dado. Wooden panelling painted white, stone or, sometimes olive-green was also used.
Block printed wallpapers were now much cheaper than textile hangings. Flock paper imitating Italian silk velvet was considered highly desirable. Papers with chiaro-oscuro (light and shade) effects imitated Classical niches with statues, and Rococo designs included medallions enclosing landscapes. Some designs with sprays of flowers on plain grounds were of a kind that is still popular today.
Pictures of the Age
Paintings in gilded frames were increasingly a part of the décor, some of them collected on the Grand Tour. Family portraits were much in vogue too, keeping popular artists such as Sir Joshua Reynolds busy. During a long career, Reynolds was eventually to paint some 2000 portraits, characteristically showing the sitters in their best light.
Quite a different style of painting came from William Hogarth – no flattery from him. He portrayed mercilessly the ills and absurdities of a London where crime, drunkenness, debauchery and disease were rife. This was an age in which many a lord made himself a beggar by his extravagance. Sir Robert Walpole (Prime Minister 1721 – 42) could spend more than £1200 on the trimmings for a state bedroom while the annual wage of a farm labourer was £30.
Early Georgian society was shot through with excesses for all its efforts at refinement. But refinement was coming, and was to be the hallmark of the Late Georgian period.
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With thanks to Reader’s Digest