<i>A late Georgian mahogany writing/reading table</i>

A late Georgian mahogany writing/reading table

A marked change in decorative style coincided with the start of George III’s reign in 1760. Not that the devout, industrious 22-year-old king had much to do with the change. He became a cultured and devoted family man with an interest in science, but he was no society leader.

People of consequence living in quite grand houses, usually in the country still set fashion and style. Some were not born to titles or land but gained wealth through trade and manufacturing, or marriage. Sons of the gentry readily married merchants’ daughters.

The Classical world still had influence on style, but new windows had opened on that world. Excavations at Herculaneum (from 1748) and Pompeii (from 1758) revealed rich interiors, and delicate, symmetrical decorative motifs.

Late Georgian Style

Furniture became slender and clean-lined, and carving gave way to delicate inlaid and painted Adam-style motifs. Silver used the same motifs. Glass was engraved, cut, coloured and gilded. Derby and Worcester porcelain and Wedgwood creamware and jasperware were big successes. Sheffield plate silver and transfer printed pottery became available. Superb craftsmanship marked the age.

Louis XV and Louis XVI
<i> French rosewood Vernis Martin and brass mounted display cabinet of Louis XV design</i>

French rosewood Vernis Martin and brass mounted display cabinet of Louis XV design

Under the sway of his favourites and mistresses, notably Madame de Pompadour, Louis XV (reigned 1710 – 1774) was a spendthrift patron of craftsmen. They worked in the Rococo style, producing exceptionally well-finished and ornate furniture, mirrors, ormolu clocks, Aubusson tapestries and Sèvres porcelain. Included in the furniture were marquetry-work bombé chests, delicate writing tables and bedroom suites. As well as settees and chairs set on cabriole legs and upholstered in silk or tapestry.

Louis XVI (reigned 1774-1792) continued the self-indulgent extravagance and neglect of political reform. It took him to the guillotine after the French Revolution. While he ruled, luxurious richness prevailed in style. Even when Neoclassical straight lines ousted the Rococo curves and scrolls, lavish ornament gave a sumptuous effect.

French influence in late Georgian Britain was less than usual. Indeed the keynote of restraint in Britain contrasted with opulent French design. Hepplewhite, Sheraton and Robert Adam picked up French styles for a rich effect, and by Henry Holland in his work for the Prince of Wales (later the Regent).

Adam’s Neoclassical Style

Chief creator of the Neoclassical style in Britain was the architect and designer Robert Adam, ambitious son of a leading Scottish architect. He studied the major known Classical sites during his Grand Tour (1750-4), and came back with his own distinctive vision of Classical decoration.

<i>Chalk Plaster Figure 'Diana At Her Bath' 19th century neoclassical figure</i>

Chalk Plaster Figure ‘Diana At Her Bath’ 19th century neoclassical figure

His most characteristic design element was chains of Classical motifs. These included garlands of flowers and husks, palmettes (palm leaves), anthemions (honeysuckle flowers), round and oval paterae (plaques), urns and cameos. Pale pastel walls and ceilings or low-relief plaster or Papier-mâché then featured the designs. Frequently inset with medallions painted in intense colours and depicting landscapes or Classical figures.

In partnership with his younger brother James, Adam employed teams of skilled craftsmen. Some were famous names such as the painters Angelica Kauffmann and her husband Antonio Zucchi, and the plasterer Joseph Rose.

The Adam brothers transformed many houses in London, Edinburgh and elsewhere with new façades and coordinated designs for entire rooms or suites. Robert Adam designed furniture, carpets to echo the ceiling decoration, and even upholstery materials.

Inspiration for furniture came from contemporary French design as well as from Classical sources. Paint, marquetry and mouldings decorated typical Adam furniture. Pieces generally had a rectangular look – but many chests of drawers after 1775 had a curved front.

Leading London furniture makers eagerly followed Adam style, and Chippendale did some of his best designs for Adam rooms. When The Works in Architecture of Robert and James Adam, Esquires, published in several volumes from 1773 on, architects and craftsmen throughout the country copied the style. However, a great deal of the imitation was inferior.

Silverware, pottery, glass and jewellery as well as furniture took up the theme. Adam style was dominant from about 1760 to 1785. Ideal for smaller houses, where Rococo was overpowering, confined mostly to details such as mirrors.

From Decoration to Form

During the 1780s, a more serious scrutiny of Classical design made the later Adam style seem fussy and superficial. Gothic style and Chinoiserie were also reappraised and the Romantic movement was burgeoning. The strongest change was away from decoration towards refinement of form.

George Hepplewhite and Thomas Sheraton both designed furniture that truly refined the form. Their most successful pieces of furniture depended on clear, elegant lines. As well as the effective use of the colours and patterning of the woods for veneers, stringing and crossbanding. Timbers came from all over the world, among them tulipwood, rosewood and zebrawood from Brazil, thuya from Africa, calamander from Ceylon and blond satinwood from the West Indies.

The fragile look of the typical designs – notably in chairs and the proliferating tables such as Pembroke tables, breakfast tables and card tables – belies a robust structure based on extremely skilful craftsmanship.

Hepplewhite and Sheraton

Synonyms for Elegance

There is little information on George Hepplewhite, except that he trained in Lancaster, worked in London from about 1760 and died in 1786. Two years later, his widow published his Cabinet-Maker and Upholsterer’s Guide. The 300 illustrations show the adaptability of fashionable lines and Adam-style motifs. Some of the more elaborate, French-influenced styles are ‘French Hepplewhite’, but more typical is simple and light furniture.

Best known for elegant chairs with straight, tapering legs and oval, heart-shaped or, especially, shield-shaped backs. Furniture-makers all over the country used the guide, and continued to use it long after its designs were out of vogue in London.

<i>An Edwardian Sheraton style mahogany demi-lune cabinet</i>

An Edwardian Sheraton style mahogany demi-lune cabinet

When the highly decorative Adam style waned in the 1780s, the man who encapsulated the new taste was Thomas Sheraton (1751-1806). This leading light of British furniture design, who also wrote philosophical tracts and was a Baptist preacher, died in poverty. Despite being a trained cabinetmaker, no definite proof exists if he made any.

Sheraton’s three-part Cabinet-Maker and Upholsterer’s Drawing-Book (pub. 1791-4), includes echoes of contemporary Louis XVI design and Chinoiserie, but its core is designs of elegant Neoclassical taste. Distinguished by its delicate appearance, Sheran-style furniture often features tables with tall, slender legs tapering down to spade feet. All superficial ornament stripped away to emphasize straight lines. Skilful veneering and stringing feature, rather than by ornate marquetry or carving.

Taxing times for glass

Throughout the period, craftsmen continued to make furniture by hand – with the help from machinery coming in the 1790s. Glass too was still handmade. The major changes of this period were to make the most of the sparkle of British lead crystal, and to create a new style of chandelier. Twinkling festoons of cut-glass drops transformed the ungainly curving glass branches imitating older wooden chandeliers.

After the glass tax weight in 1745, a greater amount of thinner glassware was made to engrave rather than cut. Also enamelled with flowers, birds and figures and highlighted with gilding. Bristol, London, Newcastle, Warrington and Staffordshire made pieces in this fashion.

Still admired as decoration, drinking glasses, decanters and cruets were deep-cut with triangles and diamonds. When the tax by weight on glass increased in 1777, cut glass prices rose again. A flatter style of cutting, producing broad fluting, was used more and deep cutting was used less. Many skilled cutters went to Ireland where glass was not taxed.

Craft Versus Industry In Porcelain and Pottery

Although hand skills continued, science and technology were advancing on all fronts. Pottery and porcelain were soon to prove a field for industrialisation. While British factories could not yet match Meissen and Sèvres, attractive and popular pieces were made. Highly decorated soft-paste porcelain figures still made by Chelsea (for tables, mantelshelves and cabinets), now with coloured and gilded scrolls instead of the earlier mounds forming the base.  Tiny figures known as ‘toys’ held scent, needles and bonbons. To appeal to a mass market, Staffordshire potteries made Earthenware figures and Toby jugs.

<i>A Wedgwood blue Jasperware urn shaped pot pourri and other similar items</i>

A Wedgwood blue Jasperware urn shaped pot pourri and other similar items

Chelsea also made vases and teawares with painted panels on richly coloured grounds. Derby Porcelain Company was making fine figures and tablewares, and around the late 1760s it absorbed the ailing Chelsea and Bow factories. The Worchester company excelled in porcelain vases and tableware, using every fashionable style and becoming noted especially for blue fish-scale-patterned grounds. Worchester also made numerous wares with transfer-printed pastoral and Classical scenes in black, red, purple blue or sepia.

It was with tableware that Josiah Wedgwood made his first impact. Born into a Staffordshire family of potters, Wedgwood had practical experience, but he also had a pioneering spirit and a keen nose for business. Tea had become the regular drink of all classes and Wedgwood’s Queen’s Ware exploited the huge market for inexpensive teawares.

Next Wedgwood developed a fine, hard, black stoneware – basaltes – and then the Classically inspired jasperware. He used it for a wide variety of objects, practical and decorative – urns, dishes, pots for the dressing table, buttons, bracelets, furniture plaques, and even souvenir portrait cameos.

Wedgwood adopted industrial methods to produce more goods at lower prices, but he also pursued customers among the rich and powerful (including Queen Charlotte and the Empress of Russia) to gain prestige for his products. By the end of his life, his pottery exported worldwide.

Hard Times for Solid Silver

Matthew Boulton was a man with inventive zest to match Wedgwood’s. He started out in Birmingham with a workshop-based company making metal buttons, buckles and the like and, by exploiting new techniques and inventions ended up with a huge industry.

Boulton developed an industrial process for making ormolu objects and high-quality mounts that the best cabinet makers used. He also used factory methods to increase the production of Sheffield plate. Invented in 1742 by Thomas Bolsover, fusing a thin layer of silver on top of a copper ingot before rolling. Its use grew greatly after 1758 when Joseph Hancock developed a lapped edge, which hid the copper. Many items were made in the plate, those for food being tinned inside until the 1760s when copper was coated with silver on both sides.

<i>A part canteen of silver plated cutlery, various patterns to include Old English pattern and others</i>

A part canteen of silver plated cutlery, various patterns to include Old English pattern

Suddenly a huge range of items previously made from solid silver – such as tankards, teapots, coffee pots, snuffboxes, inkwells, candlesticks and cake baskets – sold at a third of the price of silver. Many silversmiths fell upon hard times, although the best craftsmen still found a market for beautifully produced work.

The style of the day particularly lent itself to factory-production methods. Symmetrical shapes based on the circle, oval (often angled into a hexagon or octagon) and square. Teapots were in these shapes, with C-scroll handles and straight spouts. Sugar bowls, tureens and salt cellars were of shallow urn shape, with domed lids and graceful upward sweeps towards the handles. Classical motifs decorated pieces, mostly in relief but sometimes in the shallow faceted bright-cut engraving that sparkles more than deep cuts.

In cutlery, the fork now had four prongs. Fork and spoon handles, previously curved up at the end, now curved down – the style known as Old English – and the pieces laid on the table with prongs and bowls face up (not down as before); crests engraved the new upper side. Handles edged with a feathering, bead or thread pattern and decorated with bright-cut engraving.

Cheaper Hardware and Fabric

There were other metal goods that were much cheaper than silver. In 1770 James Emerson made a more golden-looking brass that was easy to work and widely used for candlesticks and desk furniture, and for the glass-chimney oil lamps that gave a light much brighter than candles could give.

Copper was mainly for kitchenware and for warming pans, which from the 1770s held water, not embers. Iron canisters, trays and other small items japanned to look like Oriental lacquer work. From about 1790, pewter was used for Britannia metal wares. Thinly rolled sheets shaped by spinning (pressed against turning wooden moulds), produced cheaper pewter articles than casting and hand-finishing, and allowed pewter to compete with mass-produced ceramics.

As the century neared its end, lower-cost factory production was dominating textiles, including those for curtains, bed hangings and upholstery. Plain satin, watered silk, subdued velvet, damask, cotton, and small all-over patterns were popular. Eye-catching designs were out of keeping with the light and delicate styles of the walls and furniture. Carpets were more boldly coloured and heavily patterned than fabrics but still harmonised with the room decoration.

Fun and Fashion

With plenty of money made in manufacturing, in the colonies or in trading abroad, people were extravagant spenders on amusements. They gambled wildly, not just with cards, dice and gaming but on horses, fighting cocks and prize fighting men. Nor did they stint on clothing.

The lighter look spread to clothing, with both men’s and women’s fashions narrowing and fitting closer to the body. Men’s coats, woollen for day, rich velvets or silks for evening, were narrow and had a cutaway front below the waist. After 1780 they were usually double-breasted and had a high, fold-over collar. Worn over tight breeches, they buckled at the knee.

Men wore powdered wigs, puffed high at the front with sausage-like curls at the ears or hanging in a bunch at the back. Women’s hair styles grew immense with the hair raised over pads to give great height and curled into fat rolls at the back and sides.

Women liked to wear French silks and French styles. Their skirts slimmed down and had a bustle effect at the back, while puffy bodices exaggerated the bust. When the war with France (after the French Revolution of 1789) made imported silks harder to get and dearer, the ladies took to Indian cottons.

The fashionable clothes for men and women looked best on a youthful figure – and high society now had a young set making pace. Increasingly the limelight fell on the stylish Prince of Wales and his circle, whose tastes were to pervade the Regency period.

A late Georgian Library

Setting aside a room of one’s house for books was an idea that developed slowly from the later 17th century onward. Before that, people had few books and were usually kept in the closet or cabinet. There were outstanding exceptions, however, such as the celebrated diarist Samuel Pepys, who had a library lined with bookcases built especially to hold his collection of books.

Books became markedly cheaper during the 18th century and the fashion for book collections grew. The drawing room had taken over the social role of the closet, and the small paintings, sculptures, scientific instruments and curios a man would once have kept there were now kept in the library. This room remained a retreat for the man of the house, where he could read and write away from the hubbub of the public rooms.

With thanks to Readers’ Digest.

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