Late Victorian Style Rebellion

While late Victorian consumers revelled in the comforts that mass production offered, designers sought the industrial craftsmanship of earlier centuries. They paved the way for the progressive styles that would influence modern furniture.

late Victorian 9ct gold cigarette case

Late Victorian 9ct gold cigarette case

Clutter, heavy curtains and deep-buttoned seats draped with antimacassars were still at the height of their popularity during the 1870s. The love of curtaining found another outlet in the massive portieres that hung at open arches between two rooms.

To most Victorians, this was the kind of living room to aspire to. Those who could find a path through the furniture admired the ornaments on display. This required fine judgement from ladies dressed in the fashionable heavy bustles of the time. Numerous souvenirs of the beloved Queen’s golden jubilee in 1887 would also populate the room.

The Start Of Arts And Crafts

Already, trendsetters declared their dislike for the ever-thickening clutter. William Morris, probably the loudest among them, undoubtedly the most influential designer of the late Victorian period. Son of a wealthy Essex businessman, he had the financial security to devote himself entirely to art. His objections to the mainstream style of the late Victorian middle classes was mainly because of manufactured goods on society.

Arts & Crafts silver pendant in blue and pink enamel, marked s & e on reverse, Birmingham 1909

Arts & Crafts silver pendant in blue and pink enamel Birmingham 1909

Manufacturing techniques involved repetitive tasks in which the worker simply contributed one small part to the final product. This worker made no individual imprint on the finished article, and so could have little pride in it. Morris argued these products had neither soul nor beauty. They also impoverished the lives of people who made them and lived among them. He searched for a new style to restore the maker’s creative role and avoid the ugly drudgery of industry.

Like the earlier Victorian Gothic Revivalists, Morris looked to the Medieval style for inspiration – but not to preserve native design or to promote Christian architecture. For him, Medieval products had a simple beauty which came from the craftsman’s fulfilment of his own ideas with his own hands. Art historian and critic John Ruskin forcefully expressed this belief, but Morris put it into practice.

Making A Modern Look From Old Themes

Large & Impressive Late Victorian Oak Cased Mantel Clock striking a gong and eight bells

Large & Impressive Late Victorian Oak Cased Mantel Clock striking a gong and eight bells

Others whose admiration of the Medieval equalled Morris’s included the architect and interior designer William Burges. Burges’s chief work was the reconstruction, for the Marquess of Bute, of Cardiff Castle, where he cleverly wove Moorish elements into the Medieval.

Charles Eastlake echoed Gothic and Tudor styles more distantly in his designs. He concentrated on suiting his style to his materials and produced a range of ruggedly simple furniture. Made from unpolished wood and joined conspicuously with pegs, sparingly carved. Eastlake’s Hints on Household Taste in Furniture, Upholstery and other Details (published 1886 and in its fourth edition by 1878), savaged the heavy naturalistic ornament and plumply stuffed furniture so beloved by his contemporaries. He promoted a more severe look – simply hung curtains, iron bedsteads and a box-like, Jacobean style of drop-end sofa called the Knole sofa, which has been a favourite in reproduction furniture ever since.

A far more distant source of style was Japan, now emerging from two centuries of self-imposed isolation. Enticing glimpses of this hidden world reached the West through the accounts of travellers, and through a growing flow of goods. These, traditional in their own design culture, had to European eyes a modern, free-flowing style that had entranced the buying public.

Love Of The Artistic Life

Artists’ lives and lifestyles fascinated people in the late 19th Century. Many modelled their own homes on an artist’s studio and the relaxed atmosphere of an artist’s house with its comfortable chairs, collections of paintings and etchings hung in tiers from a picture rail or perhaps standing on an easel, a scattering of rugs and furs, potted plants and dried flowers, collections of interesting objects, including Oriental ceramics and furniture, and antiques.

<i>Victorian ebonised Easel with carved design of birds and flowers</i>

Victorian ebonised Easel, carved design of birds and flowers

A more contrived version of this came to be the ‘Aesthetic Movement’. The Aesthetic room had a background of patterned wallpaper of the Morris kind and displayed a mass of items suggesting the owner’s connoisseur tastes. Bold figurative wallpaper, or rows of ceramics, around the frieze of the room added to the rather restless impression.

Furniture for such rooms was broadly based on Morris and Eastlake designs, but tended to be given their design features simply for effect. Display cabinets would incorporate panels of tiles, and curtains would disguise the shelves. Comfortable upholstered seat furniture might be decorated with rows of turned balusters – often stained black – beneath the arms.

Robert Edis, who wrote Decoration and Furniture of Town Houses (1881), was an important influence in the Aesthetic style. This so-called progressive furniture designed by Edis and his imitators were generally advertised as ‘Art furniture’. At first this meant handmade furniture but later manufacturers used it of any furniture, even if machine made, that was intended to appeal to buyers who claimed to have progressive tastes.

Following The Classical Thread To A Dead End

A Victorian oak framed library armchair, circa 1880

A Victorian oak framed library armchair, circa 1880

Today the Aesthetic seems unbearingly fussy and claustrophobic. By comparison, even the plush, cluttered look of mainstream Victorian tastes seems relatively calm. To the unstylish middle-class majority, progressive taste, as represented by Morris and the Aesthetes, smacked of reform and socialism.

With thanks to Reader’s Digest.

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