The Celebration Of Industry

The image of mid-Victorian style remains a sombre drawing room with red wallpaper, heavy curtains and thickly upholstered seating. Ornaments and knick-knacks fill every available surface.

Mid-Victorian style is often dismissed as lack of style. As it had no single vision, it embraced many styles with eclectic enthusiasm. So many unrelated elements became a recognisable look, the cluttered effect deliberate. It expressed the first style to reflect the taste of the broad middle band of society.

Consumers found the latest goods in retail shops, catalogues and the series of trade fairs held in the late 1840s. The Great Exhibition of 1851 opened the mid-Victorian years on a high note of excitement about design and production.

Styles Books And Catalogues: Advising And Tempting The Public

Regency times saw the birth of books that informed current furnishing taste, from furniture to carpets and paint schemes. Improvements in printing presses, typesetting, and the repeal of paper tax helped produce more books for an eager market.

Victorian leather-bound designer pattern books, sold at Ryedale's for £7,100.00

Victorian leather-bound designer pattern books, sold at Ryedale’s for £7,100.00

All manner of tradesmen issued extensive catalogues. The new retail stores advertised their stock in catalogues, soliciting orders from all over the country and beyond. People became very well informed of new products and changing fashions.

The beautiful mid-Victorian engravings of products, methodically arranged by category, speak of the Victorian love of order. But the bewildering diversity of goods also accounts for the period’s crammed rooms with no coherent style.

A Design Spectacular

‘The Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations’ was the brainchild of Prince Albert, and Henry Cole. It aimed ‘To present a true test and living picture of the point of development at which the whole of mankind has arrived.’

And so it did. Everything technical skill could produce gathered into a massive display in London’s Hyde Park in the Crystal Palace. The specially built glass and metal giant was designed by Joseph Paxton, named by the magazine Punch.

14,000 exhibitors, half from foreign countries and half from Britain and its colonies featured their wares. The exhibits ranged from agricultural implements to the glass fountain in the centre of the 1500 ft (457m) long building. There were fire engines and coffee services, furniture and cast-iron fireplaces, clocks and church vessels. Ingenuity knew no bounds. An extravagant forerunner of the Swiss army knife had more than 80 instruments. A rubberised cape could inflate with pocket-sized bellows to become a canoe.

Manufacturing became the main focus of the exhibition. Between May 1 and October 11, 6 million visitors saw the exhibition.

Novelty Above All

Endlessly discussed, in the long term the exhibitions influenced design, manufacture and fashion throughout the nation. And yet, the great show didn’t capture the style of its age. The closest it came was in its zest for novelty.

Some novelties were ingenious without being gimmicks, such as the screw mechanism on adjustable piano stools and extending tables.

<i>Victorian Pair of Brass and Cast Iron Inkwells</i>

Victorian Pair of Brass and Cast Iron Inkwells

Manufacturers keen to prove industrial techniques could better traditional skills piled ornament onto everything with little attention to proportion. Such exhibits were not typical of the goods generally on sale.

Paradoxically, craftsmen working against industrialisation pushed ornament towards excess to prove better than mass production. William Cookes and James Morris Willcox made massive sideboards that dripped with deeply carved sculptures of allegorical figures and scrollwork.

There were also some imaginative attempts to press new materials to old uses. Shellac and gutta-percha moulded into inkstands and picture frames to compete with carved wood and papier-mâché. These materials didn’t become popular until there were telephones and gramophone records to make use of them.

‘Tons upon tons of unutterable rubbish’ William Morris’s verdict on the exhibitions. Mid-Victorian design was at a crossroads. Thrust into a new era by technology, new forms weren’t yet developed to adapt. It fumbled in the basket of styles  recycled for the last 500 years.

Heavy-Handed Décor

Victorian Gothic style carved oak hall stand with box seat and mirror

Victorian Gothic style carved oak hall stand

Cosy family life remained the aim of mid-Victorians. Comfortable furnishings remained a priority, but everything now had a heavier look and showed more wood. Furniture also bore fancy carving or fretwork. The front legs of the graceful balloon-back chairs elaborated into carved cabrioles. Cabinets and sideboards were massive and ornately decorated. Precisely detailed images from nature were popular in all design fields. Fabrics, carpets, and wallpaper bore huge tropical flowers, ferns or large-leaved plants. As well as realistic scenes with people in them, even royal portraits. Although impressively executed, the patterns overwhelmed the room.

All types of seating crowded drawing rooms. The parlour suite was introduced – a matching suite of settee, two armchairs and up to ten ‘parlour chairs’. Screens also featured: cheval screens in the 1850s and multi-panel folding screens in the 1860s. Drawing-room furniture might also include japanned and gilded papier-mâché chairs, set with mother-of-pearl. Perhaps even a romantic landscape on the back splat. The period introduced corner whatnots, often fitted with fretwork rims, mirrors at the back and plush covers on the shelves. House plants populated rooms. Aspidistras in particular, referred to as ‘cast-iron plants’ for their tolerance of dingy rooms and the fumes of gas-lamps. Plants set on wooden, majolica or terracotta stands or on marble-topped console tables. When ferns became the rage in the 1860s, they were displayed on pedestals trimmed with ormolu and circled by a brass gallery.

Setting The Scene For Family Meals

Heavy furniture in the dining room was practical and popular. A large, sturdy table accommodated the numerous family members for meals of five or more courses. The chairs were robust to survive their lengthy use. A showpiece of current taste, the sideboard curved in and out at the front, fussy with mouldings, glossily varnished. A large back mirror and an intricately carved, curved top frame also featured.

Mid Victorian Solid Silver Figural Centrepiece by James Charles Edington

Mid Victorian Solid Silver Figural Centrepiece by James Charles Edington

The demand for bone china rose, usually Sèvres-style or flowery Minton, Copeland or Royal Worcester, as well as drinking glasses. Cut glass went briefly out of style as coloured and engraved glass became the fashion.

Ferns became the most popular engraved motif of the 1860s, but the Greek key pattern also became common after John Northwood invented a machine to engrave it in 1865.

The table also held glass dessert dishes, candleholders, fruit baskets, and little blue or red salt-dishes cased in pierced silver or electroplate. Showy glass or silver centrepieces dangled dishes of nuts and dragées.

The way of serving meals changed in the 1850s. Instead of carving dishes on the dining table, the side table now had that purpose. As a result, the damask tablecloth now remained clean enough to stay in place throughout the meal, no longer removed before dessert. The table offered a new field for dressing up – for example with menu and place cards in china or silver holders, posy pots at each place, and finger bowls set upon fancy doilies on dessert plates.

On The Fringes

Two Rolls of Brocade Fabric woven with coral, pale orange, blue and green sprays of flowers

Two Rolls of Brocade Fabric woven with coral, pale orange, blue and green sprays of flowers

The generous use of textiles played a large part in the cluttered style. Pelmet-like hangings featured on the mantle shelf, to add to the abundance of fabric already in rooms on tables and pianos, braiding and fringing everywhere. Chimneypieces had curtains, which were open when the fireplace was in use. Even the chain of the chandelier and the picture cords might have a fabric cover. All the textiles matched or coordinated in colour – frequently a wine red or deep green – creating a sumptuous but dark effect. Fireplaces were usually white marble, but mottled green and red marble were also common.

Dark walls, probably papered, usually covered with a mass of gilt-framed pictures and mirrors above the dado rail. Below the dado the wall might be covered in a tough paper to withstand knocks from furniture, and painted a dark colour such as brown. This paper became embossed to look like Spanish leather wall hangings and later sold under various names including Lincrusta and Anaglypta. People considered white too harsh for choice of ceiling colour, and in any case gas lighting or petroleum lamps would discolour the light paint. To imitate mahogany, doors were painted a deep reddish brown and grained.

Machine-Made And Homemade Treasures

Ornaments and knick-knacks crowded every surface. Some homemade, the result of the family’s female members keeping

<i>Mid-Victorian Hand Painted Cast Iron Figural Inkwell In The Form of a Large Terrier Dog</i>

Hand Painted Cast Iron Figural Inkwell In The Form of a Large Terrier Dog

themselves busy –people regarded idleness as close to moral turpitude. The ladies made arrangements of wax flowers and fruits to sit under protective glass domes. They created pictures from feathers or shells, painted vases, decorated wooden plaques with poker work, embroidered Berlin-wool work covers for footstools and workboxes, diligently stitched together patchwork for cushion covers, and crocheted antimacassars.

Victorians chose ready-made ornaments for a variety of reasons. An immense range of machine-made ornaments became available, some exact replicas of valuable antiques (such as ancient Classical statues in cast bronze). Some objects were comparatively new, or at least newly affordable by the mass market, such as electroplated inkstands, transfer-printed pots, millefiori paperweights and Tunbridge-ware boxes.

New Inventions In Photography

Among the truly new arrivals came portrait photographs in velvet-lined cases and cartes de visite. Photography had a profound effect on fashion and on the Victorians’ self-image.

Victorian brass and black painted metal magic lantern projector, with a variety of slides

Victorian brass and black painted metal magic lantern projector

The stereo card, another mid-Victorian photographic novelty, introduced in the 1850s. Two mounted photos taken from a slight distance from each other create a stereoscopic effect when looked at through a special viewer. By 1858, the London Stereoscopic Company offered for edification and amusement of all the family a choice of 100,000 images, from landscapes to scenes of knockabout comedy.

The equivalent of a Victorian man cave – the smoking room – where men retired with cigars after dinner, contained as much clutter as the drawing room, but with an emphasis on hunting trophies and sporting and military memorabilia. The library or writing room was another a retreat for the gentlemen, too. Its large pedestal desk arrayed with glass, electroplate or brass inkpot, pen tray, blotter, stationery holder and paperweights was indispensable.

The heavy, round, pedestal table sometimes called a loo table usually resided in the library – although not necessarily used for loo or other card games. The 1850s loo table had a pedestal flowing uninterrupted into the curves of the legs. In the 1860s the pedestal often divided into several separate columns and the round top stretched to an oval.

Victorian mahogany kneehole desk with shaped front

Victorian mahogany kneehole desk with shaped front

The fussy look also edged into the ladies’ domains – the morning room or parlour, and the boudoir. A lighter colour scheme featured, with cream or pastel shade in the wallpaper, upholstery and curtains. The tables and writing desk, perhaps with painted panels or with insets of flowery imitation Sèvres, held many trinkets.

Hygiene in the bedroom

The bedroom, like the boudoir, had a lighter feel and tended to be more simply and sparsely furnished. Apart from the bed, there would be a bedside table, dressing table, perhaps an easy chair or two, and some lighter chairs. From about 1860 these often included the new bentwood chairs with slender, rounded frames, outcurved legs and cane seats. There was also a washstand; even well-to-do families would only have one bathroom, if that, and many people still washed and bathed in the bedroom using basins and hip-baths filled with jugs of water brought by a servant.

Mid-Victorian theories of hygiene approved of free circulation of air in the bedroom – and since this was where the sick stayed and where the numerous babies were born, it was a reasonable view to take. Accordingly, draperies reduced and curtains had thinner fabrics. Half-tester beds were still made, but generally there was a move to uncurtained iron and brass bedsteads. Knick-knacks could not be resisted entirely, despite the care for hygiene, so there would be a sprinkling of toilet accessories, a ring stand, glove box, hatpin cushion, fans, and boxes for powder, brooches and ribbons. Made of glass or flowery china, or of wood covered with ivory or mother-of-pearl, which became very popular in the 1850s.

A Louis XVI Style Inlaid Table à Écrire

A Louis XVI Style Inlaid Table à Écrire

French delicacies and medieval fantasies

Two mid-Victorian fashioned rejected the smothering cosiness. One, inspired by France, where nostalgia for the furniture of Louis XVI had produced a mishmash of pre-Revolutionary styles with a sprinkling of the brass or ormolu used in the Empire style. In Britain designers imitated this vogue, and rooms decorated with white and gold paper held delicate French-style furniture decked with veneers and marquetry of woods such as satinwood, amboyna and purpleheart. Pottery manufacturers, notably Minton and Coalport, produced close copies of Sèvres, while the Worchester Royal Porcelain Company produced high-quality ‘Limoges ware’.

Mid-Victorian Gothic Revivalists

<i>Victorian Gothic chairs set with heavily carved back panels </i>

Victorian Gothic chairs set with heavily carved back panels

Newly rich magnates chose the Gothic style for their country mansions because it suggested an ancestry steeped in history, an illusion of medievalism. The ancient look in furnishing widened to embrace ‘Jacobethan’ (Elizabethan and Jacobean) features. This was both in genuine Tudor panelling and furniture and in its newly produced imitations.

The Pre-Raphaelites Holman Hunt, John Everett Millais and Dante Gabriel Rossetti imitated early Italian painters. They used heightened colour and painstaking detail to create distinctive, romantic work.

Buildings in Gothic style had luminous interiors, with dark gilded wallpaper, and décor based on a vivid main colour backed by two or three contrasting colours. Many of the new suburban terraces had designs on outside walls of red, yellow and blue or purple bricks. The hall floor laid with encaustic tiles in which the colour was applied as a clay slip and fused to the tile body in a second firing; these were used to make complex geometric patterns.

In his encyclopaedia The Grammar of Ornament (1856), Owen Jones set out his theory of decoration. Principle number six asserts that: ‘Beauty of form is produced by lines growing out one from the other in gradual undulations: there are no excrescences; nothing could be removed and leave the design equally good or better.’

This concept of beauty demonstrates the mistake of mid-Victorian design, where a good deal could be removed without loss. The opinions of Jones and others who disliked current style led the revolt that stirred up radically new ideas about design in the late Victorian period.

With thanks to Reader’s Digest.

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