Early Victorian middle classes began to influence style in Britain after the regency, spending their incomes on comfortable goods. In William IV’s brief reign (1830-1837) hints of the more romantic designs to come started emerging. Prosperity boomed, thanks to factories, mines and world trade (among others), which filtered down to the growing middle class. Newly well-off people created a huge demand for goods. Wary of their own confidence in taste, they chose existing styles.
Fortunately the new machinery satisfied the increased demand. Early Victorian furniture industries went into mass-production. By the 1840s, engraved cylinders printed wallpaper onto rolls of paper. Produced cheaply enough, one-colour or two-colour printed cotton cloth became widely affordable.
Mass production changed how products were sold. In the past, craftsmen had made items specifically to order. Factories now produced nearly identical goods. For the first time, customers could visit a shop and choose from its wares.
Craftsmen, manufacturers and customers consulted catalogues and pattern books for over a century. The popularity of guides soared, advising on etiquette as well as furniture.
Manufacturers and buyers found more than one style that had already proved acceptable. As a result, the Neoclassical taste of the Regency showed in furniture and in silverware. A revival of opulent ‘Old French’ styles featured in marquetry furniture and in richly gilded Rococo-style chairs.
Patriots sought ‘Olde England’ instead, in the romanticised Gothic style described in the novels of Sir Walter Scott. Gothic style featured in railway stations, libraries, schools and notably, in the new Palace of Westminster. Trefoil, quatrefoil and lancet window shapes, and the crockets on spires translated well into furniture and silverware.
The Comforts Of An Early Victorian Home
Early Victorian society looked back disapprovingly on Georgian and Regency excesses. In contrast, it seemed very able to stomach poverty and the squalor in factories.
The middle classes concentrated on self-improvement and on the family circle, taking Queen Victoria’s family as the model. Close-knit family life in a private and comfortable setting was the house’s purpose.
Change In Materials
Early Victorian seating became very comfortable as upholstery developed. The Yorkshire woollen mills supplied affordable upholstery fabric. Buttoning often held upholstery in place. Sofas, easy chairs and ottomans had springs and padding, now with hardly any wood showing. Sofas and easy chairs had rounded backs curving to continue as arms.
The balloon-back chair had straight legs until 1850. A different style of chair was the prie-dieu, with low seat and high back. Generally fully upholstered and covered with Berlin wool work in bright colours.
A lot of furniture followed the lines of the upholstered pieces. Continuously flowing lines, every edge bevelled, there was no interruption by contrasting decoration. Mahogany was the typical wood for a piece such as a round pedestal table with a thick stem flowing into a flat trefoil or quatrefoil base. An early Victorian favourite was the whatnot, enthusiastically adopted by Victorians from about 1840. Freestanding with three or four square or rectangular shelves for ornaments.
Furniture-makers regularly used powered circular and band saws and planes. They prepared mortise joints by machine. With expensive pieces, carving and fretwork were still hand-done.
The new semi-industrial craft of papier-mâché was developed by the Birmingham company of Jennens & Bettridge. Layers of glued paper pressed onto a mould and then heat-dried in an oven until rigid. Japanning, painted flowers, gilding and inlaid mother-of-pearl hand-finished the surfaces. At first, papier-mâché items were small. As the material became more robust, it became used for desks and chairs.
Patterns And Styles Galore
Elaborate woven patterns in furnishing damasks and brocades were many. Among roller printed cottons there were some Audubon flower and bird prints and showy designs of roses and hydrangeas. Regency bright yellows, greens and scarlet continued their popularity. But by about 1840 bottle-green, crimson and other darker colours became new favourites.
In carpets, patterns became available from the power looms of carpet-weaving centres such as Kidderminster, Wilton, Axminster, Halifax, Edinburgh and Kilmarnock. From 1832 onwards, tapestry carpets became the latest style, especially the multi-coloured, profusely patterned Axminsters after 1839.
Decoration within one house was as varied as style. People considered Neoclassical, Gothic or Tudor styles for ‘masculine’ rooms, usually dining rooms or libraries. While a lighter touch suited the ‘feminine’ drawing rooms and boudoirs, like Rococo Revival.
Many people remained unaffected by fashion. Lesser bedrooms and servants’ rooms in particular. Any house of some substance had at least one live-in servant. Made for these rooms, cheap furniture included caned bedroom chairs, painted pine chests-of-drawers, and cast-iron bedsteads.
Science Has A Say On Style
Many designers believed science could help them choose successful colour combinations. Science also had its say on curtains. Medical professionals spurned swags above the curtains in concerns of dust and vermin.
Lambrequins (stiffened pelmets) hung over windows, or curtains hung on rings from poles. Roller blinds became popular – some of them painted to look like stained glass. In the bedroom, drapes around the bed reduced for the sake of hygiene. Instead, a canopy suspended from the wall or ceiling for curtains to hang at the bedhead.
Medical wisdom had nothing to say of ladies’ corsets, despite all kinds of problems. Ankle-length dresses pushed outwards with up to nine petticoats. Sleeves became a puffed leg-of-lamb shape. In the 1840s a sloping shoulder came in, emphasised by flat folds around the shoulders and down to the waist.
In contrast, Victorian Gentlemen dressed comfortably. Dark frock-coats were left unbuttoned at the waist and fastened high on the chest. High collars were lowered and had a narrow-cravat tied in a wide bow.
Cheaper Ways To High Fashion In Silver And Glass
The variety of styles in the early Victorian period also permeated the crafts. Fine silverware made in Gothic style, complete with pointed arches and tracery. However, the freer, swirling style of the Rococo Revival was more popular.
The Neoclassical acanthus leaves and vines of Regency days became more naturalistic, not just in decoration but influencing the whole form of the object.
The artistry of the silversmith was already under pressure from mass-produced items in Sheffield plate. The pressure increased with the new electroplating process patented by Elkington & Co in 1840. In Sheffield plate, the silver fused onto a copper ingot before rolling. There was a limit to the decorative work that could be done without revealing the copper core. The process was superseded by electroplating, in which unlimited decoration could be done before the piece was plated. In theory, the best design could be offered at a low price. In fact, there was a slight loss of detail in electroplate and design standards fell.
Mass production techniques reached glass during this period. Moulded glass was the new technique of the 1830s and 40s. Press-moulding – where molten glass was forced into shapes to resemble cut glass – could be carried out by semi-skilled labour and sold at prices that a wide public could afford. There were still handmade lead crystal glassware for the better-off, typically patterned with horizontal bands of diamonds, but broad fluting was also in vogue and shapes were modified from bow-sided to straight-sided cylinders to take the fluting. Engraved flowers were also popular and there was a flurry of popularity for coloured glass, including the continental style of cased glass cut through to show differently coloured layers.
Colour From The Potteries
Porcelain was in love with the Rococo during the 1830s, Coalport in particular using its asymmetric forms and scrollwork. In the 1840s relief flowers and sprays artfully applied to suit the shape of the object – often a jug. Most of the big names produced Sevres-style porcelain in the 1840s, Coalport again being in the forefront.
The Gothic idiom also appeared, in stoneware jugs for example, and Neoclassicism took over porcelain figures, which Minton and Copeland made in hard parian to resemble marble statues.
The Victorian mass market preferred the colourful, cheap, naïve figures of the Staffordshire potteries. The enamelled figures of animals and famous or infamous characters from life or fiction produced in huge quantities, especially as ‘flatbacks’ after 1840, which reduced effort and cost. These were flat at the back to stand on a shelf, not on a table.
Popular wares were still made in slipware, salt-glazed stoneware, lusterware and iron stone. Transfer-printed earthenware reached its height of appeal and all the big Staffordshire potteries made it in quantity – much of it for export. Many pieces bore real or imaginary scenes, Copeland gave their wares Rococo borders of scrollwork and leaves, and Wedgwood specialised in all-over flower patterns. Blue, black, red, purple, yellow, brown or green were now the colours for underglaze transfers until F. and R. Pratt of Fenton introduced multicolour transfers in the 1840s, to use mainly on decorative and commemorative lids for jars – known as Prattware.
Commemorative items, new production techniques and designers’ zeal were to have a glorious union in the show that launched the mid-Victorian age.
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With thanks to Readers’ Digest.