A Guide to Victorian Furniture
The reign of Queen Victoria saw an enormous growth of the British population, which more than doubled between 1812 and 1870. At the same time, the Industrial Revolution was in full swing, resulting in the appearance of an ever-increasing middle class.
Those two factors contributed to an explosion in the production of Victorian furniture -made affordable thanks to the development of machines- fuelled by a middle class eager to express its social status by cramming its homes with as much furniture as possible.
This manufacturing revolution also partly explains why Victorian furniture is so popular today: the sheer number that was produced at the time means that they are very reasonably priced antiques.
Victorian furniture as an expression of social hierarchy
The amount of Victorian furniture that one owned was seen as a sign of one’s wealth, but whether it was handcrafted or industrially produced showed indubitably how rich you really were, and everybody was trying to outdo their acquaintances.
The nouveau riche wanted to be seen as equal –or even better, superior- to the landowning aristocracy with showy pieces; the business class wanted to convey its position of authority and integrity with the patriotic themes of classical design; but neither type of Victorian furniture would have been found in average middle-class homes which favoured simpler designs, and inspired new styles.
Those many aspirations couldn’t be satisfied with a single style, which led to Victorian furniture being so eclectic and the object of many artistic and cultural influences.
The many different faces of Victorian furniture
Queen Victoria’s reign was remarkable in many ways, such as its length and the scope of economical and cultural changes that happened. The stability it procured was the right breeding ground for the birth of many different styles of Victorian furniture.
The design styles of the early part of the Victorian era were mostly elaborations of previous ones with more surface decoration, but it wasn’t long before they lost their popularity and new styles of Victorian furniture were shaped by various influences.
Victorian furniture and the Gothic revival (1830s-1880s)
This medieval design style enjoyed a revival under the Victorians in the 19th century. It is characterised by the use of religious symbolism, and Gothic Victorian furniture are usually sturdy and imposing. Furniture legs could be quite ornate, and upholstery was often in dark colours which contributed to an opulent but somewhat heavy style.
Victorian furniture and the Rococo revival (1845-1870s)
The Rococo style dated from the 18th century and was originally revolutionary in its modernity, its use of asymmetry and its lightness, as a reaction to the Baroque period before it.
Under the Victorians, it came back in fashion with motifs inspired by Nature, high-relief carvings and luxurious curves which were particularly appealing to women. Victorian furniture inspired by the Rococo revival was favoured by the middle and upper classes and widely found in the rooms that women used most, such as drawing rooms and boudoirs.
Early pieces of Rococo Victorian furniture would have been made of mahogany or walnut, while the handcrafted, high-end furniture would have used rosewood.
The Influence of Japan on Victorian furniture (1851-1900s)
Until the middle of the 19th century, Japan had remained a mystery for Europe, little being known of its culture. But in the 1850s, this was all to change when the country opened its ports to foreign trade partners and Europe discovered a completely different art they couldn’t get enough of.
Japanese style had a profound influence on the British culture, especially in the decorative arts and architecture. It inspired artists and designers to use stylised motifs based on Nature, with flowers and birds becoming very popular.
Shapes were also borrowed from Japanese art, such as circular designs based on decorative crests and geometric patterns. This led to furniture with straight lines and undecorated surfaces which were a complete departure from the busy design usual for Victorian furniture.
Techniques such as ebonising were also used to imitate Japanese lacquer, by which Victorian furniture was stained to make the timber look like black ebony.
Victorian furniture and the Renaissance revival (1860s-1890s)
The Renaissance revival abandoned the elegant curves of Rococo in favour of the complete opposite, using masculine arches, animal and human figures rather than floral motifs, and inlaid and burl panels. It was further divided into other genres such as Egyptian revival and Neo-Greek.
The Arts and Crafts Movement in Victorian Furniture (1880s-1910s)
Textile designer William Morris was one of the main figures of the Arts and Crafts movement. He was appalled by the trend of manufactured Victorian furniture of lesser quality, and started his own company to show the superiority of handcrafted furniture.
Inspired by traditional craftsmanship, Arts and Crafts Victorian furniture used simple forms and medieval or folk styles of decoration. The movement influenced Fine Arts and Decorative Furnishings until it was dethroned by Modernism in the 1930s.
Art Nouveau Style in Victorian furniture (1880s- 1910s)
The Art and Crafts movement also led to Art Nouveau, a truly original style that didn’t have its source in history, but in its surroundings. Flamboyant and often exuberant, it shocked many Victorians of the time, creating as many fans as detractors.
Art Nouveau Victorian furniture could be curvy or linear, depending on the artist. Stylised natural forms were used and the pre-Raphaelites’ influence could be seen in how the female form was used. More exotic materials were used, such as foreign timber, glass, silver and semi-precious stones.
Colours were usually understated and subtle. The rich, heavy colours that had been typical of Victorian furniture were nowhere to be seen, and replaced by mustard and olive for the greens, violet and peacock blue for the blues, brown and gold. Upholstery would feature the same motifs inspired by nature, including flowers, birds, feathers and dragonflies.
Some designers were particularly influential in the making of Victorian furniture, including Charles Rennie Mackintosh whose signature pieces were high-backed chairs in a glossy black lacquer.
Common features of Victorian furniture
With such an eclectic range of styles encompassed, the term ‘Victorian furniture’ seems a misnomer as there are, in fact, so many different styles. Yet, some features remained constant and are an unmistakable sign of Victorian furniture.
Upholstery in Victorian furniture
Sofas and armchairs were characterised by low arms scrolled at the front and luxurious buttoned upholstery which was not only on the seats but also very often on the arms. Chesterfield sofas and armchairs are a typical example of this. Late Victorian furniture saw upholstered arms abandoned, giving sofas and chairs a lighter appearance.
Chair legs of Victorian furniture
The most commonly used shapes of legs in Victorian furniture were ‘elaborate turning’, featuring several types of turnings on one leg; restrained cabriole, a cabriole leg with quite a straight shape, and the round leg, either shaped or turned.
Victorian furniture shaped by fashion
Furniture often reflects its society and it is interesting to note the influence of clothes fashion on the easy chair for example: predominantly used by ladies, easy chairs evolved without their arms, to allow for ladies skirts, which were vast under Queen Victoria.