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Antique English Furniture Styles



TUDOR: Elizabeth I to James I (1558-1603)

Oak was in use for furniture during the reigns of the Tudors, and for most of the seventeenth century as well. It is a heavy and strong wood, which grew plentifully in England but was imported also, and the furniture made from it is both weighty and durable. Being a hard wood it is not easy to carve, although it can be decorated with inlay. On the whole, the hardness of oak determined the styles in which it was made and ornamented, and in spite of the difficulty of working the timber surprisingly elaborate carving and inlay was carried out. Construction was simple: the mortice and tenon joint held fast with a wooden peg, or dowel. The most noticeable feature in design is the exaggerated bulbous turned leg on tables, bedstead posts, and supports on the fronts of cupboards.

JACOBEAN: James I to Cromwell (1603-1649)

Walnut began to be used, but in the solid and then only occasionally. As this wood is prone to attack by woodworm, a great amount of it was probably destroyed and it may have been much more popular than we know. The bulbous support, so popular earlier, is seldom seen and is replaced by simpler turning.

CROMWELLIAN: Oliver and Richard Cromwell (1649-1660)

Oak and walnut remained the principal woods, but the most common feature is again the use of turned ornament. Fronts of chests were decorated with turned columns cut into two halves lengthwise, and inlaid with simple patterns in mother-of-pearl, bone or ivory. Turning on chair and table legs was often in a series of knobs, known as 'bobbin-turning'. Seats of chairs were sometimes of leather, fixed with large brass-headed nails.

CAROLEAN: Charles II to Flight of James II (1660-1689)

After the years of austerity under Cromwell and the Puritans, the accession of Charles II was the signal for an outburst of luxury and extravagance; according to some, never surpassed. Walnut superseded oak, although the latter continued in use on a diminished scale as it does even now. Veneers and marquetry, lacquer and embossed silver were introduced for the decoration of furniture, and the use of mirrors on the walls of rooms became general. The tall-backed chair, known earlier in a simple pattern, became the object of attention from turners and carvers and is the typical feature of the period. The back and the front rails were elaborately carved, the design often centring on a pair of cherubs holding a crown aloft, and the seat and back panels were caned.

WILLIAM AND MARY (1689-1702)

This was a period that saw the arrival of large numbers of Dutch workers, who came over from Holland, with King William III, who was also Prince of Orange. Having been born and brought up in Holland, it is not unexpected that both he and his Queen (daughter of James II of England) should be more fond of the productions of that country than those of England. To these monarchs is owed the creation of a problem for twentieth-century collectors in trying to distinguish some of the Dutch furniture from English. Also, as the reign was only a short one, it is not easy to tell William and Mary furniture from Queen Anne; pieces with showy decoration are said usually to have been made before 1700. Cabinets and chests often had a plain turned ball-shaped foot (replaced in more recent times by a bracket foot of later design) and turned legs favoured the inverted cup. Stretchers (cross-pieces connecting the legs of chairs and tables) were of a 'wavy' shape and usually had a turned pointed knob (finial) where the two pieces crossed over.

QUEEN ANNE (1702-1714)

Walnut furniture is always associated with the name of this Queen, and some of the finest surviving pieces date from her time. Marquetry was seldom used, and every effort was made to show off the grain of walnut veneers to the best advantage on pieces of simple outline. Lacquer remained popular. The cabriole leg was the most important introduction, and was often carved with a shell on the fat curved knee. Mirrors were more plentiful and of smaller size, and upholstery with both silks and needlework became general.

EARLY GEORGIAN (1714-1730/40)

Much furniture similar to that of Queen Anne's reign was made. At the same time, gilding became popular and was used for mirror-frames, tables and even chairs. The Kent or Palladian style was fashionable, and this showed architectural features (Wm. Kent, whose name is given to the style, was a prominent architect) such as the broken pediment, and a frequent use of marble tops for tables.

MID-GEORGIAN: Chippendale (1730/40-1770)

The introduction of mahogany followed a brief period in which red walnut (from Virginia) replaced the familiar French walnut. At first, mahogany was used in the same styles as walnut pieces had followed, but before long the superior working qualities of mahogany led to new designs. Many different styles were collected and adapted by Thomas Chippendale, a cabinet-maker, who published them in his book, The Director, in 1754. Thus almost all furniture made between about 1750 and 1780 is known today, conveniently, as 'Chippendale':

French 'Chippendale' features curved outlines, and particularly the cabriole leg with an outwardly curling toe.

Gothic 'Chippendale' shows the arch with a pointed top (lancet-shaped), as a part of the design for doors of bookcases, in the form of piercing for the backs of chairs, and in fretting on legs.

Chinese 'Chippendale' uses Chinese pagodas, Chinese figures and birds and other Far-Eastern forms. One or other can be found on all pieces of furniture of this type, but the mirror-frame often has them all.

LATER GEORGIAN: Adam, Hepplewhite and Sheraton (1770-1810)

A number of styles succeeded and partially overlapped each other during these years:

Adam: the Adam brothers, Robert and James, were primarily architects, but their interest in design did not stop with the building itself. Not only did they plan the layout of their mansions, but usually they decided the decoration and colouring of the principal rooms and the furniture to go in them. Their work was inspired by ancient Greek and Roman art, and most of their decorative ideas were borrowed from those sources. The honeysuckle (anthemion), the ram's head and hoof, and garlands of husks are typical features. The work of the Adams was carried out between 1760 and 1790 and many of their designs for furniture were actually made by Thomas Chippendale's firm.

Hepplewhite: George Hepplewhite was a cabinet-maker whose business was run later by his widow, who published a book of his designs. These show pieces of simple form and small size; one of the most noticeable is perhaps the chair with a heart-shaped or a shield-shaped back. Sometimes the shield holds a pierced and carved Prince-of-Wales feather.

Sheraton: Thomas Sheraton published his first book of patterns in 1791. His designs show furniture that is much more slender in line than hitherto, and he led a return to the use of inlay; with this his name seems to be linked inseparably. Inlay often took the form of cross-banding and stringing, and a common feature was an oval shell of satinwood, scorched to imitate shading. After about 1800, square legs were replaced by turned ones with reeding. Sheraton's most characteristic chairs have rectangular backs with horizontal bars. Use was made of satinwood, as well as the more general mahogany, either painted or inlaid or left quite plain.

REGENCY (1800-1820)

The Regency style is a combination of at least three, or any one may be found alone in a piece made during the period. The three principal styles are:

Greek and Roman: figures of mythological gods and goddesses, the lyre (used as the shape of table-ends), the lion's-paw foot.

Egyptian: sphinxes, Egyptian heads and feet as tops and bases of columns; crocodiles.

Chinese: Chinese patterns, shapes and colours; of which the contents of the Pavilion at Brighton are outstanding examples.

All types of unusual woods were used, as well as mahogany, and there was frequent use of brass for inlay and gilt bronze for mounts. Chairs were smaller in size than in earlier periods, which explains why they are so very popular today. Early Regency chairs had legs shaped like a curved sword (the sabre, after which they are named), but later they were turned.

WILLIAM IV AND EARLY VICTORIAN (1820-1840)

Much of this furniture can be confused with that made earlier in the Regency period. Although many of the designs are similar, they were carried out in a much heavier manner, and chairs, tables and other pieces are coarser and clumsier in appearance. The sabre leg was no longer used, and almost all furniture had turned supports, often tapered and carved.