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Victorian Furniture, Miscellaneous Trifles
One of the special charms of Victoriana is its infinite variety. It was an expansive age and the entire range of domestic objects, ornamental and useful, was being extended. Lavish decoration was employed for everything from curtain-poles to cast-iron firegrates, and this decorative passion infected all classes of the community.
Even the cheapest Victorian terrace houses often contain elaborate front-room fireplaces and a little plaster moulding in the entrance passage or carved stonework outside. Ordinary upright pianos frequently had beautiful marquetry work on the front of the case; picture frames might be of double rows of gilded wood, with a strip of red velvet between to make the luscious effect more luscious still.
Paperweights might contain `millefiori' decoration, or possibly a snowstorm illusion so that when moved a shower of snowflakes seemed to scatter round inside. As for furniture legs they were apparently deemed indecent, since every effort was made to hide them by heavy draperies and covers.
The endless arrays of bric-a-brac were `accommodated' in elaborate cabinets and on `whatnots' and etageres, articles which until recently were despised but are now coming into their own again. They are a boon to the collector with limited space for they will often fit snugly into a corner and provide him with much-needed extra display shelves.
The `whatnot' is frequently of three or four tiers, enriched with inlay designs and terminating in a fretwork crest, the whole being on pairs of turned supports with a single piece running up the back to hold the stand together. Examples can sometimes be bought for $6 or less, though a beautifully inlaid specimen would fetch more.
`Whatnots' can look very well set out with pairs of vases and lustres, graduated in size according to the ascending tiers. A fine quality Victorian oil lamp placed on the top tier will then complete an attractive display, the whole being pleasantly `in period.'
Oil lamps, incidentally, are eminently collectable objects. Some very handsome ones in brass with decorated or plain porcelain shades were produced, and they can easily be converted to electricity if you prefer. Personally I feel this to be a pity and much prefer the delightfully peaceful light, suggesting long comfortable winter evenings in Victorian country houses, which the original working will give.
No middle class Victorian parlour would have been complete without a case of stuffed birds, or some decorative wax fruit or figures under glass. Some of these can still be found in perfect condition. The wax objects, however, tend to drop to pieces if not very carefully preserved, and many lovely modellings of Queen Victoria in her Coronation robes are now unfortunately beginning to show signs of wear and tear. But perfect cases of stuffed birds are still with us in large quantities. Very charming they can look if the original arranger was something of an artist and disposed their colourings in `tasteful groups.' They are specially attractive in combination with a rich pair of ruby or emerald lustres. Prices are normally quite low; you should be able to get a good caseful for $4 or so. But much will depend on the luck of the sale, as always, and the keenness of others who may desire the birds as well as you.
Single specimens of the larger birds can also be found, also in glass cases, but these tend to look lugubrious and lonely when used simply for decoration. Nothing is more gloomy than to be greeted with a single stuffed owl perched, like Poe's Raven, over the door of a collector's sanctum. Whereas a case of pretty humming birds or `mixed birds' (poor little things!) is very pleasant, especially with their brightly coloured wings glistening in the flecks of light from a pair of lustres.
Antique mirrors are usually expensive purchases at Auctions and good eighteenth-century mirrors command very high prices indeed. But some elaborately beautiful Victorian mirrors were produced and these can usually be bought fairly cheaply. One variety, in a black-painted wood frame, almost completely covered with gilt metal mounts in imitation of the costly earlier specimens, can be sometimes picked up for $g to $12. Placed in a dark corner, it can look very good.
Late Victorian and Edwardian china cabinets can be extremely decorative, and very useful also to the collector who prefers to keep his better pieces under lock and key. They are often copies of their eighteenth-century prototypes, with fine marquetry inlays and good quality ormolu mounts, together with ormolu keys and keyholes. They are easy enough to get and seem to go quite cheaply. So do Victorian glass-fronted bookcases which can always, if you prefer, be used to display china and knick-knacks instead of books. A few dollars will often secure one of these.
Many of the ornamental overmantels can also be used for additional display of small pieces of porcelain. Some of them were provided with a positive wealth of little shelves, and very pretty effects can be obtained with blue and white Chinese vases tastefully disposed on these.
`Tastefully disposed!' How peacefully the Victorian phrase rings in this scurrying century! Like `tasteful and elaborate,' that expression so beloved of Victorian descriptive writers, it seems to suggest a vanished world of maiden aunts in lavender-scented drawing-rooms and lamplit boudoirs, a world of top-hats and side-whiskers, of poke bonnets, crinolines and bustles.
(Bustles, by the way, may themselves be interesting as antiques, like that famous one presented to Queen Victoria which played God Save the Queen every time she sat down.)
Of the many other varieties of Victoriana it is impossible to treat here of more than a few. Very `fashionable' at present are good-quality examples of the beautiful Wolverhampton papiermache and japanned ornamental trays which frequently have a fine central painting, surrounded by a richly gilded border.
The large folding screens of the period, either covered with damask or `Victorian scraps,' can be most attractive, and are normally quite modestly priced when they do appear. There were also some excellent firescreens, both of the `pole' variety and the ordinary rectangular shape. When ornamented with good needlework panels they are in fair demand, but they were made in large quantities and have no real `scarcity value.'
Nineteenth-century stools covered with fine needlework will also look well in a collection of Victoriana; even piano stools, if they are interesting pieces in their own right, can be incorporated. Some of these seem to do very well for themselves at sales, and on one occasion I saw a piano and its stool sold as separate lots in which the stool fetched three times as much as the piano.
Quality must always be the over-riding consideration with purchasing Victoriana. There was, it must be admitted, a vast amount of very cheap, shoddy and thoroughly objectionable stuff machine-produced for the `new middle class,' and this should at all costs (or cheapnesses) be avoided. Much very badly cast metal work was turned out, masses of most inferior paintings and a great deal of most ugly furniture, including some hideously uncomfortable chairs and beds. It is these uglier objects, like the more frightful specimens of Japanese porcelain, which have given the whole genre a bad name among the more conservative type of collector. '1830' is still used by many dealers, writers and connoisseurs as a dividing line between what is a `genuine' antique and what is not, between Good and Bad. And this dividing line is, in fact, the frontier between eighteenth century and Regency antiques and those of the Victorian Age and after. It certainly marks the beginning of the machine-made article, produced in vast amounts for the swarming new population which the Industrial Revolution, the Factory System and the Railway Era had made possible.
This population, especially the new-rich element, had to be fed with domestic objects. And as the artistic tendencies of the time tended to be revivalist rather than original, thousands of imitative pieces were turned out.
These fall, on the whole, into two main groups. There were those which followed the banner of the Romantic Revival and were 'pseudo-Gothic' in inspiration to fit the many `Gothic style' private houses which were being erected everywhere. Many very prickly `Gothic' chairs and lugubriously `mediaeval' bookcases of the period are of this type.
There were also a vast number of gilded and somewhat heavy-looking pieces of furniture which attempted to carry on the eighteenth-century tradition of elegance; often with very inelegant results.
This double tendency in domestic equipment is interesting for it is a parallel to what was happening in Architecture. The `Battle of the Styles' was raging at the time, a tug-ofwar between those who favoured the `Classical' manner (Euston Station Portico, the National Gallery, the Ashmolean Museum at Oxford, St George's Hall at Liverpool, etc.) and the `Gothic' or Romantic style (St Pancras Station, the Scott Memorial at Edinburgh, St Mary's Church at Kensington, Abbotsford House, and many others). Roughly speaking, theatres and civic buildings were `classical' and churches, colleges and schools were `Gothic' in manner, but the division was not a hard and fast one. But what concerns us here is that much Victorian furniture shows these two tendencies also, though the `Gothic' manner had been adumbrated as far back as the days of Chippendale, when the Gothic Revival was first launched by Horace Walpole and others.
It is, in fact, of great interest to see Victoriana against its cultural and social background, and those with a taste for architecture can find much to occupy them in visits to Victorian buildings where the original fittings have been retained.
Disraeli's home at Hughenden Manor, Queen Victoria's house at Osborne and Sir Walter Scott's `baronial' castle at Abbotsford are good examples. (Abbotsford is a little earlier, but it was the prototype of many that were shortly to follow.) Thoresby Hall, near Ollerton, Notts., is another, and Wightwick Manor, near Wolverhampton, is a fine example of the William Morris revolution in interior decoration. All these houses are open to the public.
But besides the revivalist pieces of Victoriana there was a good deal that was really new in design, and many collectors find this the most interesting part. Perhaps this explains the wide demand for lustres in the antique market since nothing like them had ever appeared before. A fine pair of lustres gives a room the flavour of the Victorian Age in a way possibly nothing else can. There was a good deal of originality also shown in new armchair designs, in decorative domestic ironwork and in ornamental lamp-posts and railings, and in oil lamps and gasoliers.
One of the most absorbing of all the Victorian contributions to civilisation was the Railways and here there was scope for originality on the grand scale. And, though the objects connected with this are neither easy to get nor to accommodate, it is a subject of tremendous interest. And, as I have said, there is no reason why you should confine your attention purely to Antiques which you can privately own.
The Railway Museum at York is fascinating indeed and there, in two sections, the history and relics of Britain's Railways can be studied in detail. The larger exhibits comprise rolling stock of historic interest, including a fine collection of `antique engines.' In the smaller section there is an array of lesser Railwayana down to early Excursion Bills and tickets which should fascinate collectors of all ages.
No one can thoroughly understand the Victorian Age who neglects to take an interest in its Railways. They were the backbone of its prosperity, the foundation of developments like its great theatrical touring system, and the animating impulse behind the building of many of its towns, sea-side resorts included. Railway antiques are not usually objects for the private house, but, as has been well said, a railway funnel rather than the figure of Britannia should have been on all Victorian pennies, and an interest in Railway Relics will certainly enhance your appreciation of Victoriana as a whole.
Some people tend to think of the Victorian Age as homogeneous, as a period of rather dull domesticity riddled by class-distinction and sanctimoniousness. Nothing could be further from the truth. It was, on the contrary, an age full of change. Never in European history had there been such a transformation of ways of life for all classes as occurred between 1837 and 1900. And this transformation can be studied in its antiques, as in the revolution against the `horsehair' period with the William Morris Revival of the Arts and Crafts in the 1870's and 1880's.
By about 1890 the Gothic Revival had almost completely spent its force and an almost French elegance was coming into interior decoration again. A fashionable drawing-room of the `Oscar Wilde' period was a very different thing from the solemn apartments of the 1 850s and 1 860s. `Gothic' furniture was at a discount and the Middle Ages had begun to yield to the time of Louis Quinze as a source of inspiration.
Again this can be seen in the domestic architecture of the period; Gothic houses were no longer fashionable and a `Queen Anne' revival had set in. Some very charming specimens of this are still standing and in everyday use.
It began in the late 1870s and came to maturity in the 1880s and in some ways it was really another triumph for Classicism in the `Battle of the Styles.' Some very beautiful pieces of eighteenth-century inspired porcelain date from this time, Mintons in particular producing some exquisite work. And many lovely late Victorian fittings, such as wall brackets and door plates, show how taste had veered towards elegance of design.
Anyone with a special interest in Victoriana might assemble a most interesting collection showing the changes in decorative fashions between 1830 and 1900. An `Early Victorian' and a `Late Victorian' room could provide a wealth of amusement in arrangement. If several rooms were available a gradation according to decades would be more interesting still, while an Edwardian bedroom offers endless possibilities.
(This might be a good opportunity for `placing' some of those delightful washstand toilet sets which often turn up at the larger house sales and which no-one ever seems to want. Their usefulness, in these days of fitted basins, has long been superseded, and they can usually be bought for next to nothing.
There were some charming sets produced in yellow with pink roses and other delicate decoration. However beautiful, they are too cumbrous for use and quite unsuitable for cabinet display. But with a bedroom furnished in period they would provide a characteristic and attractive touch.)