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Victorian Furniture

VICTORIAN furniture is now rapidly becoming understood and evaluated for its decorative worth. The best of the furniture of that period is being separated from the examples mainly responsible for the ridicule attaching to so many things used during the reign of the great English Queen. The walnut whatnot, if not too rococo; the pedestal tables of veneered mahogany; the rosewood chairs with carved rosebuds on the back-but now upholstered in bright modern fabrics instead of in horsehair-are no longer spoken of apologetically when they take up life anew in the modern home.

Just how this change in public taste has come about is hard to determine. Victorian defenders like G. K. Chesterton and Lytton Strachey are credited by some with furthering this renaissance. Others point to the rapidly diminishing supply of antiques of other periods and to the fact that furniture of the Victorian era proper has now acquired a respectable antiquity of its own.

A more important reason than either of these, perhaps, is the feeling of those who live outside New England, New York and the rest of the original Colonies for the furniture that went westward with the pioneers. In the ox wagons that lumbered over the Alleghanies or on the decks of wood-burning steamers going down the Ohio River were prized walnut chairs and mahogany bureaus that we today call Victorian. And in the prairie schooners and the goldrush ships that went around the Horn were pieces of furniture that today are revered almost as much as are pieces that came over in the Mayflower. Later, as the farms and mines made their owners rich, Victorian furniture from the East occupied the parlors of that day. And now it is in the Middle West and on the Pacific Coast that the greatest demand for this mid-nineteenth century furniture exists.

Some pieces are more popular than are others. There is the whatnot, recalled from oblivion by the need for a place to display one's Bennington pottery or Sandwich glass. Ec centricities of design may appeal to us as amusing when the whatnot is the only Victorian piece in a room. Tall models of four or five shelves fit into a corner compactly, taking up little space.

Fancy chairs, inspired by lacquered and inlaid originals of the eighteenth century, are found in the early years of the Victorian era, taking on in their ornamentation the realism characteristic of that day. In this group is the black enameled furniture decorated with gilded designs and mother-of-pearl. Upholstered with silk damask, chairs of this type, following French examples, have slender curved legs, rounded backs and flat splats in fantastic forms. Papier-mache furnishings often decorated in this style are distinctly Victorian. Not only chairs, but also small stands for tea kettles, known as tea poys, were made in this substitute for wood.

Discoverable in antique shops are also examples of trays of papier-mache, their surfaces ornamented in japanned design. Some have an Oriental motif-in eighteenth century lacquered furniture it was kept fairly close to an Eastern effect-modified in this eclectic Victorian age by borders of Occidental leaf and flower forms. Other trays have typical Victorian scenes of romantic rusticity depicted in their centres, with a wide border of rococo scrolls and flowers.

In some drawing-room pieces one finds what most people vision when they speak of Victorian furniture. Curved furniture frames of rosewood or black walnut, with a bit of carving on the back of the chair or sofa, and short, stout cabriole legs are characteristic. Today one finds these pieces perhaps with the traditional horsehair upholstery enlivened by decorations in petit point or Berlin wool work, or the original effect may be camouflaged by coverings in today's latest mode of brightly hued fabrics. A chair or a sofa treated in this later style gives to a room a note achieved by no other kind of furniture-as if great-grandmother had appeared at a tea with her long and voluminous skirts made up in the latest silks.

The earliest pieces of the Victorian era are, from the standpoint of design, most satisfactory. These include the pedestal tables and bureaus with broad surfaces of plain mahogany or walnut; shaving mirrors with heavy side supports and a drawer below; looking glasses with wide plain frames and oval picture frames similar in style; washstands with two side racks for towels and the accompanying china pitcher and bowl-all these now appear in homes and antique shops. Glass kerosene lamps are so popular that reproductions are turned out simulating the ornate glass and china of the days before the electric light.

It is hard to give dates regarding a furniture period, but one might date the Victorian age from the ending of the Empire period in America, about 1830, up to the last quar ter of the century. In the first part of this period, which yielded most of the furnishings of the period in demand today, are visible the influences of the dying Empire style, as seen in the bureaus with heavy columns and plain expanse of veneered surfaces. Then there were echoes of the fioriated forms of Renaissance carvings on the square pianos and the woodwork of sofas, chairs and whatnots. The Gothic forms tried by Chippendale and encouraged by Horace Walpole in the previous century reappear in the chairs with pointed tops and the American-made shelf clocks.

Victorian furniture comprises many types, but all show the result of an age so much interested in the new ideas of industrial progress that little time was given to serious study of furniture design.

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