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The Story Of Victorian Furniture - Part 2

[Victorian Furniture - Part 1]  [Victorian Furniture - Part 2]  [Victorian Furniture - Part 3] 

( Originally Published 1963 )

Then there was Biedermeier's furniture, which had appeared first in Germany about 1825 and had been imported and also copied in America in the 1830's. The Biedermeier style was a comfortable, rather provincial one that was made in reaction to the classic Empire style so popular in France and elsewhere in Europe. Biedermeier's furniture was imposing and, above all, luxuriously cushioned and padded. As a matter of fact, Biedermeier contributed a good deal that lasted throughout the Victorian era-thick curtains, festooned draperies, covers on all kinds of tables including the smallest ones, antimacassars, tassels and fringes everywhere and on everything.

What is now called Victorian Gothic actually had begun to appear in the 1830's. Victorian Gothic furniture was far less bulky than either Medieval Gothic or nineteenth-century Biedermeier. The name came from details such as the pointed arch shape of the chair backs. Instead of splats or spindles, the supports in a chair back were carved so that they copied (although they were less intricate) the tracery of Gothic windows. On large pieces of furniture, the carving followed the lines and details of Gothic architecture.

A Victorian Gothic bed, like the Empire sleigh and low-post beds, had headboard and footboard of the same height. It usually had posts that were solid, carved, octagonal columns attached to the headboard and footboard. These also were solid wood and displayed arched and carved panels. The wide sideboards were more simply carved to show Gothic arches. A Victorian Gothic table recalled the lines of a classic Empire table-rectangular top with ogee-molded drawer in the skirt and supports at either end that consisted of carved columns mounted on bracket feet.

If you chance upon a Victorian Gothic cupboard, you will see how the compulsion for frills showed up. The lower section will be a cupboard but probably will follow the lines of a severalsided Gothic column. The open shelves topping the cupboard will offer a minimum of display space but will be framed and backed with wood elaborately carved in more or less intricate Gothic tracery, and perhaps embellished with finials and railings-in short, a superstructure so fussy that nothing can be displayed advantageously on it.

By 1845, a lighter and more graceful style that is now known as Victorian Rococo or Victorian Louis XV came into favor. It lasted longer than any other single influence during the era. Most of the furniture of this period was the product of cabinetmakers. The carvings and scrolled lines usually were not overdone, and as a result the furniture was as attractive as it was comfortable.

This period was characterized by curved but not cabriole legs, scrolled and rounded contours forming a cartouche back, and naturalistic carvings of roses, other flowers, grapes, leaves, and birds. The wood was bent, shaped, and carved into good lines and designs. Mahogany or rosewood sofas and chairs displayed a boldly sculptured bunch of grapes with a leaf, or a rose surrounded by leaves.

Side chairs of this period were comfortable as well as handsome and, as a general rule, are better liked today than chairs of any other Victorian style. Sofas in various lengths and love seats with upholstered wood frames were graceful. The frame often was serpentine and always displayed some carving, usually on the arms and back. One form of sofa had an oval or round medallion framed in wood in the center of the back. The carving topping the medallion was repeated farther along the frame on either side. In the 1860's, some sofas had rounded upholstered arms with carved wood fronts. Occasionally, these arms could be let down by means of chains to lengthen the sofa so that a person could stretch out and take a nap-or sleep there when the house was crammed with overnight guests.

Look also among the furniture of this period for a pair of husband and wife, or lady and gentleman, chairs. These were upholstered. One had a high back and arms; the matching chair was a little lower and did not have arms. The armless one was the wife's chair, convenient to sit in while doing needlework, crocheting, or knitting. These pairs of chairs were made well into the 1870's, possibly the 1880's, but those that followed the rounded lines of Victorian Rococo between 1845 and 1860 are most attractive and least dated.

The Victorian Rococo period claims one of the few American cabinetmakers whose name still lives. John Henry Belter, who worked in New York City between 1844 and 1867, produced furniture a little different from the average. Belter became famous for his rosewood furniture, which was more richly and ornately carved than the general run. Instead of confining himself to carving the crest of a chair, Belter continued the carving down the sides of the back. Foliage, flowers, and fruits were worked into involved designs held together with scrolled and pierced framing.

John Belter was uncommonly skilled at shaping and bending wood, too. As a result, his beds and other large pieces have fascinating serpentine and rounded contours. He was, perhaps, the leader in the 1840's in making beds with headboards much higher than the footboards. His headboards and footboards, curved, bent, and variously shaped, and displaying the elaborate carving of which he was capable, were joined to high shaped boards along the sides of the beds.

Whether Belter or some other cabinetmaker produced the first high-headboard bed, this style of the 1840's was new, different from the four-posters that had been made for almost a hundred years and the more recently popular bed with headboard and footboard of equal height. The new style endured throughout the Victorian era, although it was not always carried out in as good proportions or as good taste.

Although the John Belter bed is famous, comparatively few were made. This craftsman turned out an astounding number of Victorian Rococo tables, chairs, and sofas in his New York City shop. Furthermore, these were shipped to fill orders from all parts of the country, so it's quite possible to find in a midwestern or southern state a sofa, chair, or table that undoubtedly came from Belter's hands.

About 1855 or a couple of years later, reminders of the Renaissance began to show up in furniture. It is easy to distinguish a Victorian Renaissance chair or sofa from a Rococo one, for the Renaissance piece will look much heavier, be more solid, and lack curves. Chairs for every purpose were made with rectangular or square seats and rectangular backs, in contrast to the scrolled Rococo lines. The carving on Renaissance chairs was heavier and more elaborate. It was based less on flowers, fruits, and foliage and more on classic scrolls, knots, and the like. Whatever the motifs, the carving was generous. Some piercing appeared in the carved areas. Wide moldings also were applied.

A Victorian Renaissance sideboard was an imposing conglomeration of wood, carving, and molding. The doors of the cupboards had carving that was framed with molding. The ends were likely to be flanked with carved columns or wide applied molding. All Victorian sideboards had a high backboard towering over the top surface. In addition to being carved in all possible places, this back had small shelves; railings, and columns attached to it and was often finished off with a fussy pediment. During the last couple of decades of the Victorian era, sideboards often had a framed mirror along their full length. These late sideboards, fortunately, did not have as much carving.

Marble, one of the great Victorian loves, became firmly established with this Renaissance revival. The tops of tables of all sizes, of commodes, bureaus, and many sideboards, were made of it. Somehow marble suited these heavy wood pieces. Marble in all color combinations was used, with predominately white, white and gray, and pink and chocolate the prime favorites.

Long before Victorian Renaissance had run its course, a simpler style began to appear. This is called Victorian Louis XVI or Victorian Classic. It too is easy to identify, if only because it was so much simpler and less heavily ornamented, and hence lighter in appearance. Lines became curved again rather than rectilinear. Scrolling was not as strong nor cartouche backs as common as they had been twenty years earlier. Actually, elements of Victorian Classic and Renaissance and perhaps Victorian Rococo often were combined in one piece.

In the 1870's, furniture-makers turned to Jacobean for inspiration. This trend combined with the trend toward increased amounts of factory-made furniture led to a loss of elegance. A typical Jacobean detail was wide, flat, ornamental molding twisted into designs. This, of course, was an adaptation of the seventeenth-century Jacobean strap work. Small turned spindles, not at all like the spool-turned ones, were used as railings on sideboards, cupboards, whatnots, tables, and everywhere else possible.

Carving was not forsaken, but it no longer was done in the high relief of the early years. Because so much furniture now was mass-produced instead of handmade, carving was replaced by shallow, incised ornamentation. Sprays of flowers and leaves were cut in outline instead of being rounded. Dots, dashes, and other simple motifs were repeated monotonously, sometimes in combination with outlined flowers. Beveled edges became a substitute for beautiful modeling and scrolling of wood.

The small table made in the 1870's and 1880's displayed a wood skirt cut gingerbread-fashion with incised ornamentation. This was joined to either a marble or a wood top and also to the one or two shelves of wood underneath. These tables with shelves were higher than the small tables which have been favorities in all furniture periods before or after Victorian Jacobean. The shelves were convenient for displaying some of the bric-a-brac without which no house was complete, and were a natural development in view of the popularity of whatnots.

Probably the most easily recognized piece of this Jacobean period was the whatnot. Its several shelves often were supported wholly by spindles. But shelves backed with wood also might be separated by spindles or have spindle railings. Many whatnots were fussy in construction.

Commodes were as indispensable as whatnots. Every bedroom had to have one. This small piece, approximately 16 inches wide and 34 inches long, was a case piece with one long drawer and the space beneath divided into a cupboard on one side, narrow drawers on the other. More often than not, the top was marble. The splash or splatter rail (4 or 5 inches high) that fit behind the top was marble too. On the whole, after 1870 all furniture became rectilinear, rigid, and solid-looking. The grace of the Victorian Rococo and Classic and the distinction of Victorian Renaissance were lost in the pieces, however similar, made in the last years of the era. Chairs and sofas became more angular and were laden with strapwork or molding, sometimes with the addition of gingerbread.

Frames were ornamentally incised. These sofas and chairs appeared to be far less comfortable than earlier ones of basically the same size and shape.

The quarter-round cylinder-front desk and secretary were prized. These were quite handsome, if bulky, pieces. Occasionally the glass doors of the secretary had flower sprays painted on in various colors, although this decoration may have been specifically Pennsylvanian even if less stylized than the betterknown Pennsylvania-German type of decoration. The rolltop cylinder desk was a workaday piece that invaded the home.

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