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The Dutch Influence, Or The Period Of Queen Anne
( Originally Published 1920 )
As one reviews the successive changes that have taken place in the art of furnishing in the English styles, it will generally be found that under normal conditions the evolution from one style to another has been gradual. The characteristics and distinguishing features of the old forms became weaker, and those of the new style grew stronger by degrees until the first were lost in, or supplanted by, the last.
This accounts in many periods for the mixed objects called transition pieces which are so troublesome to the student of period styles. To make these freak pieces special objects of study is detrimental to a general understanding of those qualities which make for distinctive period limitations. It is advisable, therefore, to consider first always types of periods at the full flower of their expression rather than in the forms of the"pieces just described. In no phase of applied art is this transition more clearly distinguishable than in the styles in furniture.
The English periods are less distinctly traceable, one to the other, than those of any other country. This is due to the fact that British conservatism adopted ideas less easily, assimilated them more slowly, and more naturally evolved its own expressions as different ideas dominated the period.
The Elizabethan and Stuart periods differed radically in the idea which they expressed, but in some ways the characteristics were identical. For example, the furniture was principally oak, carved when ornamented at all, rectangular in structure, uncomfortable and architecturally structural in its detail. The change that carne about with the advent of the present style was not overwhelmingly sudden, but it was sure. Before considering these radical changes we will look for a moment to the causes which brought about this revolution in the household idea.
It will be remembered that in 1688 James II abandoned the English throne for a more congenial life in France, and that his prerogative as king was assumed by one William the Stadtholder, whose reasons for succession were that he was a grandson of Charles I and also a son-in-law of James II, whose daughter, Mary, he had married. This man William, although the ruler of the democratic Netherlands, is said to have been a man who never knew when he was beaten, and he came to England with the avowed intention of becoming an absolute dictator, notwithstanding the fact that his queen had the stronger claim to supreme authority.
Life in the Netherlands at that time was pronouncedly domestic. The ideals and practices of the country differed so decidedly from those of England that the needs of the people had produced a domestic type of furnishing not concerned with court ceremonial, but suitable for middle-class life and ordinary household use. Dutch forms and Dutch treatment were more democratic and more varied than those found during the Tudor or the Stuart dynasties in England. With the coming of William and Mary came shiploads of Dutch furniture and furnishings, as well as hordes of Dutch court officials, artists and craftsmen. This Dutch invasion is the reason for the rapidly changing forms of this period style.
To be sure, not all the people of England accepted Dutch social standards, but gradually people of influence did so, and the rigid adherence of the court to the methods of the mother country finally resulted in placing the stamp of Dutch influence upon all things made. It followed that the period forms of the era which had passed were almost eradicated.
Religious toleration had become a sufficiently fixed policy to make the church of practically no moment in determining the style.
This period, then, is the Dutch Domestic period filtered through English experience, and results in what is known as the Queen Anne period; though, in fact, Queen Anne herself had no more to do with the period than did the king of the Congo tribes, except that her tendencies as a gardener and seamstress influenced somewhat the naturalistic motifs, particularly in printed linens and embroidered tapestries. The great vogue of these tapestries was the natural outgrowth of her attitude and that of the ladies of the court to needlework.
As has been said, the change in period forms was almost revolutionary. We must remember that up to this time rectangular forms and straight-lined construction dominated the manufacture of English furniture. Flemish scrolls or curved forms were not used in construction in the Elizabethan period and only in a limited way in the Jacobean period. An occasional chair arm or back might suggest the curved line, but even this was dominated by straight ones. An important fact is that tables and chair legs were generally square or turned or twisted wood, generally straight. They were guilty of no shaping except in rare instances. The pediment and other classic structural motifs were unknown.
In short, curved-line construction appeared to be studiously avoided. How remarkable a change occurred in this respect with the advent of the Dutch influence! Formal, unrelenting sternness gave way before a more graceful shaping, as curves became the fashion. In Elizabethan days a chair could not be made comfortable no matter how much it was upholstered or cushioned, but in this new type the chair began to assume the lines which the human form demands for its comfort.
This idea alone is sufficient to mark a step forward in the development of furniture, though this development reached its culmination later. The proportions and quantities of material were lighter in the structure of the William and Mary period, but with Queen Anne the strength, size and scale increased again. In 1720 mahogany was introduced into England, and from then on it rapidly grew in favour until it well-nigh dominated the English expression and found its natural echo in our Colonial styles which have been so much admired and in some cases overrated.
When these details are compared with the cold, formal and primitive expressions of the Jacobean, with the flagrantly vulgar types sometimes seen in the period of Louis XIV or the Decadent products of the late Italian Renaissance, the Queen Anne forms give us a sense of relief, and the Colonial seems a step into the light. But, when considered from the standpoint of artistic and significant form based on subtlety in proportion, scale and treatment, not all Colonial pieces are as beautiful as they are sometimes believed to be.
The early part of the period marked the evolution out of the Jacobean type. Its products are distinguished by a lighter, more aspiring quality, a grace and charm acquired through the use of cane in seats and backs of chairs, a freer interpretation of the Flemish scroll, a gradual shaping of the objects to the human figure and to their particular requirements. The wood was generally oak, birch or walnut, but when mahogany was introduced it rapidly took the place of all other woods, and by the end of the Queen Anne period almost held the field alone. The tremendous difference between the carved and turned treatment of the earlier types and the perfectly plain, flat, smooth surface of the mahogany period marks a variation worthy of notice.
The most radical change in structure is found in the national adoption of the cabriole leg and the curve of its construction as represented in the contour of various articles of furniture of the period. The cabriole leg, imported from the Netherlands, earlier from France, and still earlier from Italy, is the distinguishing characteristic not only of the Queen Anne support, but it is also that of the early work of Chippendale.
One gains perhaps as clear a conception of the difference between the French and English feeling in their treatment of this element as in any other art form of historical significance. Compare the cabriole leg of the Queen Anne chair in scale, in sinuousness of curve, in beauty of proportion, in balance, with that of the ideal cabriole used in the period of Louis XV. The lattercharacterized by grace, subtlety of balance and sinuousness of direction-expresses all the refinement and charm of the French idea. Often the former-heavy and clumsy in scale, ugly in proportion, mechanical in curve, heavy, thick-set and ordinary-gives a pretty sure key to a Queen Anne-Dutch-English feeling done in mahogany.
It is not intended to brand all Queen Anne furniture as possessing these qualities and no others, but to make a general statement which is true under most circumstances. Much of the inordinate family worship of old mahogany would be wiped out in our time if the old pieces which have been passed down to us as products of the Colonial period could be judged by the same standards by which we judge other things, and not by a standard in which sentimentality rules reason and intention.
To this period belongs not only the credit of having begun to see furniture as related to persons and things, but to it also belongs the credit of originating a great number of new objects to meet the domestic needs of the time. These new ideas found expression in interesting and useful tables of various sizes, secretaries and writing desks that were comfortable and possible; chairs, some to rest in, some in which to sit erect, others apparently for show. In short, the scope of furniture from the functional standpoint was greatly enlarged, particularly during the last half of the period under consideration.
Perhaps in no article was a greater play of fancy shown than in mirrors. Mirrors in the Jacobean period were non-essentials. Personal appearance during the first half of that period was not a matter for serious consideration. The period of Queen Anne seems to have found the same satisfaction in its grotesque mirror frames that it found in many of its grotesque textile motifs. Sometimes these mirrors were fairly plain excepting at the top, where a huge broken gable or a jig-sawed appearance was found quite ugly in its effect and unimportant in its function. I have no doubt that admiration for these ill-designed and too ornate mirror frames has been instrumental in clouding the vision as to what a picture frame really is for and as to which is the important thing-the frame or the picture. From both these standpoints the too elaborate working out of the mirror was a hindrance to the best understanding of an art expression when applied to these forms or related ones.
As has been intimated, printed linens and needlework tapestries were the vogue of the day. Attention was turned no doubt to the French salon with its. poetry, music and social chat. The salon of Queen Anne was a sewing bee of tapestry needlework. An extraordinary amount of rather pleasing patterns in fairly well-related colours was developed, but a much larger amount was not only bad in colour and design, but impossible of use with objects refined in themselves. This mania for needlework embroidery spread to the States, and our Colonial handbags, bookmarks, etc., are but the fruits of the reign of Queen Anne. And the "God Bless Our Homes" and "What Is Home Without a Mother" of the Victorian era were the last gasp of the same idea.
A word might be said in this connection about the room as a background for all these things. The work of Sir Christopher Wren is too well known in architecture to need comment. His influence was at its height. Furniture had accepted the pediment, the broken gable, and other architectural elements, not only as essentials, but as ornaments in cabinet making and furniture decoration. The Anglo-classic-Renaissance oak panelling of the Elizabethan period and the flat, almost hungry looking, adaptation of it in the Jacobean period were far too sombre and plain to harmonize with the new idea.
Under William and Mary the rooms were done in large wooden panels representing in their form and arrangement something of the periods of contemporary French styles. Windows, chimney pieces, doors, etc., were heavily capped with pediments, broken gables and other motifs of the classic adaptation. In the latter half of the period even these wood panels gave place in some instances to plaster panelled in the same way and retaining the caps and trappings of the Wren Renaissance style.
In a word, then, the background idea of the room had changed. It had taken a long step toward the realization of the background for furniture, although a heaviness caused by an unpleasant scale relation is very apparent in the interior architectural features where the wall is anything but flat. Furniture was adapted to man and his uses. Decoration was confused with ornamentation, and where ornament was used it enriched but it rarely beautified.
Through the introduction and treatment of mahogany it had been made clear that it was possible to have furniture without carving or even marquetry, and a new note was struck in the function and in the decorative treatment of wood in cabinetmaking. Domestic ideals were triumphing over political authority and religious ecstasy in the field of art creation.
Too much cannot be said of the importance of this period in striking these new notes in the evolution of the domestic idea as it has been worked out in England and the United States. If one can see the Queen Anne period as responsible for these steps ahead, and at the same time realize that in doing this it lacks the aesthetic merit, the grace and charm, the almost supernatural beauty which the French and Italian periods have expressed, then he is able to give to the period of Queen Anne its just due. He is able to accept what it has done that is good, and to look to other periods for those essential qualities which were apparently overlooked in working for the domestic ends which it so splendidly accomplished.