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Decorative Periods:
Decorative Stles And Periods In The Home
General Antiquity
Pompeian Decorative Styles And Periods
Gothic Decorative Styles And Periods
The Renaissance
Decorative Styles And Periods In Italy
Decorative Styles And Periods In France
The Style Of Louis Quatorze
The Style Of Louis Quinze
The Style Of Lous Seize
Empire Decorative Styles And Periods
Elizabethan Or Tudor Styles Sixteenth Century
Jacobean Period
Queen Anne
Chippendale Middle Of Eighteenth Century
The Adams Brother
Hepplewhite Book Issued 1789
Shearton - End Of The Eighteenth Century
English And American Empire
Art Nouveau

Jacobean Period

( Originally Published Early 1900's )


And now having proceeded with our studies A in chronological order, we reach the second period of the Renaissance in England, a period essentially native. The shackles of the Italian masters were slipped off, and with hands free to express thought actually the decorative artists produced something peculiarly their own. As was the custom, the style was not named for its originators, but for the house that occupied the throne during its growth. So we call this decorative period Stuart or Jacobean.

The end of the Tudor period is placed at 1603. Inigo Jones lived and worked for forty years after that arbitrary boundary. His ideas were not changed at the death of the sovereign, but continued to work in the style called Palladian - after the great Italian architect of the Renaissance. For this reason it is not possible to make clear division between styles Tudor and styles Jacobean, according to the calendar.

In architecture and in interiors the grandiose classic adaptation prevailed in Jacobean times, as in Tudor, with an inclination toward repression as time went on, and, also, certain exaggerations. But even into the Queen Anne period these general principles prevailed in all large houses and interiors. Homes had not grown quietly comfortable, but were templelike in grandeur, their halls an echo of the ancient porticoes where the Greeks discussed philosophy. A liberal use of fluted columns and pilasters enriched every stair and hall and large chamber. An elegant heaviness was sought, given by the lavish use of oak, in architectural effect. Unspeakably imposing are these interiors now, these magnificent reminders of England's Renaissance, but all impossible to imitate, for time gives a touch which is available, to no other artist.

In these superb rooms, amid the columns and carvings and set against the panelled wainscots, was the Jacobean furniture. No other style can be of such great interest to Americans, for the first furniture that came to our colonies was this, and the first that was copied by our own struggling cabinet-makers was this, which fact alone makes it worth our while to study it carefully.

Furniture and architecture are correlated, the same men designing both interiors and their fittings, yet the Jacobean furniture strays further from the Italian inspiration than does the larger work. It faintly echoes the Italian furniture, but is done with a less certain touch, and finally wanders away on its own devices.

The chests of oak, the square cupboards which hid unhonoured under farmhouse rafters of New England for perhaps two hundred years, are now recognised as Jacobean, and with this proud title are dragged into conspicuousness, and loved for their power to speak of, the men of other days. For years we scarce knew what they were, these box-like pieces of oak furniture so unlike the mahogany-and-haircloth, the black-walnut-and-reps, through whose presumptuous usurpation they banished. " A strange carved chest in the attic - I consider it very handsome," I remember hearing a lady say with taste and daring in the days when all old furniture was hopelessly out of the mode, and was universally condemned to attic darkness. Where would we be now, speaking as collectors, if houses had been constructed without attics!

That we may never pass over unrecognised a bit of Jacobean stuff brought over in the early days, we must study it in its English purity before colonial joiners locally altered it.

First let us look at construction, an ever important matter. Carpenter-built is the description that comes involuntarily to the mind. Joiners were young in art, and safety lay in simplicity, so subtleties were left to decoration and not outline. In chairs and tables the legs were straight, and took the weight squarely.

The backs of chairs, too, rose straight from the fiat seat in an uncompromising directness, which must have tortured all spines but the strongest.

Chests had a natural right to rectangular construction, but these seemed to emphasise the box-like drawing, and even disdained playing a few tricks with decorative feet, like claws, etc. Tables were like shallow boxes set on legs, and cupboards were like large ones. It was a time when the worker evidently started with an oaken plank and was loath to destroy its original aspect. Strange, that the effect should so please the eye of to-day, the eye that seeks not only beauty for itself, but comfort for the body that supports it.

When we come to the enrichment, that is another matter. What the makers lacked in curves when constructing, they atoned for in decoration, and for that we bless them - although no one can find fault with the good taste of the forms.

In general the work was carved, and it i's by this carving that we can best learn to recognise the Jacobean pieces. The shape is not the only thing, as was shown by a lady who prides herself on her knowledge of American antiques and who owns many. When calling on a friend who has nested in an abandoned farm she fell with enthusiasm upon a beautiful carved oak chest, and worshipped as appropriately as the extreme importance of a Jacobean piece demanded. The article was a chest, a square box supported on stiles or legs of one piece with the sides, and the whole was rendered elegant with flat carving.

But alas, for her discernment, she had neglected to learn by heart the designs of the Jacobean carver, and the ancient oak before which she was swinging the censor of her appreciation was none other than a piece of Brittany handiwork, carved last year after the old fashion of that interesting corner of France and stained to the semblance of age. Perhaps it may help some one to observe just here that many of these attractive carvings of Brittany smack strongly of Gothic detail which, as we have seen, was unpopular in England at the inception of the Renaissance. As the Jacobean carvings were not descended or evolved from these Gothic models they were entirely distinct from the pointed style with its endless combinations of the significant trefoil and quatrefoil. In Breton figure carving the sabots prevent confusion with the English.

To begin with, the Jacobean furniture-maker started with a wide flat surface for his carving, and as much as possible retained this level, cutting and gouging not too deeply, and rarely rounding his surfaces as in Elizabethan work. This applies to panels, chair-backs, and wide surfaces, but rarely to legs of pieces, as these were usually turned. The relief was low and, therefore, missed somewhat of the elegance seen at that time on the Continent. It was conservative, self-restrained, perhaps a little cold, but it pleased the people for whom it was made, for it had a Northern asceticism more admired than the voluptuous fulness of the South. Perhaps temperament regulated and stiffened the hand, but more than that crudeness was a sign of the times. The people of England knew little then of the finer side of life, and in manners and morals were not such people as the Englishman of to-day would care to welcome to his hearth or drawing-room. And the consolation for all such reflections is that it is better to belong to a nation that can see itself improving than to one whose glory lies dead these many hundreds of years.

The details of the Jacobean carvings that we must learn -what are they? Two or three are actual hall-marks, and are easily learned. One is a series of circles forming a running pattern adaptable to almost any piece of furniture. These circles are made detached, or tied together with a straight bar, or formed by a graceful serpentine meander. The latter is most interesting because it enables one to recognise the species -it is a copy of the Roman guilloche, revived by the Italian Renaissance, imported to England, and suffering variations under the tools of local carvers.

This design outlines many a panel, and when enlarged and broken into sections, is made to do duty as the central ornament of smaller panels. In this case it sometimes appears arranged in a quatrefoil, sometimes like twins side by side.

Another form of which liberal and varied use is made is the semicircle filled with leafage or with long petals, which leads one to liken it to half a daisy sunk within a protecting encircling line. It bears a close resemblance to the later developments which we call shells and rising suns. It is among the most ambitious of the running patterns and takes space to execute, so is found on chests, cupboards and tables, but rarely on chairs. Small designs were a repetition of slanting gouges which roughly indicated a spiral, or little crescent-shaped digs of the tool, which broke up a long unornamented space or a moulding.

The double scroll, foliated and plain is so oft repeated that its carvers must have been enamoured of this adaptable device. We know what it was in the hands of inspired artists - but we must also admire its interpretation as given by these men of practicality. Tied together it makes a " repeat " adaptable to any length to be ornamented; and used singly, the foliations elaborated, it fills a panel. In the Northern land it lost in softness, in succulence, but it took on an aspect of interest to the student; it developed a neat hardness which is characteristic of designs of all Northern peoples. If it lacked sparkling piquancy, at least it retained grace, and this quality endears it. If it loses in richness, it gains the beauty of attenuation.

A simple, almost childish design is doubtless an inartistic use of the curling acanthus, but is at best a weak, flat attempt. Still, it is not to condemn that we examine it, only to regard it as a help in knowing the designs of that time.

It remains to mention a design which is a favourite where square panels are to be ornamented, a design enormously interesting to those who like the fun of running a fox to his hole. It is not my purpose to do this, but to call attention to the design as England liked it in these days. In general it resembles an arched entrance to an edifice. Two uprights resting on a pedestal support an arch. Most happily is this used on a cupboard door, for then architecture seems to come to the pleasant assistance of the smaller trade as when a lion graciously helps a mouse. And just as happily is the design applied to the head board of a great temple of an oaken bedstead, for here it is like the reredos of an altar, most fit for the reception of mighty petitions and promising divine protection throughout the hours of darkness.

But without appropriateness the backs of armchairs are treated in this way. It must have been to the utter discomfiture of those who for fear of rheumatism never turn the back to an open doorway.

Of inlaying I have not yet spoken, for low relief was the leading characteristic of this period, but this design of columns and arch (how can one refrain from speaking of their Roman and Lombardy origin?) is found in inlay as well as in carving, executed in holly and other light woods. This treatment admitted of an elaboration too recondite for the carver, an effect of far perspection given by repeating the design in even smaller size, one within the other.

In its purity this is one of the subtlest of both Elizabethan and Jacobean motifs, for it partakes of the qualities of the intellect; but, alas for the taste for novelty, which has ever been the fell destroyer of perfection. The pranks which were played with the uprights robbed them of strength, and dispelled the illusion of firm and capable columns. They lost their look of solidity and became mere flat surfaces on which to lay a floral or scroll design. The arch loses less in maltreatment, for it still retains its wide, full sweep like the top of a dignified doorway, although it suffers by means of a double scroll decoration continued from the uprights.

To see this design in the full of its forceful value, it must be found on a piece of furniture or a mantel where it is used with logical intent, the purpose of the pillars being really to support something. This is seen on tables, the columns forming the legs, and the arches carrying the weight of the table top. It is also seen on open chair-backs, and on court cupboards.

Characteristic of this time as well as of the Elizabethan is the carving known as strap-work, to which allusion has been made before. It comes entirely within the manner of the English worker of those days, their practice of keeping surfaces flat and low, a practice which is one of the distinguishing marks. The Jacobean and Elizabethan have much in common, but are perfectly distinguishable by this flattening and we might say cheapening of all carved surfaces.

So far we have taken no note of the introduction of Flemish styles, which are so markedly different as to seem to belong to another era. From Flanders came another infusion of the warm blood of the Renaissance. It seemed to preserve its vitality better than in England, and so came over again in Flemish form.

In chairs the change was very marked. The appearance of being made f rom decorated planks was destroyed by the free introduction of pierced carved work of a rich and artistic order, and by turning. The beauty of these chairs it is hard to overpraise, notwithstanding the fact that they are not regarded as comfortable asylum for those addicted to naps in their hours of ease. That being true, and yet one being able to own an original and several copies, these chairs make the ideal furnishing for a modern dining-room.

Earlier Jacobean chairs were of the variety known as wainscot chairs, the name coming obviously from the shape of the back, which might have been a panel lifted from a decorated wall of those days, so like is it to a section of the wondrous shadowy walls which made rich shelter to the folk of those days who are to us glorified by the light of romance. The ornamented back standing with uncompromising rigidity, ready to impress its carved elaborations upon the tender, tired flesh that sought repose upon it, this back was given further decorative value by the simplicity of the seat, a mere polished flat plank, at right angles to the perpendicular back. Arms were straight and vigorous, legs preserved unerring honesty of direction, and altogether the chair was frank, honest and well-balanced, showing without shame its ancestry of oaken plank and stick.

Altogether different was the later Jacobean chair copied from the Lowlands, which got it from Spain, when those two countries were associated under Emperor Charles V and his descendants. This latter chair showed often the slender, twisted column -but not by that alone can its origin be rightly traced, for Italy and France were also building this graceful spiral support into the furniture of their Renaissance. Just what determines it is so fine a matter that even the most astute of collectors have been known to miscall a piece or else to fall back upon the ipse dixit of a dealer.

It is the indefinite something which forms the personality of the chair just as indefinable charm envelops certain individuals. In general the designs of Italian, Flemish and English chairs of the type we are considering are closely analogous, but a careful study of many pieces will produce a keenness in recognition. You cannot associate yourself with them without learning to know them, just as by contact one learns to know individuals, and it is needless to say each has a charm peculiar to itself. The Italian chair shows the best workmanship, as though its maker had been loath to let it go from his caressing hand, adding daily some greater perfection, until the wood seems sentient and the colour underrun with life. The design, too, is more complete, rounding itself into a perfect whole as symmetric as a sonnet. There is no abruptness, no expediency, but all is carefully planned with a poetic mind and finished with the hand of grace.

The Flemish plays a close second, only losing when running into over-elaboration. A revel of enrichment always suggests weakness, and lack of symmetry, as though a fundamental fault in proportion were covered by rich draping. Rich scrolls carved with a high surface rising almost to an angle played many parts in the chairs, and in time were used in a way that scrolls had never before been used, that is, as legs. Previous to this time a rigid perpendicularity had prevailed, but now began the new order. But as we have already seen, all things of the Renaissance turn back to the antiquity of Rome and Greece, which in turn had succeeded in art the Egyptian. So we cannot claim for Flanders, nor for any other modern country, the original adoption of the scroll as a support, but we may see in it the beginnings of those later styles which developed in each country according to its kind.

The English chair, the later Jacobean, is as true in its artistic development as that of the other countries. Like them especially in grace and a lightness that contrasted agreeably with the solid immovability of the earlier chairs.

This effect of lightness was mainly given by the open backs, which were composed of a panel of carving framed with two distant columns of turned work. Besides this, cane and rush took the place of wood in both seat and back, and this was often upholstered with cushions of tapestry. But as the rigidity of the Reformation was the paramount feeling at this period of history, an indefinable effect of inflexibility is given to the product of the hand; and even in a carving of scroll, some angles are shown, just enough to protest against too voluptuous an art.

Before leaving the wonderful richness of Jacobean carvings and old black oak, consider for a moment the gate-legged table, for a specimen is occasionally to be found, to delight the eye and to accommodate the hand. It is round or oblong, having around the top a border of the half-circle ornamentation, lightly cut, and its distinguishing feature of two drop leaves supported on moveable gates. The eight legs are symmetrically turned and under-framed. Another style of gate-legged table has but one drop leaf, and employs the Spanish foot.

The so-called wing chair, Shakespeare chair, and Stuart chair, all belong to this period, but as they belong more distinctly to other styles, from which they were borrowed, they are considered elsewhere. Let it be sufficient here to say that the Shakespeare chair with its wide seat, narrow back, and wide, semi-circular arms, came to England through Flanders, and the Stuart chair came from France, a product of the Renaissance in that country.

And why did these things come, these waifs from other countries? The answer is found in that part of history that tells of Elizabeth's interference in Spain's tyrannous subjugation of the Netherlands, and in Marie Stuart's desire to surround herself with the familiar household gods of the country she left for Scotland's turbulence and Elizabeth's surveillant hospitality. It is not out of place here to say again, that the charm of old furniture is doubled if it is allowed to speak to them it now delights of those shadowy folks who called it into being and whose doings are far enough away to be called history.

The Jacobean period is hard to leave. Its riches are infinite, it speaks eloquently of more things than wood and carver's tools, for the man is always more than his work. If in the time of the Tudors England awoke, in the time of the Stuarts it most assuredly remained alive. But as the Renaissance in the Northern countries included a religious awakening, and the rigidity of Calvin was welcomed by the sturdy races, so the decorative art of England, and more particularly under the Commonwealth, showed a moral formality which was a protest against the indulgence of the senses.

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