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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

Decorative Style - English And American Empire

( Originally Published Early 1900's )



The heading of this chapter signifies the author's approval of much that is the outcome of this style. Debased Empire is what the prejudiced British critic calls it in his condemnation, but such critics have less reason to feel tenderness towards the style than we who love it for its associations with old American homes.

A glance at its causes is not inappropriate. With a style as perfect as that in vogue at the close of the eighteenth century, with Chippendale just behind it, and with Jacobean and Tudor styles to suggest the Renaissance, why must England run out of the country for inspiration? Because the habit was strong upon her to turn to France for life's embellishments. And thus she fell into trouble in her decorative arts.

There is wonder in this, for England, as Thackerary reminds us in his captivating story of the Georges, now " had to grapple and fight for life with her gigantic enemy Napoleon." Why then should she turn to him as sycophant and eagerly clutch whatever of his truly personal and bombastic decorations she could adapt to her own beautification? The answer to that is found in the strange lack of unity between the masses and the classes which unhappily exists the world over, and always will as long as wealth and fashion live.

Napoleon had not been grappled with, fought and vanquished, however, before the styles which were made for the Emperor were dragged across the Channel. He was in full power, and had introduced novelty into decorative art, through the talent of native craftsmen. Fashionable folk in England looked discontented on the coldness of their drawingrooms, the fine airiness of their dining-rooms and sighed for lavish display; they, too, wanted the warmth of colour, the richness of mere size, the gorgeousness of metal mounts which were giving grandeur to the equipments of Napoleon.

And so the new style was imported into England purely because fashion wanted it. In France it was the expression of an event, of a great thought in history. It was full of meaning, it was a record of conquest, of unprecedented circumstances. But in England it was an alien. Nothing had happened there, no such cataclysm as the Revolution, with the Directory and the Empire growing therefrom. Instead, through all these events George III sat smugly on his throne, kind, dull, stubborn, and there he sat and led his bourgeoise life until these things pass away like a tale that is told.

So the new style was imported without other reason than the desire of fashion to follow the French modes in Paris. But as England had nothing to express of the sort that was inspiring French designers, it is easy to see how the style deteriorated, how the emblems lost meaning and wandered off into the bad lands of perverted taste.

To the story of Sheraton's poverty allusion has been made. It was a condition that increased with his years and his necessities. When, then, the mode changed, he was obliged for the sake of those dependent on him to change with it, and to give to customers what they demanded.

In 1804 and in 1806 he published books of designs so at variance with his previous work that very little of his manner remains for identification. Indeed, I find that very few of these late designs of his are called by his name at all. Perhaps this is well, for at least it prevents confusion and protects his reputation.

Metal mounts being one of the chief characteristics of Empire furniture, they were tried in England but with ever-lessening art. Sheraton's use of them was at least dainty, as he employed them mainly in the shape of finely chiselled feet to terminate the legs of tables, the style where three or four legs branch from a plinth surmounted by a column.

The American maker named Phyffe, who is known to have had a shop in Fulton Street, New York, in the first years of the nineteenth century, used the same foot, and won some fame by his productions which much resemble this Sheraton-Empire work.

But the chiselling of metal was not a perfected art in England as it had been for so long in France, and after revelling for a time in crudeness it was abandoned for other things, especially carving, which now flourished. The style of carving is unmistakable. It is a heavy relief of naturalistic fruit and flowers, all thickly massed, executed in mahogany, and has a tendency to express itself in the familiar big claw-foot without a ball. This carving was frequently gilded, and those pieces on which the old gilding is not entirely effaced, but glows and blends with the mahogany, are inexpressibly rich in colour.

There is much to condemn in this transplanted style, for it lacks inspiration in its adaptation, and originality (except original sin) is entirely wanting. It lacks every one of the qualities that give charm to the French Empire style. In it a lavish massing of material is substituted for good lines and finely wrought detail.

And yet, it is a style of infinite interest to us because it was largely used here, and largely manufactured. Strangely enough it is called by dealers and by many owners, Colonial, when as a matter of fact it had its vogue more than a quarter of a century after the colonies were States.

It would not be just to our ancestors nor to ourselves to admit that this style was without artistic merit. The sofa of the time, for example, in its best form, with overflowing cornucopias to form the curve of the arm, large lions' paws and more fruit and flowers to form the legs, and a graceful sweep to the back -this sofa stands comparison with sofas of other styles. If argument is made concerning its discomfort, the reply to that is to use it formally, and seek a lounging place on one of the luxurious downpadded bespringed asylums that belong to our own self-indulgent age of easy manners.

Then there are the pier-tables, with white marble introduced as columns and slabs, and the handsomest of which have a carved base, and inlay which takes the shape of the French ormolu mounts. These are dignified and elegant, and English commentators on domestic art should sheathe criticism in contemplating them. At least they are dear here, where four or five generations of one family have used them.

The upper dilution of Empire styles that was made in America ran largely to the carved pineapple as an ornament, which served a constructional purpose nobly or a decorative one lavishly. In tables both large and small we see it forming the post which rests on a plinth, supported by claws. This style of table is in large size for dining-room use, or in smaller for round centre-tables, or for drop-leaf or for worktables, and being symmetrical and elegant, is prized with reason.

Bureaus and sideboards show strongly the influence of Sheraton's late designs, and are nearly always fitted with posts or pilasters at the corners, continuing down to form the feet which on the handsomest pieces were claws. Sideboards have four posts across the front, and the middle section is swelled, as are also the bureau fronts. The carving of these posts introduces the pineapple - a natural design, as the fruit came up from San Domingo on the same ships with the mahogany. Twisted posts were a simpler substitute, and sometimes finely reeded ones. Gilded bronze was introduced in the drawer-handles which were unfortunately large and coarse, and had absolutely nothing to recommend them except the always agreeable contrast of gold and mahogany. They were disc-shaped, stamped in the design of an open flower or a lion's head, with ring handle.

The four-post bed had its last days under the reflected Empire style. On this article of furniture the carver spent himself, heaping claws, pineapples, twists, flowers and fruits one upon another to build up the required height. Nor stopped he at that, for both head and foot and tester received their share. The result was an overpowering heaviness, rich in its way, utterly condemnable when compared with similar pieces of French and Italian Renaissance, but -our own, and therefore loved, a little for its massive beauty, much for its associations.

These heavy beds have so often been shown me by those who truly believe them to antedate those with light tapering poles, that I dwell with emphasis on the fact that they belong to Napoleonic times, which abolished the manufacture of light furniture in England and the States.

Mirrors of this time are so persistently called Colonial that it is perhaps pertinent to correct that error here. Mirrors of the earlier times are the lighter and more classic, for now they lose in grace and become showily decorative and heavy, with bulging columns at the ends, the same laid horizontally across the top, and over them a. flat pediment. They give a look of old-fashioned elegance to rooms in which they are not inappropriate, but as works of art are not comparable to the delicate mirrors of Sheraton which they displaced.

Sheraton's later chairs pass for Empire here, and few of those who see them ever connect them with the great designer. They are remotely classic, inoffensive but uncomfortable.

But Sheraton's heart was not in this new work as was that of certain other English designers. Gillow became famed for his furniture in both rosewood and mahogany inlaid in flat brass, finished with finely chiselled feet of brass. Thomas Hope, another designer, used the classic effects in an endeavour to be like the French, and followed closely on the commoner designs. Indeed, much of the Empire furniture that comes to America as French is of the same design as that produced by the best English makers. The simpler craftsmanship they could execute, but the wondrous work of the French chiseller was beyond them, and on that the beauty of the furniture depended.

George Smith was " Upholder Extraordinary to H. R. H. the Prince of Wales," and we are thus reminded of the people for whom this somewhat monstrous style was made, especially of the king's son who preferred weak profligacy to refinement, and whose companions threw dice to the point of bankruptcy, swore eternally, bragged of unspeakable things and ended each worthless day by falling under the table unconscious. But others lived, too, in those days, brave, thrifty Americans, and it is for their sake we like and collect and " point with pride " to the " debased Empire."

There is yet a greater depth of debasement into which the style fell. Indeed, in its dotage it strayed senilely from every saving grace and revelled in mere size and quantity of material. Carving disappeared entirely, and all attempt at ornamentation in brass or gilding. In their place were wide veneered surfaces, and the most meaningless and rudimentary curves. The furniture made at this time was perhaps the most inartistic ever conceived, and that is saying much in view of what the nineteenth century perpetrated later. It is only mentioned here as a warning, and warning is only needed because the small dealers in old furniture of America are pressing it upon the unwary.

Their reason for so doing is purely commercial, of course. The universal desire to furnish in part with what might be called American antiques has made old furniture extremely difficult for the dealers to obtain. Having scoured hill and plain, garret and stable for oak of the Jacobean time, walnut of Queen Anne, mahogany of Chippendale, Hepplewhite and Sheraton, and carved English Empire, they take the sadly massive dilution of this last style and recommend it for its years. But years alone do not give grace. A form must have had artistic lines and good workmanship, or it can never gain in elegance by accumulation of time. Old things are not elegant and beautiful now that never were so. The clumsy veneered bed with a pieced quilt over it, and a rag mat before it could never have been that. Why then introduce these things into homes from which they were once happily banished?



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