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Georgian Furniture

( Originally Published Early 1900's )

A delightful renaissance of the Georgian period in house decoration is being felt more and more, and every day we see new evidence that people are turning with thanksgiving to the light and graceful designs of the eighteenth century English cabinet-makers. There is a charm and distinction about their work which appeals very strongly to us, and its beauty and simplicity of line makes delightful schemes possible.

The Georgian period seems especially fitted for use in our homes, for it was the inspiration of our Colonial houses and furniture, which we adapted and made our own in many ways. The best examples of Colonial architecture are found in the thirteen original states. In many of these houses we find an almost perfect sense of proportion, of harmony and balance, of dignity, and a spaciousness and sense of hospitality, which few of our modern houses achieve. The halls were broad and often went directly through the house, giving a glimpse of the garden beyond; the stairs with their carefully thought-out curve and sweep and well placed landings, gave at once an air of importance to the house, while the large rooms opening from the hall, with their white woodwork, their large fireplaces, and comfortable window-seats, confirmed the impression.

It is to this ideal of simple and beautiful elegance that many people are turning. By simplicity I do not mean poverty of line and decoration, but the simplicity given by the fundamental lines being simple and beautiful with decoration which enhances their charms, but does not overload them. Even the most elaborate Adam room with its exquisite painted furniture, its beautifully designed mantel and ceiling and paneled walls, gave the feeling of delightful and beautiful simplicity. This same feeling is expressed in the furniture of Louis XVI, for no matter how elaborate it may be, it is fundamentally simple, but with a warmer touch than is found in the English furniture of the same time.

The question of period furnishing has two sides, and by far the more delightful side is the one of having originals. There is a glamor about old furniture, a certain air of fragility, although in reality it is usually much stronger than most of our modern factory output, which adds to the charm. With furniture, as with people, breeding will out. When one has inherited the furniture, the charm is still greater, for it is pleasant to think of one's own ancestors as having used the chairs and tables, and danced the stately minuet, with soft candle-light falling from the candelabra, and the great logs burning on the old brass andirons. But if one cannot have one's own family traditions, the next best thing is to have furniture with some other family's traditions, and the third choice is to have the best modern reproductions, and build up one's own traditions oneself.

The feeling which many people have that Georgian furniture was stiff and uncomfortable is not borne out by the facts. The sofas were large and roomy, the settees delightful, the arm-chairs and wing chairs regular havens of rest, and when one adds the comfort which modern upholstery gives, there is little left to desire. Even the regulation side-chair of the period, which some think was the only chair in very common use, is absolutely comfortable for its purpose. Lounging was much less in vogue then than nowadays and the old cabinet-makers realized that one must be comfortable when sitting up as well as when taking one's ease. One must not be deterred by this unfounded bugaboo of discomfort if one wishes a room or house done after the great period styles of the eighteenth century. With care and knowledge, the result is sure to be delightful and beautiful.

This little book, as I have said before, is not intended to be a guide for collectors, for that is a very big subject in itself, but is meant to try to help a little about the modern side of the question. There are many grades of furniture made, and one should buy with circumspection, and the best grade which is possible for one to afford. The very best reproductions are made with as much care and knowledge and skill as the originals, and will last as long, and become treasured heirlooms like those handed down to us. They are works of art like their eighteenth century models. The wood is chosen with regard to its beauty of grain, and is treated and finished so the beauty and depth of color is brought out, and the surface is rubbed until there is a soft glow to it. If one could have the ages-old mahogany which Chippendale and his contemporaries used, there would be little to choose between the originals and our best reproductions, so far as soundness of construction and beauty of detail go. But the fact that they were the originals of a great style, that no one since then has been able to design any furniture of greater beauty than that of England and France in the eighteenth century, and that we are still copying it, gives an added charm to a rare old chair or sideboard or mirror. The modern workman in the best workshops is obliged to know the different styles so well that he cannot make mistakes, and if he ventures to take a little flight of fancy on his own account., it will be done with such correctness of feeling that one is glad he flew; but few attempt it. In the lower grade of reproductions one must have an eagle eye when buying. I saw a rather astounding looking Chippendale chair in a shop one day, with a touch of Gothic -- a suspicion of his early Dutch manner and, to give a final touch, tapering legs with carved bellflowers ! " What authority have you for that chair? " I asked, for I really wanted to know what they would call the wonder.

" That," the shopman answered, the pride of knowledge shining in his eyes, " is Chinese Chippendale."

Another anachronism which has appeared lately, and sad to say in some of the shops that should know better, is painted Adam furniture with pictures on it of the famous actresses of the eighteenth century. The painting of Angelica Kauffman, Cipriani, Pergolesi and the others, was charming and delightful. Nymphs and cupids, flowers, wreaths, musical instruments, and poetical little scenes, but never the head of a living woman! The had taste of it would have been as apparent to them as putting the picture of Miss Marlowe, or Lillian Russell on a chair back would be to us.

The finish is another matter to bear in mind. There is a thick red stain, which for some mysterious reason is called mahogany, which is put on cheaper grades of furniture and finished with a high polish. Fortunately, it is chiefly used on furniture of vulgar design, but it sometimes creeps in on better models. Shun it whenever seen. The handles must be correct also, and a glance at the different illustrations will be of help in this matter.

The pieces of furniture used throughout a house, no matter what the period may be, are more or less the same, so many chairs, tables, beds, mirrors, etc., and when one has decided what one's needs are, the matter of selection is much simplified. Of course one's needs are influenced by the size of the house, one's circumstances, and one's manner of life.

To be successful, a house must be furnished in absolute harmony with the life within its walls. A small house does not need an elaborate drawing-room, which could only be had at the expense of family comfort; a simple drawing-room would be far better, really more of a living-room. In a large house one may have as many as one wishes.

A house could be furnished throughout with Chippendale furniture and show no sign of monotony of treatment. The walls could be paneled in some rooms, wainscoted in others, and papered in others. This question of paper is one we have taken in our own hands nowadays, and although it was not used much before the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, there are so many lovely designs copied from old-time stuffs and landscape papers, which are in harmony with the furniture, that they are used with perfect propriety. One must be careful not to choose anything with a too modern air, and a plain wall is always safe.

The average hall will probably need a pair of console tables and mirrors, some chairs, Oriental rugs, a tall clock if one wishes, and, if the hall is very large and calls for more furniture, there are many other interesting pieces to choose from. A hall should be treated with a certain amount of formality, and the greater the house, the greater the amount; but it also should have an air of hospitality, of impersonal welcome, which makes one wish to enter the rooms beyond where the real welcome waits.

The window frames of Colonial and Georgian houses were often of such good design that no curtains were used, and the wooden inside shutters were shut at night. Nowadays the average house has what might be called utility woodwork at its windows and so we cover them with curtains. These curtains may be of linen, cretonne, damask, or brocade, ac-cording to the house, and may either fall straight at the side with a slight drapery or shaped or plain valance at the top, or be drawn back from the center. A carved cornice or the regular box frame may be used.

The stairs were often of beautifully polished hardwood, and they were sometimes covered with rugs. Large Chinese porcelain jars on the console tables are suitable, and other beautiful ornaments.

As the drawing-room usually opens from the hall, it is better to keep both rooms in the same general scale of furnishing. The average sized drawing-room will need sofas, a small settee, two or three tables, one of them a gallery table if desired, chairs of different shapes and size, mirrors, a cabinet if one has rare pieces of old porcelain, and candelabra, Oriental rugs, a fire screen, ornaments, and pictures, but these last should not be of the modern impressionistic school. The woodwork should be white, or light, and the furniture covered with damask, needlework, brocade or tapestry.

The dining-room can be made most charming with corner cupboards and cabinet, a large mahogany table and side table and beautiful morocco covered chairs. Chippendale did not make sideboards in our sense of the word, but used large side tables. One of the modern designs which many like to use, for to them it seems a necessity, is a sideboard made in the style of Chippendale. The screen may be leather painted after " the Chinese taste," or it may be dam-ask. The chairs may be covered with tapestry or damask if one does not care for morocco. Portraits are interesting in a dining-room, or old prints, or paintings, and if you can get the old dull gold carved frames, so much the better. They may also be set in panels.

The bedrooms may have either four-post canopy beds or low-posts beds. Chippendale's canopy beds had usually a carved cornice with the curtains hung from the inside. The other furniture should consist of a dressing-table, a chest of drawers to correspond with a chiffonier, a highboy, a sewing table, a bedside table, a comfortable sofa, a fireside or wing chair and other chairs according to one's need. The walls may be covered with either an old-fashioned or plain paper, or paneled, with hangings and chair coverings of chintz or cretonne. The bed hangings may be of cretonne also, for it makes a very charming room, but if one objects to colored bed hangings, white dimity, or muslin or linen may be used.

It is the art of keeping the correct feeling which makes or mars a room of this kind, and no pieces of markedly modern and inharmonious furniture should be used. In furnishing a house in Georgian or Colonial manner one need not keep all the rooms in the same division of the period, for there is a certain general air of harmony and relationship about them all, and the common bond of mahogany makes it possible to have a Chippendale library, an Adam drawing-room, a Hepplewhite dining-room and a Sheraton hall, or any other combination desired. The spirit of all the eighteenth century cabinet-makers was one of honest construction and beauty of line and workmanship. 'When they took ideas from other sources they made them so distinctly their own, so essentially English that there is a family resemblance through all their work.

Adam decoration and furniture makes most delightful rooms. The painted satinwood furniture for dining-room, drawing-room and bedrooms, lends itself to lovely schemes with its soft golden tones, its delightfully woven cane chair backs and panels. A room on the sunny side of the house, with a soft old ivory colored wall, dull blue silk curtains, and a yellow and blue Chinese rug, would be most charming with this satinwood furniture.

Then, as I have said before, there are the many different shades of enameled and carved furniture and also beautiful natural wood. One can have more of a sideboard in an Adam than in a Chippendale room, as he used two pedestals, one at each end of a large serving-table. He often made tables to fit in niches, which is a charming idea.

An Adam mantel is very distinctive and one should be careful in having it correct. There are beautiful reproductions made. The lamp and candle shades should also be de-signed in the spirit of the time. There are lovely Adam designs in nearly all materials suitable for hangings and chair coverings. Oriental rugs or plain colored carpets appeal to us more than large-figured rugs. Adam sometimes had special rugs made exactly reproducing the design of the ceiling, but it is an idea that is better forgotten.

With Hepplewhite and Sheraton the same general ideas hold; keep to the spirit of the furniture, try to have a central idea in the house furnishing, so that the restful effect of harmony may be given.

The rugs which harmonize best with Georgian furniture are Orientals of different weaves and colors, or plain domestic carpet rugs. The floor should be the darkest of the three divisions of a room the floor, the walls, the ceiling, but it should be an even gradation of color value, the walls half-way in tone between the other two. This is a safe general plan, to be varied when necessity demands. In drawing-rooms light and soft colors are usually in better harmony than dark ones, and a wide and beautiful choice can be made among Kermanshah, Kirman, Khorasan, Tabriz, Chinese, Oman rugs, and many others. It is more restful in effect if the greater part of the floor is covered with a large rug, but if one has beautiful small rugs they may be used if they are enough alike in general tone to escape the appearance of being spotty. One should try them in different positions until the best arrangement is found.

Living-rooms and libraries are usually more solid in color than drawing-rooms and so need deeper tones in the rugs. The choice is wide, and the color scheme can be the deciding note if one is buying new rugs. If one already has rugs they must be the foundation for the color scheme of the room.

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