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Architectural Influence - Early Georgian Furniture

Connoisseurs do not always take into account sufficiently the influence architects exerted over the furniture trade during the first half of the eighteenth century. At that time they were very active, such men as the Brothers Adam and Kent being destined to exert a far-reaching influence, for the schools of architecture they followed seemed to call for more suitable furniture for the new designs they were planning—something which in its decoration would render it harmonious and give greater beauty to the decorated rooms in which it was to be used. The architectural influence at that time exerted was due to the greater attention architects then gave to the interior fitments of the houses they were building for their patrons. It was a time when many finely decorated buildings were being put up. Classic influence was exerting itself. The mouldings or ornament of the furniture took shape from the more important buildings. Many cupboards and lesser pieces of furniture were, like our modern landlords' fixtures, part of the fitments arranged for by the architect or builder. Greater attention was given to mantel-pieces, corner cupboards, console tables, and other pieces, and they were made to accord with the wood-work.

Many men were building mansions for which new furniture would be required. In 1722 Sir Robert Walpole commenced the erection of Houghton Hall, in Norfolk. The furnishing of that mansion found work for many of the leading cabinet-makers of his day. He favoured furniture made under French influence, architecturally in keeping with the more classic designs then being produced. The console tables and gilt furniture were in accord with the building designed by Kent. In connection with the building of Houghton, which had a considerable influence on the style of architecture and appropriate furnishings for it, it may be pointed out that Sir Robert Walpole's new house was built by Ripley, and designed by William Kent, who worked in conjunction with Isaac Ware, another architect of great repute. It was Ware who was Clerk of the Works of the Tower of London in 1728 ; he was also Master of the Carpenters' Company in 1763. His book, entitled " Complete Body of Architecture," contained illustrations of another fine building, Chesterfield House, in Mayfair, which was built for the Earl of Chesterfield in 1749, and afterwards furnished. Thomas Ripley also published a book entitled " Houghton," and in it he described interior decoration and chimney-pieces which he and Kent had designed for Houghton Hall. Mahogany was very much employed. The library of Houghton was wainscoted with it, and, curiously enough, Ripley seems to infer that in an alcove in the room was a bed of mahogany hung with painted taffety. He also refers to a drawing-room which was hung with yellow cassory, and the chief saloon which was upholstered in crimson-flowered velvet. The chimney-piece of the saloon was of black and gold marble, and the same marble served for the table tops. In this very remarkable residential house there were several splendid chimney-pieces, and over some of them pictures in keeping with the decoration. Thus in the coffee-room there was a framed landscape with dancing figures, by Swanivet. Over the mantel-piece in the " common parlour " were very skilfully executed carvings by Grinling Gibbons. The hangings in the " velvet bed-chamber were of green velvet, and there were tapestries and other rich furnishings. William Kent, who was born in the North Riding of Yorkshire, in 1684, according to Walpole, felt the emotions of genius. Houghton Hall took years to build and furnish, and it cost a fortune, for Sir Robert Walpole spent fully £200,000 upon the house and its furnishings. This remark-able statesman did much indeed to advance architectural and furnishing art.. He placed great reliance upon Kent, who was not only an architect and a painter, but an ornamental gardener. The latter quality was by no means a small matter, for during the years which followed, houses, and incidentally their furniture, suffered from the narrowed and cramped lay-out of the restricted areas of town gardens.

Kent also drew from the pen of Horace Walpole many eulogiums, for he wrote of him : — " Kent was not only consulted for furniture, as frames of pictures, glasses, beds, tables, chairs, etc., but for plate, for a barge, for a cradle, and so impetuous was fashion, that two great ladies prevailed on him to make designs for their birthday gowns."

Architectural influence was at that time indeed strong, and there was an intermixture of architectural furniture and furnishing with an overlapping of the work, for in the reign of George I. Gibbons was exercising his influence over decorative ornament. It was of his work that Walpole wrote :—" There is no instance of a man before Gibbons who gave to wood the loose and airy lightness of flowers and changed together the various productions of the elements with a free disorder natural to each species."


The decorated furniture which ranges in date from 1714 to 1725 began during the reign of Queen Anne, and continued to be made after the accession of the Hanoverian Prince George to the English throne. It is important to-note the coming change in the chair leg which began when casters were first used. They were very small, and furnished with leather rollers instead of metal, or, as in later years, vitrified bowls ; the socket or horn was of brass. It is only from small details of construction that the furniture of this period can be distinguished, especially when the material is walnut. The heavy duty on the importation of the new wood mahogany restricted its use at that time, some concessions being made in the reign of George II. It has been pointed out that one of the characteristics of the early years of the Georgian period was the introduction of eagles' heads on the arms of the chairs, a device seen on both walnut and mahogany ; the eagles' beaks usually turn outward.

The escallop shell was often introduced, as may be seen on the knees of the cabriole legs as well as on the fronts of tables. During this period the richly upholstered gilded furniture, decorated and ornamented after French taste, was chiefly noted for its console tables, which were so prominent in all the more important rooms. The elegant console tables lost some of their decorative appearance, when in 1725 more flattened ornament was introduced, and decorated borders and carved mouldings of lighter taste came into use. The decorative character of chairs and other furniture makes it difficult to distinguish between some of the furniture of this period and that which was made a little later, when Chippendale began to exert his influence, for it was no doubt from the earlier decorated furniture that he secured his first model..

It is sometimes supposed that most of the best furniture of the gilded decorated type made under French influence came from abroad or was carried out by foreign workmen. That, however, is not quite correct, for there is abundant evidence that English workmen not infrequently decorated and finished furniture which had been imported in the rough.

( Originally Published Early 1900's )

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