Read an Excerpt
A Matter of Style: Artists at home; The taste for the exotic; The Renaissance style; Early Victorian revivals; New materials
A.W.N. Pugin: From Regency to Reformed Gothic; Pugin furniture; Pugin interiors; Pugin plagiarists
William Burges: Burges interiors; Burges furniture; Burges at home; Burges's assistants
Geometric Gothic: The 'Muscular Goths'; John Pollard Seddon; Alfred Waterhouse; 'Hints on Household Taste'; Bruce Talbert; Charles Bevan; Commercial design
From 'Nankin' to Bedford Park: Jeckyll and Whistler; Early Godwin furniture; Later Godwin furniture; Christopher Dresser; Richard Norman Shaw; Collinson & Lock; Aesthetic variety; Cottier and Edis
Morris and Company: Early 'Morris' furniture; The 'Rossetti' chair; Morris & Co.; Philip Webb; Stained glass, textiles and tiles; Later Morris & Co. furniture; Stanmore Hall
The Arts and Crafts Movement: The Century Guild; C.R. Ashbee and the Guild of Handicraft; W.R. Lethaby and Kenton & Co.; Ernest Gimson; Cotswold craftsmen; C.F.A. Voysey; Walter Cave, Edwin Lutyens and Frank Brangwyn
The 'New Art': Mackintosh interiors; Scottish furniture; George Walton; English 'New Art' furniture; Omega and others
Heal's and Liberty's: Early Ambrose Heal furniture; Pre-War Heal's; Liberty's; Outside designers at Liberty's
Gazetteer of public collections of Victorian and Edwardian furniture
Notes on the text
Location of illustrated furniture and drawings
Acknowledgments for photographs
In gently deriding our present 'fissiparous, disconnected age . . . where the volume of critical opinion greatly exceeds itscontent', Sir Denys Lasdun could be speaking for progressive architects and designers of almost all ages in almost all countries. During the inventive period of British furniture and interior design from 1830 to 1915 critical opinion was no less combatative than it is now. The Fortnightly Review expressed in 1868 the robust view that 'nothing can exceed the ugliness of modern furniture, unless it be the homes into which we are obliged to put it'. A typical armchair activist of 1902, H.J. Jennings, described the work of E.W. Godwinnow prized for its crisp originalityas 'that excrescence of nineteenth century art . . . effeminate, invertebrate, sensuous and mawkish'. Critical comment was wide-ranging. Consider, for example, the respected opinion of the German writer Hermann Muthesius, offered in his influential book of 1904, Das Englische Haus: 'It is difficult to find justification for the English habit of using a knob rather than a lever to open a door. Turning a knob is the most unsuitable way of exerting pressure on a spring, especially when, as is usually the case, it is small and slippery. Whereas a German maid with both hands full can still press down the door-handle with her elbow, her English counterpart has to lay whatever she is carrying on the floor before she can open the door.'
Critics of all periods chew the same old bones of contention. In the nineteenth century architects were pilloried, as they are now, for revivalism, for turning both too slavishly and too quirkily to earlier sources for their dominant motifs. In the High Victorian period this pattern-book mentality was said to have led to a style of interior design more suitable to 'a fairground booth'an apposite epitaph, some might say today, for Post-Modernism. But whatever the possible similarities between the aesthetics of the 1880s and those of the 1980s, there are at least two fundamental differences. Firstly, in the 1880s furniture and interior design throughout the world were dominated by British architects; secondly, the rich and the fashionable lived in brand-new homes surrounded by brand-new art.
Not all homes, of course, were progressive and modern in their design, for as well as harbouring the talents of a remarkably diverse band of inventive architect-designers, the nineteenth century also encouraged the commercial production of furniture and furnishings of equally remarkable ugliness. The fact remains, however, that even the most idealistic of talented church builders also concerned themselves with the decorative arts: William Butterfield produced designs for embroidery and wallpapers, A.W.N. Pugin for bookcases and dinner services decades before the better-known architectural ensembles of a C.F.A. Voysey or a Charles Rennie Mackintosh. Unlike today, the designers of the best furniture between 1830 and 1915 were mostly practising architects and much of what they produced was progressively modern, so much so that even now chairs by Pugin, for instance, retain an air of elemental originality. Concerned not merely with the external appearances of their buildings but also with every stage of construction, decoration and furnishing, many architects worked extensively with commercial manufacturers to produce designs for 'multiples', to use the modern artist-craftsman term, as well as for individual commissions. Godwin expressed the architectural belief of the time in the introduction to a commercial catalogue of his designs, published in 1877: 'The commonest article of furniture cannot be an artistic work by any happy-go-lucky process whatsoever'. It is furniture of this nature, made to an authoritative design, whether one-off or mass-produced, that exclusively concerns us in this book.
The introductory first chapter, 'A Matter of Style', looks into Victorian attitudes to style and taste, taking the lead from contemporary design manuals such as Henry Shaw's Specimens of Ancient Furniture, Owen Jones's Grammar of Ornament and Mrs. Haweis's Beautiful Houses. Whether in the 'Gothic', 'Elizabethan', or 'Louis XV' style, all furniture of the early Victorian period tended to look much the same, rounded and comfortable in form, in its way almost style-lesssee, for example, the designs of Anthony Salvin, Philip Hardwick, or Richard Bridgens. The taste for exotic Moorish interiors is also discussed in this chapter, together with the contemporary interest in antiquarianism. In discussing matters of style in this general way, the ground is prepared for the succeeding eight specialist chapters, which begin with A.W.N. Pugin, who, despite his medievalism, was 'almost an early modern'. The Pugin chapter also covers the work of his eldest son, Edward, and of his principal collaborator, J.G. Crace. Long after A.W.N. Pugin's death in 1852, Puginesque furniture continued to be produced by the cabinetmakers Gillow's and Holland & Sons, both of whom reused the original designs he had made for them, and by commercial firms such as C. & R. Light of Shoreditch, production centre of what the designer C.R. Ashbee called 'slaughtered furniture'.
As William Burges was the only architect to concentrate exclusively on painted furniture, he and his assistants H.W. Lonsdale, E.J. Tarver and W.G. Saunders are allotted the next chapter to themselves. This is followed by an omnium gatherum chapter entitled 'Geometric Gothic', a term coined by the collector Charles Handley-Read to describe furniture of the 1860s and 1870s designed by, among others, Bruce Talbert and Charles Bevan. This chapter also includes the spikier Ruskinesque furniture of J.H. Chamberlain, the plainer designs of C.L. Eastlake, and the Old-Englishy interiors of Alfred Waterhouse. It does not include Richard Norman Shaw or W.E. Nesfield, both of whom began their careers in the Gothic tradition but whose principal field of influence is on the aesthetic movement, discussed in the next chapter, 'From "Nankin" to Bedford Park'. (Much of the blue-and-white porcelain imported from Japan was said to come from 'Nankin'; Bedford Park, 'an aesthetic Eden', is a west London suburb built by Godwin, Shaw and others, largely in the 'Queen Anne' style.) A close connection between the Gothic and Japanese revivals might at first glance seem unlikely, but many designers moved easily between the two. Burges stated of the 1862 London International Exhibition that 'truly the Japanese Court is the real medieval court' and Bruce Talbert's ebonized furniture clearly combines the two influences.
In dealing with the work of Morris and Company after the aesthetic movement rather than before, direct connections can more easily be made between Morris and the arts and crafts movement, the subject of chapter seven, many of whose leadersW.R. Lethaby, Walter Crane, etc.were earlier employed by 'The Firm', as Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co. was known. Anyway, William Morris was very much a turn-of-the-century hero, whereas most of the 'Francesca da Rimini, niminy, piminy' aesthetes were despised by the artist-craftsmen. (When Mrs. Ashbee left London for Chipping Campden in 1902 she deeply regretted having to lease her Chelsea house to Whistler, 'the little, horrid, cantankerous, curled, perfumed creature'.) The title of chapter seven, 'The Arts and Crafts Movement', defines its limits, although certain Voysey interiors discussed in that chapter might also be described as 'New Art', and one of the most important commissions of the 'New Art' designer M.H. Baillie Scott, the furniture for the Grand Duke of Hesse's palace in Darmstadt, was executed by Ashbee's Guild of Handicraft. The 'New Art', however, especially in the work of Mackintosh and the Glasgow School, was characterized not simply by the fact that one designer was responsible for the whole interior, but also by the single unifying themes of these interiors. 'New Art'l'Art nouveau in Francewas also distinguished by the virulence of the criticism it attracted. The sculptor George Frampton, one-time Master of the Art-Workers' Guild, commented: 'I believe it is made on the continent and used by parents to frighten naughty children.'
Finally, there is a chapter on the commercial furniture of Heal's and Liberty'sLiberty's because of the breadth of their influence (Marcel Proust owned a Liberty duvet which played havoc with his asthma), Heal's because Sir Ambrose Heal, 'that rare thing: a successful pioneer who never lost touch with economic realities', was not only an excellent designer but is also one of the few from this period whose work is still neglected by collectors.
Although acres of 'Victoriana'once ignored by the art market, now overvaluedwill here remain uncultivated, it is difficult to look at architect-designed furniture without also being influenced by current collecting trends. As Richard Norman Shaw was prepared publicly to admit: 'Those of us who happen to be collectors, in even a small way, fall into error and make our homes too much like little museumsan error, this, that causes a room (and its owner, too, now and then) to be just a trifle tedious.' The pieces illustrated in this book were originally created as part of often outrageously adventurous contemporary interiors, but now they must be viewed in the precious light of 'museum interest' and of colour-plate auction catalogues, their values warmed by the praise of an antiques-orientated artistic establishment. This furniture has therefore become exactly what its creators abhorred, a field of collecting approved by the fashionable rich intent on surrounding themselves with fine 'antiques' instead of commissioning living architects to build and furnish new homes. If Morris were alive today he would be tearing down his own hangings and burning his friend Burges's wardrobes, which now sell for £80,000 or more. 'I have never been in any rich man's house', Morris said, 'which would not have looked better for having a bonfire made outside of nine-tenths of what it held.'
The point to be emphasized is that all the best nineteenth-century furniture was the work of individualists and iconoclasts living in a period which welcomed change. The difference between us and the Victorians is illustrated by Prince Albert's commission for the Great Exhibition in Hyde Park in 1851 of a glass and iron pre-fabricated 'palace', one of the most ambitious, technically advanced and aesthetically far-sighted buildings England has ever seen. After the opening of Prince Albert's 'Crystal Palace', Queen Victoria noted in her journal: 'The sight . . . was magic and impressive. The tremendous cheering, the joy expressed in every face, the vastness of the building, with all its decorations and exhibits . . . and my beloved husband, the creator of this peace festival uniting the art and industry of all nations on earth.' The vivacity of the Victorian vision, and its optimism too, are jointly reflected in the period's furniture and interiors.
Author Biography: Jeremy Cooper was for many years head of the nineteenth-century furniture and works of art department at Sotheby's in London. He is a contributor to numerous journals; his first novel, Ruth, was published to wide critical acclaim.