For the majority of the 19th Century, Queen Victoria sat on the throne (1837-1901) and Britain underwent a time of political and social change. This brought with it a greater diversity in the nation’s tastes and trends, with styles and inspirations drawn from across its vast empire, as well as beyond.
A growing population in turn lead to a need for more furniture, with the emerging class of new rich preferring a varied selection. With this in mind, let us take a look at how some of these items, from casual antique settees to more formal pieces, reflect the very nature of Victorian Britain:
A time of reflection
With an overall increase in education during the Victorian period, greatly improved through the introduction of the 1870 Elementary Education Act – which allowed for anyone under the age of 10 to receive free state schooling – this era led to a number of pieces being designed that harked back to Britain’s past.
History was being viewed from the perspective of the developing Romantic philosophy, with the Victorians’ furniture adapting elements from a number of periods, including Baroque, Gothic and Neo Classical styles.
While this trend did feed into the Arts and Crafts movement, it also took on a life of its own through many intricately and elaborately carved designs. Whether creating antique wardrobes or lounge items, these rich, history-steeped pieces are usually what people picture when they think of Victorian furniture.
The Arts and Crafts movement
A burgeoning trend during the second half of the 19th Century, especially following the Great Exhibition of 1851, was the Arts and Crafts style.
A reaction to the designers’ perceived harshness of industrialisation, as well as a lament for more simple times, the items, including late Victorian furniture, were crafted from the viewpoint of ‘honest’ work. In a return to authorship of pieces, a single individual was normally in charge of all stages of the item’s design and manufacture.
While at the time the hand-crafted pieces were normally sold through specialist stores or through direct commission, the artistry of the medieval-styled Guilds that sprang up to support the movement will often find its way into auctions and local antique stores.
Following Napoleon’s defeat just prior to the Victorian age, the Empire was free to expand across the world, which lead to it coming across many new cultures. One such nation, Japan, had only just reopened its borders in 1853 and became an instant source of inspiration for British artists and craftspeople.
In comparison with the historically-influenced British pieces, Japanese designs were viewed by some as having a distinct purity of form, with its simplicity being beheld as elegance.
The Victorian designs that were inspired by the Japanese tried to reflect the harmonious symmetry of their furniture, which was often designed in a way that made it stand out rather than blend in. Such concepts helped to reflect British society’s evolution as it approached the start of the 20th Century.