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by Charles Eastlake

Primary authority on what was proper, beautiful, efficient in all aspects of mid-19th-century interior design. Originally published in 1868. Over 100 illustrations.
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LATEST ANTIQUES ARTICLE______________________________

Victorian Cottage Charm
by Bob Brooke


Decorating magazines picture Victorian rooms filled with grained mahogany, rich looking walnut, or golden oak furniture. Photographs rarely show painted pieces. There are several reasons: Painted pieces have not been reproduced, so the supply is limited. In the 1950s it was fashionable to buy a painted piece and strip the finish to have a more modern look. Painted surfaces are difficult to restore, and many old chests and chairs are worn. This style is known as Cottage Victorian. Most of the time, Cottage Victorian furniture had simple wooden knobs and handles.

Cottage furniture became popular in the United States, particularly in summer along the East Coast, after the Civil War. Pieces began appearing in workshops and then homes of the wealthy in places like Martha's Vineyard, Cape May, and the Berkshires. But the popularity of these items didnít remain exclusively with the upper class. As the middle class grew, equally elegant, but relatively reasonably priced versions began to appear in the homes of the nationís growing work force, particularly in Pennsylvania and New England.

Homeowners purchased Victorian Cottage furniture in mostly bedroom "suites", sold as coordinating groupings consisting of a double bed, a washstand, a dresser or vanity with an attached mirror, a small table, a straight chair and a rocker, and often a wardrobe. Cabinetmakers used pine or other inexpensive wood, then painted the entire piece with several layers of paint. The finished sets were colorful and whimsical.

Cottage Victorian beds have high and lavishly decorated headboards. Finials and medallions constituted what little carving there was on most pieces. Most of the decoration took the form of painted flowers, fruit, and other plants, featuring a large painted bouquet-like medallion in a central panel on the headboard and a smaller, matching one on the foot-board. Local cabinetmakers, most of whom didnít have any formal training, built these pieces from designs in pattern books. And since they had no formal art training, the decorative elements they applied to their pieces had a primitive, folk art feel to them. A few featured highly detailed and beautifully executed scenes of sailing ships or local wildlife. They painted all the pieces of a furniture suite with the same motif. The most popular base colors were tan, blues, greens, and pinks. A few rare ones use the varnished natural wood as the background onto which the cabinetmaker applied the decorative designs.

An artisan then painted it with a base of soft yellow, and highlighted this coat with green bordering, and rows of flowers, and spandrel fan designs in the corners, giving it vigor. Although such a piece was commonplace once, itís rare and valuable today. One of the biggest misconceptions regarding antiques is that 19th-century homeowners loved the appearance of natural woods in their furnishings. That preference didnít appear until the early 20th century. As a result, most painted furniture has been stripped and finished to the often not very beautiful bare wood by well-meaning dealers and collectors. Although cabinetmakers refrained from painting their costly mahogany and walnut pieces, those in small towns and villages paint-decorated nearly all their birch, maple, oak, pine, and poplar furnishings to brighten their customersí dark, oil-lamp lit homes.

Cabinetmakers fitted drawers and cabinet doors with wooden knobs instead of metal hardware. Even the boldly colored paint, didnít have the look of value to it. Those pieces of Victorian Cottage furniture that have survived intact usually have a crackled surface from age-shrinkage, with flakes in spots due to dryness. Also, look for signs of wear on edges, tops, and near the knobs.

To the untrained eye, Victorian Cottage furniture looks as if it should be sold as junk or stripped to the bare wood. Whatever you do, don't strip your sideboard. If possible, get an opinion from someone who knows painted furniture.

When purchasing painted Cottage Victorian furniture, look for a bone dry surface, subtle wear, and age crazing that has shrunk geometrically. Fortunately, those who fake antiques haven't figured out a way to create spider-web-like lines with chemicals. Good painted furniture has charm and an integrity that makes it one of today's best antique investments since painted pieces havenít been reproduced. .

Pine or other inexpensive wood was used. The entire piece was covered with paint, usually several layers. Flowers or scenes were painted on the center of doors, and smaller painted decorations were added as needed. The finished sets were colorful and whimsical.

You can find a fine painted dresser today for less than $1,000, a bed for less than $300.

If you own or buy painted furniture, use it carefully. The paint is a large part of its value. Washing, polishing or waxing might discolor or remove the paint. See ďCaring for Your Antique Painted Furniture.Ē

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