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THE VICTORIAN ERA–
AN AGE OF REVIVALS

by Bob Brooke


A beautiful Renaissance Revival credenza, designed by Herter Brothers of New York City. The American Victorian era was such a long one–lasting from 1840 to 1900–that not one but several distinct furniture styles appeared. Interestingly enough, each of these styles borrowed from some period of the past, starting with Medieval days and progressing to Renaissance and 18th-century Louis XVI. But the Victorians managed to embellish everything made for their houses.

Although it’s possible to confine some of these influences to a span of years, many of them continued to be followed to some degree long after furniture-makers had gone on to a fresh style. Also, American Empire pieces, popular from 1820-1830, continued to be produced long after the first Victorian fashions were in full sway.

Gothic Revival
A Gothic Revival table.
Gothic Revival furniture followed the lines and details of Gothic architecture. A Gothic Revival bed, like the Empire sleigh and low-post beds, had a headboard and footboard of the same height. It usually had posts that were solid, carved, octagonal columns attached to the headboard and footboard. These also were solid wood and displayed arched and carved panels. The wide sideboards were more simply carved to show Gothic arches. A Victorian Gothic table recalled the lines of a classic Empire table-rectangular top with ogee-molded drawer in the skirt and supports at either end that consisted of carved columns mounted on bracket feet.

If you chance upon A Gothic Revival cupboard had cupboard below with open shelves on top, offering a minimum of display space but framed and backed with wood elaborately carved in more or less intricate Gothic tracery, and perhaps embellished with finials and railings–in short, a superstructure so fancy that nothing could be displayed advantageously on it.

Rococo Revival
A Victorian Revival ladies side chair.The Rococo Revival lasted longer than any other single influence during the Victorian Era. Cabinetmakers made most of the furniture of this period. The carvings and scrolled lines usually weren’t overdone, and as a result the furniture was as attractive as it was comfortable.

Furniture of this period featured curved but not cabriole legs, scrolled and rounded contours forming a cartouche back, and naturalistic carvings of roses, other flowers, grapes, leaves, and birds. Craftsmen bent, shaped, and carved the wood into good lines and designs. Mahogany or rosewood sofas and chairs displayed a boldly sculptured bunch of grapes with a leaf, or a rose surrounded by leaves.

Side chairs of this period were comfortable as well as handsome and, as a general rule, are better liked today than chairs of any other Victorian style. Sofas in various lengths and love seats with upholstered wood frames were graceful. The frame often was serpentine and always displayed some carving, usually on the arms and back. One form of sofa had an oval or round medallion framed in wood in the center of the back. Cabinetmakers repeated the carving topping the medallion farther along the frame on either side. In the 1860's, some sofas had rounded upholstered arms with carved wood fronts. Occasionally, these arms could be let down by means of chains to lengthen the sofa so that a person could stretch out and take a nap-or sleep there when the house was crammed with overnight guests.

Also popular during this period were pairs of upholstered lady and gentleman chairs. One had a high back and arms; the matching chair was a little lower and didn’t have arms. The armless one was the wife's chair, convenient to sit in while doing needlework, crocheting, or knitting. While cabinetmakers made pairs of chairs well into the 1870's, and possibly into the 1880's, those that followed the rounded lines of the Rococo Revival style between 1845 and 1860 are the most attractive and least dated.

Renaissance Revival
A Renaissance Revival chest of drawers.About 1855 or a couple of years later, reminders of the Renaissance began to show up in furniture. It’s easy to distinguish a Renaissance Revival chair or sofa from a Rococo Revival one, for the Renaissance Revival piece looks much heavier, is more solid, and lacks curves. Cabinetmakers made chairs for every purpose with rectangular or square seats and rectangular backs, in contrast to the scrolled Rococo Revival lines. Generous carving on Renaissance Revival chairs was heavier and more elaborate, being based less on flowers, fruits, and foliage and more on classic scrolls, knots, and the like. Some piercing appeared in the carved areas.

A Renaissance Revival sideboard was an imposing conglomeration of wood, carving, and molding. Cabinetmakers framed the doors of the cupboards, decorated with carving, with molding. They flanked the ends with carved columns or wide applied molding. All Victorian sideboards had a high backboard towering over the top surface. Renaissance Revival sideboards, in addition to being carved in all possible places, featured a back with small shelves, railings, and columns and was often finished off with a fancy pediment. During the last couple of decades of the Victorian era, sideboards often had a framed mirror along their full length, but had much less carving.

Marble, one of the great Victorian loves, became firmly established with the Renaissance Revival. Tables of all sizes, commodes, bureaus, and many sideboards had marble tops. Somehow marble suited these heavy wood pieces. Cabinetmakers used predominately white, white and gray, and pink and chocolate marble.

Neoclassic Revival
Long before Renaissance Revival had run its course, a simpler style, called Neoclassic or Victorian Classic, began to appear. It, too, is easy to identify, if only because it was so much simpler and less heavily ornamented, and hence lighter in appearance. Lines became curved again rather than rectilinear. Scrolling wasn’t as strong nor cartouche backs as common as they had been 20 years earlier. Actually, furniture makers often combined elements of Neoclassic and Renaissance Revival and perhaps Rococo Revival in one piece.

Jacobean Revival
In the 1870's, furniture makers turned to the Jacobean period for inspiration. This trend combined with the trend toward increased amounts of factory-made furniture led to a loss of elegance. A typical Jacobean detail was wide, flat, ornamental molding twisted into designs. This, of course, was an adaptation of the 17th-century Jacobean strapwork. Cabinetmakers employed small turned spindles, not at all like the spool-turned ones, as railings on sideboards, cupboards, whatnots, tables, and everywhere else possible.

Probably the most easily recognized piece of Jacobean Revival furniture was the whatnot. Spindles supported its several shelves. But shelves backed with wood also might be separated by spindles or have spindle railings.

Furniture makers didn’t abandon carving, but they didn’t employ it in the high relief of the earlier years. Because furniture factories produced so much furniture now instead of cabinetmakers, shallow, incised ornamentation replaced carving. Machines cut sprays of flowers and leaves in outline instead of rounding them. Furniture designers monotonously repeated dots, dashes, and other simple motifs, sometimes in combination with outlined flowers. Beveled edges became a substitute for beautiful modeling and scrolling of wood.

A small Jacobean Revival side table.The small table made in the 1870's and 1880's displayed a wood skirt cut gingerbread-fashion with incised ornamentation. Furniture makers joined this to either a marble or a wood top and also to one or two shelves of wood underneath. These tables with shelves stood higher than the small tables which had been popular in all furniture periods before or after Jacobean Revival. The shelves were convenient for displaying some of the bric-a-brac without which no house was complete, and were a natural development in view of the popularity of whatnots.

On the whole, after 1870 all furniture became rectilinear, rigid, and solid-looking. The grace of the Rococo Revival and Neoclassic and the distinction of Renaissance Revival became lost in the pieces, however similar, made in the last years of the Victorian Era. Furniture makers produced more angular chairs and sofas which they laid with strapwork or molding, and sometimes gingerbread.

Other Victorian Styles
By the 1870's, two other influences became noticeable in the Victorian grab bag of styles–Oriental, chiefly Chinese, and Turkish. The Oriental trend in a way was natural, for Americans had a long-standing acquaintance with blue and white china, teakwood chests, Kashmir shawls, and tables with fretwork carving and mother-of-pearl inlay brought by sea captains and sailors from China and India. Late-Victorian furniture made in the United States, however, displayed pseudo-Oriental touches. Fretwork and Chinese-type carving did replace some of the earlier, heavier carving. Lacquer and bamboo became popular. The Turkish influence, however, was a purely American interpretation.

Another style of the 1870's, known as American Eastlake, was derived from the published writings of English interior designer, John Locke Eastlake. Furniture took on a still different look because furniture makers used dark wood as decoration on naturally light-colored wood. To accomplish this, they used walnut, ash, cherry, maple, chestnut, and particularly oak in great variety rather than the long-used rosewood, mahogany, and black walnut.

Wood in itself isn’t necessarily indicative of any one Victorian style. Since cabinetmakers preferred rosewood and mahogany, they used them from the beginning to the end of the Victorian period.. About 1855 black walnut came into favor, and continued to be used as much as rosewood.

To read more articles by Bob Brooke, please visit his Web site

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