The early Victorian interior design style, while it undoubtedly marks a decline, lacking both the elegance of the Georgian and the vitality of the Regency, nevertheless represents the last phase of a great tradition. The lines were heavier, the decoration coarser, yet the proportions were still good and there was a general atmosphere of solidity and comfort. Painted walls vanished beneath a variety of patterned wallpapers. Walls were still often divided into separate sections (dada, infill and frieze) by the skirting board, dada rail, picture rail and cornice, and each part given a different treatment. However, by the end of the century it had become fashionable to remove the dado rail and paper the area from picture rail to skirting. Mahogany reigned supreme as the popular wood for furniture, although birch and rosewood were also used. Carpets were either elaborately floral or severely patterned.
The taste for revivals carried over into this era; Gothic was the favoured style, but by mid-century the simpler style of Arts & Crafts evolved. In spite of the many style, Victorian houses can be recognized by their solid construction, large areas of roofing, gables with painted barge-boards, imposing chimney stacks, projecting porches, and bay windows. Many materials were used, often mixed together in the same building; these included stone, terracotta, slate, tiles, and brick. Leaded casement lights were used in ‘medieval’ windows, often with stained glass, but the sash was more generally used, and large sheets of glass made glazing bars unnecessary.
Doors, fireplaces, and stairs were solidly built and richly decorated. Much timber was painted and grained in imitation of richer woods. In larger houses the hall was an essential feature, normally furnished as a family living room, but in smaller houses it was often no more than an entrance. In the villas, servants were still separated - in basement and attic - from the family, who had drawing, dining, and breakfast rooms as well as bed and dressing rooms, to which were often added a billiard room and a conservatory for plants.
What really altered was the quantity of the furnishings, where the part tended to become more important than the whole. The mantelpiece was transformed into a parade ground for rows of Bristol glass candlesticks, Sèvres vases, and bisque figures around the focal point of a massive clock. The library and the boudoir were forced to accommodate innumerable cupboards and occasional tables to display the growing collections of ephemera.
Nothing so distinguished Victorian from other generations as their passion for tangible evidence of the past - portraits, miniatures, silhouettes, and photographs all were visible and prominently displayed reminders of the importance of family ties, and led to the popularity of the keepsake - the paperweight from Margate, the miniature Eiffel Tower, and the lock of little Willy’s hair.
Victorian Style in brief:
- At first light and airy with fresh coloured papers replacing plain painted walls;
- Patterns tended towards stripes, flowers, dots and spots;
- Embossed paper used on dado, painted with a plain colour;
- Mass production of papers begins in 1840s;
- Stronger colours used after 1850s, larger patterns, Gothic motifs;
- Diamonds popular;
- Woodwork painted in flat colours or grained in different woods.
The Gothic Revival
The revival of the Gothic as a deliberate architectural movement began in the 1700s, reached its peak during the mid-1800s, and declined by the 1880s. During the mid-1800s, the English architect A.W.N. Pugin wrote several influential books supporting the Gothic style. Advocating the return to medieval designs and craftsmanship, he maintained that Gothic was the only true style. He believed in “honest construction”, deplored the rococo style and loathed any form of sham. Pugin gave the Gothic Revival a new morality and seriousness. He urged architects especially to design churches in the Gothic style because it best expressed the Christian faith. The most ambitious project of the Gothic Revival was the Houses of Parliament (1840-1860) in London, designed by Pugin and Sir Charles Barry.
William Butterfield, another English architect, created a number of highly individual designs in the Gothic style. He designed nearly 100 churches. One of his best known is All Saints’ Church, Margaret Street (1849-59) in London. Among Butterfield’s most important projects was his design for Keble College (1860s) at Oxford University, all of which was designed in the Gothic Revival style.
Gothic Revival Furniture and Fabrics
Most Gothic Revival furniture consisted of neoclassical forms with Gothic ornaments. These ornaments included pointed arches and decorative patterns called tracery. The rococo revival replaced the Gothic revival in the 1840s. Chairs and sofas in this style had cabriole legs and oval backs based upon the Louis XV style of the 1700s. Artisans decorated pieces with rocaille carving and introduced large pieces, such as mirrored wardrobes, sideboards, and display cabinets, all of which remained popular throughout the 19th century.
The Renaissance revival began in the court of the French emperor Napoleon III, who ruled from 1852 to 1870. It achieved its greatest popularity in the late 1870s and the 1880s. Artisans of the period tried to reproduce the furniture designs of the 1400s and 1500s. Designers emphasised angular forms and richly upholstered chairs, sofas and stools.
The delight in the past meant that Victorians sometimes used a different style in a particular room. They might have placed Gothic furniture in the library, rococo in the drawing room and bedroom, and Renaissance in the dining room. None of these treatments would have been authentic. Indeed, the three Louis styles in particular were often confused and intermixed.
The mid-19th century brought balloon-back chairs and sofas and the introduction of coil-springing, usually accompanied by deep-buttoning. Upholstery was luxuriant and curvy.
Velvet was the preferred fabric for upholstery, though needlepoint and Berlin wool work were also used. Later in the century, loose covers were made from striped fabric or floral chintz. Dining chairs were usually covered in stamped leather or tapestry.
Mahogany and, later, walnut and satinwood were the most popular woods for furniture. Dark oak was used for neo-Elizabethan, Gothic Revival, and Arts & Crafts pieces. Papier-mâché furniture, usually lacquered black and then decorated, became popular for the first time, and bentwood furniture was developed in Germany around the middle of the century. A feature of the period was dressing tables lavishly draped in muslin or calico.
During the 1840s there was a revival of interest in mid and late 18th century designs and, although at this time there was a colour-fast green available, it was considered more authentic to simulate the faded blue/green of quercitron. Victorian fabrics often had brown or black grounds and incorporated deep, rich colours in the design such as maroon, bottle-green or Prussian blue. From the middle of the century a number of new dyes were available for yellow, purple and blue-greens.
Jacquard looms produced an increasing amount of small-patterned wool damasks and moreen, a worsted cloth with a wool finish. Roller-printing grew in importance, and soon dominated the textile industry.
Floral prints on cottons or cretonnes were popular in Victorian bedrooms, tartan and also paisley patterns were widely used and lace was everywhere. Chintz remained fashionable for some time, though its popularity waned towards the end of the century under the influence of the reform movements. There was renewed interest in chinoiserie designs of peacocks and dragons, phoenixes and flowers. These fabrics were used to accompany the rich lacquerwork fashionable at the time.
The Near East also was a major influence. Turn-of-the-century houses, especially Queen Anne revival homes, often had “Turkish corners” furnished with Near Eastern textiles such as “Ottoman” velvets, prayer rugs and Turkish rugs, covering cushions, window seats and divans and used for draperies and portières.
Gothic Revival Furniture and Fabrics in brief:
- Many styles to choose from;
- Button-back chairs and sofas display luxurious upholstery;
- Balloon-back chairs for dining room;
- Rococo style for chiffonniers;
- Davenport desks in vogue;
- Furniture in papier mâché, mahogany, rosewood, satinwood, walnut, oak and birch;
- Fabric used for curtains and upholstery - velvet, damask, serge, chenille, linen, crettone, glazed chintz.
This was a time of magnificent, rich colouring, with interior colour schemes highly prescribed. Red was almost mandatory for dining rooms. Libraries and studies tended to be plain and severe, with un-patterned fabrics and quiet colours. Drawing rooms, boudoirs and bedrooms were the most opulent and colourful rooms in the house, often in strong blue. Halls and stairways were sometimes in neutral tones or in very dark shades for maximum practicality. Colours used at this time included Pompeian red, buff, taupe, tobacco and chocolate brown, Stuart and olive green, indigo and Prussian blue, burgundy, black and gold.
The 1890s were often known as the “mauve decade”, due to William Perkin’s discovery of the first artificial dyes in 1856, which resulted in new and brilliant purples and pinks. The colours “magenta” and “solferino”, named after battles in the Austro-Italian War of 1859, were the most popular shades of the new dyes.
Victorian Colours in brief:
- White, gold, grey, pink used together;
- Deep red, greens, brown, ochre yellows;
- Shades of purple - magenta and solferino.
Plastered with cornice and rose - also patterned to suit decoration.
- All types - sash, casement, Gothic, French, to suit architecture;
- Stained glass introduced in domestic buildings;
- Windows acquire heavy pelmets;
- Window treatments very elaborate, incorporating blinds.
- Large patterned carpets;
- Floor cloths and oil cloths;
- Encaustic tiles for halls become a feature.
- In many styles to suit decoration;
- Made in wood, marble, steel, grates of cast iron;
- Overmantels can be very ornate, often with a fabric valance of velvet, chenille or plush around the mantle shelf.
Gasoliers, oil lamps, candles and electric light at the end of the century.
Osborne House, Calke Abbey, Linley Sambourne House, Cardiff Castle, Castle Coch, Keble College Oxford, Highclere Castle, Eastnor Castle.
© Adrienne Chinn - London