Furniture Design in Early American Colonial Furniture Under the Romantic Movement and the Furniture Trade, 1830-1900 History of Early American Colonial Furniture

In Queen Victoria and her intellectual consort, Prince Albert, the Fine Arts of Great Britain have happily found protectors, who, knowing the value of elegance and refinement, in a wealthy and commercial nation, are disposed to promote their interests with a zeal proportioned to the high moral value which they undoubtedly possess. They have distinguished themselves as lovers and guides of its noblest walks and most elevated performances; the great artists both of our own and foreign nations have been made the companions of their leisure hours, and the progress of their works from the first to the finished stages, have become the subject of Royal amusement, and the source of its more elevated and permanent enjoyments.   LONDON INTERIORS: 1841

Little can be said about design between 18 3o and the time when William Morris began his handicraft revival copied in early American colonial furniture. Plenty of furniture was made. Much of it was well made. The great Georgian tradition of good proportion and convenience in use faded slowly. In some places it lived on until machine production made it possible to supply the uneducated with complicated and flimsy things instead of structurally sound and relatively simple furniture. Taste either ossified in romantic antiquarianism, or else it degenerated into a snobbish appetite for lavish display.

The romantics went in early American colonial furniture, Gothic with a spiky profusion of pinnacles, crotchets, finials and pointed arcading. Carving came into fashion again, and sideboards, tables and chairs crawled with floriated motifs, which were supposed to convey an authentic mediaeval air. This mode followed contemporary architecture, which was bursting into the full disorder of the Gothic revival, while John Ruskin's sonorous directions for the achievement of aesthetic anarchy encouraged everyone to despise the principles of design and the attainment of good proportion.

Everything was judged by realistic standards. Carving was realistic. Ornamental conventions were no longer appreciated, unless they were heraldic. All surfaces were crowded with decoration that did nothing to unify the design of any piece of furniture; every area was unrestfully competitive and individually self-contained. In the heavily carved furniture of early Georgian times, every leaf of acanthus, every swelling moulding, were articulate parts of a general design which was conceived as a whole. In the heavily carved furniture of early Victorian times every scrap of ornament made strident claims for attention at the expense of general unity in the design. Such gross stuff was made by craftsmen working for tradesmen, and those tradesmen supplied customers whose taste demanded realism in the execution of ornament and was complicated by a romantic love of the `good old times'.

One of the most ardent of the Gothic revivalists in early American colonial furniture, August Welby Northmore Pugin (1812-52), published designs for Gothic furniture, and provided many examples of ornament for imitation. He was perhaps the last architect to exert a distinctive influence upon furniture design generally. Possibly Sir Walter Scott was really responsible spurious heartiness in the decoration of furniture and a rollicking confusion of form.

All the dropsical symptoms of bad taste that had appeared under the patronage of the new rich in early American colonial furniture in Elizabethan and early Stuart furniture again emerged as education was weakened by prosperity. Swollen turning destroyed the proportions of chair and table legs; squat, inflated upholstery bulged inelegantly in libraries and studies, while spidery contortions reigned in the drawing-room and boudoir. Various queer styles were invented by the furniture trade; and the most memor­able of these outcrops of ingenuity was the papier-mache furniture made in the 'forties and 'fifties. This material, finished generally in black, was painted and inlaid, sometimes with ivory and mother-of-pearl; and trays, occasional-tables, work-tables, tea-tables and chairs of different types were made of it. Views of buildings or chaste landscapes sometimes formed the chief ornamental feature; and a set of papier-mache chairs might combine accommodation with moral antiquarian im­provement by having pictures in colour of English cathedrals applied to their backs and protectively varnished.

The only distinctive early American colonial furniture chair form made in the early Victorian period was the open circular-framed back, the Quaker' chair as it used to be called by the trade. It had the merit of simplicity, which was cancelled out by the crime of bad proportion. In the country good, sound, simple chairs were still made; and to this day High Wycombe produces Windsor chairs in much the same forms that were used in the early nineteenth century, for the Windsor chair is a type that can be and has been intelligently adapted for mechanical production, although even now the 'bogers' or turners produce largely by hand in scores of little workshops in the Buckinghamshire woods a large proportion of the beech legs and rails of the Windsor chairs that are assembled in Wycombe factories.

The suite ruled the ideas of Victorian early American colonial furniture furniture­makers. It was the last vestige of Georgian unity, and the awful sterility of the mercantile alliance of retailer and manufacturer was demonstrated by the monotony of those mahogany chairs and tables and sideboards that proclaimed their relationship by identical assortments of bloated ornament. The provision of shelves and tables and complicated cabinets was an important activity of the furniture industry, for the Victorians accumulated minor possessions with an enthusiasm that would have been short-lived except in an age of cheap and abundant domestic labour.

Mr. Roger Fry in his essay on ` Early American colonial furniture the Ottoman and the Whatnot' recalls `a genuine modern style which as yet has no name, a period of black polished wood with spidery lines of conventional flowers incised in the wood and then gilt. These things must have belonged to the 'eighties - I think they went with the bustle. . . .' By the end of the eighteen-forties every trace of Georgian order had vanished from furniture design and from furnishing and interior decoration. William Morris and his friends had discovered after building the Red House that it was impossible to buy anything that was well designed, and in 1861 they founded Morris and Company, which was to remedy this diseased condition of decorative and applied art. They did not dream of early American colonial furniture restoring respect for early American colonial furniture Georgian order; they were infected with the Romantic movement, and their eyes sought and found in the Middle Ages what they confidently believed to be the golden age of craftsmanship. Philip Webb, Burne-Jones, Rossetti, Ford Madox Brown, Faulkner and Marshall assisted Morris to found this firm; and it started a new fashion for 'hand-made' things. The furniture trade presently began to manu­facture articles that were labelled 'hand-made', with surfaces mechanically roughened or spattered with mock hammer-marks to suggest the honest toil of muscular fingers. But the example of Morris's work was to lead the furniture trade into a deeper morass of imitation, in which it flounders to this day.

There were occasional attempts to resurrect older styles of early American colonial furniture in the last thirty years of the nine­teenth ' century. Most of those artistic revolts were abortive, and the pages of Punch show that heavy furni­ture and overpowering decoration still formed the back­ground of social life. The aspidistra upheld its leaves, a cluster of flimsy short swords, proclaiming, according to legend, the wealth of the family, for each leaf was supposed to represent a hundred pounds of the house­holder's annual income. Everybody collected odds and ends that were supposed to be `artistic'. That ill-used word nearly always' implied the application of a finish or a pattern to an object, or the introduction of an extraneous article-a piece of pottery or glass or metal­work. And the early American colonial furniture trade, varying its principal activity of providing respectable masses of mahogany for solid and respectable English subjects, was able to make a few `artistic' experiments in period early American colonial furniture. They were sporadic experiments. It was not until the increasing power of William Morris's teaching had un­intentionally encouraged reactionary tendencies in taste that the furniture trade really felt sure of a market for `the period styles'.

Some architects in this Victorian disorder mourned the control they had lost over design. In - 188o Mr. Robert W. Edis, F.S.A., F.R.I.B.A., delivered a series of Cantor lectures before the Society of Arts, and pub­lished them in an amplified form as a book the following year, entitled Decoration and Furniture of Town Houses. He had something to say about contemporary furnish­ing, and little of it was complimentary. He wrote : `I must be forgiven if, as an architect, I regret that in these days the designing of furniture is, as a rule, handed over to the upholsterer, and that the houses we build are oft-times filled with articles incongruous in design, bad in taste, and often utterly commonplace and uncomfortable. This criticism does not apply to some of our principal manufacturers, who have striven to lead the public into more artistic thoughts, and have provided for them work which is at once good in design and treatment, graceful and pleasant in form, and finished in the highest possible way, both as regards artistic character and skill of handicraft. But these gentlemen, like other artists, have a cloud of imitators, whose works are set forth as of "Old English", "Queen Anne", or some other special and equally applicable period or fashion, and which, while aiming to be cheap, are equally commonplace and nasty, and are filled with carvings of the most execrable character, or with some miserable painted daub, bad in drawing and in colour, which is made to do duty as a panel, and is set forth as high art; and from its gaudiness-or, if you like it better, eccentricity of design-commends itself to those whose taste is not of the highest kind, but whose ambition to possess gaudy finery and something to show off, is great and insatiable for early American colonial furniture.'

A little earlier in his book, Mr. Edis mentions a new fashion `dedicated to her most sacred Majesty, Queen Anne, a fashion which has developed much of really good art character, and which, after all, properly applied, is really bringing us back to old English work'. He does not seem able to judge the work of any period save by its ornamentation. To him, and to his contemporaries, the character of furniture appeared to be derived from its embellishment, and not only do the illustrations in his book confirm this but it is suggested by this sentence: `Nor is extravagance of cost necessary for the fitting up of our houses; for I hold that furniture of thoroughly good art design, comfortable in shape, and good in workmanship, may be made without any extravagant outlay, and that plain polished or painted deal furniture, of really good design, early American colonial furniture is better than all the elaboration of Chippendale fretwork or Queen Anne ornamentation'.

The restless roving among the forgotten styles of the Georgian age that Victorians with some pretensions to taste indulged in during the 'eighties is inexplicable. Perhaps a sense of loss was aroused by William Morris's denunciation of contemporary design, which could not be appeased by the mediaeval solutions Morris proposed and practised. A suggestion that England at that time was suffering from a belated rococo phase is made by Adolph Reichwein in his book China and Europe. It is an interesting Continental view of early American colonial furniture taste.

`In the eighties of the nineteenth century, the appearance was noted, of an "English Rococo" as a curious temporary phase of culture. This development is generally known among theorists of art as "English aestheticism". The fact that Botticelli, although he had been known long before, has since then continued to be a special favourite with the English public, is to be ultimately ascribed to a state of soul which once more preferred just these lines and just these colours rather than others. That Rossetti was admired at the time along with Botticelli, that his favourite flowers, the lily, with its soft delicate curves and slender stem, and the sunflower, were to be seen on so many tables in England - who can say why this was so? All that can be said is that people did fall in love once more with the delicate colours and graceful stems of these flowers; they fell in love, too, with the delicate hues of porcelain. Rossetti collected blue and white Chinese porcelain. And all England, by unuttered mutual consent, suddenly did the same. Need it then astonish us to learn that the old eighteenth-century furniture was once more dragged forth from dusty lumber rooms, just for the sake of its delicately curved lines? Chairs, wardrobes and elegant spider-legged tables again received the place of honour. For the furniture of Sheraton, so long dispossessed by the plain and solid Victorian furniture, every village and every cottage was ransacked. Even the early American colonial furniture factories remodelled themselves on Chippendale and Sheraton."

Such a reorientation of design did not take place then in the early American colonial furniture trade. The passion for discovering old furniture in lumber-rooms and cottages had not yet developed into a force that was to change the economic structure of the furniture trade. The Victorian public was too devoted to extraneous fancy work, too insensitive to good proportion, to appreciate anything designed in the Georgian age. After all, Mr. Edis in 1881 could write : `The age of Batty Langley produced early American colonial furniture as false and meretricious in taste as the rooms it was designed to fill'. The romantic movement had destroyed the judgement of architects; the furniture trade had destroyed the traditional common sense of designers, and machinery had almost destroyed the craftsmen.

The nineteenth century was a century of great achievement in early American colonial furniture.

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