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13 Features of Victorian Era Furniture

The Victorian era, which is literally the period of Queen Victoria’s reign, spans from 1837-1901. The furniture from the period has a distinct aesthetic with dark finishes or gilding, embellishments and heavy proportions. 

The Victorian period overlapped the Industrial Revolution, making it the first style of furniture to be manufactured. Don’t expect to find any identifying marks on Victorian-era furniture, as they weren’t originally used. It was a long period of peace, prosperity, refined sensibilities and national self-confidence for Britain. The furniture that emerged drew heavily from Gothic, Rococo and Louis XV furniture.  You can see the romantic influences on Victorian furniture in its curvaceous, sinewy lines and carefully carved details.

The Victorian Period 

Characterized by a class-based society, a growing number of people able to vote, a growing state and economy, and Britain’s status as the most powerful empire in the world. During the Victorian period, Britain was a powerful nation with a rich culture. It had a stable government, a growing state, and an expanding franchise. It also controlled a large empire, and it was wealthy, in part because of its degree of industrialization and its imperial holdings and in spite of the fact that three-fourths or more of its population was working-class. Late in the period, Britain began to decline as a global political and economic power relative to other major powers, particularly the United States, but this decline was not acutely noticeable until after World War II. Victorian society was organized hierarchically. While race, religion, region, and occupation were all meaningful aspects of identity and status, the main organizing principles of Victorian society were gender and class. The working class, about 70 to 80 percent of the population, got its income from wages, with family incomes usually under £100 per annum. Many middle-class observers thought that working-class people imitated middle-class people as much as they could, but they were mistaken; working-class cultures (which varied by locality and other factors) were strong, specific, and premised on their own values. While much of the furniture that we think of as Victorian may very well have been upper class, or even royal, there was a lot of furniture during that time that was similar, yet paired down for the needs of a working class family. 

Most Victorian Britons were Christian. The Anglican churches of England, Wales, and Ireland were the state churches (of which the monarch was the nominal head) and dominated the religious landscape (even though the majority of Welsh and Irish people were members of other churches). The formal political system was a constitutional monarchy. It was in practice dominated by aristocratic men. The British constitution was (and is) unwritten and consists of a combination of written laws and unwritten conventions. With International trade, increasing access meant that British cultural products became more important on the world stage. Not only did they reveal much about the society from which they emerged, but during the Victorian period Britain was the cultural capital of the English-speaking world (including the United States, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand).

It was the time of the world’s first Industrial Revolution, political reform and social change, Charles Dickens and Charles Darwin, a railway boom and the first telephone and telegraph. Much progress was made in this period: the slave trade was abolished in 1834, then the first electrical telegraph was sent in 1837. In 1838 there was the first modern railroad line, the London-Birmingham Railway, opens, starting the steam-powered railway boom and revolutionizing travel. IN 1851 the Great Exhibition opened in London’s Crystal Palace, with 10,000-plus exhibitors displaying the world’s technological wonders—from false teeth to farm machinery to telescopes. Six million visitors attend what would become the first World’s Fair. 

15 Features of Victorian Era Furniture 

The Industrial Revolution transformed manufacturing processes and made the middle class more prosperous. New wealth required a means of showcasing this new status in homes. The manufacturing capabilities of the Industrial Revolution caused Victorian furniture to be the first style of furniture to be mass produced in order to fulfill the decorating needs of the newly prosperous. Direct contact between the individual craftsmen and the purchaser no longer existed. Furniture pieces were made by multiple persons, rather than a single craftsman creating an entire piece, which eventually cheapened the quality of craftsmanship.

1. Elaborate Ornamentation 

Victorian furniture pieces are valued for their opulence and elegance. Queen Victoria’s taste for grandeur shaped the period enormously, and grand and elaborate furniture was in fashion for much of her reign. Carved wood ran along the top of couch and chair backs and arms, but you’d also find it on bed frames and dressers featuring shapely leaves, trailing vines, fruits, fleur-de-leis, ribbons and bows, and, sometimes, fat cherubs. Wood might be dark and finished or painted and gold gilded, depending on the piece. Designers favoured foliate motifs for ornamentation and would incorporate elements such as pointed arches, spires, quatrefoils, trefoils and crockets.

2. Upholstery 

The upholstery used during this time was plush and concentrated on luxurious material and textures like velvet. The colors used were dark, rich and lush. Using different colors of different shades and patterns usually accented backgrounds which were plain white. Furniture which was upholstered also had tassels and embellishments. In the Rococo revival style, A popular choice for the upholstery was tufting, and the pieces can often be identified by their curvaceous shapes and rounded corners. Samuel Pratt patented in 1828 the coiled spring for use in upholstery. To accommodate the springs in chairs, upholstery on seat had to be improved in quality and seats were made deeper. This meant that chair legs became shorter. The Victorians were generous when it came to upholstery. They liked plump seats to sit on that were cushioned and covered with fabric. The Spoon Back arm chair had either a buttoned or plain upholstered back rest with scrolled arms and toes, with carvings to the legs which were more than likely cabriole in appearance. The next typically Victorian chair is the Nursing chair. Much like the Spoon Back, it has the same style of backrest but doesn’t include arms, and is much lower in stature, getting its name from being used to cradle or feed a newborn during this era.

3. Draping Fabrics

During the Victorian Era, as it became a social norm for people to cover their ankles, furniture legs and feet were commonly concealed by draping of fabric, which according to Marryat’s book, “A Diary in America”, was out of fear that that bare legs were provocative. Others argue this was done to protect their cherished furniture from being damaged. 

 

4. Gilding 

Gilding is a decorative technique for applying a very thin coating of gold to solid surfaces such as metal (most common), wood, porcelain, or stone. A gilded object is also described as “gilt”. Where metal is gilded, the metal below was traditionally silver in the West, to make silver-gilt (or vermeil) objects, but gilt-bronze is commonly used in China, and also called ormolu if it is Western. Methods of gilding include hand application and gluing, typically of gold leaf, chemical gilding, and electroplating, the last also called gold plating.

5. Mounting 

Mounting is a term used to describe an ornamental addition to an item of furniture, applied over the main body of the item. Often mountings on furniture are a different material to the timber beneath, such as brass or ormolu. Heavy gilt bronze mounts protected the corners and other parts from friction and rough handling, and provided further ornament. The victorian period was defined by a refined style for furniture mounts, keyhole escutcheons (an ornamental shield around a keyhole), hinges, and the like, all based largely on Chinese models.  The design of these mounts was dictated by a clear functional purpose, in contrast to contemporary French Rococo mounts, the majority of which were superficial. 

6. Inlays 

Inlay covers a range of techniques in sculpture and the decorative arts for inserting pieces of contrasting, often coloured materials into depressions in a base object to form ornament or pictures that normally are flush with the matrix.  A great range of materials have been used both for the base or matrix and for the inlays inserted into it. Inlay is commonly used in the production of decorative furniture, where pieces of coloured wood, precious metals or even diamonds are inserted into the surface of the carcass using various matrices including clearcoats and varnishes.

7. Walnut and Mahogany 

A part of the Victorian era was a Rococo revival, which used Rosewood and mahogany as favoured woods, and gold finishes were often applied to the furniture. Intricate carvings mark out this style, with woods such as rosewood, oak and walnut used to craft the pieces. The Victorian settee was a common piece of furniture from the Victorian era. The settee is similar to a modern love seat, and it will typically accommodate two people. It features two armrests and is often seen with a tufted fabric. It would most often be crafted in Walnut or Mahogany. At the height of Gothic Revivalism, some carpenters employed walnut for designs of lesser quality. Eastwood strayed from the pack by coating cherry, oak, rosewood, and walnut with dark varnishes, which can sometimes make it difficult to determine what type of wood was used to make late-Victorian furniture. Many tabletops and sideboards are also topped with marble. Walnut was utilised mostly for smaller pieces such as Arm Chairs or Nursing Chairs, Hall and Console Tables, and Occasional Tables to name a few. Mahogany was typically used for bigger pieces of furniture, for instance, Chests of Drawers, Bookcases, Sideboards and Dining Tables.

8. Curving Lines 

Victorian furniture can often appear quite sombre and formal, although with some elaborate details. Chairs, for instance, will often have curved arms and a balloon-shaped back which is round at the top and tapers to the seat. Chair legs can vary and be round, straight, or with multiple turnings. The seat shape is often curved, horseshoe-shaped with a rounded front, or square. You can also find horseshoe-shaped seats with a serpentine front. The foot on chairs and other pieces is often a ball and claw design, a small round foot, or whorl. Simpler pieces don’t have a foot as such, and the leg is instead straight. One of the most popular pieces of Victorian furniture was the rocking chair. In the following years, the rocker was updated and created to be more functional.

9. Floral Patterns 

The main characteristics of Victorian furniture can be seen in the intricate carvings with natural images like floral patterns, leafy patterns and curving lines. The Art Nouveau which came at a much later stage is quite similar, making it difficult to judge if a piece is indeed Victorian or not. Victorian Furniture can be further determined by its angular shapes and lines along with the carvings. A Victorian chair or table basically has a straight shape with curves along the bottom of the sofa below the cushions, the legs of the chair and the back of the seat. These pieces also have curved moldings and decorative friezes. Fabrics were dramatic, with florals, nature scenes and rich patterns. But the overarching style of the Jacobean revival was rigid, solid-looking pieces with incised ornamentation. 

10. Bulky Proportions 

The furniture of the Victorian Era was characterized by large sideboards, heavy pedestals and pieces in bulkier proportions. The designs were able to provide balance and character to the decorations of the piece. Renaissance revival pieces are defined by bold features on heavy pieces of furniture, a contrast to the feminine elegance of the Rococo style. This influenced the Victorian period greatly. As the smooth and relatively simple Grecian style of the Regency period declined in popularity, furniture was replaced by more imposing and impressive pieces. This extravagant and flamboyant furniture style reflected the Victorian sentiment that “more is more.” Victorian furnishings also featured graceful, sinewy lines, carefully carved details, and other romantic influences that complemented their stately proportions.

11. Tassels 

Tassels were ubiquitous to the Victorian era, used on curtains, beds, and even as drawer handles on furniture. They were a flourish that added an extra touch of the ornate to any piece of furniture. While tassels go back to ancient times, but had a major resurgence throughout various periods, including the early Victorian era. Approaching the Victorian Era, popular magazines began to create trends and this includes decorating the ladies’ shoes, sashes and parasols, with miniature tassels. The trend did not continue very long since in the early 20th Century during the Victorian era, the excesses of the past was shunned. Simple and unadorned aesthetic became fashionable and the use of tassels declined.

12. Rich Materials and Colours 

Heavy fabrics would often be used, like velvet or leather. Colours were usually rich, dark and lush. In terms of fabric, braid was popular, as was hair cloth – camel or horse hair – which feels stiff, or even quite coarse, to the touch. Other fabrics to look out for include velour, velvet, plush, and tapestry. Tapestry is usually heavier in weight and typically includes intricate patterns or design.The heavier and richer, the better; that’s a crucial element of Victorian style. Marble, sensuous fabrics like velvet and damask, rugs and tapestries, drapery and layered window treatments, and plush upholstery all add to the warmth, richness, and – on a practical note – overall comfort and coziness of a Victorian room.

13. Veneer 

Victorian furniture was often made using decorative veneers, such as mahogany. These beautiful grains were formed from wood that warped or curled, and these decorative pieces of wood would be glued to more stable wood for a stunning and durable finish. When shopping for Victorian style furniture check that the veneer is in good condition, with no peeling, bubbling or loss, as it can be expensive to repair. The clean Grecian lines of the Regency period were out of favour by 1835 and everyone wanted furniture that was showier with plenty of curves. This showier furniture after 1850 led to low prices and poor construction and workmanship that was often hidden by veneer and applied ornament.

Victorian furniture is often perceived as a very formal style of furniture with elaborate detailing. The style can be seen as overly ornate, or dark, but many pieces of English 19th century furniture are far from it. If you are looking for something a little less fussy, then provincial “country-style” Victorian furniture or the Arts and Crafts style is a good choice. 

There are different classifications of Victorian furniture. These include early Victorian, Renaissance Victorian, and Victorian Louis XVI styles. Estate sales, auctions, and antique shops can be good places to find furniture from the Victorian era. Victorian reproductions may be found at furniture galleries that specialize in Victorian pieces. During the Victorian era, furniture manufacturing shifted largely from hand-made to machine-made, making it far more accessible, and because of this, Victorian Furniture was an all-encompassing genre that included all types of furniture, from chairs, settees & sofas to end tables, coffee tables, beds and case goods. Victorian Furniture remains widely popular today and has enjoyed longevity through its influences in 20th century design; Chesterfield sofas, for instance, a staple of Victorian design are arguably more popular in the 21st century than ever.