The Victorian era of the United Kingdom was the period of Queen Victoria’s reign from June 1837 until her death on the 22nd of January 1901. The reign was a long period of prosperity for the British people, as profits gained from the overseas British Empire, as well as from industrial improvements at home, allowed an educated middle class to develop. There was a new impetus on the arts and a growth in popular rather than exclusive styles.
The period covers some 64 years with the early Victorian period featuring the neo-classical designs of the Regency period, with new popula Rococo which fitted the dawning of the new romanticism. Porcelain, pottery and silver all show signs in filly, feminine forms and furniture developed curling legs and scrolling arms.
Later a Gothic Revival in design and architecture led by Pugin and others became increasingly significant, leading to the Battle of the Styles between Gothic and Classical ideals. Charles Barry’s architecture for the new Palace of Westminster, which had been badly damaged in an 1834 fire, built in the medieval style of Westminster Hall, the surviving part of the building.
Pictured: A Pair Of Early Victorian Oak Gothic Side Chairs Circa 1848, Attributed To A.W.N. Pugin – Each with foliate-carved frame surmounted by lion-heads on X-frame legs joined by foliate and geometrically-carved stretchers and an oak-leaf carved frieze, with brass-nailed leather back and later leather seat, the backs embossed in gold with a flower-head centred by an “H”, the front legs on brass caps and castors. Sold for £9,600 at Christies, London, May 2006. Image Copyright Christies.
It constructed a narrative of cultural continuity, set in opposition to the violent disjunctions of Revolutionary France, a comparison common to the period, as expressed in Thomas Carlyle’s The French Revolution: A History, Great Expectations by Charles Dickens and Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities. Gothic was also supported by the critic John Ruskin, who argued that it epitomised communal and inclusive social values, as opposed to Classicism, which he considered to epitomise mechanical standardisation.
By the time of The Great Exhibition in 1851, the first World’s Fair, manufacturers showcased the greatest innovations and designs of the century. Designs reflected Egyptian, Greek, Roman, Byzantine, Louis XIV, Gothic and Renaissance themes and were often blended. At the centre of The Great Exhibition was the Crystal Palace, a modular glass and iron structure – the first of its kind. It was condemned by Ruskin as the very model of mechanical dehumanisation in design, but later came to be presented as the prototype of Modern architecture. The emergence of photography, which was showcased at the Great Exhibition, resulted in significant changes in Victorian art with Queen Victoria being the first British Monarch to be photographed. John Everett Millais was influenced by photography (notably in his portrait of Ruskin) as were other Pre-Raphaelite artists. It later became associated with the Impressionistic and Social Realist techniques that would dominate the later years of the period in the work of artists such as Walter Sickert and Frank Holl. Mass production and mixed-up styles were the themes of the mid-Victorian period.
Pictured: A Victorian Oak And Ebonised Bookcase, in the Arts and Crafts style. This bookcase is from St Mary’s Cathedral, Clayton Street West, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, which was built and designed by Pugin in 1844. The bookcase was made for the cathedral, possibly later by Jay and Joel Home or House, builders in the Arts and Crafts style, designers of similar bookcases. The “Romanesque” style of the bookcase with its arched cornice and central columns is reminiscent of the neo-Norman style used by Pugin in his earlier churches. Sold for £4,395 Christies, London, February 2002. Image Copyright Christies.
The Arts and Crafts Movement began primarily as a search for authentic and meaningful styles for the 19th century and as a reaction to the eclectic revival of historic styles of the Victorian era and to “soulless” machine-made production aided by the Industrial Revolution. Considering the machine to be the root cause of all repetitive and mundane evils, some of the protagonists of this movement turned entirely away from the use of machines and towards handcraft, which tended to concentrate their productions in the hands of sensitive but well-heeled patrons. The Arts and Crafts Movement was inspired by the writings of John Ruskin and a romantic idealization of the craftsman taking pride in his personal handiwork, it was at its height between approximately 1880 and 1910.
Another late Victorian development was the Aesthetic Movement which emphasiszed aesthetic values over moral or social themes in literature, fine art, the decorative arts, and interior design. Generally speaking, it represents the same tendencies that symbolism or decadence stood for in France, or decadentismo stood for in Italy, and may be considered the British branch of the same movement. It belongs to the anti-Victorian reaction and had post-Romantic roots, and as such anticipates modernism. It took place in the late Victorian period from around 1868 to 1901, and is generally considered to have ended with the trial of Oscar Wilde (which occurred in 1895).
Pictured: A Royal Worcester Aesthetic Teapot – Registry diamond for December 1881, puce painted crowned globe mark and date letter T for 1882, painted puce 3 to cover. In the spirit of Oscar Wilde, modelled as a dandy and conjoined companion with limp wrist spout and angled elbow handle, decorated in ‘greenery-yallery’ colours, inscribed on the bottom Fearful consequences, through the laws of natural selection and evolution of living up to one’s teapot, signed Budge. Sold for $11,163 Christies, New York, March 2001. Image Copyright Christies.
Aesthetic movement furniture is characterized by several common themes including: ebonized wood with gilt highlights, Japanese influence, prominent use of nature ( especially flowers, birds, ginko leaves, and peacock feather), blue and white on porcelain and china.
Japan was a relatively newly contacted culture in terms of influence, and looking at aesthetic furniture, there are commonalities especially in the overall rectangular shape with columns, and the intricate woodcarvings, this influence can be seen in a concurrent movement known as the Anglo-Japanese style, especially in the work of E.W. Godwin and Christopher Dresser.
As aesthetic movement decor was similar to the writing in that it was about sensuality and nature, nature themes often appear on the furniture. A typical aesthetic feature is the gilded carved flower, or the stylized peacock feather. Colored paintings of birds or flowers are often seen. Non-ebonized aesthetic movement furniture may have realistic 3D renditions of birds or flowers carved into the wood. Contrasting with the ebonized-gilt furniture is use of blue and white in porcelain and china. Similar themes of peacock feathers and nature would be used in blue and white tones on dinnerware and other crockery. The blue and white design was also popular on square porcelain tiles. It is reported that Oscar Wilde used aesthetic decorations during his youth.
Pictured: A Victorian Electroplated And Glass Claret Jug Designed By Dr. Christopher Dresser, Circa 1880. With hinged cover and cut detail to the base indistinct stamped manufacturer’s mark
8¾ in. (22.3 cm.) high. Sold for £1,063 Christies, London, November 2009.
Even towards the end of the Victorian era there were many styles with modernists looking to the Art Nouveau movement while traditionalists were still reviving earlier styles. Art Nouveau was an international movement and style of art, architecture and applied art—especially the decorative arts—that peaked in popularity from 1890–1905. The name ‘Art nouveau’ is French for ‘new art’. It is also known as Jugendstil, German for ‘youth style’, named after the magazine Jugend, which promoted it, and in Italy, Stile Liberty from the department store in London, Liberty & Co., which popularized the style. A reaction to academic art of the 19th century, it is characterized by organic, especially floral and other plant-inspired motifs, as well as highly-stylized, flowing curvilinear forms. Art Nouveau is an approach to design according to which artists should work on everything from architecture to furniture, making art part of everyday life.
Pictured: A more unusual item of Victoriana – a pair of Queen Victoria’s black and white hand-stitched silk stockings. Sold for £690, Lyon and Turnbull, Edinburgh, March 2010.
The origins of Art Nouveau are found in the resistance of William Morris to the cluttered compositions and the revival tendencies of the Victorian era and his theoretical approaches that helped initiate the Arts and crafts movement. However, Arthur Mackmurdo’s book-cover for Wren’s City Churches (1883), with its rhythmic floral patterns, is often considered the first realization of Art Nouveau. Around the same time, the flat-perspective and strong colors of Japanese woodcuts, especially those of Katsushika Hokusai, had a strong effect on the formulation of Art Nouveau’s formal language. The wave of Japonisme that swept through Europe in the 1880s and 1890s was particularly influential on many artists with its organic forms, references to the natural world, and clear designs that contrasted strongly with the reigning taste. Besides being adopted by artists like Emile Gallé and James Abbott McNeill Whistler, Japanese-inspired art and design was championed by the businessmen Siegfried Bing and Arthur Lasenby Liberty at their stores in Paris and London, respectively.
The reign of Queen Victoria saw many changes in society and culture, many of these changes reflected in the designs of ther period. The eclectic revival, interpretation of historic styles and the introduction of cross-cultural influences can be seen throughout the era in furniture, fittings, and Interior decoration. The era also saw the beginning of The Arts and Crafts movement, the aesthetic movement, Anglo-Japanese style, and the Art Nouveau style. As well as furniture, lighting, silver, pottery and interior furnishings Victoriana collectors also collect everyday items from the period, clothing, toys, gadgets, machines, stamps, coins etc.