An increasing demand for cheap and mid-market furniture, along
with a growing reliance on machines, created a bewildering variety of styles in the late 19th century
The majority of late Victorian and Edwardian furniture
borrowed promiscuously from earlier styles and from different nations.
Only two new design movements, Arts and Crafts and art nouveau, influenced furniture styles in the half-century between 1860 and outbreak of World War 1.
Both these, though, were associated with meticulously hand-crafted pieces, while almost all of the furniture of the period was churned out by factories.
The result was a drop in quality, with rigid, stylized machine-carving and turning.
Some critics lambasted the public for their lack of taste and furniture makers for their greed and folly, but they were in the minority.
Factory-made furniture, though, did have the virtue of being cheap. As time went on, more and more people had the means to furnish a house.
Victorians loved innovation and gleefully embraced new styles and fads.
They were especially fond of fussy, elaborate decoration, which they saw as a sign of wealth and status.
This was true of the downstairs rooms at least.
Oak was fashionable in the dining room, and walnut in the drawing room. Walnut's golden tones were echoed by cheaper woods such as yellow-tinged ash and bird's-eye maple.
Satinwood and mahogany were still used, though the mahogany tended to be of inferior quality.
PINE AND BRASS
Upstairs, furniture tended to be simpler in style. Beds of cast iron and brass were popular, while other bedroom furniture was made of cheaper woods; painted deal or pine was increasingly used for servants' rooms and bedrooms.
Some inferior wood was painted for the sake of decoration, or to give it a grain.
Other makers smeared it with a thick, dark stain to give it the appearance of great age.
This was especially true of furniture created in the Gothic style, where decorative carving was based on the stonework seen in medieval churches, and of
The latter, despite its name, was largely based on loose copies of the Jacobean oak furniture of the 17th century.
The 1870s saw antique furniture being appreciated for the first time for what it was, and reproductions of Georgian furniture took over from the Elizabethan and Gothic styles.
The originals were not carefully copied.
The jointing methods of the 18th century were rarely used, while the furniture mixed details from different periods. and had all manner of incongruous ornament added to it.
This was nor a failure of craftsmanship.
There were plenty of skilled cabinetmakers working in the 19th century, but they were ill-served by designers and at the mercy of public demand.
Fashions in ornament are the best guide to accurately dating late Victorian pieces.
Gilded furniture had gone out of fashion by 1870, while sunflowers were a popular ornamental motif only in the 1880s.
Inlay of pewter and mother-of-pearl dates a piece to the turn of the century.
From 1870 on, the opening up of Japan to the West after centuries of isolation led to a craze for all things
A great deal of bamboo and cane furniture was made in the last quarter of the century, and wood was turned and stained to imitate bamboo.
By the end of the Victorian period, the influence of Arts and Crafts finally filtered into main-stream
furniture making. Firms like Heal's made sure that Edwardian furniture had simpler, less fussy outlines and more restrained decoration than Victorian work.
• Only at the end of the period did ebonized furniture, with a dark smooth finish, become popular.
• The great majority of veneers in the late Victorian period were cut by machine and as a result were much thinner than those on Georgian and Regency furniture.
• Machine-made dovetails on a drawer - chunkier than hand-cut ones - are made after 1880.
• If you suspect a piece has been aged with a stain, look underneath. Genuine pieces will be grimy in places, less so in others.
Light wood or a uniform darkness shows a newer piece.