Plush upholstery and rich colours, opulent drapery and ornamental clutter define mid-Victorian style.
Mid-19th-century Britons, living in the most powerful nation in the world at the time, enjoyed greater and more widespread wealth than ever before and spent it on beautifying their homes in contemporary styles.
Queen Victoria's long reign (1837-1901) encompassed the end of Georgian elegance and the beginnings of the modern age. It saw great social and political changes, most of which were reflected in art and design. What people today generally recognize as Victorian style,
though was in full flower for only part of the Victorian period, the 1850s and 1860s, and is more accurately known as mid-Victorian.
The period was ushered in by the Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations, held in London between May and October
1851. The Great Exhibition was publicly proclaimed as the brainchild of Victoria's husband, Prince Albert, and gathered together the work of 14,000 exhibitors, half of them from Britain and its colonies. Six million visitor saw the exhibition, which helped a stimulate popular taste and broaden it to include all manner of foreign and historical influences. The Great
Exhibition worked as a catalyst, bringing together the effects of religious reform, industrialization, new technology and social change.
THE OXFORD MOVEMENT
The Oxford Movement of the 1830s and 1840s grew in response to the decadence that had beset the Church of England in the previous century. Church going had become a minority interest more to do with social status than with piety, and most clergymen were very much secular minded.
The movement's leaders, including John Keble and John Henry Newman, advocated a return to mystery and ritual in church services, and a general rejection of 'pagan' neo-classical influence in favour of the 'Christian' Gothic style. This led to what became is the Battle of the Styles, won
by the supporters of Gothic. It became the dominant style of public buildings.
Gothic also found favour as a domestic style, particularly for furniture and silverware. Its success was influenced by the medieval romances of
Sir Walter Scott, which continued to grow in popularity after the novelist's death in 1832. It was most often seen in semi-public rooms such as entrance halls, and in country houses; newly wealthy industrialists were particularly fond of it for its aristocratic connotations.
Victorians combined a love of the past with a great zest for novelty. This was seen both in an enthusiasm for gadgets and new materials, and in a search for new ways of making things, especially if they involved machinery.
The promoters of new methods of manufacture felt they had to prove them equal or superior to the old ways. This led to a greater and greater emphasis on elaboration and on decoration for its own sake, most clearly seen the furniture industry.
Because new machines could carve several pieces of wood at once, they were used to create furniture smothered in carving. Traditional craftsmen fought back with the same weapons. The Warwick school of hand-carving,
well represented in the Great Exhibition, was one of the first reactions against mechanization. Its speciality was large pieces of deeply cut furniture with no surface left uncarved. The great temptation was to confuse quantity with quality, jumbling together motifs from various periods
with little sense of proportion.
The influence of industrialization was widespread. Supplies of cheap cotton and
wool from the northern mills led to an increasing use of plush upholstery. Upholstered parlour suites - a settee, two armchairs and six side chairs - were a popular innovation.
Victoria reception rooms boasted heavy curtains, hangings and drapes. These were colour coordinated, usually on fairly sombre theme; rich reds and deep greens were common colour schemes. This was partly a matter of taste, but was also practical;
gas and petroleum lamps, themselves products of a new technology, stained light-coloured walls and ceilings.
Perhaps the main influence on mid Victorian taste was social. During the 19th century, the population of Britain rose from around 10 million to 35 million, as decreases in infant mortality greatly increased the size of families. A growing proportion of the population was in the new middle classes of managers, professionals and clerks, who placed great emphasis on status and possessions. For the first time they, not the aristocratic and wealthy, set the prevailing tone.
Middle-class households were large; not only did they have several children, but they also employed at least one servant. This led to a great demand for cheap, yet serviceable goods, and fed the tendency towards mass production.
There was also a revolution in retailing. Where cabinetmakers,
Victorian jewellers and manufacturers of fine porcelain and glass had previously worked mainly to commission, they now produced articles to stock the newly opened high-street stores.
The first truly middle-class style was made up of lots of different influences, all embraced with equal enthusiasm. Rococo silverware was popular, as was the very ornate 'French' style, which married delicate Louis XVI furniture shapes with Empire-style ormolu decoration and set it alongside Sevres-style porcelain made by British porcelain factories.
Reception rooms were crowded with fat upholstered chairs and sofas, all trimmed with braids and fringes. Pianos, occasional tables and side tables took up more floor space.
Every piece of furniture was covered with drapes, and every surface packed with knick-knacks. Specialized display furniture, such as whatnot stands, was found in every home. The same principles applied to the walls, where paintings, prints and plates jostled for space.
Much of this decorative clutter was home-made, as etiquette forbade middle-class women both to work for a living and to be idle around the home. Needlepoint and lacework were popular mid-Victorian pastimes.
The main decorative motifs were flowers and other natural objects. Ornamental and useful china alike was extravagantly potted, with lots of fluting and scrolled handles, then enamel-painted with botanically accurate floral designs.
These motifs were complemented by houseplants, potted in colourful jardinieres and set on pedestals, and dried flower arrangements, housed under glass to protect them from dust.
Transfer-printed crockery was affordable by most people, while most middle-class parlours had dried or shell flowers arranged under glass. Slope-backed parlour chairs were typically upholstered in deep-buttoned dark velvet.