Buyers Guide – Georgian Furniture

by Andrew Mayall 


Georgian furniture has never been such good value and with prices sure to rise, now’s the time to buy.

Think of Georgian furniture and instantly you picture large, sturdy pieces combining simplicity of line with exquisite materials and unparalleled craftsmanship……and the price tag? Expensive? Well think again. While post war and shabby chic have become ever more expensive, Georgian furniture has never been so affordable.

Georgian style embraces a century under the reign of three Georges and is often divided into the Palladian, mid and late Georgian periods; the three phases being a continuum of each other. The styles ranged radically from Baroque to Rococo, Chinoiserie to Neoclassical and as the century progressed, the style became lighter and lighter both in terms of colours and decoration eventually developing into what we now class the Regency style.

So with over 100 years of design and a multitude of things on offer how do you pick your way through the look of a century? Here’s the outline of the Georgian style…

Early Georgian

In the Early Georgian period attempts were made to improve earlier designs mainly from the Queen Ann period, simple shapes already popular were altered, embellished and improved upon. However possibly the most significant development that occurred in the reigns of George I and George II was the replacement of walnut by mahogany.

Mahogany rapidly won favor among cabinetmakers being very strong, long lasting and having a close grain. Mahogany was also less prone to infestation, didn't scratch, crack, or warp or need varnishing, and its dark reddish colour suited the design temperament of the day.

One such cabinetmaker that took to the use of mahogany was William Kent. Kent, like many of the period had gone on the Grand Tour to Rome finding himself inspired by the  16th Century Italianate architect Andrea Palladio and his distinctive style termed Palladianism.

The original architects of the Palladian style had made no designs for furniture, being more interested in the overall layout of buildings, grounds, and gardens. Furniture was a mere addition and had to be in line with the other elements. Kent set about creating a style of Palladian furniture that would compliment and blend in with the Palladian architecture of great homes and their interiors, enhance their architectural symmetry, and be complementary to their existing windows, doors, chimney pieces, and cornices.

Common items included side tables, especially pier tables, usually with marble tops, chairs with shells and legs graced with fish-scaled scrolls, as well as bookcases and gilt mirrors. These designs were largely inspired by classical architecture elements such as molded doors, large pediments, and various sculpture forms of the ancient world.

Palladian style furniture stood apart from most other early Georgian furniture in that it was designed and made for a small, very wealthy class of people to sit in their great country homes, mansions, and palaces. It had, as a consequence, little lasting influence, never making the leap to common use and acceptance.

Mid Georgian

The Palladian taste of the early Georgian period in 18th century England persisted for some years, especially in bookcase design, but was never widely popular and suffered from being quite expensive for ordinary furnishing needs. The demands of the wider middle and upper class market were more inclined to the curvy, light, and less architectural style that had developed in France in the Louis XV era, called the Rococo.

The name Thomas Chippendale is most closely associated with English Rococo style furniture. In the middle of the eighteenth century Chippendale published his “Gentleman’s and Cabinetmakers Director” which cemented the Rococo style of interior decoration in England. By 1762 Chippendale produced the third edition of the “Director” this time catering to popular crazes for Gothic and Chinese designs, as well as Rococo furniture, and also later in his career made neo-classical furniture more associated with the Georgian period.

Chippendale specialised in the Rococo style, particularly gilded furniture like pier glasses and very elaborate furniture for Royal apartments such as state beds and ladies' dressing table’s. Wherever many people were likely to be found, assembly and drawing rooms for example, Chippendale went to town. However he was also capable of making simpler pieces, painted bedroom furniture in the chinoiserie style, as well as more classical pieces.

Late Georgian

From about the time of George the third's accession to the throne, 1760, a reaction set in against the overbearing Palladian style, and the curvy and vivacious Rococo style designs of the preceding early and mid Georgian eras known as Neoclassicism. English Neoclassicism is most associated with the designers Adam, Hepplewhite, and Sheraton.

Sometimes called "Greek", "Grecian", and "Etruscan" the Neoclassical style came about due to a renewed interest in the heritage of the ancient classical civilizations of Greece and Rome, and in particular the results of excavations at Pompeii and Herculaneum and the study of the remains there.

Robert Adam had the greatest impact on the early development of the Neoclassical style. He had made detailed studies of classical ornament in Italy and made great use of them in designing room interiors in a Roman style. He not only made furniture, but, when set to the task, would design and decorate whole rooms down to the last detail, all in the same Neoclassical style.

Adam had many imitators and the most famous of them was George Hepplewhite. Hepplewhite's “Cabinet maker and Upholsterers Guide” of 1788 was largely based on Adam designs but in a simplified way, more suited to the needs of everyday craftsmen. Of most enduring interest in the "Guide" are designs for the famous shield back Hepplewhite chairs, settees and upholstered stools.

The final phase of Neoclassicism is seen in the works of Thomas Sheraton. Sheraton furniture had a huge practical impact and produced very elegant, sophisticated furniture in great numbers.

All these designs spawned thousands of lookalikes, many of which can be had today for three and four figure sums. These accessible prices are due, in part, to a plentiful supply of middle-market pieces. In the 18th century, the emergence of a wealthy middle class meant rocketing demand for formal furniture. The types of furniture produced reflected the leisure pursuits of this newly affluent set, card playing, elegant dinner parties, taking tea and building book collections.

Few of these middle class magnates and merchants had the space or budget to commission the monumental pieces found in the interiors of the aristocracy’s great houses. What they did commission however is now in abundance in salerooms around the country. Elegant and high quality pieces of beautiful and functional furniture which have survived for over 200 years and which, more importantly will survive for a further 200.

The acquisition of a piece of Georgian furniture marks the acquisition of not only a reliable friend but an heirloom for future generations.

Posted on 18 September 2015 in: Auction life

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