This is the first article in a twelve-month series by Butchoff Antiques on discovering English and European eighteenth- and nineteenth-century furniture and decorative objects. We begin with English Georgian furniture: its quintessential charm, major characteristics, and enduring influence.
English Georgian Furniture
Thinking about English furniture brings to mind pieces that are finely crafted, mostly brown in color, and representing an epoch of comfort and the grand country house.
Such pieces are what the Georgian period is best known for. This extensive period witnessed some of the greatest and most influential designers and furniture makers in England’s history, such as William Kent, Robert Adam, Thomas Chippendale, George Hepplewhite, and Thomas Sheraton.
Named After the Rein of Four Consecutive British Kings Named George
Georgian furniture takes its name not from physical characteristics, but the alignment of the reigns of four consecutive British kings, all named George, spanning from 1714 to 1830. The early years were marked by imperial expansion, with ships in ports all over the world, trading in exotic goods such as spices, textiles, and woods, and discovering new ornamentations for architecture and furniture design. The country became wealthier, and an emerging upper class could afford new luxuries such as building grand country houses, for example Osterley Park, whose design and furnishings were by Robert Adam and Thomas Chippendale – the Andy Warhols of their time.
Exotic Woods are a Predominant Feature
The supreme characteristic of Georgian furniture is the predominance of exotic hardwoods with striking textural grains, such as mahogany from Cuba, San Domingo, South America or the West Indies; rosewood from Brazil, Honduras, and India; and satinwood from the West Indies. One striking example of the romanticization of exotic woods is this unusual inlaid with eight different specimen woods on mahogany ground, creating an eye-catching vortex design. It includes woods so rare that wood expert, Adam Bowett, could not identify them all.
The ornamentation of Georgian furniture is typically tasteful, inlaid with contrasting woods or gilded in gold leaf, and features carvings with architectural motifs inspired by Classical Greece or China. A privately commissioned Side Cabinet Attributed to Gillows of Lancaster incorporates the finest qualities of Georgian furniture. The cabinet rises upon carved lobed bun feet, with two matching mahogany swing doors dressed in stylized square moldings and wonderful carvings representing a Classically inspired Roman column.
The Golden Age of Household Entertainment
The Georgian Period was the golden age of household entertainment! Chiswick House in London was built with the intention of showcasing fine art and contemporary interior decoration. Such hosts would have stylish and functional furnishings and objects to entertain guests for hours and days. Serving tables were and still are very utilitarian pieces for rooms used for entertainment, providing surfaces to hold silver serving platters dressed with food, porcelain ceramics, candelabra, fresh flowers or decorative objects. Often a wine cooler would sit beneath, filled with ice and beverages, and on either side of the table would sit coordinating cupboards housing plates and silverware.
Such an arrangement would be similar to this mahogany Georgian Serving Table , with its Chinese-inspired ‘hairy paw’ feet and a decorative serpentine back incorporating well-executed Graeco-Roman carvings, alongside this open top mahogany wine cooler and pair of side cupboards adorned with similar carvings.
Georgian Style Gave Way to Regency Period
Georgian style developed aesthetically over time, and progressed from subtle and fine carved details to more dramatic carvings as it gave way to the period known as Regency. A good example of the progression is this Pair of Late Georgian Period Armorial Armchairs. Their grand size, curving and tapering back legs, and robust carvings represent an awareness for new designs, yet also retain principles characteristic of the Georgian period.
The Georgian period is a hallmark for English design and decoration, and the taste for its furniture has never gone too far out of style. By the mid-twentieth century, Georgian furniture was revived in both England and America through the interior decorating style renowned as the ‘English Country House Style’, which still continues today to influence contemporary designers and decorating trends.