Georgian Furniture

A George III slant-lid desk in mahogany, English, late 18th or early 19th century

p4A ItemID F7938420
A George III-style desk in mahogany, English, early 19th century

p4A ItemID F7938419
A George III carved and figured walnut concertina-action games table, probably late 18th century

p4A ItemID F7937163
A George III mahogany hanging corner cupboard, late 18th century

p4A ItemID F7935947

Georgian Furniture

Georgian furniture refers to the evolution of styles popular during the reigns of the Hanoverian monarchs George I, II and III in 18th-century England. The period was one of remarkable prosperity and stability, and the decorative arts reflect this settled time. Thomas Chippendale, Robert Adam, Thomas Sheraton and George Hepplewhite are all 18th-century British designers whose pattern books became popular not only in England, but around the world, most notably in the new colonies of America. The distinctive styles developed during the 18th century marked the emerging cultural dominance of England on the world’s stage.

Early Georgian furniture is generally distinguished from Queen Anne furniture by the increased use of imported mahogany rather than domestic walnut, usage made possible by the removal of an import tax on mahogany in 1733. In addition, the earlier dominant style (Queen Anne) was similar to heavy Dutch and German Baroque examples: those with elaborate gilding, ornate carving and extensive use of veneer and lacquer. As English furniture came into its own, there was a celebration of the exquisite and exotic mahogany. Lines became simplified and more elegant, the scale and heft of individual pieces more refined. English cabinetmakers began to emerge as style-makers rather than copiers of their lowland counterparts.

The prosperity and rise of a middle class during the 18th century gave impetus to a greater variety of forms of furniture. During the late 17th century a well-to-do family might own some stools, a table for eating, and a large boxy wardrobe on turned legs or a blanket chest to hold the precious store of clothing and textiles. Later, the trade and exploration of the early 18th century brought new riches, customs and styles. Tea from the Orient was in vogue, and small occasional tables, tea tables and the like were made to accommodate the new habits. People had more possessions, so chests of drawers, desks and bookcases all became design elements within the home.

Mid-18th-century English furniture is dominated by the influence of The Gentleman’s and Cabinet Maker’s Director, published by English cabinetmaker Thomas Chippendale (1718 to 1779) in 1754, with two subsequent editions. Although Chippendale was not the first to publish a compendium of furniture designs, this particular volume was the first to devote itself completely to furniture. It is interesting to note that relatively few pieces of existing furniture can be decisively attributed to Chippendale himself. Attributions are made on the basis of labeled pieces from his shop. These pieces are, of course, exceedingly rare and are the most valuable in the marketplace. The vast majority of mid-18th-century English furniture is unattributed to a specific carver or shop, but demonstrates just how widespread was the popularity of the designs in the Director.

The Gentleman & Cabinet-Maker’s Director begins with a frontispiece that states, “being a large collection of the most elegant and useful designs of household furniture, in the most fashionable taste. Including a great variety of chairs, sofas, beds, and couches; china-tables, dressing-tables, shaving-stands; bason-stands, and teakettle-stands; frames for marble-slabs, bureau-dressing-tables, and commodes”1 and more. Decorative arts have come a long way from a few stools! The author emphasizes the importance of proportion in his design by starting with line drawings of classical columns with precise measurements showing correct size. He continues with elaborate drawings of chairs and other furniture forms showing carved and pierced splats, those with more exuberant shell carving, ball-and-claw feet carving and then those in the very fashionable Chinese and Gothic tastes. Details are shown throughout the book, so that a client might have been able to take a specific motif from a bookcase, for example, and apply it to a desk.

Chippendale’s designs continued to be popular in England and in the colonies through the end of the 18th century, but he was by no means the only cabinetmaker of note working during this time. Robert Adam (1728 to 1792), a Scottish architect who worked with his brother James, was justly famous for his ability to design a building as well as the fine details of its interior, including the furniture. His designs are classically influenced and have a lighter, more refined line with somewhat less carving and more inlay than Chippendale’s. Thomas Sheraton (1751 to 1806), a cabinetmaker influenced by Adam, was working in London by 1790 and had published his own design book, The Cabinet-Maker and Upholsterers’ Drawing Book by 1791, with two subsequent editions. He made extensive use of lighter woods, especially satinwood, and had a sweeping, elegant line. The use of a swan’s-neck pediment is frequently associated with Sheraton designs.

George Hepplewhite (died 1786) published a design book that became very influential in spreading the neoclassical taste at the end of the 18th century. The Hepplewhite style is characterized by the same spare ornamentation of the Adams and Sheraton styles. Designs include a shield back (chair), carved sheaves of wheat and Prince-of-Wales feather motifs, and a tapered leg with spade foot. Hepplewhite made good use of the lighter woods and patterned inlay that had become so popular in the late-18th century.

Georgian furniture, therefore, describes not one style, but an evolution of design that showcases the most fashionable cabinetmakers of the 18th century. Within one hundred years English furniture developed from boxy baroque and veneered forms borrowed from northern Europe to a distinctive carved and exuberant Rococo style that showcased the beautiful, newly imported mahogany through to a more spare neoclassic style that emphasized line over carved ornamentation.

1. Chippendale, Thomas, The Gentleman & Cabinet-Maker’s Director, 3rd Edition, London 1762

Reference note by p4A Contributing Editor Jan W. Hack.

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