THE NINETEENTH CENTURY

(PRIOR TO, AND EARLY, “VICTORIAN”)

Having fresh in our memory the standard attained by the British furnisher and decorator during the reign of the Georges, it is difficult to write in terms of moderation of English furniture as it was during the latter part of the first half of the nineteenth century—the early Victorian period— if the subject is to be discussed purely from the artistic point of view ; and it is that aspect of the question which must now be kept before us. Comparisons are notoriously odious ; but in many circumstances they are not altogether to be evaded ; and as it is one of the chief objects of this book to indulge in them, we must be prepared to put up with the consequences, whatever they may chance to be. At the present stage of our studies, those that must be instituted will not prove in any degree comforting.

The preceding century, as we have seen, had been by far the brightest and most notable in the history of the house-furnishing industries of this country. At its close, the tasteful, and, in not a few instances, beautiful creations of the “ Heppelwhite ” and “Sheraton" schools were at the height of their popularity, which they retained far into the reign of George the Fourth, and even later. Before the nineteenth century was out of its infancy, however, the personal influence of the founders of those styles was removed ; and to improve upon their work, or even merely to perpetuate such traditions as had been created by them, was a task the fulfilment of which required the presence of a man, or men, of similar calibre. Refinement reigned

313 .

supreme in the homes of the upper and middle classes ; and it might reasonably have been imagined, as doubtless many did imagine and hope, that crudity and ugliness had been banished from them for ever, and that good taste had at last taken up its abode in our midst. But was it so?

Furniture designers of a sort were, of course, not wanting, and while such as there were remained content to follow in the footsteps of their great forerunners all went well. Un­fortunately, as we shall see, they, in their turn, became tired of prevailing styles, and on the part of the public the old Athenian cry for “ some new thing ” once more broke forth, and had to be answered. (I have advisedly used the word H unfortunately,” as will presently be seen.) That discontent with the slavish and persistent following of old familiar lines, and the consequent desire to improve upon them, are in any respect to be condemned I should be the very last to suggest; but when those who undertake the task of im­provement are quite incapable of successfully carrying it through, nothing but disaster can ensue ; and, under such conditions, it is far better to let well alone. This was the state of affairs at the time of which I am now writing.

With Heppelwhite gone, Sheraton was practically the last of the “ Old Guard ” left to aid in sustaining the traditions which he had done so much to create ; but the task that now devolved upon him was far too heavy for the poor old master in his declining years. His brain was failing ; his hand had quite lost its cunning ; and he himself, even, com­menced to perpetrate absurdities, and produce designs which he would certainly never have dreamed of countenancing in his earlier days, and when in possession of all his faculties.

A crying and imperative need, then, existed for a worthy successor to these highly-gifted designers and craftsmen, but we may look for him in vain throughout the earlier years of the nineteenth century. The man was not forth­coming, and pigmies had stepped into the places that had

3U

been the vantage points, not so many years before, of veritable giants. What then occurred?

With our English versions of the “ Louis-Quinze" and “ Louis-Seize" before them, these designers deemed it de­sirable to make a change of some kind ; at the same time, they were afraid to draw upon their own store of originality in order to bring the desired change about. If the truth must be told, so far as originality went the fund they did happen to possess was so infinitesimally small as to be practi­cally non-existent. Whether they recognised that fact or not I am unable to say, but certain it is that they came to the conclusion that it would be as well for them to do as their predecessors had done, and continue to draw upon the French for inspiration, particularly as the “ French " was still notably in favour in this country. But they failed to appre­ciate the fact that there is an art even in successful adapta­tion ; an art, moreover, which it is not given to every one to master. Still, to France they went boldly for their ideas.

Many changes had taken place in that country too. There, also, the spirit of unrest had been actively at work ; the “Louis-Seize” in politics and the “Louis-Seize” in art were already regarded as things of the past, and everything calculated to bring them back to mind was relegated, so far as possible, to the limbo of forgotten things. The chaste elegance by which the Monarchy had been surrounded until the very last, with its multitudinous suggestions of pastoral delights and amorous dalliance, was banished from the court, where, once again, emblems of military glory were furbished up by the French designer to win the approbation of the new ruler.

To the “Empire,” therefore, the designers and manu­facturers of English cabinet work of this epoch turned for inspiration, and in doing so they came sadly to grief. It is not at all necessary for me to recapitulate the leading characteristics of the “ Empire,” for to do so would occupy

too great space, on the one hand, and, on the other, they are to be found fully set out in the chapter devoted to the consideration of the work of that period. Bearing in mind what he has recently studied on that subject, the reader will naturally wonder why it was that the English rendering was such a complete failure when the parent style was far from being so. There are several reasons to account for this, and I may explain briefly why so little success attended the efforts put forth by our own designers to transplant the “ Empire ” into British soil at the time of which I am writing. In the first place, the conditions prevailing in each country were essentially different. France was rendered almost mad with triumph by the many conquests added to her scroll of fame under the leadership of “The Little Corporal" ; her children had little mind for anything beside military glory. It followed, as a matter of course, that the existence of such a condition of affairs should, in some measure at least, be indicated by the tastes of the people, and revealed in the character of the decoration and furniture with which they elected to surround themselves ; and so it was, as we have seen.

But when the effort was made to inspire another nation, living under totally different conditions, and possessing a totally different temperament, with enthusiasm for the same symbols, forms, and fancies, the task became impossible of execution. Much that was pregnant with meaning to the subjects of Napoleon, who rejoiced in the overthrow of one monarchy and the setting up of another, appealed but slightly to their neighbours on this side of the Channel, who were not by any manner of means in a similar mood, and had no desire to be. A determined attempt was organised, nevertheless, to force the “ Empire" down their throats, whether they wanted it or not ; and, as the attempt was dumsily made, the result was that the erstwhile beauty of the English home, which it had taken so many years to bring

3U

to the rare state of perfection that it had attained, suffered terribly ; indeed, it almost disappeared altogether for a time.

It seems most curious, withal, and notwithstanding the reason advanced above, that our designers could not extract something better from the “ Empire" than they did; the style itself, whatever else may be said about it, was refined, stately, and dignified in the extreme. That its imitation here should lead to such fearfully hopeless ugliness, seems to indicate that there was something radically wrong with the imitators. It must be admitted, however, that they had a very difficult task to perform ; indeed, they endeavoured to accomplish the impossible, and naturally failed.

The English cabinet maker attempted to ape the magni­ficence of the “ Empire" without the opportunities, or the means requisite, to enable him to do so successfully. He set himself to reproduce as nearly as possible, and in a form which would be within the means of the average householder, models designed and made for the palaces of an emperor, and into the production of which the question of cost had probably never entered. The elaborate carving, the chimeri­cal figures, the delicate brush-work, and above all the ormolu mounts—all features which were part and parcel of the original style, and without which it was no style at all—were far too costly for employment in the conditions under which the British furnisher had to work. In the great mass of his productions any dependence upon the aid of such accessories could not for one moment be entertained, and even elaborate shaping of the woodwork itself was seldom permissible, by reason of cost. The early Victorian designer was not to be daunted, however ; so he went to work to find a substitute for all these characteristic elements which were forbidden him. He finally decided to atone for their absence by increasing the wood, determining that, if his creations could not impose respect by the weight of their magnificence, they should, at least, do so by that of their timber. That is the

story in a nutshell, and it is a painful one. True, the u English Empire " was relieved by some redeeming features, and was productive of a few graceful forms, particularly in chair work; but they constituted somewhat rare exceptions to the dreadful and all-pervading rule.

However, though it was essential to sketch this phase of

Two Studies in “ Sheraton-Empire ” {See page 319 for reference)

English furnishing, there is not the least occasion to dwell upon it, for the vast majority of the examples of the work of that period are not endowed with the slightest suggestion of artistic merit ; are of no value to collectors ; and can serve only to remind us of the depths to which we sank in the matter of applied art during the earlier part of the reign of Victoria; depths which were proudly “ sounded," for the benefit of the world, at the memorable exhibition of 1851.

Reference in Text. See page 319

If any reader should desire to study the furniture of that period more closely than he will be able to do here, he cannot do better than refer to the special volumes issued by the Art Journal at that time, which are to be found in most refer­ence-libraries, and illustrate the glories (!) of that exhibition. I have also, in the chapter on “ Other Georgeian Types," given the names of several other illustrated works dealing exten­sively with English furniture and decoration of that “ dark age.” I much prefer that the examples should be found there than in these pages. Tasteful furniture was, of course, not altogether unknown to our forefathers of the days of which I am now writing ; but such as then existed was on the lines laid down by Chippendale, Heppelwhite, Sheraton, and even earlier masters, or else consisted of such English render­ings of the “ Empire" as were more refined than the majority of those interpretations. So matters went on for many a long year without any very great effort being made to improve them.

It is necessary, I suppose, to illustrate some examples of the style of this period, so on the single plate included in this melancholy chapter, and on the preceding page, I present a few studies of English “ Empire ” at its best. That they are possessed of some little merit may be accounted for by the fact that they came from the pencil of Sheraton ; but as they were designed in the declining years of that old master, and in answer to a demand which, I venture to think, was by no means in accord with his own personal preferences, they have not been included in our deliberations upon his representative work. The two sofas are not ungraceful in line, and the arm-chair is a sensible and comfortable model which has done good service for many years ; but the two remaining chairs have an appearance of weakness that is far from being in keeping with true “ Sheraton.” The table illustrated is not, of course, on u Empire " lines, but is sug­gestive rather of the Gothic, and—well—it might be worse.

Following the condition of affairs referred to in the preceding chapter, it was not until well into the second half of the last century that any signs appeared of a revival as regards tastefulness in the furnishing of the homes of this country—that is to say so far as the origination of new ideas was concerned. Until they became apparent, those purchasers who would not tolerate the heavy and ungainly caricatures of the “ Empire" which the furnisher offered them had to fall back upon the traditions of the preceding century, and they could hardly have done better. It does not form any part of my scheme to review exhaustively the work of the past fifty years ; not that the work is unworthy of consideration, by any manner of means ; but it is of too recent a date to be accorded any great amount of space in a book the chief object of which is to deal with historic styles in furniture. Moreover, for the reader to see the best of everything that has been done by the modern designer to supply the needs of the average householder, it is only necessary to make a tour of inspection round the principal establishments devoted to the fitting-up of the home. There a complete and most exhaustive object lesson in this phase of the subject may be found. Nor does it come within the scope of this volume to proffer advice upon the choice of modern furniture—I hope to deal with that separately ; but a few observations which may aid in accounting for the why and wherefore of the styles prevalent at the present day will not, I am sure, be regarded as out of place in these pages.

When passing in review the selection of productions

Reference in Text. See pages 327, 328

shown by any furnishing establishment of repute at the commencement of the twentieth century, the careful and well-informed observer will easily classify them in his own mind under three heads. First:—there are those that are either absolute copies of, or the designs of which are based upon, historic models which we have already considered. Second:—there are those that have obviously been made merely to serve certain utilitarian purposes—goods in whose production economy of time, labour, and material has been the only really serious consideration ; the manufacturer entertaining the idea that, so long as he provided what would look “ a lot for the money,” style, as such, was a matter of little or no importance. Third :—tasteful creations which are certainly refined, and often beautiful, but which cannot be classified with any of the styles with which we have dealt in the foregoing pages ; and it is of these last-named that I must have something to say.

During the past twenty or thirty years, and particularly during the last decade, certain designers and manufacturers have cultivated form and decoration of a notably simple, and often severe, type, and—fortunately for all concerned—these have steadily increased in favour in the eyes of purchasers of the more intelligent class, until they have become quite “the fashion.” When these first commenced to make their appear­ance, some difficulty was experienced in finding a name for them, and they were variously described as being in the “ Liberty,” the “ Morris,” or the “ Arts-and-Crafts ” style ; but later those titles were abandoned—or nearly so—one by one, and some inventive mind hit upon “The Quaint Style” as a more fitting substitute. As that description seemed to take the popular fancy, it has come into current use.

In the furniture trade itself, other names are often used to describe such goods—the names of wholesale manufacturers who have assiduously cultivated this particular style, and who have, as a matter of fact, done quite as much as, or even

x

more than, the famous cabinet makers of past centuries to elevate their craft. So materially, however, have conditions changed that, were I to publish those names here, I should bring down upon my humble head the maledictions of all

the large retail furnishing firms, while the manufacturers themselves would be writing apologetic letters to these firms protesting that it had been done without their knowledge or permission, and trusting that the error, serious as it was, might not interfere with the continuance of custom.

Such is the state of affairs at the present time, and my reference to it brings me to the question of a movement which was organised to revolutionise, if possible, the position of the artist and craftsman as regards their relationship to the

A Scheme of “Quaint” Furnishing (by W. Baldock)

(Seepage 328 for reference)

public ; and which also was, in a great measure, responsible for the inception of that style which we may consider under its generally accepted title, “ The Quaint."

To treat at length upon the tenets of the Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society ; to set forth their propaganda ; to follow

the growth of the organisation ; to tell of the unstinted admiration entertained by its members for the life-work of William Morris ; and to write the life-story of “ The Master ” himself, is far too colossal a task to be entered upon here. All that I can do is to sum up, as concisely and yet as fully as lies within my power, the cardinal points of the creed sub­scribed to by this little band of workers who have come so greatly into prominence of late years. They may, I think, be stated as follows:—That the labourer is worthy of his hire. That the artist and craftsman, who create and produce beautiful things, have as much right to be known to the public as the middleman, who, in ninety-nine cases out of a hundred, could not produce a beautiful thing if he tried, and has no desire to. That both artist and craftsman should be in a position to work under such conditions that they may find actual pleasure in the labour of their heads and hands. That the public should be educated in such a w’ay as to enable it to distinguish between the good and the bad in art and craftsmanship, and so be induced to encourage the one and reject the other. These, so far as I understand them, are the main teachings of the Society, but prevailing con­ditions always have been, and still are, too strong for them. What are those conditions? The labourer is compelled to fight for his hire, and not infrequently starves in the struggle to obtain it. If the artist and craftsman make any attempt to bring their names before the public, they do so at their own risk, knowing that it may spell financial ruin to them— the majority of the middlemen see to that. In the great mass of their work, the artist and craftsman are too much engaged in getting it through at a “ cutting price ” to find pleasure in it—disgust is nearer the mark. Most members of the public prefer to buy the cheap, showy—and nasty, to the cheap, simple—and good. This is a clear statement of the case, and one to which I think, alas, no objection can fairly be taken.

Reference In Text. See pages 327, 328

Notwithstanding the fact that the task which they set them­selves seemed, and still seems, to be a hopeless one, the Society have gone bravely on ; have perpetrated many absurdities— as we all do at one time or another—and have accomplished an incalculable amount of good. And it is for us to see now in what respect they have exercised an influence upon British furniture. Most of these artists, though from the first they assumed an affectation which would have been mirth – inspiring had it not been painful ; and though, in many cases, their views regarding art are of the narrowest ; were, and are, men of high attainments ; their views, therefore, are entitled to respect. In considering what should be done to bring about the reformation of furniture, they took, in the first place, one important stand. They determined to emphasise the fact that the cabinet maker, in common with everybody else, should “ cut his coat according to his cloth,” and, at the same time, they endeavoured to impress this lesson upon the minds of the public. They argued, and, of course, correctly, that the majority of people cannot afford to spend very much money on their furniture ; and endeavoured to teach them that they should be content with comparative simplicity, since elaborate forms, if well made, with carving, inlay, painting, and metal enrichments, if good, are more or less costly. It was their aim to persuade the purchaser, who is able only to spend a few hundreds on the furnishing of his home, not to ape the schemes of those who may be in the position to spend thousands. And, in order to demonstrate their meaning more fully, they set about the production of types of furniture which should serve as models of what ought to be. These were placed on view at the periodical exhibitions held at the New Gallery under the auspices of the Society ; the exhibitions themselves soon became almost as popular as the annual displays of the “ R. A.” ; they were visited ex­tensively by the u upper ten,” who were struck by the novelty they found there; so, before long, everything d la “ Arts and

Crafts ” became the craze. In this way the ball was set rolling.

But what ot the types referred to themselves? I have said that they were brought forward as a practical protest against the cheap and nasty over-elaboration that had for so long been rampant, and of which we still see far too much ; and, naturally perhaps, they went to the other extreme. The ideas which underlay them were indisputably admirable, but in too many instances they were carried into effect by men who, skilled as they were in other departments of art, had not taken the trouble to master even the А В C of furniture design or manufacture. As an inevitable result, they were endowed with much of the comic element. This furniture was made by primitive methods of construction, and was accordingly costly ; in some cases it was so badly put together that it came to pieces in the Gallery. Yet, with all this, the idea was there, and was destined to bear remarkably rich fruit.

The professional furniture designer, and the manufac­turer—in fact, the much – abused “ trade "—saw that the Arts and Crafts Exhibitions had done much towards the creation of a genuine demand for simple and quaint furni­ture ; so they—who were trained to the business—set to work in that direction, and, with the aid of all the most modern, and most perfect, facilities and manufacturing appliances that money can command, produced their own designs upon com­mercial lines, and found that they met with the heartiest welcome. Thus, these simple forms found their way into the greater number of the furnishers’ showrooms of any import­ance up and down the country ; and, as they were unusual, comparatively inexpensive, and far superior in construction and design to much that was already there, their popularity became assured.

Of this “ Quaint,” in its best phases, it may be said that comparative simplicity is the keynote ; that, in cultivating

Reference in Text. See pages 327, 328

it, the designer is free to give his own fancies full play, so far as considerations of price, and limitations imposed by method and material, will permit; that in it the value of broad effects in carving, inlay, and metallic enrichment is more fully appreciated than it was before the cultivation of this vein of thought ; and that, as a matter of fact, it is, to all intents and purposes, the “New Art” of the British fur­nisher— a “New Art,” withal, which had its inception here long before “ L’Art Nouveau ” made its appearance in France.

The Arts and Crafts Society, however, must not be per­mitted to monopolise all the credit for the inception of this new movement ; for, even during the earlier years of that organisation, some furniture designers and manufacturers were working quietly towards the same goal, though they were not enrolled under the Morrisean banner, and would, most likely, not have been acknowledged as confreres^ those who were. Indeed, they are not accorded that honour even yet ; but they manage to survive somehow. We must, how­ever, accord the Society all the honour that is its due ; and hope that the day may not be far distant when it will throw down many of the barriers it has raised ; when its views may be broadened; when many of its absurdities and manner­isms may be abjured ; and when it may become more thoroughly representative of British art and craftsmanship than it has been. Then, the good work it has already accomplished may be increased ten thousand-fold.

Although it is not my intention to illustrate much modern British work here, one or two examples demonstrating certain points raised will not be out of place. For instance, we have on Plate I. four pieces of furniture which the “Arts and Crafts ” Society deemed worthy of being placed on view at one of their exhibitions at the New Gallery, held not so very long ago, and these will serve to justify some of my remarks with regard to that body’s advocacy of severe sim-

plicity. Exactly the same spirit inspired the designs which are presented on pages 322 and 323, and on Plate III. ; but it is that spirit interpreted by one who has made a life­long study of the task in hand, and who is, therefore, able to avoid the pitfalls that beset the simple amateur. The last Plate (II.) that calls for notice illustrates a number of sugges­tions for dining-room furniture in which natural forms, skilfully and tastefully conventionalised, constitute the sole enrichment. This series of studies in what might almost be described as English u New Art," is from the pencil of Mr. Henry Pringuer, an artist in writing of whose work I could, with the greatest enjoyment, fill many pages did circum­stances permit, but unfortunately they do not.

In conclusion, it must be pointed out that, side by side with this cultivation of the “ Quaint," designers have studied more and more deeply the best work of the past, learned its lessons, and adapted the cardinal principles of historic styles with such rare skill as to bring them into harmony with present-day requirements. The result has been that, in addition to the faithful copying of old models, the most tasteful novel renderings of old styles have, for many years past, been produced, and continue to be produced, on every hand. To sum up the situation, if I were asked to give my opinion upon the work of the modern British cabinet maker as a whole, I should unhesitatingly affirm that there never was a time in the history of our country when so great a degree of good taste was to be found in the furnishing showrooms as is to be seen there to-day ; and that there is not the slightest excuse for anyone, however limited may be his resources, to admit into the home ugliness in the form of furniture.

AN ILLUSTRATED TABLE OF TECILXICAL TERMS UNAVOIDABLY EMPLOYED FREQUENTLY IN THE TEXT

.