British Colonial Style Furniture & Decor
Said by Karl Marx to be the greatest civilising force in history the British Empire held vast tracts of the earth, built up over a period of three centuries. At its peak the empire's dominion extended to all continents with about a quarter of the world's population and area under its control.
By the Victorian era of the mid to late 19th century the imperial British had extended their empire around to more exotic parts of the world, from Singapore to East Africa, from India to the British West Indies. With them, they brought their language, their ideas on government, their peculiar customs, and of course their furniture and designs. The Victorian era was a rather formal time and the British, although they enjoyed traveling to the distant outposts of the Empire, were often loathe to forego the comforts of home. As a result they brought the solid and sturdy furniture designs of England and adapted them to the tropics. Along the way, they adapted Asian and African motifs into those traditional designs. This melange became British Colonial style and it is easily recognized by its sturdy, yet sometimes fanciful pieces, of teak and mahogany as well as its use of rattan, leather, and animal prints.
Hardwoods, such as teak and mahogany, were particularly suited to the humid climates of the Empire. Unlike softer woods, like pine, that tended to warp in the tropical humidity, these woods stood up to the most extreme conditions and were readily available in most of the colonies. Often furniture was carved by native craftsmen using British designs, and you'll frequently find little flourishes of Asian, Caribbean, or African art, intermixed with the original carving. If one looks carefully at that mahogany four-postered bed, you'll notice, perhaps, a carved pineapple atop the posts.
The estate houses of the sugar and rubber plantations throughout the British Empire led to a style all of their own. The gracious plantation chair with its low seat, sloping back, and scrolled arms has come to symbolize the colonial West Indies style. Shutters, essential to plantation houses to keep out the hot mid-day sun, found their way to armoires and cabinets. Ceiling fans, often with wide rattan, fan-like blades helped decorate as well as cool the rooms of the plantation house.
Colonial India Style
The period of the British Raj in India developed its own style. Asian details help to distinguish Indian Colonial design. Inlaid ivory and gilt mirrors adorn tables, chests, and dressers. Scrolled legs are more ornate here than in the West Indies or Africa, reflecting the Hindu architecture and design found in India. Print pillows, throws, and flowing drapes accent the heavy dark woods. Turkish and Persian rugs, acquired on travels, also added color and added warmth to the predominately tile floors.
The need to be mobile, yet stylish, as when on Safari in Africa or at war with the Boers in southern Africa, led to a unique style of furniture, called "campaign", or "camp". These pieces were easily transported from one camp to another in a military or safari "campaign." Remember, too, that native porters carried most of the provisions and camp materials. One wonders how much heavy furniture the British themselves would have lugged around Africa, Asia, and the Middle East. Campaign items are most generally collapsible, with folding or removable legs, and often with ingenious hidden compartments.
Decor & Colors
Both exotic and practical, British Colonial design emphasized muted colors, such as browns, beiges, and straw, in sharp contrast to the flowery prints popular at that time in the motherland. The colonial palette reflects the tropical lushness of nature, which, whether in the West Indies, Africa, or Asia, was never far away. One of the hallmarks of British Colonial design is the contrast of hard sturdy wood with the bright sunshine and cheerful colors of the tropics. Animal prints, Indian sari fabrics, and detailed and realistic botanical prints added interest and emphasized the colonists' fascination with their adopted lands.
British colonial accessories frequently emphasized the practical as well as the materials at hand. Heavy hardwood candlesticks and leather suitcase tables were at the same time useful as well as attractive. Animal skins, more than just trophies, were used as rugs and throws. Such oddities as elephant legs were sometimes put to use as tables. The 19th century fascination with all things scientific is evident in the life-like botanical prints as well as telescopes and maps that decorated many a colonial room. Sisal and reed rugs and mats were created out of native materials, and large potted plants, such as ferns, palms, and orchids brought the beauty of the African and Asian landscapes indoors.
The British colonists were a people all their own. Many a young man and woman escaped the confines of rigid Victorian society to make a new, less structured, life in the colonies. British Colonial design reflects that conflict of duty and passion. Sometimes practical, sometimes absurd, this style has become interchangeable with the romance, the allure, and the excitement of that age of limitless possibilities, exploration, and discovery. British Colonial style is like taking a trip around the world without ever leaving home.