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Victorian Gothic Revival - Ultra Gothic Furniture

This contemporary commentary on the English Gothic revival furniture displays found at the 1867 Paris Universal Exhibition comes from the Art Journal of 1867-1868.

Decorative Gothic vs. Ultra Gothic

¶ We have reserved for special consideration certain remarkable manifestations of Gothic for which the English Department is conspicuous: The building of Gothic houses has, of course, naturally created a demand for Gothic furniture. One of the most ultra, uncompromising, yet successful exponents of this style may be seen in Messrs. Hollands' sideboard below, after the design of Mr. Talbert, engraved below. It is remarkable alike for design, materials, and workmanship. This magnificent sideboard, or buffet, is a revival of the mediaeval "dressoir", after the quaintest, severest, not to say crudest, of historic precedents. That these "dressoirs" were often flowing in line, and even florid in detail, after the manner, not of austere, but of decorative Gothic styles, every student of mediaeval furniture is fully aware (Vide Viollet le Duc; also not a few plates in the works of Mr. Shaw.)

¶ The question may possibly be put, how is it that the most eccentric and forbidding phases of Gothic Art should have been deliberately selected? The excuse must be that ultra-medievalism, the most ultra, in fact, which can be exhumed anywhere, is now deemed the right sort of thing. The older the idea may be, of course the more worshipful. It must be admitted, however, that the utmost has been done to redeem this "dressoir" from the charge of meanness or austerity. Even the towering up of the back into three successive ranges rescues the design from plebeian origin. High and aristocratic must have been the household which could use in daily life a "dressoir" thus distinguished. Neither has any means or space been spared which might give to the finished work enrichment. The oak framework receives colour and decorative arabesques from inlays of tulip and other woods. Panels beneath the upper canopy are enriched by tarsia, pictorial compositions of corn, swans, ducks, and other fowl, suggestive of good cheer. The general colour, which is pleasantly varied, is further enhanced by richly-embroidered curtains, of course strictly Gothic in design. Also, as a matter of course, the utmost has been made of brass hinges and other metal work. A certain antipathy, may be provoked by a work, which sacrifices beauty to quaint angularity and forbidding mediaevalism, yet were it impossible to withhold high commendation from an effort so well sustained. This sideboard is certainly the most distinguished among competing Gothic works; the treatment is thoroughly artistic, the execution sharp and precise.

Neo Gothic Sideboard
Neo Gothic Sideboard.
Messrs. Holland and Sons, of London, exhibit, among other works (all their contributions being for Gothic furnishing), a Dressoir for a dining-hall; it is of oak, inlaid, and relieved by gilding, the centre of the canopy being surmounted by a gablet with a carved subject, in bas-relief, and mottoes from "Pericles": the arched panels below the canopy are filled with solid inlays, representing fish, fruit, game, etc.
The metal work is entirely of hand-wrought brass. The artist who has supplied the designs is Mr. B. J. Talbert. It will suffice to say of this admirable production of Art-manufacture that it fully sustains the renown of an establishment that has long been, everywhere, famous.

¶ The Gothic cabinet exhibited by the same firm, also from the design of Mr. Talbert, gives equal proof of study, care, and skill. The construction is true and honestly confessed, the decoration grows out of the fundamental lines of design, the materials are solid, and appear for what they are. Thus the principles which sustain the present Gothic revival, the canons enunciated by Pugin and enforced by Ruskin, are strictly complied with. And it may be confessed that the effect gained is less than usually harsh, violent, and defiant. In fact, the artist has evidently done his best to bring the composition into nice pictorial harmony. Other like attempts, some abortive and monstrous, might be noticed, did space permit. Mr. Arthur, Mr. Hayward, Messrs Harland and Fisher, and Messrs. Heaton, Butler, and Bayne, all once more make themselves prominent as mediaeval revivalists.

¶ A commendable cabinet in marquetry, by Harland and Fisher, is after the manner which Mr. Burges made memorable in the Ecelesiological Court of our London Exhibition. The buffet of Messrs. Heaton, Butler, and Bayne is in the mannerism we have already designated ultra-Gothic. Yet the work becomes noteworthy as a characteristic instance of painted furniture, as distinguished from the more costly inlays of which Hollands "dressoir" is the crowning example. Messrs. Heaton have decorated their buffet with painted panels, containing flowers, birds, and other living objects, symbolic of the months. Mr. Arthur exhibits similar panes, including compositions of flowers, birds, men, and monsters. The whole school is apt to be grotesque in motive, and somewhat crude and opaque in colour. All such painted furniture we incline to look upon as of the nature of a curiosity, as a caprice to amuse the antiquary; surely the method belongs to past rather than to present times. The magnificent ancient reredos of Westminster, however, has naturally evoked emulation; yet the, decay of that matchless work says little for the permanence of the process.

¶ The Gothic furniture which Mr. Crace has been accustomed to produce in exhibitions may, in common with the sober and well-balanced works of the moderate-minded Gothic architects of the day, be taken as a wholesome protest against prevailing eccentricities, austerities, and extravagances. The Gothic designs of Mr. Crace, like those of Pugin, are beauty-loving. There is, in fact, if we may be permitted the solecism, a certain approach to renaissant exuberance and Italian grace and finish in these later, as distinguished from earlier, manifestations of Gothic. This is nothing more than to say that all high and advanced developments tend to like ends. And it is just these more decorative stages that are the Gothic furniture which Mr. Crace has been accustomed to most consonant to the uses, refinements, and luxuries of our modern homes. The gable end of a house may be made as severe and angular as the most uncouth of Gothicists could desire. The same treatment in the elbow of chairs or sofas would put the inmates of the house to discomfort and torture.

¶ We have spoken of English dining-room and, drawing-room furniture. Of the furniture of bed-rooms little need be said because, for the most part, it is so simple as seldom to be directly decorative. We cannot, however, pass without notice the wardrobe and dressing-table exhibited by Hunter; the soft harmony space of colour gained from satin-wood, and diversified by Wedgwood plaques, is most agreeable. Articles in a light key of colour are of great value in the furnishing of rooms; thus variety and lively contrast are obtained. Neither can we fail to commend the tasteful and comparatively inexpensive bed-room suite in imitation woods made by Dyer and Watts. The effect is absolutely illusive, so closely has the inlay of real woods been copied.

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