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Victorian Renaissance Revival

This commentary on the English furniture displays found at the 1867 Paris Universal Exhibition comes from the Art Journal of 1867-1868, and deals with furniture in a Renaissance Revival style.

¶ In International Exhibitions almost the first question that arises is, After what manner have the chief nations demeaned themselves? In the outset we are happy to say that England, whose fortunes necessarily concern us most, has done herself credit. In previous Exhibitions the inequality of the English furniture has been subject of comment; it was remarked that while some works were refined in conception and execution, others were clumsy and commonplace. This discrepancy, which, not without reason, was taken as a sign that high excellence in design and execution still remained exceptional, is now no longer observed. On the contrary, each piece of furniture exhibited may claim to be a master-work, and thus the entire collection sets forth favourably the several phases of structural and decorative art now in vogue. For instance, the recent Gothic revivals are represented by well studied, carefully wrought designs, which place our English makers of Gothic furniture in a wholly exceptional and supreme position. Then, again, in the use of rich and rare woods for polychromatic display, there are works in the English department which surpass all others. In economy of manufacture, too, we have little reason to fear competition. Furthermore, English furniture may be commended for correctness, moderation, and balance in design, for simplicity in treatment, for care in execution, for the happy blending of colour, for the skilful use of materials, and withal for the subserviency of ornament to utility, and the subjection of decorative detail to breadth and truth of construction.

Dining Room Furniture

¶ We will begin with the Dining Room Furniture of England. Dining room furniture, as distinguished from the furniture suited to a drawing-room, should be substantial, massive, handsome, and in colour somewhat sombre rather than gay. The sideboard is the piece de resistance, in which these characteristics usually reach a climax;, this is the article in which dinner-giving Englishmen take a pride, and, as usual, our cabinet-makers here put their utmost strength. Once again Messrs. Trollope, and Gillow, fully armed, enter the lists determined on victory; there are few things more astounding in the whole Exhibition than the sideboards which these two renowned houses produce. Both are loaded with decoration after the approved manner of the old school; they are undoubtedly handsome, judged by the standards our grandfathers, and they may, perhaps, rise even above the reach of criticism; certainly they deliberately set at naught such modern maxims as teach that ornament shall grow out of utility, and decoration be sustained by construction. Trollope's elaborate and ponderous sideboard has, however, been designed on an architectural basis; it is a grandiloquent manifesto of the Renaissance, a style which gives Mr. Rogers free play for his clever carving. Gillow's sideboard is massive, ornate, and what is usually called handsome; but the design and treatment are scarcely sufficiently strict in style. Mr. Lamb's imposing sideboard we engraved in 1862: it is made conspicuous by a couple of figures unusual in size. The effect is striking, but more subtlety and delicacy are needed for the carrying out of a design which is now little more than daring. Messrs. Whytock, of Edinburgh, exhibit a bookcase in ebony that does credit to their taste; unlike most adaptations of Italian styles, the treatment is fairly strict, and the composition in its masses has been well kept together. It is really quite a relief to come upon a work moderate and quiet. The Exhibition gives saddest warnings against the squandering of vast labour and richest materials on conceptions and designs worse than worthless.

Drawing Room & Boudoir Furniture

¶ Next let us consider the Drawing Room and Boudouir of England. Furniture, to be in keeping with the ladies' "withdrawing-room", should be cheerful, elegant, light, and even festive. It has been commonly said that in this brilliant sphere the French shine to most advantage; it is evident, however, that the English have made satisfactory advance of late years. By common consent the cabinet of Wright and Mansfield is pronounced one of the most exquisite works ever turned out of hand. The design is expressly English, and its nationality is scarcely impugned by the few minor French details that creep in here and there. A slight mingling of styles, if not inherently dissonant, is seldom objectionable, especially as in most households arts of all epochs and countries jostle closely together without ceremony. This lovely cabinet affords a favourable example of the pictorial composition, of the subtle and beauteous polychromatic harmonies which of late have been the vogue in France and in England. The facade of a cabinet is now-a-days as anxiously studied as if were a picture. In Wright and Mansfield's composition the prevailing colour is given by golden satin-wood, into which details of ornament and enrichments of material have been worked with a delicate hand. The panels are furnished with decorative designs in Wedgwood-ware; the colour of these plaques, celandine and white, is less harsh than blue and white. By the ordinary expedient of gilt garlands, hung from salient points, distant members of the composition gain connection, and rectangular, forms are softened by flowing lines. The harmony of this picture of wood-inlay is wrought to the utmost pitch by materials of tender intermediate tones; the green and blue are necessarily artificial. Messrs. Jackson and Graham maintain their good name by an admirably-wrought ebony cabinet in the style of the Italian Renaissance. The surface receives tasteful decoration by an arabesque inlay of ivory, and obtains further illumination from lapis-lazuli and jasper.

An ebony cabinet by Trollope
An ebony cabinet by Trollope.
An ebony cabinet by Trollope.

¶ Other cabinets in ebony - a material in the use of which our English makers evidently are intent upon rivalling the French - have been produced by Messrs. Trollope; one of these we engraved, seen above. Also we have engraved (below) a choice cabinet by Gillow; the tarsia pictures in the panels are capital for colour, design, and workmanship.

Cabinet by Gillow
Cabinet by Gillow
By Edward Gillow, a cabinet in Italian style made of various woods, with much of the carved work from boxwood. The figures on the door panels - representing the arts of painting and architecture - are inlaid.

¶ To the works already enumerated by Trollope must be added, as a magnificent example of tarsia, an octagon table; the ornamentation, including a fret and a honeysuckle, is a good adaptation of the Greek style. The design has been honestly wrought out in true and choice materials, such as amboyna, purple, rose, and satin woods. The restraint, symmetry, and chastened beauty in furniture founded on classic styles, administer salutary reproof to the vagaries committed under so-called Gothic revivals.

Cabinet By Crace
Cabinet By Crace.
This cabinet by Mr Crace is an example of the elegance to be obtained by the use of various coloured woods, both in construction and as marquetry. The style of ornamentation adopted is a rather classic rendering of the Cinque-cento Italian. In the upper portion the pilasters are of ivory, inlaid with dark woods, the caps and bases being of ormolu. The door panels are of satinwood, inlaid with coloured woods. Between the panel and frame are margins of ebony inlaid with ivory; the frame being of purple wood, and all the mnouldings of ormolu.

¶ A cabinet by Mr. Crace, above, we may take almost for granted, is a careful study of form, detail, and colour. The resources of the Renaissance are here brought into play, while the extravagance of the style is restrained. This bijou is one of the many examples now multiplying on every hand of polychroinatic composition wrought in wood. Variety and concord of colour are obtained by more than ordinary judgment in the use of such well-known materials as ebony, ivory, gold, Wedgwood plaques, agates, purple and satin wood, and silvery grey sycamore. The transition from tone to tone has been managed with a delicacy truly delicious after the crude contrasts with which the eye in many chromatic attempts comes in collision. The principles of composition, light, shade, and colour, are observed so strictly, that this piece of furniture is nothing less than a work of high Art.

Carved Panel
Carved Panel
The carved panel of another cabinet, a work of great beauty.

¶ Above will be found a panel decorated with Raphaelesque ornament, from a second cabinet exhibited by Mr. Crace. The exuberance, not to say the extravagance, into which the disciples of the Italian Renaissance are frequently betrayed, has been kept in this cabinet under due restraint. The treatment shows the knowledge of a trained artist. The sober tones of walnut, the favourite wood in Italy of the middle ages, are enlivened by ivory inlays, and colour is focused in masses of agate, lapis-lazuli, and other rich stones. The composition has been forced up to the ordinary climax of a cornice, and the pediment above is designed expressly to receive a classic vase in bronze. It is better thus to provide simply a standing place for bronze, than to incorporate metal as the French do in the very structure of the woodwork. Such hybrid mixture of material gives birth to a meretricious Art, like unto certain piebald statues in the corrupt period of the Roman empire. In furniture, as in sculpture, unity and repose are qualities without which the richest materials are worse than thrown away.

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