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Elizabethan Era Furniture

The Elizabethan Era

Queen Elizabeth I belonged to the tudor line of English royalty but played such a magnificent role in her young country's fortunes that her time is signified by her name rather than her father's King Henry VIII. Elizabeth Tudor came to the throne in 1558 and reigned until 1603. The Elizabethan age is most famous for, of course, its theater, hair styles, dress and fashion, music, but it is the furniture of the Elizabethan period that holds our interest presently.

Elizabethan Furniture

At the close of the Elizabethan era in English furniture history furniture and interior decoration styles had undergone significant changes from the preceding tudor period and furniture had begun to be made in larger quantities and varieties. These developments occurred due to changes in house plans and design and greater European, such as Italianate style, influence on the furniture makers of the English Renaissance.

Elizabethan Houses

The design and plans of Elizabethan era houses and homes saw the traditionally dominant role played by the hall in medieval and tudor homes come to decline with its place being taken by long galleries which were used for playing games and strolling along. Naturally the best, most fine and decorative furniture and furnishings came to be positioned there.

Wood - Oak & Walnut

While most Elizabethan furniture, such as Elizabethan chairs, was still made of oak some of the finer pieces were made of walnut, a lighter, less sturdy wood. Walnut furniture in the Elizabethan age was most often placed in the gallery and was often inlaid.

Elizabethan Table
Elizabethan Table

Oak items, such as antique tables and court cupboards were more likely to have been seen in halls, due to them being more suitable to hard use.

Due to the lack of strength in walnut furniture antiques have not survived the years.

Influences on Elizabethan Furniture

The Elizabethan era, or as some would have it, Elisabethan, of English furniture history saw a gradual absorption of the Gothic tradition, dominant in the tudor furniture period, into a native English version of the Renaissance movement, particularly that part of the Renaissance as had developed in Holland, Germany, and the Flemish lands.

At the end of Elizabeth's time a highly decorative and architectural, some would say garish, style had become established among wealthy and fashionable persons of the period derived from the Flemish Renaissance, but applied with perhaps less knowledgeable artistry than had obtained on the continent.

Flemish Inlaid Box
Flemish Inlaid Box, late 16th century.

Few bare, unadorned surfaces, whether walls or on furniture, escaped the attention of enthusiastic carving folk bent on leaving at least some form of mark. The plain linenfold panelling of early Tudor times was supplanted by strapwork ornamentation, lozenge decoration, masks, grotesques, and fruit and flower motifs, particularly grape and vine leaf ornament.

This emphasis on great amounts of ornamentation in the Elizabethan time can perhaps be looked at in two ways : for those who really admire classic decoration, that is, the finished and exquisite beauty of Greek and Roman ornament, then the myriad of bizarre distortions of such ornamental forms that were made in the name of enrichment on the furniture of late Elizabethan times can be painful or embarrassing; but if the decoration of Elizabethan furniture is looked upon as the free and graceful expression of a craftsman's developing skill, if the vigour of the ornament is appreciated and the source of its inspiration forgotten, then we can perhaps see a very real beauty and force in such work, a foretaste of much better things to come.

If we look at the melon bulb legs of the heavy oak tables, similar to the one in the picture, crowned by a quaint rendering of a Greek Ionic capital and laced over by sprawling acanthus leaves, we can see that it is richly decorative in a bold and lively way. Later on in the history of English furniture, in the long period of oak furniture making, decorative features for furniture were to gain a refinement, a tasteful holding-back, that brought style and grace to the fashioning of tables, chests and beds; but the first attempts of the Elizabethan age in the adaptation of Renaissance and Italianate forms strike us as being simply over zealous and uneducated.

Elizabethan Furniture Characteristics - Palace

Elizabethan palace furniture was opulent and lavish. Some contemporary descriptions follow. Pictures unfortunately do not exist.

At Theobald's palace in 1592 there was observed painted and gilt ceilings "skillfully wrought in joiner's work" and "tables of inlaid work and marble of various colours".

From information on Hampton Court Palace: "masterly paintings, writing tables inlaid with mother of pearl". All the apartments of the palace were said to be "hung with rich tapestry of pure gold and fine silk".

At Windsor palace we are given a glimpse into the bedroom of Queen Elizabeth 1 "where is a table of red marble with white streaks.... the royal beds of Henry VII and his Queen, of Edward VI, of Henry VIII, and of Anne Boleyn - all of them eleven feet square". More on Elizabethan beds presently.

Home Decor

The Elizabethan era generally saw a great boom in the production of home decor and interiors accessories not just among the rich in their country manor houses but also among the nascent middle class. Much emphasis was placed on decorating with rich tapestries, silk hangings, Turkey work, pewter, brass, and fine linen.

Elizabethan Era Tapestry
Elizabethan Era Tapestry

Furniture making did not undergo such an increase however. Such pieces as chests with drawers and dressing tables were still unknown in Elizabethan England and even mirrors with glass were very rare and imported from Venice. For the most part rooms of Elizabethan houses obtained their style more from tapestries and hangings, needlework cloths, and embroidered cushions, gold, silver, and pewter cups and goblets, and especially from the painting and gilting of walls and ceilings.

Elizabethan Antiques and Reproductions

Antiques of the Elizabethan time period are expectedly rare and mostly found in museums and great houses with some highly expensive furniture appearing in auctions. Admirers of antique Elizabethan style furniture will have to content themselves with reproductions. Some makers of custom reproduction Elizabethan furniture can be found in our resources section.

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