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Neoclassical Style Furniture

Late Georgian Period

...we have been able to seize, with some degree of success, the beautiful spirit of antiquity, and to transfuse it, with novelty and variety, through all our numerous works. - Robert Adam

From about the time of George the third's accession to the throne, 1760, a reaction set in against the overbearing Palladian style, and the curvy and vivacious Rococo style designs of the preceding early and mid Georgian eras. Paralled in France and there called the Louis XVI style, this movement in furniture history is known as the Neoclassical style, or Neoclassicism, and English Neoclassicism is most associated with the names of the designers Chambers and Stuart, and the more famous Adam, Hepplewhite, and Sheraton.

Table by James Stuart
Mahogany with inlay Wash Table by James Stuart, c.1760, one of the earliest examples of neoclassical furniture in England. The legs end in capitals modelled on those placed above the caryatids (sculpted female figures) on the Erechtheum, a temple in Athens.

Sometimes called "Greek", "Grecian", and "Etruscan" the Neoclassical style came about due to a renewed interest in the heritage of the ancient classical civilisations of Greece and Rome, and in particular the results of excavations at Pompeii and Herculaneum and the study of the remains there.

Satinwood Table
1769, by Sir William Chambers, for serving coffee. Satinwood, oak and pine, inlaid with ebony and hardstones.

In the neoclassical furniture and interior design style that resulted from such study of classical remains there is great emphasis on form. Straight lines, logically ordered, replace the curves and flounces of Rococo furniture. Ornamentation and decoration are sometimes detailed and careful, nearly always abundant. There is much use of painting, inlay, veneer, light carving and relief, and marquetry. Mahogany is the primary wood of choice but some use is also made of satinwood.

Neoclassical Period Furniture

Early Travels to the Ancient World

Neoclassic furniture in eighteenth century England is first seen in the works of Sir William Chambers and James Stuart. Chambers had been to Rome and Paris and later developed a style that let go of the cabriole leg in favour of straight lines and narrow tapering legs adorned with twisted fluting.

James Stuart published, in 1762, "The Antiquities of Athens" after having studied archaelogical sites in Greece and Italy. He then proceeded to design furniture with decorative motifs and carvings based on surviving ancient monuments.

"The electric power in this revolution in art"

Robert Adam had the greatest impact on the early development of the neoclassical style ( see Adam Furniture ). He had made detailed studies of classical ornament in Italy and made great use of them in designing room interiors in a Roman style. He not only made furniture, but, when set to the task, would design and decorate whole rooms down to the last detail, all in the same neoclassical style.

Adam Armchair
Adam designed armchair, 1764, made at Thomas Chippendale's workshop.

Adam had many imitators and the most famous of them was George Hepplewhite. Hepplewhite's "Cabinet-maker and Upholsterer's Guide" of 1788 was largely based on Adam designs but in a simplified way, more suited to the needs of everyday craftsmen. Of most enduring interest in the "Guide" are designs for the famous shield back Hepplewhite chairs, settees or Hepplewhite sofas, and upholstered stools. His furniture tended to the slender side with inlaid and painted decoration rather than carving.

The final phase of neoclassicism is seen in the works of Thomas Sheraton. Sheraton furniture had a huge practical impact and produced very elegant, sophisticated furniture in the neoclassical style in great numbers.

Classical Couch
Classical Couch, 1805, based on the "Grecian Squab" design by Sheraton.

Sheraton continued designing into the Regency furniture period as the sway of antiquity over English furniture history increased ever more.

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