During the early years of the 18th century, the forms and designs of English furniture were radiccaly affected by a shift in fashion, towards what has become known as the Neoclassical style. Following the surging trend to explore countries of ancient antiquity such as Greece and Italy, many designers, who had themselves been on such trips, started delineating their furniture along the the lines of the classical architecture they had seen. The High Gothic style of the late medieval period which had continued to influence furniture in England well in to the 17th century, gave way (though it wasn't completely abandoned) to what was considered a greater, overarching expression of the aesthetic truth of classical forms.

Starting with the earlier designs of William Kent (1695-1748) which found their greatest efflorescence at Holkham Hall and Chiswick House (designed alongside the owner Lord Burlington) the Neoclassical style permeated every aspect of interior design in this country. We see well known Masters such as Thomas Chippendale (1718-1799) and Robert Adam (1728-1792), in the middle of the 18th century, uniting minute details on chairs, fire surrounds, and plaster ceiling decorations, with the rest of the building around them, and even the gardens outside. They were the first interior designers, and released catalogues of their designs from the late 1750s onwards so that everyone could copy and elaborate on their furniture. Motifs abounded, from lion claws and other bestial imagery, to carved and sculpted drapery, as well as a profuse array of floral swags and other shapes, all incorporated onto the furniture of the time.

A mid-eighteenth century console table set on powerful cabriole legs with carved shell decoration to the knee.  The masculine stature of this type of furniture echoed the timeless classical architecture built to house it. Circa 1750

All of these motifs were used to harmoniously synthesise the fluid forms of nature with what the designers of the day considered the timeless power of classical construction. In particular, Robert Adam's interiors for country houses such as Saltram and Kedleston Hall expressed the taste of an age where the consumate totality of such interior design became favoured over the apparent disunity of slowly accrued, individual objects of furniture.

A pair of giltwood eighteenth century Salon chairs with upholstered oval backs. Circa 1780

Symmetry and order were expounded in these objects, and important characteristics to look for are the refinement of construction techniques (dovetailing is, for me, one of the most beautiful parts of any drawer or door construction), crisp cornices, and the harmonious, geometric proportions of space and material.

An elegant late-Georgian breakfront serving table with reeded Neoclassical design. Circa 1780


Part 2 will look at furniture from the nineteenth century and the culmination of Neoclassicism in the designs of Gillow's of Lancaster, as well as the Regency period and beyond.



April 09, 2011 — Peter Alexander