By the turn of the nineteenth century, the Neoclassical movement in art and design had fully permeated society. Its culmination came with the profuse artistic patronage of the then prince regent, George IV, between the years 1811 and 1820. The epicentre of what we now call the Regency period occurred during these nine formative years, though as we shall see it continued well beyond this period. It was a time of great innovation and luxurious creation, and the prince regent sparked a new trend in furniture design that took influence from France (where the Directoire style had in turn taken cue from Classical sources), the Far East, Egypt and the Moorish and Indo-Saracenic cultures with whom the English were trading.

In the field of architecture the prince regent had the Brighton Pavilion remodelled in its current style, and filled it with lavish Regency decoration. Most notably, its interior was dominated by Chinoiserie design in various materials, made to imitate the objects being imported from the exotic East and especially China.

An ornately decorated faux-lacquer Escritoire. Pieces like this adorned not only the Prince's residence at Brighton but other private homes such as Temple Newsam near Leeds, which also boasts a remarkable Chinoiserie interior. Circa 1820

New finds in Egypt contributed most strongly to furniture design however, and we see the profusion of lion paws, thick, bold acanthus leaf carving, painted and gilded decoration, and an influx of new types of wood, especially satinwood, coromandel and rosewood, to reflect and exaggerate the exotic nature of this North African influence.

A striking and elegant Regency period settee with a mahogany showwood frame. Note the choice of anthemion, acanthus and lotus leaf decorations drawn from antiquity. Circa 1830

During this period, several furniture manufacturers started creating intense, heavily worked pieces of furniture that united many of these materials and styles. Key among them was Gillow's of Lancaster, who specialised in finely carved designs abounding with lion paws, reeded carving, acanthus, and egg and dart frieze motifs. Gillow's arguably led the way in quality and design, and traded well into the reign of Queen Victoria.

A beautifully patinated burr yew veneered card and games table. The quality of its carefully balanced carving suggest a maker such as Gillow's, who were by this time working both in Lancaster and London. Circa 1840

The lasting attraction of the Regency style echoed across mediums and across Europe, and many Western European cities retain superb examples of consumate interior and architectural designs from this key period. The Empire style in France, and Biedermeier in Germany continued the trend of Regency culture that not merely touched the aesthetic concerns of the day, but mirrored socio-political movements such as the French revolution whose doctrines and ideologies drew strength from the early democracies and cultural sophistication of the Classical past so loved in art and design at the time.


May 26, 2011 — Peter Alexander