Our understanding of antique Regency furniture (c.1800-1835) stems from a handful of surviving houses and their interiors, the most famous of which is Brighton Pavilion, constructed for the Prince Regent from 1787 and finished by John Nash between 1815 and 1822.

During the Regency period there were also numerous pattern books published, perhaps most importantly Thomas Sheraton's Cabinet Dictionary of 1803. Such pattern books, usually available as serials by subscription, were highly influential and were widely disseminated. The quartetto nest of tables below, stamped 'T. Rose Gillows - Lancaster', bears striking resemblance to a set made in satinwood after a design from Sheraton's Cabinet Dictionary [Plate 75], and another which Gillows themselves furnished to Stephen Tempest of Broughton Hall, North Yorkshire, in August 1803 (two months before Sheraton's publication). Sheraton wrote of the design that it forms 'a kind of small work table made to draw out of each other, and may be used separately and again enclosed within each other when not wanted'. They were instantly fashionable due to their flexible and convenient nature, such that in his 1808 publication A Collection of Designs for Household Furniture and Interior Decoration, the designer George Smith noted that they help 'prevent the company rising from their seats, when taking refreshments'. Of particular note in Gillow's design is the comparative narrowness of the set when closed, and the curved, laminated stretchers that slot together elegantly above the splayed feet.

An antique Regency quartetto nest of tables stamped by Gillows.

The designs of Sheraton, alongside his contemporaries such as Henry Holland and Thomas Hope, also served to contextualise every item of furniture within a suite of corresponding pieces, setting designs in to an overarching scheme that explored specific influences from a range of sources.

The suite of Regency furniture below, of a consumate and striking design, is a rare survivial when one considers the vagaries of inheritance, tax, and losses of fortune that have split up so many important interiors from the period.

A pair of antique Regency rosewood card tables, part of a suite.

An antique Regency sofa table, part of the same suite.

Hand in hand with the rise of the interior designer went the creation of new types of furniture such as breakfront chiffoniers, the best of which incorporate such detailing as 'coin', as well as 'bead and reel', moulding in sympathetic and refined combinations (see the example below).

An antique Regency rosewood chiffonier.

Many of these carved details originated in the architecture of acient Greece and Rome, which was becoming more widely known with the circulation of drawings brought back from the Grand Tour by artists such as Edward Dodwell and Simone Pomardi. In 1805, the pair took twelve months to travel across Greece, making over a thousand drawings, paintings, and panoramic scenes (some of them over four meters long).

From the geometrically and harmoniously proportioned grand architectural models of Greco-Roman temples, furniture makers gave new flourishes to their creations. George Bullock, a regional furniture maker from Liverpool known for his strongly carved designs, set up shop in 1806 in a showroom he called the 'Grecian Rooms'. Similarly, the best Edinburgh cabinet maker of his day, William Trotter, began introducing rich details such as scrolling lotus leaf designs to his furniture, after Egyptian antiquities. George Smith even published, in 1811, A Collection of Ornamental Designs after the Manner of the Antique, which included many such designs. The Regency period was thus an era in which even the largest architectural schemes of the ancient European civilisations were being reincarnated on the more modest scale of the modern interior. Rudolph Ackerman, in an 1823 publication for his ongoing series Repository of Arts, signaled exactly this amalgamation of the modern and the antique in reference to a well proportioned chiffonier like the one above, suggesting that it is 'calculated to contain all the books that may be desired for a sitting-room without reference to the library.'

Convex mirrors were also made popular during the Regency period. Though their origins lie in the fifteenth century, when they were called 'Oeil de Sorcière' (the Sorcerer's eye) on account of their distorting action, their effect on the spaces into which they were set was of particular interest to Regency designers. A convex mirror could 'strengthen the colour and take off the coarseness of objects by contracting them' noted Sheraton in his Cabinet Dictionary, and 'the perspective of the room in which they are suspended presents itself on the surface of the mirror, and produces an agreeable effect.'

A large antique Regency convex mirror.Many convex mirrors are little over a foot or so in diameter, but the larger ones, such as the example above, could reach two or even three feet wide, and held an entire room in their reflection. The finest quality examples to look out for incorporate carved and giltwood frames, which at their best serve to accentuate an entire wall, rippling out into the surrounding space like the reflection within its surface.

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April 27, 2013 — Peter Alexander