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Empire Furniture



There is a passage in an article on " Art," by a democratic French writer, as early as 1790 - when the great storm cloud was already threatening to burst - which is quoted by Mr. C. Perkins, the American translator of Dr. Falke's German work, "Kunst im Hause," and gives us the keynote to the great change which took place in the fashion of furniture about the time of the Revolution: - " We have changed everything; freedom, now consolidated in France, has restored the pure taste for the antique! Farewell to your marqueterie and Boule, your ribbons, festoons, and rosettes of gilded bronze; the hour has come when objects must be made to harmonize with circumstances."

Thus it is hardly too much to say that designs were governed by the politics and philosophy of the day; and one finds in furniture of this period, the reproduction of ancient Greek forms for chairs and couches; ladies' work tables, too, are fashioned somewhat after the old drawings of sacrificial altars; and the classical tripod is a favourite support. The mountings represent antique Roman fasces with an axe in the centre; trophies of lances, surmounted by a Phrygian cap of liberty; winged figures, emblematic of freedom; and antique heads of helmeted warriors arranged like cameo medallions.

After the execution of Robespierre, and the abolition of the Revolutionary Tribunal in 1794, came the establishment of the Directory; and then, after Buonaparte's brilliant success in Italy, and the famous expeditions to Syria and Egypt two years later, came his proclamation as First Consul in 1799, which, in 1802, was confirmed as a life appointment.

We have only to refer to the portrait of the great soldier, represented with the crown of bay leaves and other attributes of the old Roman imperialism, to see that in his mind was the ambition, of reviving much of the splendour and of the surroundings of the Caesars, whom he took, to some extent, as his models; and that in founding on the ashes of the Revolution a new fabric, with new people about him, all influenced by his energetic personality, he desired to mark his victories by stamping the new order of things with his powerful and assertive individualism.

The cabinet which was designed and made for Marie Louise, on his marriage with her in 1810, is an excellent example of the Napoleonic furniture. The wood used for this style of furniture was almost invariably rich mahogany, the color of which made a good ground for the bronze gilt mounts which were applied. The full-page illustration shews these mountings, which are all classical in character; and though there is no particular grace in the outline or form of the cabinet, there is a certain dignity and solemnity, relieved from oppressiveness by the fine chasing and gilding of the metal enrichments, and the excellent color and figuring of the rich Spanish mahogany used. This cabinet, and several other more or less ornate pieces of Napoleonic furniture, may still be seen in the Chateau of Fontainebleau.

On secretaires and tables, a common ornament of this description of furniture, is a column of mahogany, with a capital and base of bronze (either gilt, part gilt, or green), in the form of the head of a sphinx with the foot of an animal; console tables are supported by sphinxes and griffins; and candelabra and wall brackets for candles, have winged figures of females, stiff in modelling and constrained in attitude, but almost invariably of good material with careful finish.

The bas-reliefs in metal which ornament the panels of the friezes of cabinets, or the marble bases of clocks, are either reproductions of mythological subjects from old Italian gems and seals, or represent the battles of the Emperor, in which Napoleon is portrayed as a Roman general. There was plenty of room to replace so much that had disappeared during the Revolution, and a vast quantity of decorative furniture was made during the few years which elapsed before the disaster of Waterloo caused the disappearance of a power which had been almost meteoric in its career.

One of the best authorities on " Empire Furniture " is the book of designs published in 1809 by the architects Percier and Fontaine. It is the more valuable, as a work of reference, from the fact that every design represented was actually carried out, and is not a mere exercise of fancy, as is the case with many such books. In the preface the authors modestly state that they are entirely indebted to the antique for the reproduction of the different ornaments; and the originals, from which some of the designs were taken, are still preserved in a fragmentary form in the Museum of the Vatican.

The fig of an arm chair and a stool, together with that of the tripod table which ornaments the initial letter of this chapter, are favourable examples of the richly-mounted and more decorative furniture of this style. While they are not free from the stiffness and constraint which are inseparable from classic designs as applied to furniture, the rich color of the mahogany, the high finish and good gilding of the bronze mounts, and the costly silk with which they are covered, render them attractive and give them a value of their own.

The more ordinary furniture, however, of the same style, but without these decorative accessories, is stiff, ungainly, and uncomfortable, and seems to remind us of a period in the history of France when political and social disturbance deprived the artistic and pleasure-loving Frenchman of his peace of mind, distracting his attention from the careful consideration of his work. It may be mentioned here that, in order to supply a demand which has lately arisen, chiefly in New York, but also to some extent in England, for the best "Empire" furniture, the French dealers have bought up some of the old undecorated pieces, and by ornamenting them with gilt bronze mounts, cast from good old patterns, have sold them as original examples of the meubles de luxe of the period.

In Dutch furniture of this time one sees the reproduction of the Napoleonic fashion - the continuation of the Revolutionists' classicalism. Many marqueterie secretaires, tables, chairs, and other like articles, are mounted with the heads and feet of animals, with lion's heads and sphinxes, designs which could have been derived from no other source; and the general design of the furniture loses its bombé form, and becomes rectangular and severe. Whatever difficulty there may be in sometimes deciding between the designs of the Louis XIV. period, towards its close, and that of Louis XV., there can be no mistake about l'epoch de la Directoire and le style de l'Empire. These are marked and branded with the Egyptian expedition, and the Syrian campaign, as legibly as if they all bore the familiar plain Roman N, surmounted by a laurel wreath, or the Imperial eagle which had so often led the French legions to victory.

It is curious to notice how. England, though so bitterly opposed to Napoleon, caught the infection of the dominant features of design which were prevalent in France about this time.

Thus, in Sheraton's Book on Furniture, to which allusion has been made, and from which illustrations have been given in the chapter on "Chippendale and his Contemporaries," there is evidence that, as in France during the influence of Marie Antoinette, there was a classical revival, and the lines became straighter and more severe for furniture, so this alteration was adopted by Sheraton, Shearer and other English designers at the end of the century. But if we refer to Sheraton's later drawings, which are dated about 1804 to 1806, we see the constrained figures and heads and feet of animals, all brought into the designs as shewn in the " drawing room" chairs here illustrated. These shew unmistakable signs of the French " Empire " influence, the chief difference between the French and English work being, that, whereas in French Empire furniture the excellence of the metal work redeems it from heaviness or ugliness, such merit was wanting in England, where we have never excelled in bronze work, the ornament being generally carved in wood, either gilt or colored bronze-green. When metal was used it was brass, cast and fairly finished by the chaser, but much more clumsy than the French work. Therefore, the English furniture of the first years of the nineteenth century is stiff, massive, and heavy, equally with its French contemporary wanting in gracefulness, and not having the compensating attractions of fine mounting, or the originality and individuality which must always add an interest-to Napoleonic furniture.

There was, however, made about this time by Gillow, to whose earlier work reference has been made in the previous chapter, some excellent furniture, which, while to some extent following the fashion of the day, did so more reasonably. The rosewood and mahogany tables, chairs, cabinets, and sideboards of his make, inlaid with scrolls and lines of flat brass, and mounted with handles and feet of brass, generally representing the heads and claws of lions, do great credit to the English work of this time. The sofa table and sideboard, illustrated on the previous page, are of this class, and shew that Sheraton, too, designed furniture of a less pronounced character, as well as the heavier kind to which reference has been made.

A very favourable example of the craze in England for classic design in furniture and decoration, is shewn in the reproduction of a drawing by Thomas Hope (known as "Anastasius Hope"), in 1807, a well-known architect of the time, in which it will be observed that the forms and fashions of some of the chairs and tables described and illustrated in the chapter on "Ancient Furniture" have been taken as models.

There were several makers of first-class furniture, of whom the names of some still survive in the " style and title " of firms of the present day, who are their successors, while those of others have been forgotten, save by some of our older manufacturers and auctioneers, who, at the request of the writer, have been good enough to look up old records and revive the memories of fifty years ago. Of these the best known was Thomas Seddon, who came from Manchester and settled in Aldersgate Street. His two sons succeeded to the business, became cabinet, makers to George IV., and furnished and decorated Windsor Castle. At the King's death their account was disputed, and £30,000 was struck off, a loss which necessitated an arrangement with their creditors. Shortly after this, however, they took the Barracks of the London Light Horse Volunteers in the Gray's Inn Road (now the Hospital), and carried on there for a time a very extensive business. Seddon's work ranked with Gillow's, and they shared with that house the best orders for furniture.

Thomas Seddon, painter of Oriental subjects, who died in 1856, and P. Seddon, a well-known architect, were grandsons of the original founder of the firm. On the death of the elder brother, Thomas, the younger one then transferred his connection to the firm of Johnstone and Jeanes, in Bond Street, another old house which until recently carried on business as " Johnstone and Norman," and who some few years ago executed a very extravagant order for an American millionaire. This was a reproduction of Byzantine designs in furniture of cedar, ebony, ivory, and pearl, made from drawings by Mr., now Sir, Alma Tadema, R.A.

Snell, of Albemarle Street, was established early in the century, and had obtained an excellent reputation; his spécialité was well-made birch bedroom suites, but he also made furniture of a general description. The predecessor of the present firm of Howard and Son, who commenced business in Whitechapel as early as 1800, and the first Morant, may all be mentioned as manufacturers in the first quarter of the century.

Somewhat later, Trollopes, of Parliament Street; Holland, who had succeeded Dowbiggin (Gillow's apprentice), first in Great Pulteney Street, and subsequently at the firm's present address; Wilkinson, of Ludgate Hill, founder of the present firm of upholsterers in Bond Street; Aspinwall, of Grosvenor Street; the second Morant, of whom the great Duke of Wellington made a personal friend; and Crace, a prominent decorator of great taste, who carried out many of Pugin's Gothic designs, were all men of good reputation. Miles and Edwards, of Oxford Street, whom Hindleys succeeded, were also well known for good middle-class furniture. These are some of the best known manufacturers of the first half of the present century, and though until after the Great Exhibition there was, as a rule, little in the designs to render their productions remarkable, the work of those named will be found sound in construction, and free from the faults which accompany the cheap and showy reproductions of more pretentious styles, which mark so much of the furniture of the present day. With regard to this, more will be said in the next chapter.

There was then a very limited market for any but the most commonplace furniture. Our wealthy people bought the productions of French cabinet makers, either made in Paris or by Frenchmen who came over to England, and the middle classes were content with the most ordinary and useful articles. If they had possessed the means, they certainly had neither the taste nor the education to furnish more ambitiously. The great extent of suburbs which now surround the Metropolis, and which include such numbers of expensive and extravagantly-fitted residences of merchants and tradesmen, did not then exist. The latter lived over their shops or warehouses, and the former only aspired to a dull house in Bloomsbury, or like David Copperfield's father-in-law, Mr. Spenlow, a villa at Norwood, or perhaps a country residence at Hampstead or Highgate.

In 1808 a designer and maker of furniture, George Smith by name, who held the appointment of " Upholder extraordinary to H.R.H. the Prince of Wales," and carried on business at " Princess " Street, Cavendish Square, produced a book of designs, 158 in number, published by " Wm. Taylor," of Holborn. These include cornices, window drapery, bedsteads, tables, chairs, bookcases, commodes, and other furniture, the titles of some of which occur for about the first time in our vocabularies, having been adapted from the French. " Escritoire, jardiniere, dejuné-tables, chiffoniers" (the spelling copied from Smith's book), all bear the impress of the pseudo-classic taste; and his designs, some of which are here reproduced, show the fashion of our so-called artistic furniture in England at the time of the Regency. Mr. Smith, in the " Preliminary Remarks " prefacing his illustrations, gives us an idea of the prevailing taste, which, looking back now some three-quarters of a century, it is instructive to peruse: -

"The following practical observations on the various woods employed in cabinet work may be useful. Mahogany, when used in houses of consequence, should be confined to the parlour and the bedchamber floors. In furniture for these apartments the less inlay of other woods, the more chaste will be the style of work. If the wood be of a fine, compact, and bright quality, the ornaments may be carved clean in the mahogany. Where it may be requisite to make out panelling by an inlay of lines, let those lines be of brass or ebony. In drawing-rooms, boudoirs, ante-rooms, East and West India satin woods, rosewood, tulip wood, and the other varieties of woods brought from the East, may be used; with satin and light coloured woods the decorations may be of ebony or rosewood; with rosewood let the decorations be ormolu, and the inlay of brass. Bronze metal, though sometime used with satin wood, has a cold and poor effect: it suits better on gilt work, and will answer well enough on mahogany."

Amongst the designs published by him are some few of a subdued Gothic character; these are generally carved in light oak, or painted light stone color, and have, in some cases, heraldic shields, with crests and coats of arms picked out in color. There are window seats painted to imitate marble, with the Roman or Greco-Roman ornaments painted green to represent bronze. The least objectionable are those of mahogany with bronze green ornaments.

Of the furniture of this period there are several pieces in the Mansion House, in the City of London, which apparently was partly refurnished about the commencement of the century.

In the Court Room of the Skinners' Company there are tables which are now fitted with extensions, so as to form a horseshoe table for committee meetings. They are good examples of the heavy and solid carving in mahogany, early in the century before the fashion of representing the heads and feet of the animals in the designs of furniture had gone out. These tables have massive legs, with lions' heads and claws, carved with great skill and shewing much spirit, the wood being of the best quality and rich in color.



















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