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19th century furniture bent on revivals

How old is this Chippendale chair? (Answer: circa 1900).
How old is this Chippendale chair? (Answer: circa 1900).

 

CRYSTAL RIVER, Fla. – Once, as my teenage daughter started to leave the house on a chilly evening, I remarked that her attire might leave something to be desired. In fact, I told her she was going to be cold. She calmly looked me in the eye and replied, “You have to sacrifice something for the look.”

The look is as important to some people in their furniture as in their clothing, but does the “look” tell you anything about the furniture other than perhaps a style that has an identifiable label? Can the look tell you if the piece is old? Can it tell you if it is valuable? Or genuine? Or well made? Maybe. Maybe not.

By the “look” I mean primarily the style, and style can sometimes be the best indicator of age and authenticity and it can sometimes be the worst. Let’s start with the worst.

Take the case of two reasonably well-made Chippendale-style chairs. Each has an elaborately pierced splat, a solid crest rail with ears, cabriole legs with acanthus carved knees, ball and claw feet – in short most of the elements of the classical mid 18th century style. But does that mean that either chair is old? Of course not. Another example might be the case of two Windsor chairs. Each has splayed turned legs, a bent bow back, vertical spindles and a solid seat. Does that mean that either or both are old? The stylistic copycat is a problem with many traditional styles. Queen Anne, Chippendale, Hepplewhite, Sheraton and Regency are poplar configurations with modern manufacturers. Even much later styles like Arts and Crafts are currently in production. Even the “modern” look of Heywood-Wakefield’s streamlined designs of the 1940s and 1950s are being reproduced with such fidelity that it is difficult to tell the new from a well-preserved older piece.

 

How about this one? (Answer: circa 1775).
How about this one? (Answer: circa 1775).

 

Important concepts to keep in mind about “style” are the terms “of the period” and “in the style of.” The phrase “of the period” refers to the time when the style was originally introduced. Period Queen Anne, for example, refers to objects made during the first half of the 18th century in England. The Colonial period for Queen Anne is considered to be a little later since it took the style some time to cross the Atlantic and become ingrained in the Colonies. In some cases Colonial-made, Queen Anne-style objects produced as late as the American Revolution are considered to be “period.” The Chippendale period is usually considered to be the second half of the 18th century, leading up to the Federal period at the turn of the century. Items that look like Queen Anne pieces but made after the original periods are said to be “in the style of” the Queen Anne period. “In the style of” simply means that a piece has the stylistic characteristics of the Queen Anne style but makes no inference about its age. It could have been made in 1820, 1890, 1920 or 2000. There are some experts who, after a lifetime of study, can tell by the proportions of the back or the angle of the leg or the shape of the foot whether or not a chair is old, but there are not many of us who can do that.

For most of us the determination of age and authenticity is a little more difficult. We have to use the old time-consuming method of looking at joinery, looking at construction techniques, looking for tool marks, etc. We have to examine the surface and look for wear underneath. We have to smell it, feel it, hear it.

But there are some cases where style is pretty much all you need to know about a piece in order to determine its age. This is true particularly of many 19th century objects. The 17th and 18th centuries were innovative in the style and form departments, introducing new concepts like comfort and new forms like the wing chair. Even though Mr. Chippendale was very repetitive of Queen Anne basics, adding mostly ruffles and flourishes to existing concepts, he did contribute his share of originality to the trade. On the other hand the 19th century was more noted for its innovation in materials and manufacturing techniques than for its stylistic accomplishments. For the most part with a few notable exceptions, the 19th century was a period of revival, a time of rehashing old themes and combining them with some new ideas. This combination sometimes produced a “look” that is unmistakably 19th century.

Early 19th century Gothic Revival was faithfully Gothic but when Rococo Revival erupted in mid century, it was a different story. Rococo originated in 17th century France, a reaction to the solid grandeur of Louis XIV. The name is a combination of rocailles, the rocks, and coquilles, the shells, which decorated the gardens of Versailles. The original form incorporated flora and fauna lavishly into the rock and shell theme and produced a form of irregular outlines, asymmetrical edges and delicately balanced curves. And all was done with a certain lightness and grace. The revival was much more structured. And heavy. The apparent whimsies of Belter and Meeks are carefully orchestrated works of controlled exuberance and careful, ponderous symmetry, faithfully reflecting the prevailing Victorian values of the day. As a result, mid-19th century Rococo has seldom been reproduced and furniture of the style can usually be correctly identified as “of the period.”

 

This magnificent Rococo Revival chair by Meeks recalls the rococo period of the 18th century French court but it cannot be mistaken for an original period piece.
This magnificent Rococo Revival chair by Meeks recalls the rococo period of the 18th century French court but it cannot be mistaken for an original period piece.

 

Another 19th century revival that became an original is Renaissance Revival. In this case the style did not duplicate elements of furniture from the Italian Renaissance of the 14th century – it duplicated architectural elements instead, especially the column and the pediment. The style was based on the square and the rectangle, a direct contradiction of Rococo and, also in direct opposition to Rococo, it was easily adapted to a factory environment. While the architectural elements looked complicated, they were simply geometric patterns applied in layers, a feat easily accomplished by machinery. While the early masters of the style, Jellif, Roux, the Herter brothers, Thomas Brooks, Hunzinger and Kimball and Cabus, all worked in the East and created individual treasures, the factories of the Midwest soon gained the upper hand and generic Renaissance was the order of the day in the 1870s. Mitchell & Rammelsberg of Cincinnati and Berkey & Gay of Grand Rapids became the leaders of the pack.

 

This parlor set is from the Renaissance Revival period of the mid to late 19th century. Have you seen anything like it since?
This parlor set is from the Renaissance Revival period of the mid to late 19th century. Have you seen anything like it since?

 

The definition of the style became so ritualized that variation was neither tolerated nor encouraged, setting it up for a fall. The style was so dominant for so long and so overwhelming in size that it essentially has not been duplicated since. As with Rococo, it came to the point where any example of the genre is “of the period” and little further investigation about age needs to be done.

The final 19th century phenomenon that is self explanatory in terms of age and origin was the original (more or less) thinking expounded by Charles Lock Eastlake. His groundbreaking treatise on interior design, Hints on Household Taste, published in 1868 in England, was the compilation of a series of articles he had written in the mid 1860s for contemporary English publications, The Cornhill Magazine and The Queen. He was an early supporter of William Morris and was influenced by the thinking and criticism of John Ruskin, the philosophical father of the Arts and Crafts movement.

Eastlake’s emphasis was on a return to the standards of craftsmanship, quality and affordability in daily surroundings that seemed to be lacking in 19th century Victorian England and America. Simplicity was the watchword of his thinking. For example, in Hints on Household Taste, he states: “The natural grain of such woods as oak, rosewood, walnut, etc. is in itself an ornamental feature, if it be not obscured and clogged by artificial varnish.” He did allow for small amounts of tasteful carving and inlay where additional decoration was desired but restraint in all things was the key.

 

This Morris chair was made by Gustav Stickley in the early 20th century. The ‘look’ is copiously reproduced in today’s furniture market.
This Morris chair was made by Gustav Stickley in the early 20th century. The ‘look’ is copiously reproduced in today’s furniture market.

 

But to the American furniture factory system his ideas meant huge profits in a simple, inexpensive but popular design that could be turned out in quantity on an assembly line. Gone was the troublesome layering of elements required by the battleship furniture of the Renaissance Revival. Gold incising was a thing of the past, as were the time-consuming practices of figural carving and tedious veneering. A little shallow spoon carving was sufficient along with some straight line on the flat, unadorned surfaces of the boxy case goods that became the industrial interpretation of Eastlake’s philosophy.

So uninspiring to future generations of furniture makers and buyers was the result of this factory onslaught that the style euphemistically known as Eastlake has not been reproduced since the “period.”

Sometimes, identifying the age and authenticity of older furniture can be a lot easier if you know “the look.” But don’t forget about the basics of good investigation, using “ the look” as only one tool in your bag of tricks
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By FRED TAYLOR

Send comments, questions and pictures to Fred Taylor at P.O. Box 215, Crystal River, FL 34423 or email them to him at info@furnituredetective.com. Visit Fred’s newly redesigned website at www.furnituredetective.com and check out the new downloadable “Common Sense Antiques” columns in .pdf format.
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