Victorian furniture encompasses many different styles, with later movements in rebellion against characteristics of the earlier ones. Because of the range of design quality and the showiness that often characterizes the style, furnishing a home in Victorian style requires careful research and selection.
Victorian furniture was produced during the reign of Queen Victoria (1837-1901). The British empire was constantly expanding; Victoria was declared Empress of India in 1876. The mood in Britain during this era began with confidence and optimism, leading to an economic boom, but by the end of the period, doubts about Britain's place in the world were increasing, according to the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh. Meanwhile, the rise of the middle class due to the Industrial Revolution and increased mechanization of production had an effect on how furniture was made.
Antique Victorian furniture refers to both mass-produced pieces and hand-crafted pieces by designers like the Herter Brothers, Allen and Brother, Merklen Brothers, John Henry Belter, Alexander Roux and R.J. Horner, according to Collectors Weekly. Early Victorian furniture was made for the first time in history with the idea of the consumer in the forefront, reflecting the increase in numbers of middle-class homes. Early Victorian furniture is often serious, imposing, amply ornamented and heavily characterized by revivals. Mahogany and rosewood were the preferred woods, while oak, admired for its Englishness, made a nationalist comeback, explains Furniture Styles.
The Gothic Revival style belongs to the period circa 1830-1860, with furniture characterized by design features such such as arches, quatrefoils, trefoils, spires and crockets. Rococo Revival (c. 1840-1865) furniture includes French-influenced high-style furniture with design features such as naturalistic flowers, shells and fruit, C-scrolls and S-scrolls, and sinewy curved lines. Common Rococo Revival furniture used walnut wood, while rosewood was used for top-end pieces. Renaissance Revival (c. 1860-1890) furniture uses masculine arches, cartouches, animal and human figures, inlaid panels, burl panels, gilt incising and ormulu mounts, according to Collectors Weekly.
The later Victorian era saw a rebellion against mass-produced, machine-made furniture. The English designer William Morris started the Arts and Crafts Movement in 1861 in an effort to improve the Victorian public's tastes by returning to medieval-style craftsmanship. Followers of Morris started the Aesthetic Movement in the 1880s and incorporated the influence of the newly discovered arts of Japan, according to Antique Marks. The Eastlake Movement was named after Charles L. Eastlake (1833-1906), an English architect whose book "Hints on Household Taste in Furniture, Upholstery, and Other Details" was extremely popular in its 1872 American reprinting, explains Buffalo Architecture and History. Furniture of the Eastlake and Aesthetic Movement (c. 1880-1890) is less showily complicated than the other Victorian styles, featuring stylized natural elements, rectangular forms and severe lines. Finer pieces may feature marquetry, inlay and veneering, according to Collectors Weekly.
If you wish to decorate an American Victorian home to period, avoid following the style to its cluttered extremity and mix pieces from earlier periods with the best of the Victorian, advises Richmond Huntley in Collector's Weekly. Huntley recommends rosewood pieces by John Belter, New York's leading cabinetmaker from 1844 to 1865.