Political Impact on British Furniture Design During the Regency Period
Politically the Regency period was one of great unrest. The execution of the French King Louis XVI was the culmination of a number of mini revolutions that finally gained the momentum to topple the French ancien régime. The vacuum left as those in new power fought to gain control of the situation led to years of misery and hardship for many in Europe and saw the rise of Napoleon eager to leave his mark on history’s pages.
Napoleon’s successful conquest of much of Europe and diplomatic ties with other countries including Spain, Portugal, Italy, Denmark and Russia, secured their allegiance to the Emperor, who was by now the most powerful man in the world. Together in 1806 the ‘Continental Blockade’ embargo was enforced banning any trade with Britain as it had refused to succumb to his rule. Protected by the channel Napoleon had no way to defeat the British Royal Navy and thus ‘strangled’ the country with the embargo.
Napoleon’s territories enforced the embargo with the ‘Berlin Decree’ forbidding his allies and conquests from trading with the British.
For Russia the embargo was a severe complication as the trade of their produce with Britain (One of their key markets) was no longer possible and other markets did not materialise to consume the excess. Alexander I covertly created trade routes with Britain to circumvent the embargo which ultimately caused Napoleon to famously march to Moscow in 1812. In tandem with the Russians and British signing a peace accord to resume full trade.
For Britain, the culmination of the Napoleonic era was his defeat at Waterloo in 1815 as well as several other defeats and minor skirmishes across Europe. Post Napoleonic Europe with full trade resumed quickly and saw the British Royal coffers burgeoning once again.
To establish a furniture style for the period in England, it was not going to be inspired by the French and it is worth noting that similarities in the style were more due to a common source, i.e. ancient Roman and Greek architecture, not French interpretations of it. Even though the early period certainly drew inspiration as seen in the work of John McLean, which also drew upon the great English cabinet makers of the 18th century including Thomas Chippendale.
The stayed English furniture designs of the late 18th century designers notably Thomas Sheraton, Robert Adam, and George Hepplewhite gave way to a more solid form of decoration in the early years of the 19th century. The fine satinwood veneers that dressed Sheraton’s classical restrained designs were replaced with more robust and bolder rosewood also from the east, specifically the Indian subcontinent.
The 18th-century French fashion for mounting furniture with gilt bronze mounts gained popularity following the dispersals of the post-revolutionary French furniture and works of art sold off from the less fortunate French Royal court and nobility – notably to English collectors including the Prince Regent, Lord Rothschild and the Richard Wallace amongst many others.
The Regency style developed in two strands, on the one hand, it was post Georgian and highly classical as the grand architectural redevelopment of popular English cities and Spa towns still stand today, famously, London, Bath, Cheltenham, Buxton, Royal Tunbridge Wells, Brighton and on the other hand, new experimentation with exotic styles like from far beyond France and Europe in the Far East, India and China. John Nash was employed by the Prince Regent to create the plans and oversee the grand projects of both the imposing classical Royal Crescents in Regents Park and by contrast the exotic Royal Pavilion in Brighton.
One of the greatest architects of the period was Sir John Soane, and while he did not receive Royal patronage, he none the less won many significant projects across the country. His style was a much more British inspired one, built on the classicism he witnessed on his travels to Italy on the Grand Tour. His travels took him via Paris, Versailles, Rome, Naples, Sicily and Malta. His most famous works are the Bank of England, now destroyed. The Dulwich Picture Gallery was the first public picture gallery and set design precedents for many subsequent galleries. His own house which bears some references to his public commissions is famous for its extraordinary combination of rooms and anti rooms juxtaposed large and small, high and low with ingenious lighting and optical illusions to enhance the space further.
In contrast to the orientalist furnishings designed for the Royal Pavilion, Soane’s taste was based upon classical origins, bold furniture with classical architectural references were used throughout the house and in keeping with the interiors.
The military focus forced upon the British by Napoleon’s tyrannical threats influenced furniture design on both sides of the channel. For England, reference to the army and navy was heavily represented in the ornament. Rope twist patterns, anchors, crossed swords, cannons were all used as motifs of political allegiance. Furniture became more masculine and massive in proportion, bolder designs with classical reference were d’ériger.
Nicholas Wells Antiques maintains a strong collection of Late Georgian Regency period furniture. Some examples are highlighted below.