Identifying Victorian Antiques – What To Look Out For

The Victorian era followed the reign of Great Britain’s Queen Victoria from 1837 to 1901, a time which produced antiques as rich as her majesty’s rule was.

With great prosperity, comes great variety, and thus this era is adorned with an abundance of furniture styles, with many designers opting for a nostalgic nod to the past, as the Victorian era underwent a huge wave of revivals:

  • The Greek Revival, 1800-1850
  • The Gothic revival, 1845-1895
  • The Rococo revival, 1845-1865
  • The Renaissance revival, 1860-1890

In rebellion to this flurry of revivals, the end of the Victorian era saw a break away from the past with the Eastlake and Aesthetic movements 1870-1890, which in turn inspired the Arts and Craft movement, leading us out of the Victorian era and well into the twentieth century.

Overflowing with contrasting and coordinating styles, many of which were repeats of previous trends, furniture from the Victorian era is often difficult to decipher. Which is why we’ve put together this article.

We will analyse each style in turn, commenting on their iconic features, in order to determine what makes Victorian antiques recognisable as authentic to their time

Victorian Era 1837-1901The Greek Revival style 1800-1850

Although Empire furniture was being produced from the beginning of the 19th century, the Greek revival, also known as Classicism, is more commonly associated with the end of this period, aligning with the start of the Victorian era. Around this time there was a newfound intellectual fascination with the ancient greek culture, and this largely portrayed itself in their architecture, but also influenced furniture and ornaments.

Distinguishing characteristics:

  • Monopodium tables.
  • klismos chairs: elegant greek chair with a curved back and saber legs that flare out at the bottom.
  • Caryatids: columns in the shape of standing female figures, representing the women of Caryae. These were often decorative rather than architectural and used as motifs.
  • Lyre motifs.
  • Gold galore.

As the Victorian era only touched upon the end of this revival, it’s often difficult to tell whether a piece of furniture in this style is Victorian; Heavier pieces that are less ornate are more likely to be, although if you’re unsure, stay clear of this revival as the next three are firmly rooted in the Victorian era.

Greek Revival Pier TableGreek Revival Pier Table by Thomas Hope, c. 1800. Photo © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The Gothic Revival 1845-90

The gothic period proper, covered one of the longest periods in time, from the 12th to the 15th century, and originated from french gothic art in the early 12th century. Its revival, also known as Victorian gothic or Neo-gothic, was influenced by medieval gothic architectural form and ornament, especially churches. Furniture designers began to incorporate these features into their pieces and soon, it became the most popular style in the 19th century, with its dramatic detailed carvings, geometrical forms and classical echoes.

Distinguishing characteristics:

  • Dark heavy wood, such as rosewood, oak and walnut were favoured.
  • Pointed and lancet arches: narrow arches that thin towards the crown.
  • Spiky pilasters: purely decorative, stand out columns.
  • Crockets: Coming from the French word ‘croc,’ these are protruding medieval ‘hooks,’ often decorated with foliage.
  • Intricate foliage carving.
  • Finials: a decorative feature, marking the top or end of a pole.
  • The linen-fold: A style of relief carving used on panels to make them resemble folden linen.
  • Upholstery featured heavy fabrics such as velvet, brocade or leather.

Common motifs include:

  • Heraldic devices or crests, more commonly known as the coat of arms.
  • Trefoil and quatrefoil rosettes: A symmetrical leaf like design, featuring the outline of three or four rings overlapping.
  • The wheel.
  • The rose.

Gothic Revival Oak Table in the Manner of Pugin
c1860 Gothic oak table
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The Rococo Revival 1845-65

Rococo style was born during the reign of Louis XV, as a revulsion to the dominating and classical forms of the Baroque style. Rocaille in French means ‘rubble’ or ‘pebbles,’ indicating its favouring of natural motifs, in line with society’s growing interest in the natural world. The Rococo revival, reintroduced by master cabinet maker John Henry Belter, combined Victorian decorative arts with the elaborate carvings and curvaceous forms iconic to the Rococo style. On top of this, the revival managed to incorporate comfort, thus combining elegance with advantage.

Distinguishing characteristics:

  • Rosewood, black walnut, and mahogany were the preferred woods
  • Cabriole legs: where the knee curves out and the ankle in, concluding in an ornamental ‘foot.’
  • Scroll legs, often spiraling in opposite direction.
  • Gold finishes and ormolu mounts: gilded bronze or brass medallion moulding applied to furniture.
  • Curvaceous shapes.
  • The front of dressers and sofa frames are often serpentine-shaped, and have rounded corners.
  • Balloon backed Chairs, often with a padded back and seat.
  • Tufting was a popular choice of upholstery, where buttons are pulled down into the padding, causing the fabric to pucker.

Carving is bold and realistic due to being done in high relief and often depicts the following themes:

  • Natural elements such as fruit, flowers, shells and leaves.
  • Whimsical themes: a lot of motifs features fantastical animals and exotic landscapes.
  • Cherubs.
  • Orientalia.

Furniture from this era can also be called Belter style, after John Henry Belter. He often marked his pieces with a paper label under the seat or on the bed frame stretchers. If no marking is found, look out for:

  • Six or more layers of laminated wood in the craving; you can count these in the exposed edges of the wood.
  • Curved sided bed frames with elaborate carvings, enables by the many layers of lamination.

Victorian Whatnot - EtagèreC1850 Victorian Walnut Whatnot
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The Renaissance Revival 1860-90

Around 1850 there was a resurgence of interest in classical and renaissance art, and so furniture too took on these influences. Often described as a reaction to the Rococo revival with its intricate and detailed designs, the Renaissance revival crafted bold features on impressive, heavy pieces of furniture. This period also marked the moment in history where fine designs were mass produced in factories, the protrusive motifs and rectangular shapes of this style, making it all the more easy.

Distinguishing characteristics:

  • Lighter wood, such as walnut and oak, was favoured. Ash and pine were used for less expensive and factory cut pieces.
  • Fluted legs imitating ancient greek columns by carving parallel grooves vertically into the legs.
  • Raised or inset burled panels.
  • Heavily carved finials.
  • Black and gold incising. Ormolu mounts were also used.
  • Tables have permanent and Inset marble tops with gate legs.
  • Four poster beds.
  • Daybeds with an adjustable side cushion.
  • Storage cabinets were raised off the floor.
  • Increasing use of back and side upholstery in chairs, stools and sofas.
  • Ebonising was used for decorative effect.
  • Rich, heavy and colourful fabrics.

Motifs and designs take their influence from renaissance and 18th century neoclassical forms:

  • Rectilinear shapes.
  • Columns and caryatids.
  • Cartouches or plaques made of porcelain, bronze and mother-of-pearl.
  • Natural motifs: flowers, fruit and animal heads.
  • Contoured or veneered panelling.
  • Medallions and rosettes.
  • Scrolls, classical busts, and carved masks.

Victorian Card TableC1860 Victorian games table with ebonising, columns and a plaque.
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Eastlake furniture 1870-90

In response to the lavish, excessive styles of the Victorian revivals, and a desire to move away from the past, Sir Charles Lock Eastlake, created a contemporary, simple style of furniture. Marvin D.Schwartz in his book Furniture: Tables, Chairs, Sofas & Beds, explains how society saw “the first glimpses of modernism,” in Eastlake’s quest for “simple sturdy furniture.” Due to its simplicity, the ability to machine mass produce Eastlake furniture, added to its popularity and widespread use throughout America in particular; This means furniture of this style, unless made by Eastlake himself or the Herter Brothers, will often not sell for large sums.

What determines Eastlake furniture is its stripping back of embellishments and the simplification of popular furniture designs:

  • Lightly incised carving favoured over high relief.
  • The grain of the wood was often articulated, with best results in oak and cherry as well as rosewood and walnut. Look out for varnish coats though, which may obscure your judgement.
  • Strong rectilinear shapes, which were easily replicated by machines.
  • Modest curves and cabriole legs.
  • Geometric and linear design elements.
  • Upholstering became less popular.
  • Gypsy tables with square tops and slanted legs, sometimes ending with metal claws clasping glass balls.

Victorian desk chairc1880 Eastlake armchair with modest curves and no upholstery.
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Aesthetic Movement 1870-90

Running alongside the Eastlake movement, the Aesthetic movement flourished in America and England, even if it was short lived. While society was placing emphasis on materiality and cultural significance, others were rebelling against this by making ‘l’art for l’art’ or ‘art for art’s sake.’ This philosophical movement, which Wendell Garrett of Sotheby’s explains as “a reaction against the high Victorian period,” made its way into all things artistic, including furniture design, where they encouraged superior craftsmanship over machine replicas. Of course furniture needs to serve a purpose, so their art was in some way restricted by utility. They made up for this by incorporating an eclectic mix of styles and influences into their work, worrying more about creating something pleasurable than historical correctness.

Distinguishing characteristics:

  • Geometric parquetry and designs.
  • Simple designs without fussy embellishments.
  • The merging of styles and cultural influences.
  • A fascination with the orient: Japonisme heavily featured in their designs.
  • The Chicago table.
  • Gilt decorative highlighting and bamboo turning.
  • No rich carving or florid patterns.

Victorian bedside cabinetsC1880 Aesthetic movement bedside drawers
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The Arts and Crafts Movement

Out of the ashes of the Eastlake and Aesthetic, the Arts and Crafts movement was born and bred by William Morris, who in the face of the industrial revolution placed a similar emphasis on “art made by the people, and for the people, as a happiness to the maker and the user.”  (The Art of the People in 1879). Although the iconic Morris chair was first produced around 1970, most of this movement found its feet at the beginning of the twentieth century and thus just out of the victorian era.