Victorian Antiques – A Timeless Fascination

There is an abiding interest in the architecture, interior design and even social practices of the Victorian period (1837–1901). It’s why you can buy everything from ‘Victorian-style’ toilets to wedding dresses! Fascination with this era really reaches its height though, with the continuing interest in investing in Victorian antiques. So, why does this period hold such sway with contemporary builders, homeowners, fashion creators and collectors of authentic antiques?

It is tied up with some of the major changes taking place in Britain during Queen Victoria’s lengthy reign, including industrialisation and new enlightenment and inspiration from travel across the Empire. There was a romance to the age, and people had the opportunity and money to invest in beautiful things for their homes. Consequently, Victorian antiques are often exquisitely crafted with ageless appeal.

Let’s explore in more detail why Victorian styles still influence interior design; and why the appeal of investing in antique furniture and artefacts from this age is so strong.

Insatiable collecting in the Victorian era

Though the Victorian period is renowned for the prolific nature of its art, architecture and crafts, it is also a time of prolific collecting! Which leaves a large legacy of items for future generations to enjoy.

The Victorians were blessed by increasing opportunities to travel – not least to colonies within the British Empire. Many prized Victorian antiques feature elements that are clearly influenced by the crafts and art of Asia and the Middle East. Greater engagement with the Americas also deeply affected the cosmopolitan aesthetics of Victorian architecture and home interiors.

This new globalisation is one of the main reasons they became such avid collectors. Some wealthy Victorians focused on curating as many zoological, botanical and geological species and artefacts as possible, as the world and all its wonders opened up to them. Others filled their cabinets and shelves with decorative pieces created locally or from far-flung parts of the globe.

Not surprisingly, local artisans and ‘curiosity shops’ sprang up to feed this hunger for collectables and display items. This further fuelled the chances for the well-to-do to create entire rooms packed with random and often quirky or bizarre items.

Of course, having this fascination with collecting also led to commissioning cabinetry and sideboards on which to display their most valued items.

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Industry and Victorians

The Victorian era is sometimes referenced as the ‘golden age’ of invention. Innovations from this time include pedal-powered bicycles, the postal service, the telephone, rubber tyres, reinforced concrete and the sewing machine. Most significantly, it was the period of the Industrial Revolution when steam power made it possible to mass-produce items – including cotton cloth which was in demand worldwide.

This all played its part in creating a more vibrant economy and enabling both the middle and upper classes to seek out, commission and collect things of beauty.

Some of the wealthiest industrialists from the Victorian era were the most generous supporters of the arts and architecture, and the most likely to commission bespoke furniture of the very highest quality for example. Showing off newfound wealth and becoming ‘gentrified’ were important to the newly rich leaders of commerce and industry

Victorian love of grace and decorum

Of course, the poorer sections of Victorian society were still living in abject squalor, but the blossoming middle classes had money to spend on beautifying their homes. There were abundant customers for furniture makers and other tradespeople who crafted home furnishings.

People of this era are known for their well-developed sense of decorum – including coverings for piano legs for example, as ‘limbs’ were to be kept from sight. However, they also had a love of all things colourful and rich, meaning many of the fabrics used in Victorian antiques will be thick brocades, lush velvets and glistening silks, in deep reds, strong greens and glimmering golds.

The wood used would be equally luxurious and often dark in colour. The word you can often apply to antique wood furniture from this era is ‘ornate’. You would expect even the most functional Victorian wardrobe to have some carved embellishments for example.

A love of the bold, and order

Despite the intricacy of the workmanship, there was nothing delicate about architecture, furniture or furnishing in the Victorian era. The emphasis was on having interiors as imposing and ‘dramatic’ as possible, often as a way of demonstrating wealth. Hence the Victorian’s love of bold red walls, dark panelling, elaborate wallpaper and impressive chandeliers.

Detailing used in both interiors and exteriors (and on furniture) was also often audacious, usually involving complex patterns and intricate geometric shapes, as well as textural variations. Marble fireplaces and wall cornices all added to the striking nature of many Victorian rooms.

Ironically, this love of the ornate and opulent ran alongside a desire for ‘order’. Which meant that rooms in Victorian homes were usually designated with a clear purpose, and furnished accordingly. So, items would be commissioned for a drawing-room, and a different style may well be chosen for Victorian dining chairs and tables in a separate space.

The parlour was often where the finest furniture was housed, as this is where the highly sociable middle and upper classes entertained, and therefore ‘showed off’ the most.

Dining rooms were also particularly important to the Victorians, as putting on a fine spread for family and visitors was another way of demonstrating wealth and a love of world influences. You will often find that the most embellished and magnificent antique sideboard would have started life in a Victorian dining room.

Taking the best of the past

Inspiration for Victorian homes came from across the world, but also from across previous eras. The newly industrialised and appearance-obsessed Victorian’s were keen to take the best of the past, and employ it to their homes and other buildings.

Hence you can clearly see Elizabethan and even Tudor influences in the art, architecture and furnishings of Victorian times. Though possibly the most noticeable imprint on Victorian creative output was Gothic and Roccoco (or Late Baroque) styles.

Furniture and movements crafted in the Victorian era

Though factories were springing up throughout Britain in the late 1800s – and industrialists were becoming the greatest collectors and commissioners of items for home interiors – furniture was still largely handmade, using traditional engineering and craftsmanship.

Apart from the influences mentioned above, there were two highly significant developments that affected the production of home furnishings during the Victorian era. These were the Aesthetic or Art Furniture movement, and the Arts and Crafts movement.

The Arts and Crafts Movement was an international phenomenon, but it started life in Victorian England. As a reaction to the heavy emphasis on industrialisation and ‘mass-produced’ goods, leaders of the movement sought to promote the importance of using traditional, age-served methods. Putting the emphasis on decorative, rather than mechanical skills.

The movement and the furniture and furnishings it inspired were heavily influenced by such historic figures as pre-Raphaelite artist and designer William Morris, and theorist and art critic John Ruskin. They championed nature and ‘honesty’ as the basis of interiors and buildings.

The Aesthetic or Art Furniture movement ((1860 – 1900) had a similar resonance. This too sheered away from the ‘ugliness’ of industrialisation and the growing devotion to materialism. However, it took this resistance much further, and championed ‘art for art’s sake’.

Instead of producing items that were functional and no-frills, the movement sought to produce things of true beauty, sensuous and sophisticated in their aesthetics.

William Morris crossed over into this movement too, but it was also supported by such luminaries as artists Dante Gabriel Rossett and Edward Burne-Jones and architects E.W. Godwin and Christopher Dresser. Its principles and ‘cult of beauty’ are the bedrock of many contemporary design trends.

Why Victoriana resonates today

There is something inherently romantic about the Victorian era. It was a time of immense creativity and a collision of influences old and new. There was new wealth to invest in both buildings and their ornate interiors, to explore the world and to open up many new possibilities.

It generated some incredible artists, writers, thinkers and designers, supported by fledgeling technologies such as photography, but also deeply connected to the legacies of the pre-industrial age.

Which is why the period’s art, furniture and furnishings are much copied, and why genuine Victorian antiques are so much in demand.

By buying such items you can enjoy echoes of a gracious age in your home. You can also connect to heritage and culture which brilliantly blended together new developments, new international influences and the glories of the past. Explore our range of Victorian wardrobes, antiques and more today.

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