This section is from the book "The Practical Book Of Interior Decoration", by Harold Donaldson Eberlein, Abbot Mcclure, Edward Stratton Holloway. See also: The Victorian House Book: A Practical Guide to Home Repair and Decoration.
Searching the language for the one descriptive word best applying to the furniture of the eighteenth century it would probably be found in delightful. We all know how rhythmic in line and homelike in feeling was the furniture of Queen Anne, we have seen how graceful and how elegant was that of Louis Quinze, and how colourful and decorative that of Italy: we shall now have the pleasure of considering what for adaptability to most present-day uses, for sheer beauty and charm, for both comfort and elegance, for richer or for poorer, is at least in the opinion of the writers, the loveliest furniture the world has ever seen. It was not the biggest in design, nor the noblest, but these qualities are not what most of us are seeking for our homes today: if it was not these it was the most delightful.
More than that of any other epoch, perhaps as much as all the others together, has it been employed in modern homes - and with a narrowness amounting to sameness and to tameness..More's the pity! for its capabilities in combination are almost infinite! Think of the materials alone - not only the ubiquitous dark mahogany, but satinwood, plain, decorated or brass-mounted, inlay, lacquer, light mahogany, gilding, the beautiful tones of Louis Seize painted pieces, and the decorative possibilities of those of Italy and Spain.
England will again be taken as the key for comparison because of the greater familiarity of its furniture to most readers. For the same reason it has been thought advisable to give as many illustrations of the furniture of Continental Europe as limits permitted, rather than occupy space with pieces better known. Those who wish to make close comparisons can do so by referring to Eberlein and McClure's "Practical Book of Period Furniture" for the British and American forms.
It is first necessary to give place to Thomas Chippendale, both because of his ability and position and because though he lived and worked during the Neo-Classic movement he was not for the most part of it It seems to be the fashion to disparage Chippendale, and individual critics each take their fling at one or another phase of his work. It is amusing to note that each has his own dislike to a particular phase while giving a more or less grudging admiration to the rest - and that each of his characteristic modes is successively pitched upon and praised. Whereby we learn two things - that such criticisms are merely the expression of personal preferences owing to temperament, and that Chippendale was a more myriad-minded man than his critics. Suffice it to say that if he was not usually Classical, as was Adam, or exquisite, as was Sheraton, he was the most masculine and various of all eighteenth century English designers. His large library bookcases were severely classical, and most of his case pieces - bureau bookcases, wardrobes and desks - were, even when ornamented, sufficiently so to accompany contemporary furniture, for their constructional lines were straight. This may also be said of his more regular Chinese pieces; for exotic though their inspiration was, the Oriental has always played a large part in Western furnishing. The most bizarre renderings are best gathered in a room carried out in this manner, thus affording an interesting variation from others of more orthodox character. His Rococo pieces have already been provided for as accompanying corresponding Continental forms. His "Gothick" vein was not largely worked and few reproductions are made. The furniture most widely recognised as "Chippendale" - the chairs with splats containing C and other curves and with cabriole legs and claw-and-ball feet and other pieces with these members go excellently well with Queen Anne forms and also accompany many of the pieces of his contemporaries much better than might be expected from their differences (Plate 167). The common heritage of English feeling probably accounts for this.
As the head and front of the Classic movement in England we must give to Robert Adam first place in furniture as in architecture. He was never a constructor of furniture, but, with an artistic conscience worthy of all praise, designed, as has been mentioned, many pieces in order that his interiors might be congruous throughout. In this he was preceded by Chambers and also by Kent, who did some good things but whose work was usually marred by clumsiness. Not only was Adam's furniture of great beauty (see "The Practical Book of Period Furniture" by Eberlein and McClure), but his influence was strong with both Hep-plewhite and Sheraton. Chippendale was intimately associated with Adam and carried out his most important designs, notably at Harewood House, Nostel Priory and for David Garrick. Under ordinary circumstances we might therefore have expected him to become the most Classic of the three, but he maintained his own individuality and followed his personal tastes, so that we never find him supplying Neo-Classic furniture direct to his own patrons. Hepplewhite also was original in retaining many curvilinear forms, particularly in his chair backs, though most of his constructive lines were rectilinear. We know none too much of Sheraton, but that strange soul - Baptist preacher, tractarian, drawing master, designer and publisher, offensively carping in his comments on contemporaries - must have been filled with a love of beauty for its own sake, for nowhere among them all do we find work quite so exquisite as his. Other, lesser, English designers should find mention here, but space is limited.
Upon seeing the Venetian shield back chair (Plate 163 A) among the illustrations to this chapter upon the Neo-Classic movement some readers will probably be surprised, for it is at once recognisable as of the style of Louis XV.* This is quite true, but these curves were so subtle, so free from ornament, that they were "carried over" as being appropriate, and thus find their place among the rectilinear forms of the Classic Revival. We must not forget that the curule chairs of ancient Borne were almost entirely curvilinear. It is also to be remembered that designers do not necessarily pass away upon the death of movements: some of the French ebenistes, therefore, while abandoning certain characteristics of the Rococo retained other curvilinear features in their work during the succeeding reign. Especially do we see these characteristics in some of the fine cabinet pieces.
Just why so great a slenderness was adopted as the expression of the Neo-Classic in furniture has not to the writers' knowledge been touched upon. Probably it was because the heavier phase of Classicism had already been exploited by the Palladian movement and because (as opposed to the "spaciousness" of the times of Elizabeth) elegance rather than size was the characteristic note of the eighteenth century and its life: however this may be, this slenderness was universal to England and France. The instinct shown in adopting it for these forms was doubtless a right one, for we feel a certain "stodginess" in the sometimes heavier pieces of Italy and Spain.
Within the limits of slenderness we nevertheless find a considerable variation. Some of the side chairs and tables seem extremely fragile (even Chippendale designed spider-leg tables); some of Hepplewhite's chair backs are light while their legs are substantial; but the Louis Seize arm-chairs strike precisely the right degree - for beauty and for comfort they are among the finest seating-furniture ever designed (Plate 162 A and to the right in Plate 160).
Owing probably to the faulty practice of American decorators twenty-five or thirty years ago the impression is abroad that the furniture of Louis Quinze and Seize is "gilt and gaudy"; whereas, on the contrary, it and its covering were of the highest refinement. Gilding was sometimes employed upon the framework, but the natural woods or exquisite tones of ivory or grey mostly prevailed, and the needlework or fabrics were of the greatest beauty.
It is beyond question that for high quality of design and ornament, decorative value and consummate craftsmanship the best furniture of France stands above that of any other nation. No one knew this better than the designers of those other nations themselves, and upon occasion they did not hesitate to avail themselves of its inspiration. They did not by any means always do so, however, and British craftsmen particularly succeeded in enduing their work with a homelike quality which will not cease to be prized. Each of the great furniture-producing nations contributed its national characteristics and it remains for us to appreciate this and where possible add such engaging pieces to our treasures and aid others in so doing.
The furniture of Southern Europe, as in the preceding two epochs, followed to a large degree the more Northern forms but with the usual variations so interesting in International furnishing.