We have launched a new website and are reviewing this page. Find out more
Open daily 10.00 to 17.45 Admission free Menu

Victorian furniture styles

Victorian Gothic revival tall cabinet, England, c.1870-1880. Museum no. W.24-1972

Victorian Gothic revival tall cabinet, England, c.1870-1880. Museum no. W.24-1972

Style, the way things look in a particular period, depends upon interlocking social and artistic factors. There was a greater diversity of styles in Victorian Britain than in the eighteenth century. The desire of the new rich to be seen on equal terms with the landowning aristocracy, or to be better than them, the desire of the rapidly developing industrial and business community to find a style that suited them, and the desire of an increasingly powerful middle class to tell the world about their new status - all these aspirations made it impossible for one style to meet everyone's demands.

Each group tended to choose a style demonstrating their identity and their worth. For the business class, for example, the worthy and patriotic status of classical design gave authority and weight to their position of trust. This type of furniture would not have been found in average middle-class homes or even those of many wealthy people. However, the new designs pioneered in these pieces were soon simplified and commercialized by manufacturers. The design of all furniture, even the very cheapest, was to follow the lead.

The design of much Victorian furniture, like Georgian furniture before it, was based on historical models and the wide range of styles was selected from architecture as well as older furniture designs. In the first part of Victoria's reign, many design styles were simply elaborations of earlier ones with increased emphasis placed on surface decoration. As the period progressed designs were viewed more critically and interest shifted away from decoration towards structure and form.

Victorian furniture styles: Medieval and Tudor

Medieval styles appealed to the Victorian new rich because they endowed them with a ready-made British heritage. These diverse styles ranged from heavily carved pieces in Norman and Gothic style, through pieces painted with knights and ladies to glittering, heavily encrusted furniture inspired by 14th-century work.

St. George Cabinet by William Morris

St. George Cabinet, William Morris, England, 1861 - 1862. Museum no. 341-1906

St. George Cabinet, William Morris, England, 1861 - 1862. Museum no. 341-1906

The mahogany, pine and oak cabinet, with copper mounts was designed by Philip Webb and painted by William Morris (1834-1896). The painted scenes are from the legend of St George and the Dragon and include Morris and his wife amongst the characters depicted.

The highly decorated St. George's Cabinet demonstrates Morris' love of romance. It was painted by Morris for the 1862 International Exhibition in London, to show the products of his new interior design company, Morris & Co. Althought the press praised its 'true medieval spirit', the decoration of St. George and the Dragon is a piece of pure Victorian romantic narrative.

Listen to the audio below for the views of different generations on the cabinet by Morris.

Download: mp3 | ogg View transcript


Victorian furniture styles: Arts and Crafts

Although it is not possible to recognize a single Arts and Crafts style, the varied work of designers within the movement was underpinned by a common philosophy. They were reacting against the spirit of the 1851 Exhibition with its emphasis on decoration and technique and against the harshness of industrialisation. They favoured 'honesty' of construction and continuity with medieval traditions, where value was placed on hand-crafted work with one individual responsible for all stages of production.

The medieval tradition of craftsmanship and honesty was developed through a system of Guilds formed of associated craftsmen. The members, most of whom were architecturally trained, designed for a variety of media, for special commissions, or for limited and rather costly production. They sold directly to patrons through specialist design shops. Hand-made furniture was expensive, however, and therefore denied to the working classes, which conflicted with Morris' socialist ideals.

The inspiration for these designs came from a number of different sources. The sophisticated but simple classical forms used in 18th and 19th century England were a particular favourite. Even Morris & Co.'s styles were influenced by the Guilds that they had helped to inspire.

Victorian furniture styles: Japanese style

Japanese style sideboard by E W Godwin, England, c.1867. Museum no. 38-1953

Japanese style sideboard by E W Godwin, England, c.1867. Museum no. 38-1953

In 1853 Japan reopened its borders and provided a fresh source of artistic inspiration to the west. British critics praised the simplicity, purity of form and strong feeling for nature they perceived in Japanese art. In a reaction against ornate historical styles, a group of British designers tried to capture the spirit of the east.

Among them was E.W. Godwin, whose cabinet, designed in 1877, uses decorative elements immediately recognizable as coming from the east, including the formalized use of plant forms such as the sunflower, lily and fruit blossom. Less obvious is the source of the design's power. This lies in the understanding by the designer of the harmonious, symmetrical balancing of forms in a composition that is totally unlike the classical symmetry of the west. The lacquered wood finish makes this piece stand out from its surroundings and emphasizes the structure as design. Functional elements of hinge and keyplate become the decoration, together with the Japanese leather paper (originally gold). The decoration strengthens the shape of the solid elements, balancing them with the more powerful voids that are defined by uprights and stretchers.

Victorian furniture styles: Liberty & Co.

Oak washstand by Liberty & Co., England, c. 1894. Museum no. W. 19-1984

Oak washstand by Liberty & Co., England, c. 1894. Museum no. W. 19-1984

Those who wore aesthetic dress might surround themselves with artistic furniture inspired by Japan, Godwin or the eighteenth century and embellish it with blue-and-white china, Persian rugs and Indian shawls. In contrast to their dress, however, the furnishings showed no signs of medieval influence.

A major outlet for artistic items was the shop opened by Arthur Lazenby Liberty in Regent Street in May 1875. E.W. Godwin described the excitement that Liberty's skill in buying from the east could arouse in his customers when a new shipload of goods arrived on the pavement outside the Regent Street shop. This was so intense that customers, ecstatic over the silks, fans, rugs, china and enamelware, would demand that the packing cases be opened in the street.Not everything could be imported and Liberty was aware of the demand for the complete artistic interior. His answer was to employ British designers such as Archibald Knox and Arthur Silver to supply complementary designs, so that customers could furnish a whole house from his store.

Become a V&A Member

V&A Members enjoy a wealth of benefits, including free entry to exhibitions, previews, exciting events and the V&A Members’ Room. In addition, you will be supporting the vital work of the V&A.

Buy or Renew Membership Online