With wealth and security inevitably come a profusion of styles and an irresistible temptation to go over the top: a broad statement, but one borne out by history. In the twentieth century we have to look back no further than to the 1980s to see evidence of this. If we retreat even further – to the mid-nineteenth century – we find perhaps an even finer example.
Victoria was on the British throne, her empire was churning along quite nicely and the rewards of the industrial revolution were being appreciated by a rapidly growing middle class. In the ‘workshop of the world’, as England was then known, fortunes were being made through trade with the colonies. Add to this newly found wealth and security, a monarch with strong feelings about home and family, and you have all the back-ground ingredients of Victorian style.
With all attention on the home, it was obvious that this was where an individual’s status could best be demonstrated to the world at large. The message was loud and clear: ‘I have arrived, I have substance and I espouse family values’ (sounds familiar?). A great surge in building and urban development ensued, much of which constitutes the English housing stock of today.
The penchant for classical styles was declining, but without any strong, new, directional fashion surfacing, the only way to look was back and to reviving previously popular interior themes (this too has its parallel in the 1980s when shabby-chic country-house eclecticism became all the rage). Gothic, Elizabethan, oriental, Scottish baronial, Egyptian and rococo – these were among the many styles that the Victorians mixed somewhat indiscriminately. When interpreting Victorian style today, you have the choice of jumbling these various furnishing styles within one room or perhaps of concentrating on just one theme in each individual space.
Industrialization had arrived and furniture was produced en masse (but, alas, not always to the highest standard). At least this meant that furnishings cost less and were therefore available to a wider public and in greater abundance. It should be no surprise, then, that house dwellers of the time overdosed on exuberance. The Victorian home is typified by the cluttering of furnishings, layer upon layer. Why stop at one pair of curtains at a window when these can be accompanied by blinds and net drapes too? Every imaginable item was draped, trimmed and bedecked; every inch of floor space crammed with furniture and every table spilt over with memorabilia.
While the dictates of today’s decorators may be ‘Less is more’ or ‘If in doubt, leave it out’, the byword of their Victorian equivalents was ‘More is marvelous’!
Although at the beginning of this long-enduring period (1837-1901) schemes tended to be relatively light in feel, by the turn of the century they had become altogether more somber. Window treatments were designed to restrict light, the decorator’s palette took on deeper tones, furnishings became bulkier and dark woodwork dominated. Artificial lighting, despite the arrival of oil lamps followed by gas lamps, did little to brighten interiors. This all sounds rather dull until you remember that the Victorians would dress their rooms according to the season.
Come spring, many of the heavier elements would be replaced or covered by lighter-weight materials in paler colors; then the winter scheme would be re-imposed in the autumn. We adopt this arrangement for our personal clothing, so why not for our rooms?
In Victorian times there was a preciseness that we perhaps lack today with our flexible casual lifestyles. Each room had its definitive purpose and style of decoration. Libraries, drawing rooms and dining rooms tended towards the sumptuous, while upstairs was generally given a lighter, more feminine touch.