How to identify Victorian furniture - a guide

19 February 2020

A Guide to Victorian Furniture


Victorian furniture refers to the style of furniture that was made during the reign of Queen Victoria (1837 – 1901). It is often revivalist in style, in that it adopts stylistic motifs from other periods, creating huge waves of revivals with nostalgic nods to the past.

Victorian furniture pieces are valued for their opulence and elegance. Queen’s Victoria’s taste for grandeur shaped the period enormously, and grand and elaborate furniture was in fashion for much of her reign.

There is a rich variety within Victorian furniture, each piece having been influenced by its individual revival. Pieces can be identified via their iconic features which make them authentic to their time. In this article, we explore some of these different styles and take a look at what aspects of Victorian furniture you should look out for to identify them when purchasing pieces.

Victorian Styles


Gothic Revival

The gothic period covered the 12th to the 15th century, originating from French gothic architecture in the early 12th century. You can see the heavy influence of the medieval gothic architecture in the 19th century, with the revival style imitating the castles and glorious cathedrals of Europe. Victorian gothic furniture took on this style of detailed carving and geometric forms and became a popular aesthetic in the 19th century.

Intricate carvings mark out this style, with woods such as rosewood, oak and walnut used to craft the pieces. Heavy fabrics would often be used, like velvet or leather, and designers favoured foliate motifs for ornamentation. Design elements also include pointed arches, spires, quatrefoils, trefoils and crockets.

Jacobean Revival

The Jacobean Revival started in the 1870s and combined the trend for factory-made furniture with the Jacobean period. The designs were adaptations of 17th century Jacobean strapwork, and the furniture details would be wide and flat, with ornamental moulding twisted into the designs.

Whatnots were popular pieces of this time, as were spindled chairs, circular tables and storage chests. Fabrics were dramatic, with florals, nature scenes and rich patterns. But the overarching style of the Jacobean revival was rigid, solid-looking pieces with incised ornamentation.

Rococo Revival

Born during the reign of Louis XV, the Rococo style represented an opposition to the classical forms of the Baroque style. This high style furniture of French influence is known for its love of the natural world, with flora, shells and fruit motifs. The Rococo revival encapsulated the grandeur of the European style, an expression of 19th-century romanticism.

Rosewood and mahogany were favoured woods, and gold finishes were often applied to the furniture. A popular choice for the upholstery was tufting, and the pieces can often be identified by their curvaceous shapes and rounded corners.

Renaissance Revival

By 1850, there was a resurgence in interest for classical and renaissance art, and the furniture of this time took on these influences. Renaissance revival pieces are defined by bold features on heavy pieces of furniture, a contrast to the feminine elegance of the Rococo style. It incorporated the use of masculine arches, animal and human figures instead of natural, floral motifs, and fluted legs that imitated ancient Greek columns.

Arts and Crafts

The Arts and Crafts movement was one of the most significant new style movements of the 19th century, as Victorian designers and furniture makers sought to move away from the increasing mechanisation of production and return to handmade items that weren’t elaborately adorned with unnecessary ornamentation. Designers wanted to recapture the spirit of quality craftsmanship and developed a style to reflect these beliefs. Makers and designers such as William Morris, Edward Barnsley and Phillip Webb are all names to look out for.

Overall Appearance

Victorian furniture is often perceived as a very formal style of furniture with elaborate detailing. The style can be seen as overly ornate, or dark, but many pieces of English 19th century furniture are far from it. If you are looking for something a little less fussy, then provincial “country-style” Victorian furniture or the Arts and Crafts style is a good choice.

Veneer

Victorian furniture was often made using decorative veneers, such as mahogany. These beautiful grains were formed from wood that warped or curled, and these decorative pieces of wood would be glued to more stable wood for a stunning and durable finish.

When shopping for Victorian style furniture check that the veneer is in good condition, with no peeling, bubbling or loss, as it can be expensive to repair.

Purchasing Victorian Furniture

Look out for maker’s stamps or labels, as this can add provenance and value to your items. Good places to look are the drawers and the back of furniture.

Victorian furniture can often be very large, as it was made for rooms with generous proportions and high ceilings. Always measure before you buy!