The Queen Anne Style, (1700-1725)
In the 18th Century, architecture was the most important of the arts, and for a man of wealth, his house and furniture presented a spectacular means of exhibiting good taste. It was the taste of the owners of these fine houses which created the demand and set the standard of the furniture of this period. The Whigs established themselves as the new directors of a taste, audacious enough to claim moral righteousness as its justification. “He who aspires to the character of a man of breeding and politeness is careful to form his judgments of arts and sciences upon right models of perfection,” Lord Shaftesbury had declared. The “right models of perfection” were, of course, to be found only in ancient Rome. Baroque was condemned as being overly emotional and undisciplined. Instead, the virtues of classical proportion claimed the new era.
The reign of Queen Anne (1702-1714) witnessed the greatest simplicity in household wares, pieces without any molded or engraved decoration. The Queen’s intimate, Sarah Duchess of Marlborough, expressed a widely felt wish “to have things plain and clean, from a piece of wainscot to a lady’s face,” and an influential poet of the period declared his highest ambition was to own a “private seat built Uniform, not little nor too great,” containing no objects “but what are useful, necessary, plain.”
This desire for simplicity, raised to a cult by Richard Steele and Joseph Addison, helped to banish carved decoration and elaborate Japanning from furniture and prepared the way for the Palladianism of the early Georgian period.
The new Palladian movement was in its infancy and was preoccupied, at first, with the new rules of taste. In consulting pattern books, English noblemen and country gentlemen could acquire scholarship and taste to enable them to build “correctly” and furnish “politely.” And, behind this earnest endeavor lay the devotion to reason and good sense for which the poet Alexander Pope pleaded:
Something there is more needful than expense
And something previous ev’n to taste—‘tis sense.
Much fine furniture of Queen Anne’s reign was made of walnut and sometimes also veneered with burl walnut, if a particularly rich and striking effect was desired. Earlier cabinetmakers are primarily remembered for the fine and grandiose furniture commissioned for the state rooms of the royal palaces and the London and country houses of the great Whig and Tory magnates. But in the early 18th Century, many craftsmen of equal competence were producing furniture for the city merchants and country squirearchy who could not afford the high prices charged by the fashionable cabinetmakers. Case and seat furniture alike were veneered with sheets of matched veneer, cut from the same log and laid so that the figuring in the wood formed a symmetrical pattern.
The spiral, baluster and bobbin turned supports of the earlier period gave way during Queen Anne’s reign to the serpentine or “cabriole” leg—a leg curved outwards at the knee and tapering inwards below, terminated by a pad, club, hoof, bun, paw, claw-and-ball, scroll or trified foot. This distinctive form, which had originated in China, was probably suggested by the lower part of a quadruped’s leg. Stretchers were used with the early cabriole legs, but became incongruous when the cabriole form was fully developed as they interrupted the line of the curve.
In no other article of furniture is design so finely and nicely adjusted as in the developed “hoop-back” single side chair—the well-defined serpentine curves of which, by nature ornamental, are governed by structural purpose—the vase or fiddle-shaped splat, enclosed by undulating uprights and shaped to the form of the user’s back, and the seat rail, often rounded in front, supported on graceful cabriole legs finishing in pad fee.
An appreciable increase in domestic comfort in this reign was due in part to the introduction of new and useful pieces, and to the development of those but newly adopted. By the early 18th Century, foreign styles had become assimilated and naturalized in Britain. The best walnut furniture of the Queen Anne period is direct and unaffected in character. The structural inheritance of the medieval period of rigid and rectilinear forms was replaced in this period by a new curvilinear conception of design. The cabriole leg was introduced: subtle unity of opposing curves, convex above, concave below; the bended back for chairs invited a relaxed posture, which upright or slightly incline back rests had forbidden; and the graceful relationship of curves in this new form of design changed the character of furniture during the 18th Century.
Sets of side chairs and pairs of upholstered easy chairs, side and dressing tables, card tables and bureaus, made for the upper and middle classes have consistently show a purity of style hitherto unrealized in England. There was a demand for luxury evidenced by the introduction of new specialize pieces of furniture, such as the dressing glass and candle stand. Fashionable furniture represented a break with tradition and was the work of new craftsmen, many of whom were French Huguenot refugees, employing new techniques (veneering, marquetry, japanning and gesso) and new woods—in particular, walnut. Their productions were decorative and their standard of skill very much higher than that possessed by the native joiners and their presence was quickly felt. “Joyners (sic), cabinet-makers, and the like….from very vulgar and pitiful artists,” wrote the diarist John Evelyn, “are now come to produce works as curious for the fiting (sic), and admirable for their dexterity in contriving, as any we meet with abroad.”