Hope’s Egyptian chair, featured in June’s post, is of a very eclectic design, meant for the most discerning, ‘top of the trees’ consumer. So, too, was the Trafalgar. As the Regency period wore on, however, the masses discovered these trends in the ton’s furniture fashions. Thanks to the furniture pattern-book, now the public could order such furnishings, and emulate the private elite.
It was, after all, a time when information was more easily disseminated than in the past.
George Smith (1786 – 1826) was the most prolific in furniture pattern book publication. Still associated by name with British master craftsmen of furniture, (with showrooms in London, New York, Chicago and Los Angeles), he believed the designs of Hope and others ought to be made directly available to cabinet and furniture makers.
It was a system the French had implemented many years before.
His pattern book displays of chairs, draperies, couches and desks sported the latest decorative carvings, finishes and trim. To make the unusual more appealing to a wider range of tastes, he often combined various styles into one design, but was careful to advise the consumer on some basic ground rules that both Quality and bourgeois should heed:
Mahogany, when used in houses of consequence, should be confined to the Parlour and Bedchamber floors; in furniture for these apartments, the less inlay of other woods, the more chaste will be the style of work…
George Smith, Collection of Design for Household Furniture and Interior Decoration (1808)
The mahogany hall chair, pictured above, is perfectly suited for a grand country house or town home in Hans Crescent. The carved back makes the sturdy chair stylish, without sacrificing function. Regardless of societal status, one need not blush at owning such a piece, as long as it is employed according to the rules.
In chambers where one receives visitors, the expectation is for fancier pieces. Furnishings for the Drawing Room must be more than “chaste.” In the following illustration, note the varying degrees of decoration in these drawing room chairs.
The chair on the left might be the principal ornament of a modest drawing room in a Bristol rectory. In a great country house like Forde Abbey, a set of ten like the one on the right, with basket-weave sides and back, would be quite grand in the saloon or library.
Indeed, the drawing room chair on display at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London is part of such a set, and closely copies the Smith design of the basket-weave chair above. Other members of the set also survive, in varying conditions, at the Brighton Pavilion as well as up for auction on the internet — dispersed from estate sales of great country houses.
The Regency period was a time when many more could participate in the elevation of taste, thanks to George Smith and other publishers of pattern-books. The danger came, however, when a popular design became over-exposed. In the hands of an amateur, sphinxes, gods’ heads and animal parts got amplified in size and ostentation:
‘Number 8 is a design for a drawing-room chair. The back and body represent a female crocodile couchant…being as may perceived by the mammaluea. or little teats, a crocodile sui generis.’
Satirist: or Monthly Meteor, Volume I, George Manners, et al (1808)
What was all the crack could easily become not at all the thing.