Regency Furnishings: Gothic Revival

When I photographed this Regency-era chair at the Victoria and Albert Museum, it was apparent that its style was Gothic Revival.

“The total effect is a romanticized vision of ‘Olde England.’ ” — V&A Museum

The tempestuous past of its owner, however, was not so apparent.

The chair was one of set Sir Godfrey Vassal Webster ordered for his country estate, the famous Battle Abbey. The manor began as an ecclesiastical complex, established as a memorial to the Conqueror’s victory over the Saxons.  The Abbey was later dissolved and the abbot’s house became the nucleus of the Webster family country seat.

The Websters were proud to own a piece of history. Battle Abbey was a place that hearkened to the distant past–when a descendant of Vikings put himself on England’s throne.

 

Sir Godfrey was 5th Baronet Webster. His mother was the notorious Lady Holland, who abandoned the 4th baronet for another man, and took up the active life of a Whig hostess. His father committed suicide, and young Godfrey was brought up by older relatives. Achieving his majority, he inherited an estate already encumbered by debt, and in tumble-down conditions.

His expensive campaign to restore the estate was a long endeavor, punctuated by notable distractions elsewhere.

Sir Godfrey Webster, via Grosvenor Prints

One of those distractions was romance. Sir Godfrey was Caroline Lamb’s lover.  They carried on openly in spite of her marriage to another; their affair deplored in relatives’ correspondence. Eventually they broke off, Caro falling into a mad infatuation with Byron. Later, she sketched Sir Godfrey’s character as the devil-may-care Buchanan in Glenarvon. It seems she cared deeply for him.

The clever story of a Regency miss whose novel features a caricature leading to everlasting love.

Others did not.

I never remember to have heard of anybody more generally disliked, or more completely excluded from the pale of good company.

— John Williams Ward, April, 1810

Another distraction was politics. Sir Godfrey blew lavish amounts of money to buy his way into Parliament. His ambition in this regard remains obscure, for no one could be certain where his loyalties lay. He wanted to stand for election in Sussex for the Tories, but had been known to curry the support of ‘mobs’ with decidedly Whiggish demands.
Money, when he could get it, brought more distractions. He thought to make a splash in the racehorse business–with limited success. He might as well have stayed on land for all the blunt he spent on a yacht named Scorpion.
When these distractions ceased, Sir Godfrey was left to concentrate on Battle Abbey, which became his solace.

The Novices Common Room – Battle Abbey via WyrdLight.com

The furnishings Sir Godfrey ordered for his manor house reflect his taste for the Romantic, a movement that flourished during the Regency. The Gothic Revival style, sometimes called Elizabethan, of the Webster chair signals a desire to make Battle Abbey look the part.

George Bullock (1782 – 1818) was one of several Regency-era furniture makers who were responsible for developing the Gothic Revival style:

“Battle-axes, battering rams, Roman fasces, halberds and shields should only be introduced into military apartments. (Bullock) was the only person who ventured into a new path: though some of his designs were certainly too messy and ponderous, nevertheless grandeur cannot be obtained without it.”

— The Rudiments of Drawing Cabinet and Upholstery Furniture…, Richard Brown (1835)

The emphasis in such a design is not just a departure from the classical Greek and Roman influences, but a desire to return to one’s roots, to recall the past as it was thought to be, in Britain. Indeed, Ackermann’s boasts that this style of furniture is particularly favored there because it is the only place where the style can be fully understood and appreciated.

Note the tracery decoration in this Gothic dressing table, reflected in the matching footstool. From Ackermann’s Ser.3,v.10(1827)

Interestingly, Bullock supplied the furniture for Longwood House, Napoleon’s last home in exile. The foot-bath he designed for L’Empereur was a notable departure from his Gothic style, bearing the leaves of victory in the Greek manner.  The commissioners in charge of this task rejected the bowl, of course.

As for Webster’s check made out to  Bullock, that too was rejected!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ceremonial chair for Battle Abbey: http://collections.vam.ac.uk/item/O58202/ceremonial-chair-bridgens-richard/

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Regency Furnishings: the Trafalgar Chair

Another great Pan cover — truth in advertising

“She wanted to be hearing of Lord Nelson, who had naturally been the hero of her school-days. It was her uncle’s only merit in her eyes that he must actually have spoken with the great man, but she could not induce him to describe Nelson in any other but the meanest of terms… a wispy fellow: not much to look at, he gave her his word.”

–Regency Buck by Georgette Heyer (1935)

 

The Royal Navy’s defeat of the French and Spanish fleets at Trafalgar was the stuff of legend, in part because Lord Nelson died on the altar of victory. What followed was a paroxysm of hero worship. The flag that draped his sarcophagus had been torn to pieces by sailors craving a memento. Poems and sermons in his memory were composed and distributed through recitals and magazines.

Legrand’s Apotheosis of Nelson — you get the idea

The cult of Nelson even penetrated the realm of Regency furnishings. Already present and popular among the ton, the classic, clean artistry of the Grecian style provided a perfect canvas for demonstrating hero worship.  Distinctive, yet blending well with surrounding furniture, the chairs made in this mode were particularly functional, as the following print shows.

The Greek influence is evident by the shape of the legs. They are carved outward, like sabres. Smaller in scale, they could easily be moved, and pressed into service for large gatherings.

The chair on the far right is a Trafalgar–the back, seat and leg carved as if in a single stroke down to the floor. The back features a patera ornament, a symbol of reverence, surrounded by the wreath of victory.

A bespoke Trafalgar would display symbolic ornamentation, demonstrating the owner’s refined taste. The Victoria and Albert Museum in London has such a chair on display, with a back carved to look like a rope that might serve as a ship’s rigging.

V&A Trafalgar Chair

The ebony and gilt paint make the flower-like anthemione and rope carving particularly distinctive.

Nelson himself preferred a chair upholstered in leather, with side pouches that contained dispatches. A gift from his mistress, Lady Hamilton, it was known as the Emma, and kept in his cabin on board ship. The relic was put up for auction last year, still in its original leather upholstery. 

Today, it is the wing-backed, post-modern upholstered chair that Lord Nelson is known for. This one is on sale at 1stDibs.com

Claiming a connection to Trafalgar and its Hero, however trifling, was a mark of distinction, even if Judith’s uncle deplored it.

“Can’t understand what women see in him.”

 

 

Regency Impudence: Joseph Hume

“I see precisely how it is! You are very like my father, Salford! ..the only time  when either of you remembers what you are is when some impudent fellow don’t treat you with respect!”

— Sylvester: or The Wicked Uncle, by Georgette Heyer

Impudence is a powerful force of conflict in Regency-themed literature. The setting of these stories is profoundly concerned with status, and the orderly categorization of the individual within a deeply stratified society. The impudent character bucks the rules, and zounds! the reader is hooked.

The term impudence used to refer to conduct that was immodest. This was during the medieval period. With the rise of the middle class in nineteenth century Britain, the term came to mean behavior that challenged landed class privilege at all levels–political, cultural, social, eliciting dismay, but more often amusement.

Dashed good fun to flout those who are just a little high in the instep.

In the Regency-era political arena, much of the impudence on display can be attributed to Joseph Hume (1777-1855). Made wealthy from a technique to keep gunpowder dry, he purchased a Tory seat, only for that session of Parliament to dissolve.  Chagrined, he “ratted” upon his return, and became a Radical MP.

Joseph Hume, “a burly man with a massive head and virtually no neck.” by John Whitehead Walton

His achievements, which were many, attempted to force retrenchment upon the government’s purse. His biographical entry in History of Parliament states he was “willfully perverse..largely impervious to the ridicule and abuse which he largely attracted from his political adversaries.”

This was impudence indeed, but that was not the half of it.

“..very very noisy, very violent … and on many points unintelligible, but quite satisfied with himself.”

— John Gladstone, Tory MP (letter to George Canning, Feb. 1822)

He was proud of his conduct, and that was the crux of his impudence. This unrepentant quality of character excited Maria Edgeworth’s considerable disgust. In her Letters she thought him most impudent for attacking ‘all things and all persons,’ but more particularly because he refused to heed all advice to moderate his good opinion of himself.

Tories detested him. His natural allies, the Whigs, were at times delighted and incensed by him. Sir Henry Brougham wrote to a colleague that Hume makes a ‘stupid ass’ of himself in parliamentary proceedings, inducing most to either fall asleep or walk out with his interminable demands for an accounting of even the most minute of government expenditures.

The fact he went about the thing with an air of superiority was Too Much.

“…his stupid vanity … His kind patronage of Archy [Hamilton] is only laughable, but to see him splitting on that rock (of egotism and vanity) is rather provoking. What right has he to talk of the Whigs never coming to his support on … reform?”

The Creevey Papers (1822)

There were many who tried to reform society at the political level. There were not many who did it as impudently as Hume, as two occasions demonstrate. One concerned an investigation he launched into profiteering at the Crown’s stationary office. The other was the buying and selling of Greek bonds on the taxpayer’s dime.

He admitted to having done both.

In the case of the first charge, he compounded his impudence by admitting his perfidy in writing, on the very stationary in question. As to the second charge, his corruptible speculation resulted in a personal financial loss, for which he demanded the poor Greeks compensate him.

“Could he, in the incipient stages of his existence, have looked forward to the brazen celebrity which he now obtained, we might almost wonder that he could have the impudence to be born.”

— Anecdotes of Impudence, Charles Tilt (publisher) 1827

‘If Hume should be returned for Middlesex, he of course will forget that he owes his seat to me twice over,” said moderate Whig George Byng, here bearing a most impudent Hume on his back.

 

 

Regency Fashion: the Gentleman’s Town Dress

False Colours“His coat of dark blue superfine was the very latest made by Evelyn for Weston..his stockinette pantaloons were knitted in the newest and most delicate dove-colour: his cambric shirt was modestly austere, with no ruffle, but three plain buttons…his hat, set at an angle on his glowing locks, had a tall and tapering crown, smoothly brushed, and very different from the low, shaggy beaver to which Fimber had taken instant exception.”

This is the town dress of the Regency gentleman as described by author Georgette Heyer in  False Colours (1963).

The superfine fabric is exactly as it sounds–wool that is smooth, almost silky to the touch. The more narrow the fibers of the wool, the more “super” its grade. Today, superfine wool suits of the highest grade sell well into the thousands of dollars.

Tom Ford: James Bond collection, Fall 2015

From designer Tom Ford’s James   Bond collection, Fall 2015

Stockinette is “an elastic knitted fabric used especially in making undergarments, bandages, and babies’ clothes–a fine-knit, soft, elastic weave.” Heyer’s hero, the handsome, blond Kit Fancot, wore pantaloons made of this material as he strolled through London, impersonating his fashionable elder brother, Lord Denville, the stockinette fabric clinging to his shapely legs in ways that I shall leave to your imagination.

stockinette pantaloons

          skin-tight, “a la hussarde”

Cambric is also known as batiste, a soft, airy cotton that makes marvelous baby sheets and blankets. Whenever I hear cambric mentioned, I think of the Little House books. You knew Ma or the girls were sewing something very special if it was made of cambric:

“They made four new petticoats….around the bottom of the fine cambric one, Laura had sewed with careful, tiny stitches the six yards of knitted lace that she had given Mary for Christmas.”

Little Town on the Prairie by Laura Ingalls Wilder (1941)

If Fimber, or any other Regency-era valet, turns his nose up at an article of a gentleman’s dress, you can be sure it must be very unfashionable indeed. Kit’s hat was discarded for his brother’s not because it was made of beaver, but that was shaggy, with a low crown. Acceptable for a diplomat, which Kit was, but not at all the thing for his noble brother.

close-up of a beaver hat--the crown shaggy in texture

close-up of a beaver hat–the crown shaggy in texture

Next post: what Kit wore to a fancy evening party, when he:

“..realized that he had been imperfectly coached: he had no idea which of them was the lady to whom he was supposed to have offered his hand.”

Adelaide – A Regency Marriage

"Other men might envy Sir Nugent; they could not despise him, for his pedigree was impeccable, his fortune exceeded sixty thousand pounds a year." Sylvester, Heyer

Other men might envy Sir Nugent; they could not despise him, for his pedigree was impeccable, his fortune exceeded sixty thousand pounds a year.”

In Maria’s estimation, marriage served only to increase Adelaide’s extravagance.

“..(Adelaide) has wedded a man so wealthy, that Mexico and Peru seem to be at his command; so much the worse, perhaps, for her, for she is naturally extravagant, and will think his riches inexhaustible.”

— “Letter from a Young Married Lady to her Sister in the Country,” La Belle Assemblée, August, 1818

Surely Heyer’s Ianthe was based on Adelaide, and the preposterous Sir Nugent Fotherby on the man who could bail out entire nations–the Honorable Frederic Cleveland.

Nine years older than his teenage bride, Cleveland owned over thirty “blood” horses, possessed an extensive country estate and funds enough to support the staggeringly expensive habits of a sporting Corinthian:

“..he is fond as ever of his dogs and horses; he is a modern charioteer, a great encourager of pugilism,…most admirable skill in horseflesh.”

Maria marveled to her sister over the fashionable couple’s two (!) separate boxes at the Opera and the immense sums Adelaide pays for milliners’ wares–a continual stream of pelisses, bonnets, bronze half-dresses and furbelows–only to discard them almost at once. She doesn’t ask the price of the trimmings sent “enough for ten months at least,” only that the bills be sent to her husband, who had already proven himself indulgent on the matter of the “vulgar” white bridal dress.

Indeed, Adelaide thinks nothing of throwing down an expensive cashmere shawl for her lap dog or Cleveland’s pointers to rest upon.

Called by its French name "cachemire" in the Magazine, this draped shawl forms part of a walking dress ensemble. -- La Belle Assemblée, May, 1818

Called by its French name “cachemire” in the Magazine, this draped shawl forms part of a walking dress ensemble. — La Belle Assemblée, May, 1818

After observing this increased profligacy, even dashing aunt Lady Worthington was moved to reprove her niece:

“..Lose not your hours, my dear Adelaide, in fashionable follies: do not act like too many votaries of dissipation, as if youth and life were eternal.”

 

 

Regency Servants: Nurse Nanny

Downton Abbey, like many great British family sagas, features a wicked nanny. Did you see the austere portrait of Queen Mary in the servants’ quarters downstairs?

That was Wicked Nanny’s cue.

Eddy and Bertie's younger brother, Prince John, pictured with Nanny Bill

Eddy and Bertie’s younger brother, Prince John, pictured with Nanny Bill

Mary of Teck’s trials with nannies were recorded by her oldest son, the abdicating Edward VIII. According to him, one had been dismissed for insolence, another for abuse. Both boys were allegedly pinched to make them cry so that a return trip to the nursery was necessary. Little Bertie might have been starved. All were reported by an assistant, the undernurse, Nanny Bill.

In Downton Abbey, Nanny West got sacked for calling Sybil’s daughter a “wicked little cross-breed.”  Her role was rather brief. I suspect she was a device to set up the viewer’s sympathy for her successor, who very well may do something really naughty.

Nannies during the Regency used to be called nurses. They had enormous influence over their young charges in the nursery. Happy was the family who could trust such a servant, and having found one they might retain her to stay on for future generations.

Nurses figured largely in the literature of the time. They might be intimate confidantes, mentors, or providers of safe refuge for their former charges, now grown up yet fleeing to them in times of adversity.

Indeed, one might have a mother but ’tis better to have a nurse:

Save the child–give it a truer mother, the domestic nurse, who possesses the equanimity of humble station, whose self-interest is more vigilant and attentive, and (such is the providence of nature) whose attachment often grows more maternal than that of the mother herself. — The Belfast Monthly Magazine, July, 1811

Worries over the nurse’s abilities seemed minor:

A child that is much danced about, and much talked to, by a very lively nurse, has many more ideas than one that is kept by a silent and indolent person. A nurse should be able to talk nonsense in abundance, but then she should know when to stop. — “On the Progressive Development of the Faculties of Children,” by Elizabeth Hamilton as printed in The Lady’s Magazine 1802

The Wet Nurse, by Marguerite Gerard

The Wet Nurse, by Marguerite Gerard

My favorite nurse from the Regency is featured in Heyer’s Sylvester, or the Wicked Uncle. Even when she is not in the scene, Nurse’s absence is rendered quite acute.

The following passage finds the pompous dandy, Sir Nugent Fotherby, attempting to placate his stepson’s demands. He has just sawed off one of the buttons from his elegant coat:

‘No need to cry, dear boy! Here’s your button!’

The sobs ceased abruptly; Edmund emerged from the blanket, tearstained but joyful. ‘Button, Button,’ he cried, stretching out his arms. Sir Nugent put the button into his hand.

There was a moment’s silence, while Edmund, staring at this trophy, realized to the full Sir Nugent’s perfidy. To blinding disappointment was added just rage. His eyes blazing through his tears he hurled the button from him, and casting himself face downward gave way to his emotions….

Fortunately, the noise of his lamentations reached Phoebe’s ears. She came quickly into the cabin, and upon being assured by Sir Nugent that so far from bullying his son-in-law, he had ruined one of his coats to provide him with the button he so insistently demanded…

(Phoebe) said contemptuously, ‘I should have thought you must have known better! He means his nurse, of course!’

The Real Regency Reader

Reading was an important pastime in the Regency. With more leisure came more time. And more reading.

In Heyer’s Cotillion, the heroine has had more than enough leisure time at her guardian’s dreary country house, with nothing but her governess’s bookshelf to entertain–and educate her. She elicits the aid of the hero, who, if he can be persuaded to enter into a pretend engagement with her, will take her to London. There she might have the opportunity to bring the dilatory Mr. Westruther up to scratch.

This is the copy I have--from 1968--the hair is a little That Girl, don't you think?

This is the copy I have–from 1968–the hair is a little That Girl, don’t you think?

“No, dash it!” protested Mr. Standen. “Not if you’re engaged to me, Kit!”

She became intent on smoothing the wrinkles from her gloves. Her colour considerably heightened, she said: “No. Only–If there did happen to be some gentleman who–who wished to marry me, do you think he would be deterred by that, Freddy?”

“Be a curst rum touch if he wasn’t, ” replied Freddy unequivocally.

“Yes, but–If he had a partiality for me, and found I had become engaged to Another,” said Kitty, drawing on a knowledge of life culled from the pages of such novels as graced Miss Fishguard’s bookshelf, “he might be wrought upon by jealousy.”

“Who?” demanded Freddy, out of his depth.

“Anyone!” said Kitty.

“But there ain’t anyone!” argued Freddy.

“No,” agreed Kitty, damped. “It was just a passing thought, and not of the least consequence! I shall seek a situation.”

What you read during the Regency was generally held to be informative of your character. In the case of Jane Austen’s novels, you might recall the sensible Anne Elliott in Persuasion enjoys prose and views Mr. Benwick’s inordinate fondness for poetry with a little alarm. Her father, on the other hand, “never took up any book but the Baronetage.”

Then again, too much reliance shouldn’t be placed on a person’s reading selections as a guide to their makeup. This next series of posts is intended to illustrate how diverse a real Regency book can be, and its reader as well. For instance, a novel might deliver a moral tale better than a collection of the vicar’s sermons from Harrow-on-Gate. Also, females thought to be flighty because of their penchant for Gothic tales suddenly reveal themselves to have a will of iron.

Just ask the Honorable Frederick Standen.