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 See the full tag accompanying this exhibit, along with the link, at the end of this post.

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

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:

A Place to Live a Thousand Lives

“In reading, attention is also to be paid to the How, as well as to the What.”

— The Brief Remarker on the Ways of Man, etc.. by Ezra Sampson (1823)

By the nineteenth century, reading as a pleasurable pastime was flourishing on both sides of the Atlantic. The author of the above quote viewed this development with ambivalence, lamenting that reading has become so commonly fashionable anyone could read anything and anywhere, even in the toilet(!)

Indeed, as a young reader, I had no specific place to read. A monkey swing would do. Or the diving board of a kidney-shaped swimming pool.  Reading was just reading–to be devoured and half-digested and forgotten midway through the next book.

Entering higher education, however, the act of reading becomes a necessarily serious business. College libraries are generally constructed to reflect that. An excellent example is the Mary Helen Cochran Library at Sweet Briar College.

Often compared to the Banqueting House at Whitehall,  the Cochran Library bears the legacy of Inigo Jones–Corinthian pilasters, horizontal cornices, and an elegant balustrade.

It was built in 1929, to the design of Ralph Adams Cram (1863-1942), eminent American architect heavily influenced by Regency-era European building design. He is best remembered for his execution of the Gothic Revival in ecclesiastical (NYC’s Cathedral of St. John the Divine) and academic (West Point) buildings.

Cram was also a prolific author–his little horror short story, The Dead Valley, is a gem for Halloween reading.

For the red-brick library and other buildings at the fledgling college for women, Cram chose Georgian Revival, reflecting what was traditional and architecturally pleasing in the Virginia Piedmont.

Cram’s little gem is now on the National Register of Historic Places and is featured in a Library Journal walking tour as well as the American Libraries Library Design Showcase.

There are two spaces in the Cochran which are devoted to reading. The first is the Reading Room, a soaring space flanked by dark wood bookcases, illuminated by light streaming in through the Palladian windows high above. The ceiling is quite fine, its plaster-work sporting ribbon, fruit and flowers.

The Reading Room in 1935. It is essentially unchanged.

Just beyond the Reading Room is the place where I first discovered the pleasure of having a specific place to read–where the how of reading began to influence what I was reading. Paneled in dark cypress, the Browsing Room resembles the private library of an Edwardian country estate, with a fireplace that only needs a Clumber spaniel sleeping before it, the mantel carrying the portrait of donor’s mother for whom the library is named.  The bookshelves are beautifully carved with a deep red color backing in Pompeiian red. They are custom made for the room.

Over seventy years later, the Browsing Room is unchanged (the portrait removed to protect it from nearby renovations).

In 1935, the Browsing Room was presided over by the portrait of Mary Cochran.









It is a space that is permanent–the best in the world “for living a thousand lives,” to quote author George R. R. Martin.

Since college days, I’ve had many places to read, and they all resemble the Browsing Room in one way or another. My reading spaces are sanctuaries, steady, serene and immovable, even as my reading tastes have changed from time to time.

Sweet Briar College, as seen from the gate leading from Daisy’s grave. Thanks to the valiant efforts of alumnae, the gates of this institution dedicated to the liberal education of women will remain open, and one hopes permanently.

I was recently asked what my dream reading space would look like and was introduced to I’ve got my eye on their Portsmouth settee and they have many other unique living room pieces great for a personal library.