The Transition

By: Fred Taylor

When young Victoria became queen of England in 1837 after the death of her uncle, William IV, the furniture world was energized by new possibilities. English furniture styling was stale, suffering from the lingering effects of the Regency of the Prince of Wales (George IV) and the benign neglect of William IV. American furniture was struggling with late Empire and Classicism and looking for the next thing to come along.

The next great thing, as it turned out, was a previously great thing - or two or three. For inspiration, designers looked to the past as they have so many times before and came up with an entire series of historical revivals that carried furniture making into the 20th century. Virtually all furniture produced during America's greatest period of expansion in the mid to late 19th century, whether by hand or in the factory, was a revival of one sort or another.

This chair by John Jellif features carved heads in addition to normal Renaissance elements.
(Swedberg photo).

The first in the series of 19th century revivals was Gothic. The Middle Ages was obviously such a fun time that it naturally needed an encore. The second in the series of revivals was the Rococo, showing up in America in the 1840's as the innovative resurrection of the elaborate 18th century Rococo styling of the courts of Louis XIV and Louis XV. The innovation apparent in this revival can be seen in the original works of John Henry Belter, Alexander Roux and the Meeks brothers, among others.

Its successor, the last in the line of revivals, was the Renaissance Revival, an architectural form that easily made the transition from the custom, one of a kind shops in New York and Philadelphia to the factories of the mid West.

Introduced in the early 1850's as a counter balance to the flowery Rococo Revival, Renaissance Revival borrowed elements from just about every furniture period since the 1400's. The impetus for the revival originated in the French court of Napoleon III and the form soon took on a life of its own. But what exactly were they trying to revive and why?

There were actually several periods of what could be called a renaissance or cultural reawakening but it is generally acknowledged in the West that what is considered to be THE Renaissance began in Italy in the early 14th century and crept throughout Europe over the next three centuries.

Since Italy had been the heart of the Roman Empire, there was a certain kinship with the classical past. Historical evidence of the Roman period was everywhere. The palaces of the ruling Italian families were storehouses of new furniture, influenced by Greek and Roman tradition. In addition to classical architectural elements such as columns and pediments, the new furniture was often covered in carvings depicting ancient mythological and historical themes.

But in western and northern Europe, when the Romans left, so did the influence. Those parts of Europe continued under the Gothic influence until late in the Renaissance. Francis I, king of France from 1515 to 1547, brought Italian artisans to France to remodel Fontainebleau and ended up with very Italian-like motifs and furnishings with columns, carved human heads and scrolls. His successor, Henry II, continued the style, refining the scale. Henry VIII carried the torch in England, importing his own Italian artisans who blended English tradition with Italian Renaissance and produced English Renaissance furniture leading to the development of the first "draw" table in Elizabethan times.

So why was Napoleon III trying to resurrect a 300 year old style based on first century architecture? Returning to France in 1848 after his exile as part of the Bonaparte family in 1816, he was elected to the Assembly of the Second Republic and then was elected President the same year. He eventually concentrated all power in himself and proclaimed himself Emperor in 1852. His interest in the revival of the French and Italian Renaissance was his bid to forever link his name to the classical past.

This architectural looking bed was typical of the signature of Renaissance Revival furniture of the late 19th century. (Swedberg photo).

His revival of the style was greeted warmly in America. As the straight line alternative to Rococo it was fresh and rich looking without being frivolous. It was a welcome change and a new challenge for the brilliant cabinetmakers of the day like John Jelliff who worked in Newark from 1836 to 1860 and Thomas Brooks who worked in New York from 1841 to 1876. Even one of the great Rococo masters, Alexander Roux in Manhattan, was a player in the Renaissance market. Coming into the business at the beginning of the era was Gustave Herter, also in Manhattan who opened his shop in 1851, later to be joined by his brother Christian to form the firm of Herter Brothers, one of the great names in Renaissance cabinet making. And Daniel Pabst was making his excellent mark, working in Philadelphia from 1854 until his retirement in 1882. George Hunzinger and the firm of Anthony Kimbel and Joseph Cabus, all of Manhattan, rounded out the top of the list of the masters of the period working in the new style. There were others of course but you get the idea.

The furniture that these masters built was an eclectic mix of 14th century Renaissance, Neoclassical and 16th century French derivation and was based essentially on the rectangle form with myriad embellishments. Precious metals and semi precious stones were used as decoration as was porcelain and bronze. Deep gold lined incising and elegant ebonizing were regular features but the decoration, no matter how elaborate, was always anchored by the requisite architectural elements of the column and the pediment, combined with the overall generally massive scale that spoke of the classic periods.

But as elaborate and painstakingly detailed as these masterpieces appeared to be, they still were based on geometric forms with turned, cutout or incised decorative elements that could be mass produced on a machine and installed in layers to get the deep, complicated look.

Before 1870 virtually all fine Renaissance Revival furniture was made in the East on a one by one, custom order basis but the mid West was the next stop. The continuing advances in the third quarter of the 19th century in furniture making technology and machinery meant that high end, high quality production was inevitable in the mid West and the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia in 1876 was the catalyst.

e marble top vanity completed the Renaissance Revival "chamber suite". (Swedberg photo).

A few core companies in Grand Rapids made the commitment to the application of the latest technology by the 1870's, among them Berkey & Gay, Nelson Matter and Phoenix and the impact was palpable in Philadelphia. Renaissance Revival was the style of the Centennial Exposition and Grand Rapids was the star. The overpowering bedroom sets presented by Berkey & Gay cemented the reputation of the Grand Rapids factories as THE manufacturers of bedroom sets or "chamber suites" as they were known.

By the 1880's most of the old line cabinetmakers in the East had retired or died and for the last two decades of the 19th century, the factories of the mid West had the middle and upper end of the Renaissance Revival market to themselves.

The inevitable end came from two different directions, the desire to return to simplicity, the antithesis of Renaissance Revival, which embodied itself in the Arts and Crafts movement of the late 19th and early 20th century and the resurgence of interest in American heritage which presaged the coming, and long running, Colonial Revival period.

Renaissance Revival furniture, while not the most favored by many of today's collectors because of its size and obvious statement, nevertheless played a pivotal role in American furniture history. While furnishing the houses of the newly wealthy industrial class, it provided the technical anchor that proved instrumental in the development of the country's industrial base in the 19th century - in preparation for the 20th.

About the author:

 Fred and Gail Taylor's video, "IDENTIFICATION OF OLDER & ANTIQUE FURNITURE" is available for $29.95 (includes S&H) from Fred Taylor, P.O. Box 215, Crystal River, FL 34423-0215, phone 800-387-6377, fax 352-563-2916, e-mail

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