he public were able to see restrained and sensible furniture at the International Exhibition of 1862, when Morris, Marshall, Faulkner and Company (founded in 1861) showed examples of their work. Christopher Dresser was able to remark on the ingenious construction of one or two "stained and gilded drawing-room chairs" but could not "commend them as works of beauty." The round table by Philip Webb (No. 307) is an example of the early furniture of the Morris School; it is both revolutionary and traditional.
Bruce Talbert, the most influential commercial designer in the Gothic idiom, began his career with structurally honest though often highly elaborate work. A magnificent sideboard of his, made by Holland and Son, was shown at the Paris Exhibition of 1867; it had the same quality of architecture in miniature that we associate with the furniture of William Burges. Shortly after the 1867 Exhibition Talbert published his Gothic Forms applied to Furniture where he demonstrated the possibilities of his adaptations of the Gothic style, the bookcase (No. 305) dates from this period. In 1876 in Examples of Ancient and Modern Furniture, we can see how Talbert abandoned his over-emphatically Gothic style and adopted a style in keeping with the change in fashion, though still unmistakably his. Examples of wallpapers in the same book show the influence of Japanese pattern design.
Left: Satinwood cabinet designed by E. W. Godwin.
Right: Folding screen attributed to W. Eden Nesfield
The Exhibition of 1862, as well as marking a distinct improvement in general taste, also gave England its first real chance to see a selection of Japanese designs when Sir Rutherford Alcock (1809-97), the first British Consul General in Japan, showed the collection he had acquired during his stay in Japan. Designers were excited by Alcock's exhibits. The folding screen of 1867, attributed to W. Eden Nesfield (No. 298), represents one of the earliest essays in what E. W. Godwin was to call the "Anglo-Japanese" style. The screen is remarkable for its confident use of Japanese motifs taken presumably from traditional Japanese pattern books (See No. 324). Godwin's sketchbooks in the Print Room of the Victoria and Albert Museum contain many drawings and details of furniture in the Anglo-Japanese style and one is drawn to the conclusion that Godwin not only made use of the style to satisfy the needs of fashion but was also using it as a vehicle for his own exuberant invention (See the satinwood cabinet (279) and Nos. 280-286)
Cabinet by James Lamb
The cabinet by Lamb of Manchester (No. 299) with its considered proportions and impeccable finish shows the influence of Godwin (and to a lesser extent that of Talbert), on one of the finest Victorian cabinet-makers. Although Thomas Jeckyll design for the woodwork of the Peacock Room (decorated by Whistler for F. R. Leyland in 1877) is well known, Jeckyll himself has always been a rather mysterious figure. (Mark Girouard with his account of Jeckyll's association with the Greens of Ken Hill in The Victorian Country House has helped shed some light on the Jeckyll mystery). We now have the opportunity of seeing what is probably the largest collection of Jeckyll's work to be shown at one time. (The earliest illustration of work by Jeckyll is a set of wrought iron gates made by the Norwich firm of Barnard, Bishop and Barnard, with whom he was to have a long association. The gates were illustrated in the Art Journal of 1862 and show Jeckyll to have had a thorough grasp of the Gothic style of the 1860s, although there are the idiosyncrasies and the same spirit of playful invention that we see in his later work). [Note: three decades after this Fine Art Society exhibition, the first major study of this architect-designer appeared: Susan Web Soros and Catherine Arbuthnot's Thomas Jeckyll: Architect and Designer, 1828-1881 (New Haven: Yale UP, 2003). GPL.]
Left: Sideboard designed by Thomas Jeckyll
Right: Cabinet designed by Thomas Jeckyll
Jeckyll would have had his first opportunity of seeing Japanese work, like his contemporaries, at the Exhibition of 1862. But unlike Godwin, who was impressed by the Japanese sense of structure (as is evident from his sketchbooks), Jeckyll appears to have been particularly taken with Japanese decoration, especially with its simple and effective geometrical patterns. The large cabinet from Ken Hill (No. 291), probably the earliest of the three pieces lent by Sir Stephen and Lady Lycett Green, makes use of traditional Japanese carved pattern, although in structure the cabinet resembles the Jacobean style that Talbert turned to in the 1870s. The sideboard from Ken Hill (No. 292), a splendidly original piece, also Jacobean in structure, makes similar use of Japanese carved pattern. The overmantel (No. 293) while incorporating Japanese plates and panels makes no structural concessions to Japan. The two pieces that Jeckyll designed for Alexander Ionides are closer to Japanese originals than the Ken Hill furniture (See Nos. 289-290). Although Christopher Dresser expressed firm views on the design of furniture, little of his own work appears to survive and it is uncertain how many of his published designs were actually executed. Dresser disliked the use of elaborate inlaying and also excessive reliance on the natural grain of wood for effect which tended to destroy the "unit." of a piece of work. He also criticised the furniture of William Burges for its "doll's house" appearance.
Wardrobe designed by Dr. Christopher Dresser for Bushloe House, Leicestershire
The Bushloe House furniture (Nos. 274-276) is important, not only because of the rarity of Dresser's furniture, but because it demonstrates the radical simplicity of his work. The wardrobe embodies the two main elements in Dresser's decorative vocabulary -- the "idea" or "conventionalised" and the grotesque; the striking colour scheme is a product of the elaborate chromatic theory (developed by George Field) that he had studied in his youth. Colour, like all elements in a Dresser design, could not be left to chance. It is hard to detect Japanese features in Dresser's furniture. He had stated his position in 1882 in Japan, its Architecture, Art and Art Manufactures ". . . I do not wish to destroy our art and substitute for it the Japanese style ... we may borrow what is good from all peoples; but we must distil all that we borrow through our own minds."
Piano designed by the Audsleys
The Audsley brothers, successful Liverpool architects are now probably best remembered for two fine chromolithographic books, their superbly illuminated Sermon on the Mount (London, 1861) -- in the Owen Jones manner -- and Polychromatic Decoration (London, 1882). The Audsleys were also responsible for a standard work on ornament Outlines of Ornament (London, 1881). The piano (No. 271) has the same disciplined richness that characterises their books.
The Aesthetic Movement and the Cult of Japan. London: The Fine Art Society, 1972. Pp. 41-42.
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Last modified 15 December 2004