It may not be the height of fashion, but there is much to be said for Victorian style, which is confident, distinctive and eminently comfortable, says Katherine Sorrell
Everything changed in the 19th century. From society to science, politics to industry, the Victorian era was a time of enormous transformation. Travel, too, became easier, and influences and ideas from all around the world became increasingly important. The middle classes expanded rapidly, and their homes became the perfect vehicles with which to show off both their newly acquired wealth and their cultural savvy. The result? An interior style that was exuberant, eclectic and, quite often, downright over the top.
The high Victorian style was a riot of revivalism, and different periods were mixed with abandon, including Elizabethan, Italianate, ‘Louis’, Egyptian and Queen Anne Revival. The main ‘Battle of the Styles’, however, was between ‘Greek’, (in other words, pretty much all types of classical architecture and decoration), and ‘Gothic’ (more or less any style reminiscent of Olde Englande). Gothic was the winner, its most famous exponent Augustus Pugin, designer of the refurbished Palace of Westminster.
Despite its mix and match of styles, and a tendency towards clutter, the main ingredients for Victorian living were not so far from where we are today, give or take a tweak or two in colour and pattern. Encaustic tiled hallways and polished, dark wood floors with a central rug featuring large, bold patterns set the scene, while patterned wallpaper was de rigueur. Wooden furniture was dark, solid and often very, very large – but we would recognise much of it, from dressers and dining tables to sideboards and writing desks, though whatnots and chiffoniers are rarely to be found in the modern home. Fabrics, too, were rather more elaborate than we are used to today, with a great deal of embellishments – though William Morris’s Arts & Crafts designs introduced a relative simplicity and have remained popular ever since.
Upholstered seating was the major development from the preceding Georgian era. Coil springing had been invented in the 1820s, and Victorian sofas and chairs featured deep buttons and comfortable, curving shapes. Also new to furniture-making was Thonet’s technique for bending beechwood to produce his now-classic café chairs, while metal bedsteads were introduced to Britons at the Great Exhibition of 1851 – and have changed little in style ever since.
As far as colour choices went, the Victorians loved anything rich, deep and vivid. These hues worked well with the dark brown furniture that predominated, but are best used judiciously today. That said, they can be most attractive in the right place: deep shades, such as crimson, claret, bottle green, sharp yellow, purple, mahogany, terracotta and Prussian blue, were preferred for sitting rooms, dining rooms and studies; paler and fresher hues, including pink, grey, pale blue and soft green, were considered to be more suitable for bedrooms.
Lighting has, of course, altered a great deal in the last 150 years or so. When Victoria came to the throne, oil and candle lamps were the only form of lighting in most homes, but during her reign first gas lighting was developed and then, at the very end of the 19th century, early electricity. There were a great many elaborate and ornamental styles of lamp, including swan-necked brass wall lights, flower-shaped glass shades and china lamps covered with floral sprigs. Originals – which can often be converted to electricity – are often to be found today, as are all sorts of reproductions.
The Victorian middle-class kitchen, used only by servants, was a very plain room, equipped with free-standing tables, with the sink in an adjacent scullery. And the bathroom only came into being as a separate room in the 1870s, before which time all ablutions took place in the bedroom, using a wooden washstand plus bowl and pitcher, or a tin bath in front of the fire. Along with indoor bathrooms came distinctive sanitaryware – large, often colourfully decorated basins, and enamelled roll-top baths on ball and claw or scroll feet, much of which can be found in reproduction form for those with spacious enough rooms.
Because Victorians considered bare rooms to be in poor taste, their houses were filled with more knick knacks, objets d’art and collections than ever before or since, some of which are right on-trend today – embroidered samplers or miniature flowers under a glass dome, anyone? Other Victorian accessories have not stood the test of time quite so well, including black and white miniature portraits, colonial exotica and toby jugs. Nor has a helpful kitchen accessory, employed for anyone unlucky enough to suffer from cockroaches – a hedgehog kept in a box.
The Bagsie sofa is a modern version of the classic Victorian Chesterfield. £1,715, Loaf, 0845 468 0698; www.loaf.com.
Period stained-glass effect window film, £52, Purlfrost, 020 8992 4024; www.purlfrost.com.
Original Style Victorian floor tiles in York pattern, £83.08 per square metre, The Winchester Tile Company, 01392 473000, www.originalstyle.com.