Serious collectors and dealers of antique Victorian furniture are inevitably familiar with the Rococo style of design. The furniture style of Victorian Rococo, sometimes referred to as Victorian Louis XV or Louis Quinze, started gaining its enormous popularity in England during the 1840s.
Rococo style in general, which went well beyond furniture into architecture, painting and other forms of art, originated in France during the previous century and spread from there to other parts of Europe. In England during the 18th century, Rococo was considered “French taste” and did not take hold as an architectural style. However, the incomparable Thomas Chippendale adapted and refined the style for furniture and brought about a transformation of design in English furniture. Some link the development of Rococo in England to the revived interest in Gothic architecture.
As it developed in the Victorian era of the 19th century, it is often called neo-Rococo or Rococo revival, since it was a style revived from the previous century. In furniture it became hugely popular and proved to be the longest lasting influence on the furniture design of the Victorian era. In the 1840s and especially in the decades to follow, almost every furniture manufacturer in England was making Rococo pieces.
The furniture was both visually appealing and comfortable. Carvings and scrolled lines were delicate but typically not overstated or overbearing. Characteristics of the furniture included curved legs, cartouche backs with scrolled rounded contours, and carvings of flowers, leaves, grapes and birds.
The naturalistic carvings are a predominant feature, and anyone who gets involved with the furniture of this era becomes intimately familiar with them. I just recently saw a Rococo sofa that had birds and a birds’ nest filled with eggs carved into its gorgeous wooden frame. Like Victorian literature, this may not be for everybody. But for those of us who are taken by it, there’s no explaining our admiration.
The makers of the furniture bent and shaped the wood. Favored woods included mahogany and rosewood. Side chairs were prevalent, and antique Victorian furniture collectors today who are looking in particular for Victorian chairs consider Rococo side chairs to be among the most desirable — attractive, comfortable, and collectible.
Sofas were of various lengths. One popular style of sofa had a rounded medallion in the center of the back, with a carving at the top repeated on either side farther down the frame. Graceful love seats had upholstered wooden frames and were serpentine in shape with the characteristic natural carvings on the back and the arms. Also popular during the Victorian Rococo era were the upholstered husband and wife chairs. The husband chair had arms and a high back. The wife chair was a bit lower and armless.
A famous American cabinetmaker who worked in the Victorian Rococo style was John Henry Belter. Belter perfected lamination techniques and became famous for a number of design features, including his preference for rosewood, his foliage, fruit and flowers worked into the intricate details of his designs, his skill in bending wood into serpentine and rounded contours, and his beds with headboards that rose well above the height of the footboards. Belter’s shop was in New York City, but he shipped his work to all parts of the country. So keep your eye out for Belter’s exquisite work, no matter where you are.
Here’s a last bit of information. The word Rococo is a combination of the French word rocaille, which some translate as shell but also contains the sense of loose rock. It indicates the curve characteristic of Rococo style. The word also contains the Italian word barocco, which is our Baroque. The Baroque period was known for its intricacy and elaboration.