Detective Work – part 2 – the Georgian Period

What inspires people to be interested in a certain era of history? Is it reading a novel that brings the period to life or is it a television programme that casts sweeping views across a landscape or built environment? I’ve recently been completely obsessed with Georgian London and duly went to the Georgians Revealed exhibition at the British Library. The exhibition is now closed but the V&A and the Museum of London have permanent exhibits on the period and the striking thing is what a long period of history the ‘Georgian age’ was!

Blackfriar's Bridge London

Blackfriar’s Bridge London

At 116 years it encompassed four monarchs, various wars, discoveries, the loss and acquisition of colonies, changing politics, design influences and established the manner in which we furnish our homes – architects such as Robert Adam and cabinet makers such as Thomas Chippendale had catalogues that the public could use to select the style and material they wanted their furniture to be made from, indeed the two often collaborated to create a ‘complete’ interior. At the time they were considered innovative and the height of fashion; now they typify the style and manner in which we think the Georgians lived, which is something I find interesting – it appears we’ve made a lot of assumptions.

'Adamesque' the neo-classical style

‘Adamesque’ the neo-classical style

The ‘genteel’ Georgian had a full social calendar, was well informed, attended many public events and entertained at home. To be considered a good host, a certain effort had to be made, the furnishings needed to be comfortable and ‘all made nice as we could for our Guests’ (The Gentleman’s Daughter, Amanda Vickery) – which sounds very like how we approach entertaining at home in the Twenty-first century. It seems then, that less separates us from the Georgian era than time itself and for those of us living in homes built between 1714 and 1830, separation is simply a matter of degree.

Georgian details

So how do we uncover the details of a Georgian building and still incorporate our modern lifestyles? And what was so different between this and the Victorian style of architecture?

If the Victorians embraced solidity and substance, the Georgians can be said to have favoured a lightness of touch, so perhaps the biggest difference can be noted in the shape of the buildings themselves. By the mid eighteenth century many buildings were designed in the Neo-Classical style, this created proportions that alluded to the temples of ancient Greece and Rome and it is this elongated elegance that typifies Georgian architecture – from country houses to the city terrace. The windows are tall and multi-paned, the houses are tall and narrow to keep the proportions intact. The styling is refined and simple with fan lights over the front door and railings that featured spears or urns. Inside you would expect the narrow appearance to dictate the building and so it did, with many houses having only two rooms per floor and a half landing with a smaller room between the main floors. The ceiling heights also became lower above the first floor. This style of vertical living creates endless movement up and down stairs and would have felt ‘old fashioned’ in the early decades of the nineteenth century, which probably gave rise to the wider building format of the Victorian era.

fanlight and stairs

There were other decorative styles during the Georgian era, most notably Palladian (which gave rise to the Neo-Classical style so favoured by Adam), Rococo and Chinoiserie and as all are worthy of focus, we’ll look at them in more detail in future posts.

Internally the decorative features of a Georgian home would have included familiar details like the dado and picture rails. Most furniture was arranged around the edges of a room and moved into position when required – a dado rail protected the walls from being knocked by the chair backs. To further enhance the classical style the ceiling would often have mouldings to compliment the rug on the floor below. The walls too, could have had mouldings to make features of paintings and mirrors. This is the era where mirrors really became a big part of the decorative scheme – glass could now be produced in larger sizes and when framed was used as a device for increasing the amount of light in a room, indeed candelabra were often placed in front of mirrors, which had a two-fold benefit; increased light and easier cleaning. Hall floors could again be tiled, but to emulate the classical style of mosaic, were often in smaller pieces and in monochrome black and white. Windows often had panelled shutters on the inside, to create privacy and reduce drafts as many window treatments were simply draperies to dress the window and did not close to provide insulation at night.

Strictly speaking the room in the image above is earlier than the Georgian period, (the main indicator is the lower ceiling height) but its most famous resident Dr Samuel Johnson (who published ‘The Dictionary of the English Language’ in 1755) lived and worked from this space. The house has been preserved as a museum of the era of his residence and what is interesting is the way the room is divided by panelled doors. Presumably the merchants who built the property used this space as both showroom and living quarters and having the flexibility of being able to divide the room allowed for the dual purpose of a home and a workspace. We’re in the habit of thinking that live/work environments are a modern concept, but the idea of multi-functional space was very much a feature of the Georgian way of life, especially in an urban setting.

Dr Johnson’s house shows very clearly the type of features that illustrated the Georgian style; dado rails, window shutters, panel mouldings, multi paned windows, furniture around the edges of the room and it’s also easy to imagine this space with more modern furnishings. Because of the revived interest in wood flooring and pared back furnishings we could simply move our belongings in and have them look right at home.

There’s no question that the Twenty-first century is an eclectic age, but given the way the Georgian era is portrayed in period dramas, I think we can be forgiven for not recognising the many social and decorative aspects of life we’ve borrowed from them – in 250 years not a lot has changed!

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