Regency furniture is popularly defined as the English furniture made in the 50-year period between 1790 and 1840, a new era of Neoclassical design in which the archaeological references were notably literal-minded. The 18th-century Rococo style had reached the climax of its development, and there was an inevitable reaction against its extravagant sinuous forms and a demand to return to a noble, sober Classicism. The reaction found its focus in a revaluation of the legacy of classical antiquity.
In 1738 the first organized excavation of the ruins of Herculaneum started, and by mid-century sumptuously illustrated design books containing reliable archaeological information concerning that city became freely available. Although some ancient furniture was unearthed at Herculaneum, the new breed of designers was more influenced by the large number of wall paintings.
Thomas Sheraton's Encyclopedia (1805) introduced some new archaeologically inspired chair designs, which he style "Herculaneum" chairs, but the new force in English furniture design was now an amateur called Thomas Hope (1769-1831). The giltwood pier table with marble top, designed by Thomas Hope and probably made by French craftsmen living in London about 1800 for his house in Duchess Street, is on exhibition in the Henry E. Huntington Museum, San Marino, Ca.
Hope's intention in decorating and furnishing the Duchess Street house, which he acquired in 1799, was to influence and educate patrons, designers and craftsmen in the use of symbolic ornament in interior decoration -- particularly that derived from Classical sources.
To achieve this ambition he opened the rooms on the first floor containing his collection of Classical antiquities and vases, contemporary art and furniture to selected members of the public in 1804. He published his theories with views of the interiors and furnishings in Household Furniture and Interior Decoration executed from Designs by Thomas Hope (London, 1807).
Hope's interiors derived their inspiration from the designs of Napoleon's decorators, Percier and Fontaine; this French influence was tempered by Hope's essentially romantic vision of Greek antiquity. He replaced the refined lines of the Sheraton period with massive geometric forms. Console tables or circular center tables were supported by lion or griffin monopodia, full caryatids or terms headed by Egyptian masks rather than thin, tapering legs.
Writing tables rested on thick trestles shaped like the ends of Roman sarcophagi. Chairs took on the exaggerated proportions of the klismos (with its four sabre legs, curing supports and a curved backboard), as represented in Greek red-figure vase painting, or reproduced the forms of the ancient curule (a sort of curved-legged, folding upholstered chair, as used by Roman curules, or dignitaries). Hope did not look solely to classical antiquity; he produced also Egyptian and Indian rooms.
The marquetry and painting characteristic of much Hepplewhite and Sheraton furniture had largely disappeared by the early 1800s. Decorative effects in the Regency period were now created through the use of strongly figured veneers, often of flame-figured mahogany or rosewood, and occasionally of more exotic woods such as zebrawood and coromandel, usually outlined by abstract patterns of ebonized stringing or cut-brass inlay. Carved-wood monopodia supports were painted black or green to simulate patinated bronze, and following the French taste, Egyptian masks were widely used.
The most innovative cabinetmaker of the later Regency period was George Bullock (1782/83-1818). His style was a highly idiosyncratic interpretation of late Regency forms in the Greek Revival style, drawing upon contemporary Empire designs but almost always with original results.
Bullock established his furniture workshop in London at 4 Tenterden Street, Hanover Square, in 1814 after a successful career as a modeler, sculptor and furniture designer in Liverpool. Many of his designs were published in Ackerman's Repository of Arts and he seems to have achieved a reasonable degree of fame.
One of Bullock's innovations was the use of flat pattern, particularly inlay and marquetry, instead of three-dimensional gilt bronze or giltwood mounts favored by his contemporaries. This did not necessarily represent an economic decision to avoid costly mounts, as might be thought, but instead can be attributed to Bullock's desire to experiment with marquetry, which had fallen out of fashion in the last decade of the 18th century.
Unlike contemporary cabinetmakers, Bullock showed an unusual interest in native woods, using pollard oak, holly, yew, larch and laburnum for his furniture, although he continued to acknowledge the fashion for the exotic woods such as rosewood, maple and ebony. Just as he pioneered the use of homegrown varieties of woods, Bullock's designs for inlay and marquetry included such native flora as hops, as well as the standard Classical motifs of thyrsi (staves wound with garlands) or anthemia.
As his contemporary Richard Brown wrote, Bullock showed that "we need not roam to foreign climes for beautiful ornaments, but that we have abundance of plants and flowers equal to the Grecian, which if adopted, would be found as pleasing as the antique."
Bullock's most famous commission was the furnishings ordered by the British government for the exiled Emperor Napoleon on St. Helena in 1815. In addition to Greek Revival Furniture, Bullock's workshop also produced pieces in other fashionable styles for various clients: a commission for Sir Godfrey Vassall Webster at Battle Abbey, Sussex, included some Elizabethan Revival style chairs.
By the time of his death in 1818 contemporary pattern books were becoming filled with varieties of competing styles, including those of the Gothic, the Elizabethan, and Rococo revivals. At its best, the furniture of the Regency embodied elements of grace, beauty, robustness and vigor of design, combined with great excellence of craftsmanship and purity of ornament. These qualities were more rarely to be found in the succeeding age.
WENDELL GARRETT is senior vice president of American decorative arts at Sotheby's.