English Furniture Styles: History & Examples

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Furniture is an often under-appreciated reflection of our values and tastes. In this lesson, we're going to explore English history though its furniture, and see how changes in the British Empire were reflected in changes to English furnishings.

A History of English Furniture

In English history, the monarch was not only the symbol of the nation and head of the state but also the definitive authority on…taste. English monarchs set the standards for a fashionable English life, and this extended to a fascination with furniture. Throughout English history, we can categorize furniture by the monarchs who used them, both for personal comfort and to reflect the character of their reign.

Tudor Furniture

Most histories of English furniture start with the Tudor Dynasty, a series of kings and queens who ruled England from 1485-1603. These monarchs introduced a new obsession with furniture into England, kicking off what art historians call the English Renaissance in furniture making.

Tudor furniture itself was basically medieval and Gothic in form. It was heavy, strong, made from solid oak and terribly uncomfortable. However, it was often covered in tapestries or fabrics for decoration and comfort, and was used by the Tudor monarchs as a status symbol that only the wealthiest could afford.

The English Renaissance

The Tudors kicked off a fascination with furniture, which was continued in the following eras. Jacobean furniture, created between roughly 1603 and 1645 under kings James I and Charles I, shows the transition out of a medieval style. Furniture was still heavy, uncomfortable, and made of oak, but also more decorative. Floral and geometric motifs were carved in relief, mouldings were used to accentuate natural geometric shapes in the furniture, and wax-based finishes gave the oak a dark sheen.

The end of heavy, Gothic furniture really arrived with the brief end of the monarchy, when Puritan Oliver Cromwell and Parliament emerged victorious in the English Civil War. Furniture created between roughly 1649 and 1660, often known as the Commonwealth style, reflects Puritan values. Pieces were sharp, angular, and practical, with little emphasis on extraneous design.

Baroque Furniture

Charles II restored the monarchy in 1660, and brought back more traditional English styles of furniture to symbolize his return. Restoration furniture was decorative and ornate, and yet it was also something very new. Charles also brought with him other ideas influenced by foreign styles, notable the French and Dutch. England was beginning its transition into the Baroque period of art history, reflected in lighter, ornate furniture styles.

The first truly Baroque style of English furniture rose with the reign of William and Mary in 1688. William and Mary furniture was bright, showing a preference for more lightly colored woods like walnut, along with lighter veneers that contrasted with the dark and heavy Gothic styles. English Baroque furniture in this time was better made, more comfortable, and ornately decorated.

The height of English Baroque furniture, however, came under Queen Anne around 1702. The Queen Anne style was absolutely opulent, occasionally even gilded. However, it was also distinctly English. By this point, English furniture makers had mastered the Dutch and French Baroque styles and adapted them to a truly English aesthetic. Being lighter in weight, these pieces also showed a greater focus on their three-dimensional design, giving them a more complex character. We have many examples of Queen Anne furniture since, for the first time, many working class people could afford stylish furniture in an abundant market full of craftsmen.

American variation of the Queen Anne style

Eclectic Styles

After the reign of Queen Anne, the British Empire continued to grow and the English people began taking a greater interest in the world. As a result, furniture became more eclectic, displaying a variety of influences from styles encountered by the British around the world.

We'll start with the Georgian style, prominent from roughly 1714-1820 under the reigns of kings George I, II, and III. This is what the Redcoats would have used to tell King George about that pesky American Revolution overseas. Furniture from this time elevated mahogany as the material of choice, and shows a range of influences from the geometric Italian Palladianism, the frivolous French Rococo, Greek Neoclassicism, the English Baroque, and even Chinese porcelains and pagodas. As thus, there are countless variations of the Georgian style, reflecting an English mindset focused on exotic fantasies and experimentation.

Eclectic desk by the famous 18th-century English furniture maker Thomas Chippendale

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