Jacobean Era Furniture: History & Characteristics

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

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

When we think of English furniture, we often think of bulky medieval pieces or light imperial ones. In this lesson, we look at the transition between these styles and see how Jacobean furniture set the stage for new English attitudes.

James: The Bible, the Colony, and the Chair

King James ruled Scotland from 1567 and England from 1603 until his death in 1625. A lot happened in that time. Guy Fawkes and others tried to assassinate him in the November 5 Gunpowder Plot, a unified Great Britain was proposed, and the Puritan movement took off. James I's reign ended up having a lasting impact on English culture. He commissioned a new English translation of the Bible, known as the King James version, which is still one of the most widely published books in the world. He granted the charter for the first successful colony in Virginia, Jamestown, and oversaw its growth. He also sat in a lot of chairs.

That's a bigger deal than it may seem. Furniture went through significant changes in the Jacobean era, the timeframe of James' influence. Popular from roughly 1603 to 1650 (and the end of his son, Charles I's reign), Jacobean furniture represented a major transition from England's medieval traditions towards a more enlightened future.

James I, next to a Jacobean-style chair

Elizabethan-Tudor Furniture

James I ascended to the English throne with the death of his childless cousin, Elizabeth I, last of the Tudor Dynasty. Along with the throne, James I inherited English furniture styles. Tudor furniture was traditionally bulky, heavy, and sparsely decorated. It was medieval furniture, made for medieval castles and not the comforts of the emerging modern world.

That began to change under Elizabeth. The Elizabethan era saw the first real introduction of the Renaissance into England, as Italian ideas of art and philosophy arrived alongside a more international economy and emerging middle class. As a result, Elizabethan furniture was the first to start transitioning out the medieval era. It incorporated Classical motifs like columns in its decorations, although admittedly ornamentation in this era could be a bit clumsy.

Traits of Jacobean Furniture

This is the England that James I came into in 1603: English culture was growing, the educated class was increasing, and more people had the wealth to invest in furniture. Jacobean furniture continued along the path started under Elizabeth; it was more influenced by Renaissance ideas and moved further from England's medieval traditions.

Jacobean furniture was often geometric and symmetrical, with a strong influence on rectilinear shapes and lines. It was straightforward in design but decorated with carvings of Classical or intricate geometric motifs. It was more complex than previous furniture, and for the first time furniture makers began consistently treating their pieces like three-dimensional objects that would be seen from all sides. Due to the bulkiness and weight of medieval furniture, English furniture objects were made to only be seen from one direction. Jacobean furniture was still heavy compared to later styles, but was now light and mobile enough that designers had to pay attention to details and ornamentation from every visible angle.

Jacobean-style cupboard-shelf

One of the biggest signs that English furniture was shifting away from its medieval roots was a new focus on comfort. Comfort was not a definitive aspect of medieval furniture, but Jacobean styles included new types of chairs designed with comfort for different circumstances. There were even chairs made specifically to accommodate the wider, hoop-style dresses of court ladies who needed a comfortable way to recline. It should be no surprise to learn that this was also the first era in which upholstery really appeared in English furniture.

This was the era when the English Empire really took off. It established colonies in Jamestown and Plymouth and opened trade routes in West Asia, Russia, the Caribbean, and the Indian Ocean. Jacobean furniture reflected this more globally-active England, utilizing foreign materials like mother-of-pearl for decoration, and even painting many furniture pieces black in emulation of East Asian lacquer.

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