Regency Period Furniture: History & Characteristics

Instructor: Sunday Moulton

Sunday recently earned a PhD in Anthropology and has taught college courses in Anthropology, English, and high school ACT/SAT Prep.

This lesson introduces Regency Period furniture with a brief look at the historical context and style. Additionally, this lesson features key designers and their influences.

Regency Period Furniture (1800 - 1830)

Furniture styles often bear the name of the historical periods in which they occur. For English furniture, this often means naming a style after the king or queen on the throne at the time. With the Regency Period of furniture, the naming convention only partially applies and reveals the complicated political atmosphere of England at the time.

Portrait of the Prince Regent by Henry Bone
Portrait of the Prince Regent

In 1811, the Prince of Wales assumed rule of the country, not as a king, but rather as an acting monarch while his father suffered a long bout of mental illness. His official title during this time was Regent, hence the name Regency Period. Prince George held the position for nine years until his father died, leaving him the throne. Officially known as King George IV from his coronation in 1820 until his death in 1830, his rule both marked the time period for the Regency Period style, but also helped to influence the aesthetics through his preferences and commissioned projects.

Classical Influence

Unlike prior periods, borrowing elements from Roman and Greek furniture, designers of the Regency Period often tried to recreate the actual furniture pieces found in the museums, vaults, and artwork of the time. The introduction of Egyptian artifacts also sparked a desire to bring those elements into the Regency Period style. Thematic motifs of ancient gods, sphinxes, lions, and griffins ornamented many pieces. Additionally, a revival of Eastern influence from China and Japan inspired the use of bamboo, wood carved to resemble bamboo, and lacquered finishes.

Style

While all these cultural and historic influences helped determine the furniture of the Regency Period, the style itself used ornamentation for its elegance, rather than rich carvings and curved lines exhibited in earlier periods of furniture design. The woodworking of the pieces generally exhibited plain lines and surfaces with slender legs and right angles. In many ways, this helped highlight the ornamentation by providing a simplistic background to avoid distraction.

Regency Period cabinet and bookcase designed by Thomas Sheraton
Regency Cabinet and Bookcase Design

Additionally, the size of furniture pieces changed with this period. Rather than the tall shelves of the past, cabinets and shelving units shrank in height to allow decorators to ornament the walls with paintings. The lower height of furniture also allowed for more display space to feature curios and treasures.

Elements

The components of Regency Period furniture include the selection of wood and the use of metals for accents. Mahogany remained the dominant wood for furniture design, while exotic wood like ebony was featured in many high-end pieces. Additionally, veneers of rosewood and zebrawood added visually striking surfaces or features to the clean lines of the style.

Zebrawood
Close up of zebrawood with carved zebra for comparison

The addition of metal accents, however, gave Regency Period furniture its ornate elegance. Furniture makers primarily used brass, while occasionally including bronze or ormolu, an imitation gold. Brass inlays, accents along corners and legs, handles, and hinges, were popular. Of note, brass rosettes or lions' heads to hold rings on cabinet doors and drawers decorated many pieces, while the bases of furniture legs were often animal feet made of brass. Glass insets on cabinet doors would also be covered and protected by brass grills in lattice patterns or scrollwork designs.

Regency period table and wheelchair featuring brass feet and inlays
Regency table and wheelchair

Designers

As stated before, the preferences of the Regent, Prince George of Wales, played a hand in guiding the style, particularly through his commissions for the Royal Pavilion. The designers who distinguished themselves at this time included Henry Holland, Thomas Hope, Thomas Sheraton, and George Smith.

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