Victorian Interior Design
American Victorian interior design included many different styles which were a result of an eclectic series of revivals and an imaginative blending of historical elements. These styles drew upon classical, medieval, renaissance, and 17th and 18th century European decorative forms and designs. The Victorian era is broken down into Early, Middle, and Late periods and the decorative styles changed throughout with some overlap and some transitional styles extending the boundaries of two or more styles.
Early Victorian styles reflected the end of the Federal and Empire styles and tended to be neat and plain. Late Victorian styles reflected the opulent “gilded age” with an abundance of clutter and decoration. An effort was made to create a lavish feeling of comfort and warmth. This was achieved by the use of multiple layers of curtains and drapes on the windows; upholstered, trimmed and tasseled furniture; and the use of throws and other textiles over furnishings in an effort to soften straight edges. Fancy and novelty decorative objects and naturalistic or trompe l’oeil effects such as in wallpapers and carpets provided a sense of fantasy.
Many wealthy Americans imported decorative materials from England and Europe in attempt to create a feeling of antiquity and an international style. However, most of the decorative elements, a legacy of the industrial revolution, were produced in America and were available even to the middle-class. Home decoration became available for everyone. Ready-made decorative elements could be found at the local lumberyard or ordered by mail. Local skilled craftsmen created original elements or could consult many pattern books. Even the middle-class could now afford to hire decorators and furnishers or they could consult one of many available books such as
Hints on Household Taste (1868) by the English architect and furniture designer Charles Locke Eastlake (1836-1906).
The Hunter House is a prime example of the Late Victorian style. This period is characterized by: carved and turned millwork stairs and woodwork; stained, leaded, beveled, etched or ground glass; wood ornamentation such as posts, pillars, balusters, and spindles, wainscoting and other forms of paneling; spandrels, brackets, doors and windows; plasterwork; decorative wallpaper and ceiling paper; and an eclectic collection of furniture including such styles as gothic revival, rococo revival, cottage style, renaissance revival, Eastlake, classical revival, and exotic/aesthetic (Moorish, Egyptian, Japanese, Turkish, etc.). Families strove to show off their sense of style and “good taste”. Decorative treatments were devised for each room of the house with each room having a specified function and therefore certain “required” elements.
The hall is the first room to be seen by visitors and was viewed as the heart of the house, as it had been in medieval manor houses. In the Early Victorian period it was a room for show and grandeur with armor, antiques and curiosities, and portraits, demonstrating the owner’s sense of antiquity and nobility, rather than emphasizing the practical use. In the Late Victorian style, the Hall became more of a receiving room, with more practical furnishings such as settees, hall tables, and a hall tree.
The parlor was treated as the “best” room and usually included a collection of the family’s finest possessions. These would include: upholstered furniture (or slip covered or draped in summer); a center table for books, a reading lamp, tea service, and collectibles; the hearth or stove decorated with tile or marble and a mantle adorned with a lambrequin, candelabras, vases, and a clock; a bookcase, desk or piano; fine art such as portraits, genre and landscape paintings, sculpture, and vases; a whatnot shelf, étagère, or curio to display prized pieces of china, silver, or glass; occasional tables and stands for lamps, vases or plants; decorative wallpaper and ceiling paper or stenciling; and richly patterned carpets.
In particular note in the Hunter’s parlor is the collection of oil paintings, two from the Hudson River School, and a circa 1900 rosewood Oriental Display Case.
The library, also referred to as the back parlor, the gentlemen’s parlor, the study, or the den, was usually seen as a male room which meant decorating and furnishing in a lofty and serious manner. Gothic and Elizabethan styles were favored, including bookcases, library tables, writing desks and easy chairs. The library often served as a domestic museum of relics, specimens, objects of art, and curiosities.
Mr. Hunter’s secretary, an original Virginian piece of the 1820’s, dominates the library. In a more modern sense, the architect built in adjustable library shelving in 1894. Reproduction wall coverings are rich green velvet upholstery.
The Dining Room
The dining room was also meant to appear masculine, warm, rich, and substantial, in addition to creating an air of hospitality. Since it was mostly used in the evening, it had to look good by candle or oil light The main piece of furniture was the large dining table, usually covered with a heavy cloth, and accompanied by dining chairs and a sideboard. Dining room furniture was most often highly carved and decorative.
The dining suite was probably the newest piece of furniture that the Hunters bought for their 1894 home. With the more modern move toward lighter woods, the table and chairs were crafted in quarter sawn golden oak; the apron and feet are heavily adorned. The overall ambiance of a medieval banquet hall is achieved with the combination of wall coverings, tapestry upholstery and wainscoting.
Bedchambers were decorated in more personal tastes with an effort to please oneself instead of others, and to provide a more relaxed and private space. In addition to large bedsteads there were dressers, washstands, writing desks, comfortable chairs and occasional tables.
Exhibited in two bedchambers in the museum are examples of mid-century Renaissance Revival furnishings and early Eastlake furnishings.
The nursery was provided as a world for the children, a world physically separated from the adult living space in the house. The nursery was not only the sleeping room for the youngsters, but also their school room, their dining room and their play room. By the late nineteenth century, furniture manufacturers were producing a wide variety of nursery furnishings. Popular artists and illustrators such as Kate Greenaway and Walter Crane were producing designs for nursery wallcoverings.
In a small chamber interpreted as a nursery/work room in the museum you will find an 1870’s walnut Renaissance Revival self-rocking cradle as well as a “patented” 1880’s highchair with tray and wheels; it collapses into both a walker and a rocker.
Particular to the Hunter House Victorian Museum is a chamber designed and interpreted as a study for Dr. James Wilson Hunter, Jr., one of Norfolk’s first radiologists. Imitation tooled leather covers the walls and a geometric carpet covers the floor. Furnishings from his offices downtown typify the Arts and Crafts Movement of the turn-of-the-century.
Creating a Victorian Look
You, too, can join the Victorian Revival that started in the 1960’s, when it became popular to rescue antiques, and has been in full swing as a decorating style since the 1980’s. While most people think of Victorian as a single style, remember that it is more like an eclectic mix of many revival styles, typically densely patterned and cluttered with masses of collections and ornaments. You might not want to create an authentic period look, although you could do so, by consulting many available books and carefully studying the photographs and descriptions. Instead, you might just want to add an element of Victorian attitude, values, and style, by decorating with or around a few choice antiques.
Banham, J., Porter, J., & MacDonald, S. (1995). Victorian Interior
Style. Studio Editions.
Bridgeman, H. & Drury, E. (1975). The Encyclopedia of
Grow, L. & Von Zweck, D. (1984). American
Victorian. Harper & Row.
Kemp, J. (1985). Victorian Revival in Interior
Leopold, A. K. (1986). Victorian Splendor: Re-creating America’s 19th-Century
Schwin, L. (1994). Decorating Old House Interiors. Sterling/MainStreet.
Seale, W. (1995). The Tasteful Interlude: American Interiors Through the Camera’s
Eye, 1860-1917. Altamira.
Winkler, G. C. & Moss, R. W. (1986). Victorian Interior Decoration: American Interiors
1830-1900. Stewart, Tabori & Chang.
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